The Writer’s Life (Part 1)

by J.T. Ellison

Since we're crashing into a new year, I've decided to make some serious, major changes to my writing life.

I am always looking for better, more efficient ways to work. It stems from both my obsessive-compulsive need to be organized and my overwhelming love of office products. Getting gift cards to supply stores (Staples, The Daily Planner, etc.) run a close second to bookstores gift cards.

I love trying new systems, new notebooks, new anything. I've only been doing this for three years, and I'm still looking for my perfect method, my artistic channel, that glorious thing called "process." The method that in twenty years will be the HOW behind my books.

Right now, I'm finding that the process of finding a process means more than a small tweak to my system. I want real change. I don't know about you, but I have, on occasion, caught myself thinking
"Why am I here, instead of in my manuscript?" This goes for everything
non-manuscript related – email, blogs, news sites, social networks, to do lists, research. All
of the things that seem to eat up time that could otherwise be spent
productively, writing.

The problem is all of these things need to happen, to some extent. I can't skip email for three weeks without some feelings of guilt. I won't even begin to pretend that I don't like the occasional breaks to play on Facebook. I love to read the news sites during the day, to check in on my favorite blogs. But I truly believe there's a more productive way to incorporate the fun and the obligatory into my workday.

I've been looking for the best way to do this, and I've found this wonderful system called GTD, brainchild of David Allen. Getting Things Done. (Yes, all you Mac people already know about this. Us PC folks are usually a few steps behind. Quit your snickering.) My God, who wouldn't want to invest in this? I've always called my approach to work AiC – ass in chair, but GTD takes AiC and puts it on steroids.

GTD is going to help me revamp my writing life.

Note I didn't use the words "writing routine." I've always thought of what I do as a routine, a series of goals that I've set for myself, publicly and privately, that allow me to meet my deadlines with a modicum of hair intact. In the days before major book contracts, the days before deadlines, before Murderati even, I stuck to a pretty steady routine, driven partially from my desire to write and partially from the embarrassment I'd feel if I couldn't bring pages to my writing group twice a month. No pages at group meant I wasn't producing, the biggest sin I as a "writer" could commit.

And it worked, quite well. For a while. Nowadays, when I'm working on three books at once (one being written, one being edited and one being promoted) I find that sometimes, the work that needs to get done is taking a backseat to other priorities. Which is utterly insane, because as writers, our only priority should be to write.

One of my favorite authors, Jeff Abbott, has been writing a series of blogs about productivity. In them he not only gives excellent, sage advice, he's linking to other sites that give excellent, sage advice. My new favorite is 43 Folders. Great advice. Great, practical, knock this crap off and get back to work kind of advice. I love it.

Because somewhere along the way, my laptop, sacred beast that it is, internal automatic wireless being, has become my lifeline "out" of my house. This is a VERY BAD THING.

I ask myself what the problem is. Am I so caught up in the excitement of having a network of friends who GET what I do that I'm shirking my writing time to be with them? Well, maybe a little. There is something quite heady about being online with like-minded individuals. Are they helping my writing? Well, to the extent that I learn something new about the publishing industry weekly, then yes. Otherwise?

I didn't know a soul when I wrote my first book. No one. I was in an utter vacuum. And I was blissfully happy. Working at my own pace on my own story, no distraction, no worries. For several years here at Murderati I've been encouraging new writers to get out of said vacuum and connect. Connect, connect, connect. Network, network, network.

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

Now I understand the emails I was getting before my first book came out. Those encouraging notes that said enjoy this time, because once the book drops it all changes.

I'm rapidly realizing that I long to have the vacuum back. Don't get me wrong, I love you guys. I love my writing friends here in town. I enjoy emails from fans, requests for media interviews. Who wouldn't? I think it's part of the excitement of becoming a debut author. And in the course of only 13 months, I have three books on the shelves. I've written the fourth and started the fifth. Talk about your zero to sixty, do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars. Any normal human being would be having this kind of time management issue, right?

