Culture

Organizing Your Creative Life In 13 Weeks

If the centipede can't remember which foot to move first, it becomes hopelessly entangled.  Sometimes we're all centipedes.

If the centipede can’t remember which foot to move first, it becomes hopelessly entangled. Sometimes we’re all centipedes.

When Charlie Martin and I were talking about his thirteen weeks concept a few months ago, I told him that it sounded like a really good way to “project manage” what you do when you’re not at work.  As such, too, I thought it would be really good because I think that contracting is the way of the future, for all but a very few professions.

Changes not just in the law (which will make us all nominal part-timers or contractors, at least) but also in technology make it easy to work from home, and to be part of a group project while being an independent contractor.

This means that more and more professionals, coming home to work as contractors, are going to meet the problems of writers who come home to work full time at writing.  This problem is usually getting less accomplished than you got done when you had a full-time job in addition to the freelancing.

The reason for the problem is that you lose focus, and you don’t have a well-defined timetable.

My attempt to do it with a novel fell somewhat short, mostly because I was trying to learn to work with the site and work around their scheduling and editorial needs.  It was also a spectacular failure from the point of view of getting a novel written in thirteen weeks, which was the whole intent.

This failure was all the more galling since I have in the past written a novel in less than thirteen days.

You’ll say that it’s understandable.  After all, a lot of creative work is like that: you can’t force it and you can’t push it.

Against that I have two comments: professionals routinely force it and push it, so they can meet deadlines.  While it might not produce our best work – that’s debatable.  Sometimes it does, but it might be the exception – it can be done.  Also, see what I said above.  When first released from the confines of a “traditional” office life, writers tend to have problems producing anything.

Now, I’ve been free lancing for well over ten years – since I had my last “honest job” teaching English comp in college – but there are factors that have made these last two years particularly difficult and very much “a new thing all over again” for me and other professionals.

While some people on coming home to work look at the things they can do that day, with no particular drive to do them and go “I’ll do something else for a few hours” most people who come home to work are motivated and ready to do their best.  The problem comes in another form, which is what I’ve been encountering.

When you come home to work, you suddenly find yourself confronted with too many tasks and too many things to do, so you’re overwhelmed before you start, and you don’t actually finish any task.  In fact, you suffer from the classical definition of Workaholic – always working and with nothing accomplished.  Even friends who work at home a few days a week will complain they work more hours and accomplish less.

If this is to be conquered – and it must be since tech seems to be moving us that way – we need to figure out what to do and new ways of working.  I think the thirteen week format imposes an ideal time frame for it.  So this is “13 weeks to figure out a better way to be a freelancer.”

After a while you sort of learn to sort of walk.

After a while you sort of learn to sort of walk.

Mind you, if you are to be a successful contractor/freelancer for any length of time, you usually learn to tame the initial confusion.  The centipede – so to put it – learns which leg to move first.  This doesn’t mean your arrangement is ideal, perfect, or even good, but it will be good enough to allow you to survive.

Until something else intervenes, which is too likely in our days of fast technological change.

What has intervened in my business at least is the sudden ability to self-publish and achieve similar distribution to that achieved through the old system.  Since this was an oligopsony run by a small group of people who often managed to fail both writers and readers, the change is welcome to most writers, both traditionally published and hopefuls.  (For more on what is happening, read Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like A Publisher, and also The New World Of Publishing. I understand he plans on doing a series of them.)

Picture if you will where I stood five years ago – writing an average of four books and five to ten short stories a year, all of them either commissioned or at least under contract.  It wasn’t a comfortable life, since I was still a relatively new author, but I had hopes of growing with the profession and being able to cut back on how much I worked, and get better compensation.

For the purposes of this article I’m going to ignore how certain changes in publishing made that path unlikely.  Also for the purposes of this article I won’t explain that my path had been unlikely all along, and yet it worked.

Let it stand, simply, that I was working at full capacity. An older pro friend in fact advised me to throttle back, but for various reasons that was impossible. Except that (part of the reason) there was trouble in paradise not just for myself but for others, and advances kept diminishing and contracts seemed harder to get (though not really for me, at the time, but I heard stories.)

At some point I saw the writing on the wall and contacted Kris Rusch who has long been a mentor.  She details similar experiences to mine in this blog on the Stages of Writers as they go Indie.

I then became aware of the world of self-publishing and how it had changed.  (Yes, I’d been living under a rock.  Also, this was three years ago.)

We went to one of Kris and Dean’s seminars on the technical aspects of self-publishing. (We, because spouse attends free and my husband writes as well.)

The problem with this, which shouldn’t be a problem at all, is that my traditional career continued. While I could see the writing on the wall and could now drop the other houses, I had no interest in dropping Baen Books, nor had they any interest in dropping me. They rapidly took up the slots in my schedule I’d allocated to other houses.  Which still left me with the indie side of my career to develop.  (And before you ask why I’d bother with that while working for traditional publishing: part of it is that I was raised on Heinlein’s books, and I hate to use a belt with no suspenders, or not to have an escape hatch in any safe place. Part of it is that I have over 100 short stories either never published or published in a magazine and now reverted to me in all rights. To not harvest that field amounts to gross dereliction of my duties to my family.)

This centipede is going places!

This centipede is going places!

For about a year and a half I’ve dealt with it — badly – by playing around with editing and self-publishing half a dozen days a month, while concentrating on the traditional contracts.  Only, between learning cover design and the technical aspects of self-publishing, and just feeling the pressure of the back-list still in the drawer, one ended up interfering with the other, and I’ve also been chronically late on contracts.

That something had to be done about this became obvious even before I got back the rights to most of my previously published novels, and found myself faced with the task of serious editing/proofing – it’s appalling the state in which some of these were published.  Never mind – and potentially writing new books in series previously “dead.”

I have about ten previously published books to go up and scant progress has been made on any of that. I also manage to be behind my personal schedule on the book due at Baen in August.

Which brings to this thirteen week program.

I have recently made some progress on the crushing pile of to-do by compartmentalizing.  I will finish what absolutely must be finished that day and try not to overburden myself with could have should have must-have. The centipede is more effective if it moves one leg at a time until it hits its stride.

That technique combined with something I tried in my very early days freelancing, when I had both novels and short stories to write concurrently, and which amounted to “a time for everything” are the only techniques I enter this exploration in self-management with.

So, here is my program as far as I can tell:

Week One – this coming week – and full disclosure I’ll be traveling to Liberty Con in Chattanooga Tennessee from mid-week on, which affects my choice of task for the week: in addition to keeping myself to the “must do” for the day and not trying to push for the impossible, I’m finally going to gratify my husband by reading the classics of time management and try to contrive a better system, starting with reading Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Getting Things Done by David Allen, 52 Mondays and (specific to my field) The Art of War For Writers, a book I bought solely based on finding the title funny, but which in my cursory looking through seems to have some insights I need. Also No Plot No Problem, a book I remember reading a few years ago and which I think might have some application to my particular issue.

Week Two – from these books and any others that might seem advisable once I read these, implement a gradual, step by step, week by week program towards getting my freelance life organized without feeling that I should be doing everything at the same time. Or, in other words, teaching the centipede to run.

Week Three and forward to be determined from the work done in the first two weeks which I will, of course, share with you.  Properly done – and I intend to do it properly this time – this system should work not just for writers (though of course I’ll talk to writers primarily, since I am one) but for any freelancer and contractor.

*****

images courtesy shutterstock / PePl / Richard Peterson / Bruce MacQueen