When Your Writing Schedule Gets Decimated

There’s lots of stuff out there about how writers and cats go together.

It’s true – the two creatures have similar natures and habits. A lot of that has to do with quiet and contemplation.

You might also notice that this is always about cats and never kittens.

This is our New Kitten, officially named Jackson.

I finally managed to get this photo, when he ran out of energy and got a little sleepy. I have requests for video. So far, this is the best I’ve managed:

Jackson 2

It gives you an idea of the eternally moving target I’m dealing with here. Is he a good desk companion? Oh yes! Every inch of my desk, all the time. Keyboards are for walking on. My face is right there for loving on. He goes for my tea. I move it to the other side. He follows. I move it back. He follows. Persistence, thy name is Kitten.

So, yeah – my even, pleasant rituals are shot all to hell. If I’m not trying to see through a tail, I’m mediating conflicts with Isabel, who is decidedly cranky about the whole thing. Here was her statement from last night.

Hint: look at the end of the near canale. Yes, we got her down. She’s been up on the roof before, but we had to get out the extension ladder last night. Just so I would know that she is DISPLEASED.

So, now I’m trying to get my schedule back into place – knowing full well I’ll lose it again, because I’m headed to Rom Con on Thursday. (Hey, if you’re coming, or are in the Denver area, stop and say hi!) I’m trying to be Zen about it all. My life is overall pretty even and peaceful – like I said yesterday, I don’t know how you people with little kids do it – and this kind of disruption doesn’t happen often.

I think that’s part of the staying the course with writing: knowing that sometimes different parts of life get in the way. And that’s it’s all good. All part of being a connected human being.

Just like getting back to my exercise routine after the holidays, to extend my recent analogy. Starting off slow and easy.

Working my way back up to full intensity.

(With only a little whining.)

Why the Last Thing You Need Is More Time to Write

Very early on in my writing career–dare I say, before I’d written or published much of anything–I took a seminar with Ron Carlson.

Look, he has a Wikipedia page, but no website. What’s up with that, Ron?

Anyway, Ron is a very talented short-story writer, and a terrific speaker and teacher. There we were, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager wanna be writers with stars in our eyes over becoming full-time writers someday. He told us a story about his own life.

He’d started writing when he was teaching, so he grabbed writing time when he could. At lunchtime, in the 15 minutes between classes, waiting for students during office hours. We’ve all been there, where even a few minutes of writing time is precious and you snap up each opportunity. But you long for the paradise of unbroken writing time. It beckoned to him, too. How much more he could write, if he only had the time.

So, he and his wife reviewed their finances and decided they could afford for him to quit teaching and write full-time.

It was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

Also? The house had never been so clean.

He did dishes. He vacuumed. He dusted things that had never been dusted. He did not write. One day, a friend dropped by and found him washing the spiral cord on the wall telephone. (That’s a dated reference, huh?) She took one look at him and said, “Man, you are lost.”

One of the questions I get most often from new or wannabe writers is about finding the time to write. And my answer is always that they never will. You have to make the time, or it won’t happen. I also tell them that they don’t have to find much. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there – it all adds up. And that bright and shining hope for unbroken writing time?

It’s a lie.

It’s very difficult to use time wisely when you have big chunks of it. Ask any retiree. They dally the days away. People who have to cram a great deal into their days, get a lot more done. Because they need to.

The more you do, the more you can do.

So, what was Ron Carlson’s solution? He got a part-time job. A couple of them. And when he was back to having a finite time to write in, he started producing again.

It’s a valuable lesson.


A Pat on the Back for All Writers

One of my favorite restaurants anywhere  – the courtyard at 82 Queen.

So, I wound up my travels last week with a visit Friday morning to my day job corporate headquarters in Boston. I only make it back to the mothership every couple of years, but it’s always fun when I do. I forget sometimes, working from home in New Mexico and interacting with my colleagues virtually, how great the people I work with are. They were excited to see me. They hug me, my big bosses kiss me on the cheek. They complained that I should have let them know I stayed at a nearby hotel the night before, so they could have taken me out to dinner.