The way I've been managing to get all that work done is writing every day, from
12-4, 1,000 words a day. THAT was my old routine. But it's not working
anymore. I'm having days where I look at the clock, it's 3 pm and I haven't opened the manuscript. Or days where I've been so busy handling myriad other chores – also known as life – that I haven't written a word of fiction. But I've gotten my blog done and I've cleared out my email and chatted with my parents and touched base with a friend or two, and probably knocked out a load of laundry or made a run to the grocery.

And those are good things, because they have to be done too. Writers can't live by manuscript alone, unfortunately, and I've always been adamant that I want to have a full, rich life, one that includes being a writer, not resting solely on that identity for survival. I want to have a life outside of my books – if I don't, my writing WILL suffer.

I've realized I'm not the only writer who has these issues, and that in and of itself is heartening. I've been feeling a bit like an outcast, looking at some of my literary heroes who don't have a blog to weekly caress their inner woes and the magnificent work product they are responsible for. It's humbling, and inspiring, and I WANT IT.

If anything, this week's journey through the internet searching out better processes proved to me that I am a part of something bigger, a social construct of intellectualism, entertainment and ultimately, creation. That what I'm doing, writing these books, matters, even if that's only to me. That as much as I want to think that writing is just a facet of who I am, I'm realizing that I must simply surrender to the reality that I am a writer, that writing is my life, and as such, I need to have a rich and healthy writing life in order to be happy and fulfilled.

Next week, I'll tell you how I plan to do this.

So, share. What's your process? And do you have any devilishly good sites on productivity and creativity you enjoy reading?

Wine of the Week: Shared over a delicious meal with my secret houseguests – Barossa Valley Estate E Minor Shiraz (Australia)

PS – Congratulations to Jacqui Carney, who won the critique of her NaNo pages!!

PPS – If you're an online shopper, please consider using GoodShop to buy those holiday gifts (BOOKS!) You'll be able to help out your favorite charities, who are all having a rough year too.

25 thoughts on “The Writer’s Life (Part 1)

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    All that buildup, and then “see you next week”? That’s a serious example of bloggus interruptus. Let no one say that JT Ellison doesn’t know how to build suspense.

    I too am contemplating some changes in process, centered around getting away from the computer entirely. Because if I’m on a computer with a ‘net connection, I WILL check and answer my e-mail, I WILL hit Facebook (just to check messages of course, and kill that pesky little shit that’s been harassing me in Mob Wars–again), I WILL hit the political blogs and pick a fight with some troll, etc. I used to have a program called Temptation Blocker that blocked access to the ‘net and to selected programs for a period of time set by the user. Unfortunately, I lack the willpower not to use the “emergency turn off” feature. So it may be the notebook (the real one, the Moleskine, not the laptop) for me for this next one. We’ll see…

    Reply
  2. Jake Nantz

    JT,You asked, “And do you have any devilishly good sites on productivity and creativity you enjoy reading?”

    I have to ask this, huge grin plastered on my face. If we all told you lots of new sites we read about productivity, won’t that just be more temptation to go read those sites (on a semi-regular basis) and take up more time when you could/should be writing?

    Reply
  3. Julie Kramer

    I anxiously await next week when you tell us how to do this…because I have many of the same issues. And if you have the answer, share it with us – the sooner the better.

    Reply
  4. pari

    Yeah, JT,I’m awaiting next week too!

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that I got hooked, absolutely hooked, to political blogs during the heat of the election and now I can’t seem to wean myself from them. I WANT TO KNOW what’s happening in the world and justify time away from my work as being “BIG PICTURE” . . . which deep down I know is utter BS.

    I think many of us are looking for better “systems” or approaches. I’m not willing to give up the computer, email or Murderati — for example, but I have cut the number of social networks, listservs etc that I participate in and/or visit by at least half. I’m also pulling back on volunteer work.

    And I’m not writing anything for free except my Murderati blog. Period.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    You’re headed in the right direction, J.T.

