I make plans, plans that hardly ever fall seamlessly into place and rarely materialise on time. I am a list maker; I prioritise, I highlight the important meetings in my diary and I schedule. Consequently, compared to some I achieve quite a lot, but everything that involves paperwork; chasing emails, chasing students and following up, takes an inordinate and often unquantifiable amount of time. I have a folder named The Plan it was supposed to make the diverse projects I juggle more manageable and to a degree it has worked. My defined projects are broken down by category and I can flick through and see exactly where I am with any given area of work. And there are many given areas of work. The Plan is divided into sections: general plan; Casting Shadows (novel); teaching; magazine and editorial; ideas; short stories; radio stories; my website blogs and statistics; Authonomy (an author website I never really got to grips with); and finally courses and qualifications that I may take in the future. Then there is my artwork - don’t even go there - scattered around the attic, the cupboard in the downstairs hall and a friends barn. So you can see that I have yet to consolidate my artwork, I dream of having a studio. I also dream of getting to the point in my life when I no longer have what is politely referred to as a ‘portfolio’ career. But if you have to make your living from a number of different sources then you are going to be faced with uncertainty, a mass of paperwork and overlapping schedules.
A writer friend told me recently that in her office she has never really got to grips with the paperwork that comes with her writing life. She simply doesn’t have a system and cannot put her hand on her half-completed short stories and articles that are lying dormant somewhere waiting to be finished, edited, re-worked or sent out to competitions or publications. Has anyone? Have they really? Could they tell us what it is? We writers like paper. There are reviews of books we want to read: clippings of an inspirational nature; interviews with admired authors cut from Sunday magazines and then there is research. Is one supposed to keep research? Even when the novel is published, or out of print and only likely to be revised as an e-book? What if I become famous and the subject of a PhD student dissertation, in that unlikely scenario would I feel guilty and responsible had I recycled all my notes and research? Yes, I probably would. I also find my research reassuring; like a paper comfort blanket it is real-time evidence of this ‘other’ world that I inhabit.
I have a very small office. Behind my chair are some of my files in lovely manila coloured folders from Muji and Paperchase. Like a lot of women, I have a curious passion for matching stationary. Next to them are the unmatched, multi-coloured pocket wallets that contain research and ideas cuttings. Believe it or not, if you turn over a pocket wallet and it says GermSAFE on the back, you will find that you and your work is protected by a silver ion based Biocote® that helps protect you from MRSA, Ecoli, Listeria and Salmonella. I kid you not! Has anyone told the NHS? Think what pocket wallets might do for the eradication of hospital acquired infections. However, my major concern is that a) they don’t match and they are coloured b) they are untidy and c) I don’t really know what’s in them anymore, and who I am keeping them for? apart from that illusory PhD student.
In a cupboard the size of wardrobe, just outside my office are my manila folders from my MA modules; my divorce, two novels that never got anywhere and could be revised and the hard copies of novels that have got somewhere and need storing. Everything is labelled and to the uninitiated it all looks very organised indeed. In some ways it is. I can put my hand on the Narrative Forms and Structures folder, likewise the Critical Theory and Research Methodologies folders and a recessionary novel Camouflage, which came to fruition on the cusp of the boom years and could be revised now we are back in recession and teetering on the brink of global financial Armageddon. An agent said, and I quote: ‘Had you written this (Camouflage) five years ago you would be a star by now.’ One of the more irritating remarks that an agent has said to me; but you have to admit it does sound worth keeping and possibly revising when I have a spare moment. And that’s just it, because I and I suspect many of the rest of you writers out there, live in the deluded belief that somewhere ahead of us lies a period of nirvana when we will actually have bountiful, endless days in which to organise our files and paperwork and complete the various flotsam that clutters our writerly world. Faced with the blunt truth that this is never likely to happen I have resorted to self-help books. The great thing about self-help books is that you can dip into them whenever you need a top-up of good advice and common sense.
Here are two that I can recommend. Do it Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. This guy really knows how to prioritise and manage email and manage interruptions, the other bane of writers. Yesterday I had four people on my doorstep at various points in my working day, not counting the postman; I allowed only one in for coffee. From Foster’s book you will learn to distinguish between a genuine emergency (worthy of your full immediate attention and perhaps a phone call to the emergency services) set against a colleague/friends emergency, which is being foisted upon you. You will learn the classification of your work into a manageable schedule that can be timetabled and completed later. It helps prevent the fragmentation and loss of concentration that blights the working day.
Next, try The Fifteen Minute Rule by Caroline Buchanan. For the procrastinators amongst you this little gem of a book, also available as an e-book, will sort you out. It makes you break ghastly chores into a fifteen minute commitment set by a timer. Also tackling that old chestnut, the displacement activity (cleaning the hob or turning out the herb cupboard when it is your tax return that needs completing) it also has inspirational and motivational quotes. It makes you sit down for fifteen minutes and set your goals and work out what you really want from life. And when it comes to those ghastly jobs fifteen minutes of anything turns out to be tolerable.
So I am off to spend fifteen minutes with the manila folder labelled The Plan and another labelled Creative Course Proposals and teaching. With a bit of luck, I will corral my writing courses into shape and find my course templates, so that I am not continually re-inventing the wheel when it comes to my teaching programme.
For this month’s writing tip please click on the Images and Shorts page.