I work with wonderful people.

Along with socializing, I had a few agenda items – just some people I wanted to touch base with on projects we’re working on. It’s fun to get to talk in person for a change. One gal is someone I’ve never worked with directly before. She’s a title-level above me, but she’s handling a task on one of my projects. I stopped by her office, but she was on the phone and waved that she’d catch up with me. I ended up in the office of another gal I’ve worked with for many years and we ended up gossiping – about her stepdaughter and my writing. I showed her the cover for Rogue’s Pawn on my phone and she was appropriately oohing and ahhing when the other gal found me. She wanted to see what we were looking at, so I showed her.

She looked at it, asked some questions and gave me an astounded look. She said, “Wait – you write NOVELS? Don’t you work full time like I do?”

It was a funny moment for me and a good reminder. What we do as writers is not an easy thing. Immersed in the community, we forget how many people out there are *not* writing books. Whether we’re sandwiching writing time around our day jobs or structuring our days around family obligations and other distractions, this is not a common thing to do. It’s not easy.

In truth, it can be pretty damn hard sometimes. As we all know.

That’s something to be proud of.

Mind the Deadlines

Gorgeous sunset last night. I love how it looks like the sun has set something on fire, with blazing smoke billowing away.

Yesterday I was on a phone call for the day job about a report that needs revision. We went over the points and the gal in charge asked me how long it would take me to make the fixes. Now, I’d received this report with comments about three minutes before the call started. But I made a guess, added half as much again and told her the number of hours. She agreed and we were off and running.

This is definitely an acquired skill in our business.

Working for a consulting firm means getting really good at knowing how long a project will take. We operate entirely on billable hours. There is very little room for overhead hours – and Accounting gets most of those. Everything we do needs to be directly billable to a client or a project. Because a client is paying for your time, you don’t get to waste that time. And, because we have to give estimates and costs up front, being able to accurately estimate is a very necessary skill.

In fact, this is often something that newbies with the company struggle to learn. Many people are not naturally good at knowing how long a project takes. Some habitually run over deadline – or frantically work to finish up until the last moment. A lot of people develop the habit in school of starting way ahead of time, so there’s room to spare. None of these are practical in the business world. A missed deadline can mean a contract violation and rarely do we have the opportunity to start something early, because we have other projects to work on. Besides, you’re often waiting on data from a client, so you have to be ready to roll when they send it.

I think the correlation to the writing life is obvious.

The publishing process involves a lot of hurry up and wait. You wait on line edits. You wait on copy edits. Then, when your editor sends them, she usually asks if she can have it back in two weeks. Or five days.

Now, this is the important part.

You have to know what the answer is.

It’s easy to just agree, but then you have to do it. You have to be really good at knowing how much time you really have available (and really, robbing from sleep hours is just a bad idea) and how much time the job will take. My tried and true formula, as you may have noticed above, is to figure how long I think it will take and add half-again. So, if I think a job will take 40 hours, I estimate 60 hours. This usually works for most people, because we all seem to have a tendency to underestimate. I rarely need the full half-again, but it gives me a bit of a buffer, in case I really missed my guess.

How else do you learn to do this? Practice, practice, practice. I give myself writing deadlines and measure how well I do on meeting them. This also takes being able to look at your work habits with an unflinchingly honest eye. Knowing yourself – and accepting who you are and how you work – is key to making accurate estimates of work time. If you start to think “Oh, but this time it will be different…” you’re already going down the wrong road.

Good luck!

Buffing Up

This is not how Baltimore looks this morning. No, Baltimore is moist and grey. I can’t see the rain, but people are going by with umbrellas. I’m missing my Santa Fe blue skies.

(Yeah, okay, we had a couple weeks of not so blue – here’s my photo contrasting with the same flowers against a stormy sky from a few days ago.)