    Some of the best early advice I got was to treat writing as a business. Do any of our real business friends have the opportunity to do taxes, go grocery shopping, or hang out on Facebook during their work day? Probably not.

    So if it means that you’re unavailable to us during vacations or during the business day, so be it. The world will be a better place knowing that your next book is being written.

    Reply
  6. JT Ellison

    I didn’t mean to interruptus anyone’s reading… sorry.

    Dusty, finding a new way is always a good thing. It’s hard, but worth it.

    Jeff Abbott has a great site listed on his blog today – http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/

    Famous writer’s daily routines. Fascinating stuff.

    Jake, I’m starting to realize that if I’m going to procrastinate, I should make the best use of that time by finding good solid productivity tips to get me back to work… man, that sounds almost logical, huh?

    Julie, answers, no. I’m also finding that what works for one author doesn’t work for another. But ideas, now there’s where I can help you. Next week, of course ; )

    Pari, the election threw me so off stride that I got a few weeks behind. I’m a political junkie anyway, but it seemed to be especially hard NOT to pay attention this time around.

    Joyce, make a list. One list, in one place, of all the things you need to do. I’ve been using Remember the Milk http://www.rememberthemilk.com/

    That’s part of GTD – all your information in one place. It helps me remember to do stuff.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    You’re headed in the right direction, J.T.

    Some of the best early advice I got was to treat writing as a business. Do any of our real business friends have the opportunity to do taxes, go grocery shopping, or hang out on Facebook during their work day? Probably not.

    So if it means that you’re unavailable to us during vacations or during the business day, so be it. The world will be a better place knowing that your next book is being written.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Louise, thank you. I agree completely, the writing is the business part, so do it first!

    And folks, apologies about the double comments – Typepad seems a little buggy today. Don’t worry if you duplicate, I’ll fix it as we go today. Because today, I’m not writing. Today… I’m doing all my Christmas shopping and getting my holidays in order so I’m fresh and ready for edits tomorrow morning. Wish me luck!

    Reply
  9. billie

    JT, I’m eager to read as this new way unfolds for you.

    I love organization and the *idea* of controlling my process and making it the most efficient it can be, but when it comes down to it, I will be the first one to rebel against whatever “routine” I put into place for myself. I do better if I present it to myself as “creating balance” and then wing my way through the day.

    The one thing I’ve done recently that has been a major change in work habit is move myself out of my writing garret into the middle of our living room. It seems bizarre – you’d think having a space to go to which is protected and quiet and away from the rest of the household would be the best thing. But I was dying for something different, and when I ditched my laptop for a new big flat screen Mac, I set it up downstairs.

    The window behind my screen overlooks our drive so I can easily keep an eye out for UPS and FedEx and various visitors, allowing me to work while waiting for the vet, say, or hoof trimmer. The kitchen is to my left, so I can cook while working. To the far right, I have a cushy loveseat by a window with my ms, the current Moleskine, and a pen lying in wait. It’s crazy – but the drastic change kickstarted me into working more regularly again.

    I’m going on a writing retreat the end of January and for the first time ever I’m taking the hard copy of the ms, my Moleskine, and a fat blank writing pad, with a batch of good pens. It’s entirely possible I will regret not having a way to get online, but I’ve decided this particular week needs to be just me and the book, with no distraction.

    Bottom line – I think shaking things up from time to time is a good thing. Like travel, it seems to awaken and get the creative juices flowing. Can’t wait to read what you’re doing to shake things up!

    Reply
  10. J.T. Ellison

    Billie, good for you! I made that drastic scene change last year, and it helped, a lot. I used to reorganize my office when I had these process issues, and that worked. But in the winter, no matter what I do, my office is chilly. So while it’s beautifully appointed, it was physically uncomfortable for a few months out of the year. I moved into my living room and found I could concentrate much better – being able to see outside, see the cat, have quick access to the kitchen, all helped refocus me. As a matter of fact, before I found the GTD methods, I was considering moving back upstairs to give my brain that jolt of “different place, different method.” I’m glad I won’t be though, because my hands just freeze!

