“Maps are essential. Planning a journey without a map is like building a house without drawings.” [Mark Jenkins, The Hard Way: Stories of Danger, Survival, and the Soul of Adventure]
This is the second in a series of posts designed to help you focus your writing. Last week, your homework was designed around making an assessment of where you are as a writer. This week is all about using those self-assessment tools to map a path forward.
Now, the first thing I want to do is say a few things about maps, just so you know where I’m coming from in using mapping as a metaphor for what we’re doing this week.
Maps can only ever show us one version of what exists. They are an abstract representation of SOME OF the relationships between a place and the world around it (in the case of a writing map, of the relationships between you as a writer and the world of writing). They offer an explanation for how each part fits into the bigger picture. They represent ideas, demonstrate boundaries, depict characteristics, and gesture towards other intangibles, such as history and relationships. Your writing map is ALWAYS going to be a work in progress. Not just a reflection of where you are (YOU ARE HERE), or of where you are going (X), but of the path (or paths) you intend to take (——–>). Your map will only ever be as good as the information you use to design it. The more you learn about the landscape, the more nuanced your map may become.
So, last week I set you three tasks:
- Create a list of all the pieces of writing you have completed, and all your works in progress
- Generate a list of writing goals for this year, and for the next five years
- Analyse your strengths and challenges as a writer
Let’s use the outcomes of that homework (and some other bits and pieces) to start mapping a way forward. But first, let’s mix our metaphors and think about pie.
We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie. [David Mamet. Boston Marriage]
Remember doing pie charts in school? A pie chart is a proportional representation of something. In this case, the time you have to invest in being a writer. It doesn’t matter how much ‘pie’ (that is, writing time) you have: no matter how many hours, days, minutes or weeks you have, you have 100% of your pie. Isn’t that awesome? You can imagine your pie as representative of the time you have to devote to your writing each day, week, month or year – whatever works best for you.
If you have a regular writing schedule, and imagine that you’ll spend roughly the same amount of time ‘being a writer’ each week, then maybe your pie is a weeks’ worth of writing time.
If you have an irregular writing schedule, which might include weeks where you don’t have any writing time, and weeks where you do very little else, you might need to think of your pie as a months’ or years’ worth of writing time.
So, the first slice. The first slice of your pie will be the biggest slice. This slice represents the time you spend actually writing. Pen to page, fingers to keyboard. Working creatively. It should be at least 50% of your pie. AT LEAST. 75% would be better.
The rest of the pie will need to include the following elements, in whatever proportions make the most sense to you. [As we work forward through the rest of this week’s mentoring session, you’ll get a better sense of what you’ll be DOING during these pie times. The task for now is to think about how much time you should be spending on each of these elements of your job as a writer.]
- Professional development: doing things to improve your skills as a writer, to improve your understanding of the industry, and/or to develop professional networks
- Research & Development: researching and developing new story ideas, or doing background research for current writing projects
- Administration: postage and handling of completed works, accounting, applying for funding, etc.
Here are some things to think about when mapping out your pie:
- Administration should be the smallest proportion of your pie. Even if, at first, you need to invest a bit of extra time on it to set up effective systems.
- Research and Development are important. Every business (and you are a business: a sole trader) needs to invest time and energy into R&D if it is to have a future, stay relevant, and be productive.
- Professional development does not include updating FB status, IMHO. Even if the status is about your latest writing project. Nor does it include getting together with your writer friends to drink beer and talk about how hard it is being a writer, even if some PD occurs accidentally while you’re there. PD is time you spend in a deliberate, focused sense on developing your skills as a writer, or growing your career. More particularly, really effective PD is spent addressing the challenges you know you face as a writer [more on that later].
OK, now that you have a pie, eat it! Here’s how:
In the coming week, think about how much time you have to spend on your writing. That is the whole of your writing pie. I’m going to use an example that in which I have 12 hours of writing time this week. (Just cos the maths is easy!) 75% of my pie is for writing. That means 9 hours at the desk, writing. The rest of the pie is divided equally: so that means one hour each of admin, PD and R&D.