So, as long-time blog-gobblers know, I’ve been a proponent of the 1K/day. It worked for me to try to write 1,000 words each day, which I do before I start the day job. On Twitter, someone started the #1K1hr, where write either 1,000 words or for an hour, whichever comes first. That’s kind of fun to do, because groups of people sprint together. However, I find that the time pressure interferes and I don’t enjoy the storytelling as much. Then this one gal had to start bragging about doing #2k1hr, saying that 1K is for wimps, which felt all competitive and awful to me.

There’s a reason I didn’t do team sports in school.

Um, besides the fact that I was a klutz and no one would have me. But, funny, no one ever yelled at me to read more books! Faster!

(Now I’m picturing the librarians like the football coaches, with track suits and whistles, veins bulging in their temples. “You’re just not putting effort into it, Kennedy! I want to see 100 pages in thirty minutes – now, go!”)

At any rate, I think I mentioned at some point here that I’ve changed my approach a bit, with drafting The Middle Princess. When I was in my long spell of revising, it naturally didn’t work for me to shoot for 1K and the then switch to the day job. So I was revising for two hours. That worked fine. And I did it long enough that working for two hours became a habit. (And habit becomes ritual which becomes sacred and then you’re golden.) So I started drafting for two hours. My goals are all set up (on spreadsheets) for 1K/day, but now, once I reach my 1K, I keep going until my two hours are up.

And wow.

I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve been amazingly productive. Like 10,000 to 12,000 words per week productive. Plus it feels good and not draining or exhausting. I’m at over 60K on Middle Princess and closing in on the Act II climax. I’m a week ahead of my self-imposed deadline.

Which is good, because I’m braced not to get anything much done while I’m on day job travel.

But, maybe that will change, too.


Crazy for Feeling So… Busy

A soft, spring sunrise this morning.

The birds are full of springtime, too – swooping about and singing. They’re terribly busy.

One of my writing friends made a comment not long ago that she feels like she’s losing to time. She’s revising and is afraid it’s taking too long. I can understand this. You spend months writing a novel, then months revising the novel, then months waiting for people to respond to said novel. Sometimes those responses send you back to revising for more months and you wait even more months for responses, which are usually “no, thank you.”

And it can feel like wasted time.

It’s like you’re forever working at a job, hoping to be paid one day. There’s a crushing sense of urgency, that if you just worked a little harder, a little faster, that maybe you could cut out, oh, a decade or so of the waiting.

Yesterday I posted a chapter from the family memoir I started writing, oh, a decade or so ago. Several people who’d been fans of my nonfiction work from way back jumped on it and asked when I planned to finish that book. This book, in fact, was the project I won my Ucross fellowship for, and spent my time there outlining. (If you get a chance to do a writer’s residency like this, it’s OMG wonderful. They make you feel like you’re curing cancer.)

See, my plan had been to break into genre fiction, have a nice income from that, and get to spend time on these harder-to-sell nonfiction projects.

Hey – the plan is totally working! It’s just, um, taking a decade or so longer than I planned.

So, a couple of people have suggested I work on more than one project at a time. Even contemplating this makes me feel a little crazy. It’s tempting. When I take a few deeps breaths, I can see the fantasy of it unfolding. How I would move forward the new new novel, The Middle Princess, finish one I’d set aside, expand a short story into a novella, write the family memoir, and and and…

Then I start to feel crazy again.

I think about how I could work it in. I could take my two hours of writing time in the mornings and split them – one hour each on two different things. I’ve thought about sitting down again at night and spending an hour on a different project than the morning one. Then I also start thinking about how I wanted to set aside more time to read every day, so if I’m going to restructure, I should do that, too. The only two things I don’t think deserve more time are the day job and online socializing.


At least I’m smart enough now not to consider sleeping less. Which is absolutely how I created more time when I was in college.

My day job boss argues that there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. He says it’s just pretending to pay attention to something when you’re actually doing something else. But I suppose I’m talking more here about serial tasking. Like, some writers work on one project on alternate days, doing another in between. Or rotating three or four. Or just working until they get stuck on one, then switching.

I’m a monogamous kind of gal, really, but I can be convinced. How do you all do it?