    Reply
  11. Kaye Barley

    Wishing you luck, JT! For those of us who love being organized and are simply not able to function well without things around us being “just right,” I think you’re doing good stuff here! And the next book will roll out easily – betcha.Hugs and Happy Weekend everyone!

    Reply
  12. joylene

    I remember back before the internet, when I thought I was a brick short of a load. The enormous relief when I first discovered there were others like me; it reaffirmed so much in my life. And yet, once published, for months, all I could think was “What was I thinking!”

    I’m so glad I found this site. You guys have been such a help. I’ll be back tomorrow to learn more. Because while I do whine a bit too much, I am grateful for small blessings. Readers are enjoying my book more than I could have ever dreamed. If the sales never reach the point where I can sit back & write full time, that’s okay. I’m meeting wonderful people.

    Reply
  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I’m another one who can’t wait for next week. It’s like one of those adverts for a miracle product that will Change Your life! Just send £19.95 a week to …

    Once I’m into a book, and I set a monthly target, I get it done, but getting started – getting into that groove – seems to take forever.

    Sometimes I think that we just have to accept an immutable fact:

    Writing is a messy business.

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I go through periodic organization kicks.

    Bottom line?

    They never work.

    Someone once explained to me that, much like two-year olds, right-brained people need to SEE all their stuff around them or they forget it exists.

    Guilty, guilty, guilty.

    No one who saw my “office” would ever think that anything official got done there. In fact, it rarely does. I work all over the house. I use up rooms every hour or so and have to move to let them clear.

    It makes no sense. Yet I get more done than most people, and these days I’m almost able to live with that. I actually think I am on the verge of letting go of this pretty little fantasy that I will ever be organized. And I have many other fine qualities to make up for it.

    I just need to dance more this next year, because cutting dancing for anything I end up cutting it for is just not an acceptable way to live.

    And not good for my productivity, I think.

    Reply
  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I go through periodic organization kicks.

    Bottom line?

    They never work.

    Someone once explained to me that, much like two-year olds, right-brained people need to SEE all their stuff around them or they forget it exists.

    Guilty, guilty, guilty.

    No one who saw my “office” would ever think that anything official got done there. In fact, it rarely does. I work all over the house. I use up rooms every hour or so and have to move to let them clear.

    It makes no sense. Yet I get more done than most people, and these days I’m almost able to live with that. I actually think I am on the verge of letting go of this pretty little fantasy that I will ever be organized. And I have many other fine qualities to make up for it.

    I just need to dance more this next year, because cutting dancing for anything I end up cutting it for is just not an acceptable way to live.

    And not good for my productivity, I think.

    Reply
  16. Allison Brennan

    I love you Alex 🙂

    I have to see my stuff, too. Out of sight, out of mind.

    I don’t have a process, per se. I write because I love to write; I write fast because I don’t know any other way to write; and I write now because I have a contract. Deadlines motivate me like nothing else does, but this isn’t just in writing. I’ve always been this way. I’m the one who wrote the term paper the night before; the one who studied for tests on the bus to school; the employee who, when I said the project would be down by the end of the day, was turned in at the end of the day.

    I had a supervisor once who drove me apeshit. I had a major project (along with a bunch of other regular daily duties) that I had more than a week to do, and I knew it would take me about four or five focused hours to get it done. This witch would come to me each morning asking how far I was on the project. She expected that 15% of the project would be completed each day because I had 7 working days to do it. She drove me crazy. Dear Lord, I’m so glad to be out of that place!

    I have a beautiful office now, and I’ve been managing to write a bit here, but I get distracted. Not just with email, but with everything. So when I’m in a crunch, I go where I KNOW I write well–out. I take my laptop and we go on a date. First Starbucks until they kick me out at closing, then my favorite brewpub for a late dinner and some adult beverages. I don’t know if this is a psychological thing of what, I just write better when I’m out of the house. I’m talking about the difference between 3 or 4 pages in 6 hours vs. 30-40 pages in six hours.

