I’m sitting here, working on a story idea that erupted from literally nowhere. A dream I had about virtual reality, and then mutated over morning coffee, Monster energy drinks, and a long shift at the day-job. When I sat down to write that afternoon, there was only one thing on my mind: I need to get this story out.
You might call me a busy person. I’m working 40 hours per week again at a day-job that literally pays enough to have a roof over my head, food, and the ability to keep writing in comfort while I figure out the next phase of my property development.
By setting things up this way, I have purposefully relegated myself to a life of poverty and humble conditions, where I can focus solely on my work when I’m not “at work.”
Even so, it isn’t always so easy to maintain focus. I know that I want to write, but in my own aggressive pursuit of creating works, I’ve buried myself in projects. The NaNo thing is slowly gaining some momentum for the year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a ton more to do on it. Stone’s Shadow is out of the gate and on the final assembly line, effectively done but still requiring another critical proofread. I have another book that I was hoping to have out by the end of the year, but it sits as a work in progress. On top of all this, I’m also trying to deliver 500,000 verified words this year, and submit a new short story and flash fiction piece every single month.
The work is cut out for me, but the cookies are a bit too plentiful, and I fear I won’t be able to finish them all. My story kitchen has become an understaffed factory trying to fill an order of a million units.
You would think, with so much to do, that I could sit and spawn thousands of words without hardly any thought devoted. But things are never this simple.
When I work, I work on one project at a time. Generally. Day’s like today require breaks for me, so I’ll “break” from one writing project to work on another. Right now, that means taking my first break on the new story to write this blog post.
There are two modes of thought on how to increase your output and efficiency, and I’ll explain some of the pros and cons of each.
One Thing at a Time, With Intensity
This is how I normally write. I work on a draft for as many days as it takes until the draft is done. I’ll work on an editing pass until it’s done. I’ll work on a cover concept until I’ve taken it as far as it will go.
My timing for this is simple. One pass through the manuscript. Whether I’m hunting typos, tidying words, doing a full rewrite, or even drafting a new story, I devote myself to working on it, every single day, until I reach the end of the last page. I can work on other stuff too, but a block of my writing time every day is dedicated to that one task, and it’s the most important task in my hierarchy of work.
I learned to write this way, not because a bunch of other writers recommend it, but because I learned enough about myself to know, as I once told my brother, “If I don’t finish a project in sixty days, it’ll never get done.” Turning down the intensity is not an option, because if I leave something alone for too long, it tends to not get done.
This applies to my hobbies, my writing, my various crafting endeavors, even my video games. If I loose focus of the primary goal, then I fail. I shut it off and stop coming back. It takes sixty days for something I’m excited about initially to become dull as lead and stuffed in a dark corner of my closet space.
So, when I work, it’s important to clear everything else off the plate. I sit down and do the work, and only the new work, for as long as I can bear, until it’s time for a smoke break. Even with these little interruptions, I tend to get a lot done, because while I’m on break, I’m also thinking about the next element in the story or project. I return to the laptop refreshed, and I keep going.
In the oilfield, it was known by a few directional drillers that I had this odd habit of solving problems, and according to them, it always worked. Running high tech signal processing connected to multiple wellsite sensors and data streams isn’t easy, and something always seems to go on the fritz. That environment is a breeding ground for gremlins.
When I was stumped on a problem-or if I was woke up in the night to fix something the night-hand couldn’t figure out-I would back away from the keyboard. I would grab my smokes, my lighter, and my beverage, and proceed outside of the cabin. I’d stand in a secluded spot where I couldn’t even see the rig, and light up.
When I returned to my work five minutes later, I always had a new idea that might solve the problem.
What I’m trying to say is this, even with intense focus, energy can only be expended for so long. So don’t take this little section to mean work and only work without breaks or any interruptions of any kind. Meditative breaks can be beneficial. But the focus of your work should be on one thing and one thing only, like getting words flowing toward the end of a draft.
The Multi-Tasking Approach
This is the dark side of any creative endeavor. If you are working with multiple projects, and especially social media or advertising work, you’re going to mess yourself up more by trying to “multi-task” than you will if you completed each task one at a time.
However. This methodology does have a case where it can work. Today is one of those days when my focus is a little scattered, but at the same time I can dig into a smaller project, and throw everything I have at it for a short bit of time. This is upping my total word count, and I may end up completing several timely projects by the end of the night.
But, I started with my story. 800 words in, I hit a stopping point. One of those breaks where I need to let my brain sift through the present story a bit so that I can gain some ideas for the next milestone. What did I do? I swapped over to write this blog post, which I’ve also been thinking about for a few days.
In other words, my “breaks” today are becoming their own little projects. I don’t have to feel bad about ignoring my story for a bit, because the noodle needs to chew on it for a while. In the meantime, I can get more words (which is always good for practice), I can let my brain play with some concepts to diversify my creative thought process, and I can get some blog posts written.
Best strategy ever. Except when it isn’t. This multi-tasking approach has a deadly component that you need to watch out for. Don’t multi-task into projects that require no deep thinking at all. Make all of the deviations to mini projects that require some cognitive thought, not answering emails or updating social media. Those tasks typically entail dumping data you already have to add to discussions or further threads.
The querying process is much different from the creative. I would say, stick to ONLY creative projects when trying this approach.
Creative vs Querying
There are basically two modes that my productive mind defaults to, creative and querying. You might find that your mind works much the same way. Both of these modes are productive, and I “make” things while doing both. But there’s a difference.
My creative process is strictly that. Unencumbered, unhinged, and producing ideas like I’m drunk. I’m throwing shit at my proverbial wall and seeing what sticks. While most of my projects require that ideas make sense, it’s not in a way that draws on information I already have, which is filed away. Instead, it produces out of synthesis, that which I want to create. I can hammer out the details later if needed, but for the moment, I create and to hell with the consequences.
Querying mode is different. Where creation is strictly proactive, querying is reactive. I’m answering questions online, quite literally. I’m responding to on-going discussions. I’m checking for updates on this or that. I’m processing hard data that exists already instead of letting things flow. There are many varieties of this, but almost all of them can be seen in how I use my social media time. Querying is moving data and facts around. I’m storing facts that I pick up from others, and I’m digging facts out of my own brain to dump on them.
Creative tasks are things like drafting, sketching, making time-lines, or meditating about the story as if it were a movie. The creative mind needs no data or hard facts other than what is immediately in front of it.
Querying tasks are things like social conversation, answering an email, doing probing research into a specific topic, or organizing your planner. It’s things like checking on book sales.
If you’re moving information, you’re querying, even if you are simply answering a phone call from a friend. These drag on your creative processes.
This isn’t to say, mind you, that querying processes are useless, or even less useful than creative ones. Only that they distract from creativity. If you’re trying to accomplish creative things, stick to creative things even in your breaks. Don’t break from a novel draft to answer an email. Do your creative work, and then sit down to do your querying work after you have finished.
That, or take the easy route, and simply concentrate on one project at a time, and don’t do anything else at all until you’re exhausted on it, or your time limit is exceeded. You might find that you need to set some kind of alarm, as getting deeply involved with a creative work will suck the time away without reminding you that your coffee has gone cold.
This article was drafted in my creative mode, and uploaded later when I put aside creative things for the night to focus on querying tasks, along with answering my email and checking in on social media for the night.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
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