Diarise your writing time, and spend the time you’ve committed to each of those tasks performing them. In the example, I might spend the nine hours writing across just two days (for example, I might spend 7 hours writing on Wednesday – that’s a day off from my day job that I spend at the library – and the other 2 hours in two one-hour slots on Thursday and Friday morning). In other words, don’t feel you have to do everything all at once, or every day, unless that’s what you need to do, and you really can do it at the moment. The basic rule here is: whatever works!
Keep track of where the plan and the reality diverge. And try to make some note of why that happens. If the same problems keep coming up each week/month, you may need to put some energy into facing that challenge and overcoming it 🙂
Write on your pie chart (or in a supplementary list) the things you can do during each type of your writing time, so that when you sit down to work, you know what to work on. Saves spending ten minutes faffing about. Think of these as ‘to do’ lists. Try to list things in order of priority, and tick them off when done. I just love the sense of achievement that comes from ticking things off lists. 🙂
Planned to spend two hours writing today and didn’t? That’s ok. Your pie is totally flexible. Can you find two hours somewhere ELSE in your week to spend writing? Then you will still have achieved your goal and stuck to the pie plan this week. Go you good thing.
Writing time is sacrosanct. Try to keep it that way. Remember the golden rule: even if you cannot write, do NOTHING else. Just sit, and stare at the page. Thinking about the next sentence. Or the next word. If you abandon your post at the page, make sure you log that, and perhaps move on to spending time doing R&D or PD, or other writing tasks. Do not kid yourself that reading over the notes you made last week during your writing workshop is writing. It is not. You know it, I know it. Actually, that you know it is all that really matters. Also, if most of your writing time at the moment is spent working on a novel, and you aren’t yet at the writing stage, but mostly mired in R&D, then that’s ok. Adjust the pie/plan, and keep working.
In my example week, if I ran out of oomph writing new words on the Wednesday I would first try editing something else, then move on to R&D (I’m in the library, after all), or PD.
Your writing time can be broken up into smaller parts, including writing new work/words, and editing. You might like to actually show this on your pie chart, and therefore in your diary. Look at the goals you set yourself as a writer, for this year, and for the next five years. How many of them relate to completing works? What works? Make sure that, if your goals were about finishing the novel, or writing six new short stories, you set aside time to work on those goals in your writing time.
In the administration section below I talk about ranking your unfinished works: working on these pieces, in order, from the top of the pile to the bottom, can be part of what you do during your writing time 🙂
In other words: be in control and make a conscious decision about what to spend your writing time on. Don’t just sit down and see what happens: plan for success, for awesomeness, and to realise your goals.
So, you need to spend time administering your writing career. In this little section, I talk about some of the things you “should” be doing in that regard.
Remember that spreadsheet you made with all the stories you’ve written on it? This is a fundamental tool in administering your writing career. And you’re 50% of the way there! Awesome!
During this week’s administration time, you can get that spreadsheet working for you. First, if you haven’t already, divide the spreadsheet into two lists, or pages: one for works that are complete, and one for work in progress. When I say complete, I mean not just finished, but edited and ready to be sent out for publication.
Now, for each completed work you have:
- If it HAS NOT already been published/placed in a competition: identify three potential markets for each work. Prioritise these markets in order of which one you would most like to be published in. Send each work to the first market on the list, and note that in your spreadsheet.
- If it HAS already been published/placed in a competition: find out (if you don’t already know) what rights were involved in the initial publication/award. Identify three secondary markets for each piece. Rank them in order of preference. Send each work to the first market on the list, and note that on your spreadsheet.
For the incomplete works? Do some reflection and analysis. Do some of these stories need to just go in the vault? Then put them there. The vault is for stories that are too old, too nascent, too half-developed to work on. For now.
