I just spent the last month revising two very different short stories, both aimed at markets with looming deadlines. Coming off the post-holiday distractions, I was confident that neither story would take much work (I was wrong) and a whole month seemed like plenty of time to get my work done (I was right, but it wasn’t as much time as it seemed!) But I took a deep breath and dove in. I got done most of what I wanted to accomplish last month and feel pretty good about it.
Like most of you, I always have at least five or six projects in the hopper at once, and figuring out which one to work on can make me cross-eyed. I love them all and want to give them my full attention, but that just isn’t possible. Setting up five computers on my desk to work on them all at once is also impractical.
So here are five coping strategies I employed to get my work done this month. Of course, what worked for me may not work for you, but I hope you’ll find some of these things useful.
1) Prioritize. External deadlines are helpful, here: market’s got a short reading period, anthology is about to close, etc. If you’ve got a story almost ready to go, spend a little time polishing and get it out there!
Sometimes, though, you’re not gunning for any particular timeframe, and you’re neck-deep in a story you love and keep tinkering. I suggest you give yourself an internal deadline so you aren’t tempting to noodle with the story endlessly. You need to move on to your other projects.
As above, I like to polish up the ones that are close and send them out so they can be earning inks, rejections, and maybe even acceptances while I work on the stuff that’s less developed.
2) Keep Notes. Exciting ideas flit across my brain, and my inner cat wants to go pouncing after every bright flash of color. Old toys? Boring. Bring on the new shiny.
This is why I keep lots of analog and digital notes (mostly I use either my favorite Moleskine or Evernote). New story ideas are always going to crowd in and tempt you away from what you should be working on. Some of these great ideas will tell you they are better than anything you’ve ever thought of before! Nod politely, make a note or two, and tell them you’ll talk again later. If they’re really that good, you won’t forget them.
It’s worth mentioning that the project you may be struggling with at the moment probably started out as one of those distracting ideas. Keep that in mind.
3) Keep a Daily Task List. Gasp! This sounds like organizing! For some people, this sort of thing comes naturally. My wife, for one. She makes lists like no one I’ve ever seen, and stays on top of her projects. Her culinary training is especially useful here, with its time-critical production lists.
I took a page from her, and kept a daily tally of the things I needed to complete: Scene A, Scene B. 300 new words, etc. Your own deadlines (see #1 above) will obviously help you set your priorities, here.
Your list doesn’t have to be complicated. There are all manner of to-do apps and methods. A list on a simple sticky note will suffice. Be sure to cross off each step as you complete it, too. It’s very satisfying.
4) Routine. The real key to success at anything is to dedicate that hour or two (or more!) to practice. For best results, pick a time that works for you and stick with it. For me, getting up and writing an hour or two before work is when I get my best work done.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have an extra incentive to cement that routine. I got several different varieties of loose-leaf tea for Christmas and spent my January mornings sipping them while I worked. There might be other incentives for you: playlists of inspiring music, a piece of pie, a chance to wear your super-writer’s cape…
5) Sleep and exercise. I can’t stress these enough. It’s important to get your rest. I sometimes have bouts of insomnia, or a run of busy nights when I just can’t make it to bed before midnight — but I know that regardless, I have to get up at 6am or so and get my work done. But more than that, I just don’t get my best work done when I’m tired all the time. It can also be tempting to forego sleep for work. As deadlines loom, this may even become necessary. But I’d advise delaying this step as long as you can.
Exercise is just as important. I’ve discovered biking, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to commute to work by bike. I don’t get to ride in every day, but even regular walking is enough to keep the blood flowing and the mind sharp.
I’d love to hear some of the ways you keep your focus when the going gets rough.