Four Reasons I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo

The moon behind the clouds last night. I nearly photoshopped out all the little points of light. I suspect they’re artifact – bits of reflected light – but I thought we could pretend they’re stars. On a cloudy night. See? We can have it all.

I am a fiction-writer, after all.

The writer Harley May sometimes roasts author photos, for her own twisted amusement, mostly. She roasted mine today. If you care for a good laugh, check it out.

I seem to be cutting a wide swath this week. Linda Grimes’ blog post today is a result of me Double-Dog Daring her. And Marcella Burnard’s blog post yesterday talked about a conversation we had about setting aside writing time. Must be my karma lately.

Either that or I spend way too much time yakking to people online. No, no – that can’t be it.

Apropos of that, a number of people have asked me if I’m doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). I’ve blogged about this before, but I won’t point you to those posts because I’ve been kind of cranky on the topic in the past. Because, no, I don’t like NaNoWriMo.

A lot of people do. They love the feeling of community, the outside deadline to draft 50,000 words in one month. Several people got their first serious start at regularly scheduled writing through the project, so they have great associations.

I think I’ve mentioned plenty of times here why it doesn’t work for me, but enough people have asked that I thought it’s worth mentioning again. I’m not one of those organized bullet-point bloggers, but today I do have a list of my Four Reasons I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo.

1. It’s not about developing a regular writing schedule

NaNoWriMo is about a one-month blast of a hell of a lot of writing. With some exceptions, most writers, even those who get to write full time, don’t write that much in one month. People who commit to NaNoWriMo are making a pledge to do whatever it takes to meet the goal. That can be useful, but it’s important to me to fence off that regular writing time, write every day and make steady progress. If I stick to 1K/day, I can write 365,000 words in one year. I’m not meeting that goal yet, but it’s what I’m shooting for.

2. Too much pressure

Because I don’t yet get to write full-time, I’ve found that 1K/day is about all I can handle and still be worth my salary. I can do more than that for short periods of time – I can write 5-7K in one day, when under pressure – but it drains me. I don’t know that I could keep that up even if I didn’t work full-time. Writing 50K words in November means 1667 words/day for thirty days in a row. That kind of pressure makes me crazy and, believe me, you don’t need me more crazy.

3. It doesn’t match my own method

To write that many words in that short a time means fast-drafting. That’s writing as fast as you can with no editing, no careful crafting. The idea is that writing fast removes barriers and frees you to simply write. There are many jokes that December and January are novel-finishing and editing months. That kind of drafting can be really great if you like to write that way, or don’t know yet how you like to write. I’m not much into fast drafting. I write reasonably quickly when I’m drafting, but I do go back and edit and reshape as I go. I produce pretty clean copy when I’m done. This is the method I’ve developed over about 25 years. It works well for me. Sometimes if I’m blocked, I’ll try the vomit/fast draft approach to get through the wall. Otherwise, I’m happy with how I work. I believe it’s important to find what works for you and, like nailing down a regular writing schedule, stick with it.

4. I’m a holiday girl

Okay, I get in trouble for saying this, but I’m endlessly amused that a guy started NaNoWriMo and picked November partly because of the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m sorry guys, but I think Thanksgiving ends up being four empty days for a lot of you and a whole bunch of work for a lot of gals. I know it doesn’t apply to everyone, but how many households have you been in when the men are watching football and napping on Thanksgiving and the women are cooking? I love Thanksgiving. I love cooking for it. But I spend a LOT of time preparing for it. And when I’m not doing the labor of love, I’m spending time with family. The day after Thanksgiving I get to spend shopping and having lunch with my mom and my stepsister, Hope. It’s a very fun day for me that I look forward to, but it’s not a day for catching up on word count. All of that is fine, because I have my regular schedule and I take holiday from it, just as I do from my day job.

So, that’s my NaNoWriMo Manifesto. (heh) But all of you digging in to do it, best of luck and full steam ahead. I’ll provide the pumpkin pie.

High Functioning

I was really torn this morning, between the sunset photo and the baby quail pic.