    A great motivational tool for me is THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. I feel so guilty that I’m procrastinating after I re-read a couple pages that I write twice as much to make up for slacking the day before.

    Reply
  17. Catherine

    Very late comment to this.Although I’m not writing fiction…I am a world class procrastinator…which I’ve at times flogged myself over.Surprisingly this isn’t all that productive.

    This may sound a bit Dr Phil, but I’ve found that if I continue to spin my wheels for a little too long… I’m able to refocus by asking myself what am I GAINING right now by NOT doing whatever I’m working on or developing?

    Sort of a wtf stocktake. I’ve found if I actually change my surroundings,(as a few people have mentioned) or activity and try to reconnect with my goal sometimes, the blindingly obvious occurs, and I find that creating has been pushed aside a little because I’ve ignored something else that needs my attention… like a balanced life.

    My intention or drive can get scarily focussed,(and I used to think that was normal) but I’ve found that it’s not sustainable in the long term unless everything else is similarly well cared for.

    I think my work/study life has slowed to show me how important this is. I think we all need a counterpoint to our primary creative pursuit for balance. For Alex it seems to be dancing, for me it is a zen like calm I get from swimming.To produce what I want I do need a certain amount of frenzy + total immersion, but I now know that this works better if I switch gears too.

    I’ve also underestimated, till recently just how productively stimulating I find small amounts of connecting with likeminded people. I’ve at times mentally punished myself for not doing what I ‘should’… I now find spending some time with people with similar drives really sparks and reconnects me with why I’m doing what I’m doing.

    Woohoo Aussie wine of the week.

    Reply
  18. Catherine

    Well this is an even later comment, but I’ve since had time to actually look at some of the Jeff Abbott blog, and some of the reasoning behind GTD strategy.

    I think I’ve incorporated some elements of both into my life already…

    Hitting the wall of overwhelm was a defining moment.

    Since then I’ve developed my own checklist…

    1)I don’t have the correct resources /crossechecked for validity against the, is this just an excuse to go shopping test?

    2)Do I have the information I need right now/crosschecked for validity against the, desire to go off on a research tangent test?

    3)What’s the worst thing that can happen, and how likely is this to occur/crosschecked for validity against the excuse to go make a G&T and ponder dark musings test?

    I do find that my priorities shift. I attain the scary productive focus when I connect with where this aim sits in with my values.It’s taken me a while to see just how many competing values can distract me. So in the long term paying attention to maintaining balance in work, health, love, adventure family,friends,fun for the hell of it et al…(listed in no particular order of importance)is most productive for me.

    I’ve found that to do this I have to make time to exercise as important as time to work, or else my body slows or just throws up weird health crisis to make me slow down anyway. Similarly if I stay focussed on some work project for too long whatever creative spark I have evaporates and my mind churns. Again not so productive. For me if this happens I tend to work in 15 minutes blocks till my mind rests enough to unleash the creativity again.

    So actually now I see putting on the washing as a mini mind holiday and as well as a good hygiene move.

    The actual operational stuff, gets attention once a week as a masterplan(a sort of timemap)…a time to budget my time and money. As long as I keep the healthy stuff going, and tap into the connectedness outside of me, my productivity soars. If while I’m doing this I still find myself dithering I go back to what do I have to gain from dithering right now…bit by bit my productivity surges and slows. I figure as long as I have a fluid structure to support me variance can be stimulating.

    Still looking forward to how you plan to implement your own cunning scheme JT. Incorporating new ideas into my ‘operational’ theory keeps it fresh.

    Reply
  19. M.J.

    Late to this post but I the best thing I’ve done JT is have two computers… one is for everything but the novels… the other is only for the novels… only email and surfing on that computer is research related. Its a separate world and every day for four or five hours in the afternoon I’m on the the fiction computer only.

    And I can’t wait to see what your plan is either.

    Reply

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