The rest of your incomplete pieces have potential. Rank them in order of which ones you want to work on. Don’t worry too much about WHY – there might be all kinds of reasons. This one might be close to being ready to send out. This other one might be exciting to you as a writer. Just rank them. During your writing time, you can work on these, in order, so that you can them move them on over to the complete works folder and get them in the post.
A note on sending out complete works: When/if your pieces come back from the first market, note the date in your spreadsheet and then send them out to the next market. Preferably the same day (or on the next day you have ‘admin’ time). Restrain yourself from editing a completed short work (a short story or poem, for example) unless it has been rejected by AT LEAST three markets. For a novel, or book-length work, make that AT LEAST ten rejections before you do any reworking.
Some other things that might be part of your admin time include applying for grants. Don’t mistake working on a grant application for either PD or writing. It is admin. As is researching professional development opportunities, such as funding opportunities or manuscript development programs.
Professional development time is time you spend developing your skills as a writer. But that’s a big, vague thing to develop. You need a clearer plan than that. This is where two of the tasks you completed last week come into play.
First, you looked at your strengths and weaknesses. Let’s start with those.
Print out those strengths, and pin them up on your noticeboard, or put them on the back of the toilet door. Or put them in your wallet. Somewhere you will see them every day. Keep adding to them.
Now, about those challenges. (Or weaknesses). Let’s start working through them. Have a good look at the list of challenges you are facing and do two things:
- Rank them in order of importance. From the thing that’s most holding you back, to the thing that’s least holding you back.
- Brainstorm some strategies for addressing each challenge. Focus most on the top three challenges for now.
Now, the next step is obvious, isn’t it? Yes, it is! During your PD time, starting this week, start working on those challenges by implementing the strategies you have come up with. For example: I’ve got one hour of PD this week, and my #1 challenge is that I suck at dialogue. I’ve come up with a couple of ways I could work on this: do a workshop, study some good dialogue writers (including playwrights/screenwriters). I’ve decided to spend some time analysing how the dialogue works in my two favourite screenplays. NOT just reading them, but looking at how they are put together.
One of the other things you did last week was outline your writing goals. For the next year, and the next five years. Let’s have a look at them, and do something very similar. First, separate out the goals that you have no control over: put them up on that pinboard. They’re your dreams. Cherish them. Keep them in sight.
Some (aspects) of the remaining goals will need to be addressed in your writing time, some in your admin time, and so on. Identify the ones that have elements that need to be addressed as part of your PD, and rank them in order of how important they are to you.
If it isn’t self-evident from the goals themselves, brainstorm ways to work on achieving each goal. Allocate time in your PD slice of pie to do the work you’ve identified.
For example, one of your goals might be to get a novel published. Big goal. Some part of that goal will need to be addressed in your writing time (you’ll need to start writing it, if you haven’t already), some part in your admin time (you’ll need to identify potential agents and publishers, and start sending the work out, if it’s completed). Another goal might be to sell a story to XYZ magazine. Part of your PD, in that case, could include reading the works published in that magazine over the last little while, and thinking about what separates the work they publish from the work you’ve sent them that they haven’t published. You might also do some research about the editor (Do they have a blog where they talk about their editorial decisions? Have they written articles about what they look for in a piece of writing?)
If you’re having trouble coming up with strategies for achieving your goals, are addressing your challenges as a writer, think about who could help. You could post a question here, on your blog or FB page. Ask your writers’ group. Ask your writing friends how they achieved their goals. Research how other writers achieved their goals, and learn from their experience 🙂
An aside, in response to a question received anonymously :):
- If you really want to include FB time as professional development or R&D, then go ahead. If you really believe that the time you spend doing that contributes to your writing, then I totally support you in doing it. If you really believe that you need to build a profile as a writer, and that you want to include time spent doing that in your writer pie, then go ahead. But, please, do it knowingly and meaningfully. Think about how much time you want to spend building your profile in proportion to all the other things you need to do to build your writing career.
Um, I think that’s it for this week. Phew – you have a lot of work to do! What are you doing sitting there reading my blog?! Get writing!!