Yeah, I know. Not a whole lot changes in my little world.

I once read that consistency in the rhythm of days is a mark of a mature civilization, and that’s why each day in India is virtually indiscernible from the last. There’s certainly something to be said for a smooth daily schedule, as opposed to the frantic dashing from place to place, forever trying to catch up. I’ve done that and it’s not pretty. It does give you more “things” to mention, though.

This sunset was from Wednesday evening and the baby quail – now with tufts on their heads! – visited yesterday, so I chose prosaic chronology as my guide.

Ideally, if you slow your life down, so it becomes a pleasant cycle of sunsets and sunrises, then you can notice more about the world. I know about what time the quail are likely to come by. I see that the hummingbirds have gone, but the jerichoes have arrived. The bushtits sweep through in their delirious chorus.

There’s a pleasure in being part of their larger pattern.

Schedule is something we all struggle with – usually with the goal of creating a manageable consistency. For writers, scheduling the time to write becomes a major concern, especially if you also work a day job. And if you have kids. And if you have multiple other responsibilities. Even those with the luxury of writing full-time have to manage how they apply themselves, with no timeclock to punch, no supervisor to frown over the long lunch.

I ran across this bit some time ago:

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

John Lanchester, “High Style,” The New Yorker, January 6, 2003

I know, right? I can’t get over what his liver must have looked like by the time he died at 66 in 1973. Which isn’t bad, considering how he treated “the cook” all those years. (No, mom, I don’t know what he died of.)

So, I suppose this it the other extreme. This isn’t the Annie Dillard, slow-down-and-observe-the-world approach. This is the fling-yourself-from-one-extreme-to-the-other method. Of course, more than a few people in the 40s through the 60s used chemistry for better living. Don Drake in Mad Men is the new poster child for this kind of thing.

We’ve entered a new era of teetotalling where the Mad Men style of office drinking is unthinkable. Anyone who keeps a glass of vodka by the bed to swill if they wake in the night would be labeled as having serious issues. On the other hand, we still tend to drive ourselves through a frenzy of ups and downs, sometimes with prescription medication, to try to meet all of our obligations and aspirations.

There are worse things than having a slow and quiet day from time to time.

Come Blow Your Horn

A while back, I did a guest post on Elizabeth Flora Ross’s blog about defending your writing time.

I’m militant on the topic. I truly believe that if you want time to write, you have to build a fence around it, possibly with razor wire, and defend it at all costs. No ifs, ands or buts. Otherwise the time will get eaten away in nibbles and bites by everything else in your life.

Over time, it gets easier. Everyone else in your life becomes accustomed to you being unavailable at certain times. And, most importantly, it becomes a habit to sit and write. Defending the time means defending the habit.

In the last year, I’ve gotten really good at this. I drafted The Body Gift in half the time it took me to write Obsidian, plus it’s a much tighter draft. I also wrote Petals and Thorns on an efficient schedule. I’ve been working on revising and tightening The Body Gift and got a good chunk into a new novella.

Then I went on vacation.

I thought I might work on the book some, on long rainy Oregon coast days at the B&B. But my Jeffe Sunshine Magic (TM) kicked into effect and we had gorgeous weather. I didn’t sweat it. I knew I needed to relax, refresh and refill the well after my big push to finish The Body Gift. Vacation can be from all my jobs, I decided.

And so it was.

When I came back, however, relaxed, refreshed, ready to get back to work, I found my fence was in a shambles. Like Little Boy Blue, I’d allowed the cows into the meadow and the sheep into the corn. It’s taken me all week to get back into the habit.

Kerry’s book, Swimming North, is about dragons and dragon-slaying. She often draws a parallel between her day job and slaying dragons. But, last night, she agreed that cows were in her meadow, too.

Screw the dragons – it’s the freaking cows that are our problem!

“Mad cows. Complacent cows,” she says, “all of them are trouble.”

Sometimes you have to look closer to home, for the simple solution.

If you need me, I’ll be out building fences.