If You're Trying to Do Two Things at Once, Pick One
Organizing your Creative Life in Thirteen Weeks, Week 10
Prolific science fiction novelist Sarah Hoyt follows up her "Your Novel in 13 Weeks" PJ Lifestyle series with a new weekly experiment each Saturday to figure out the best way for all creative types working from home to better organize their efforts.
Week Zero, Introduction: Organizing Your Creative Life In 13 Weeks
Week 1/2, Preparation: The Case For Making Lots of Lists
Week One: How to Make Your Mind Like Water
Week Three: The Lone Writer Against The Time Masters
Week Four: How to Tame Your Subconscious
Week Seven: 4 Tips So You Don't Organize Yourself to Death
Week Eight: Organizing your Writing Life When Words Fail You
Patricia Wentworth has a novel by that title. Exclamation mark and all. I don’t remember if this was her first book that I bought – I do remember that that book grabbed me right from the title, and since that was also the very first word on the book, it caught me and made me read it right to the end.
Putting your character in a situation where they must do or die right off the bat will grab the reader and not let go. At least if you have the ability to keep the pace going the rest of the book. (Okay, Wentworth slacks off a little. She’s more romantic suspense than suspense.)
So, does this mean that I’ve given up on organizing my creative life and taken to dispensing writing advice again?
Not exactly. I’m here to tell you that finding myself in the position of that character in that book is a lot less fun than it is reading about it.
No, I wasn’t lost in fog outside a creepy old house. I didn’t hear steps behind me, and someone didn’t pass me, running, while yelling “run.” Well, not literally. In a metaphorical sense, it came pretty close.
The good news is that I’ve finally finished revising Witchfinder and sending it off to editors, including the real one (though it will come out from a small indie press, Goldport – mostly because even though I love Baen books, I want to keep a foot on the indie thing. It’s a new avenue, and I like exploring.)
The bad news is that I’ve still not finished Through Fire, mostly through having tried to back up and do it from a different perspective. Don’t go there. Just don’t.
Part of the issue with the two books was something that I’ve heard of other writers running into: you’re working on a piece, which blocks the other piece you’d like to work on. This happens.
Normally I can juggle revising a novel while writing the first draft of the other. This is because they’re work of a different “weight.” Writing a first draft is something that requires concentration and a certain amount of fortitude, while revising is usually fairly simple. Let me put it this way, I know which mistakes I’m prone to, and after almost twenty years of writing novels (more than twenty years if you count my early sporadic efforts in that direction) I know how to find those missteps and correct them.
The problem though is that Witchfinder is a very odd book. I wrote it, a chapter at a time, and posted what I call “pre-first-version” On my blog at a chapter a week over a year and a half.
If you’re going to ask what possessed me to do that, I will confess mostly I did it out of laziness. You see, the hard part in writing a daily blog is coming up with the subject. I know this sounds insane, but it really is. Some days I wake up and stare at the monitor in the same horror that people stare down an abyss.
Once I come up with a theme and start writing, everything is fine. But that moment of “oh, no, what do I write about” is like getting up from a sun-drenched beach and plunging into ice-cold water.
In those circumstances, the idea of having a pre-defined blog topic was so attractive that I started doing it just so I could escape blank-screen one day a week.
So, how did that work out? Um… within giving me something to write about, it worked fine. It also might provide a good way to manage your creative life, if you have a demanding job or school career and must cram your writing (or painting, or composing) around the edges of your life.
One of the accepted techniques is to do what I did and write a chapter a week. I’m not suggesting you post it on your blog in its raw form. Even for me, that’s a level of insanity that leaves me wondering if I lost my mind. However, for instance, my older son who is taking a very demanding level of coursework in college, manages his creative life by “banking” five hundred words a day. That’s what he calls it -- “banking.” Every evening before bed, he sits down and writes five hundred works in his work in progress. Five hundred words is two double spaced pages, and most people can manage it in an hour.
Over a year, that amounts to a long novel or two short ones, which is a decent enough output.
The problem with the method, I found, at least if your mind tends to flip things around and change them in the writing as mine does, is that it requires a lot of very intensive structural revision.
And the problem with that is that my novels normally don’t need it.
So I found myself trying to do the level of revision I normally do, and finding it wanting. And when I was working at the level I should be, I had to immerse myself thoroughly in the book. Which made it impossible to immerse myself fully in the world of Through Fire.
I finally realized this was only going to be done if I let go of one of the tasks and concentrated on the other.
Once I realized this was needed, I finished the revision in short order, and can now concentrate on finishing Through Fire which should be done in the next couple of weeks.
Which is another one of those lessons in priorities. Sometimes, you need to save the cat from the burning house, and then turn the hose on the flames. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Or in other words – if you’re trying to do two tasks at once, and one is interfering with the other, concentrate on one first, then the other. It might seem elementary, but if you look closely you’ll find that you often try to do two things at once, out of a misguided sense that both are highly urgent.
Even if that is true, you should be aware sometimes tasks interfere with each other.
In my normal approach to things, editing/revising is a light task that can be done when I’m tired after writing as much as I can that day. But when revising is heavier, it requires higher concentration, and that puts the two tasks at the same level and makes them interfere with each other.
But aren’t they both urgent? Well, yes, they are. The thing is by trying to do them both at once, I finished neither. In fact, I didn’t make much progress in either. So, by letting one wait, I actually made it go faster for both of them.
It was a time-costly lesson and one that made me feel like the heroine of that Patricia Wentworth novel – as though my entire week was an extended Run!
However, I think in the long run things will go smoother now that the lesson was learned.