Organizing Chaos

Mess. Madness. Disorder.
Where do I begin? How do I start? What do I prioritize? Help!

Sometimes the question is not How do I start? it’s How do I finish what I’ve started?

Writing is that magical moment of lovemaking with the muse. Sure! But I can’t just lie around waiting to be seduced. I have to show up for the muse in order for the muse to show up for me. The moment a wonderful burst of creativity transforms from an idea into a project, I’m committing to more than just some good times with the muse. I’m committing to a relationship beyond the honeymoon.

So, when it’s time to get serious, get organized. The more you can get to know your own writing process, the more you get to know yourself as a writer and what you are capable of, not just in terms of output, but in terms of productivity and of setting realistic goals.

Show up.
As with all actions in life, it begins with intention. Start by committing to paper what you want to do. Octavia Butler’s personal list is one of my all time favorites.

handwritten note from Octavia Butler papers
handwritten note from Octavia Butler papers, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright, Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Break it down.
The journey begins with the first step. Start with a map! Specifically, create a writing schedule.

I took an intensive screenwriting course in which we committed to writing five screenplays in three years. With a 10-hour week writing commitment, I found it possible to write the first draft of a 90-125 page script in six weeks’ time.

No, you don’t have to quit your day job to write your novel or memoir or essay collection. You just need a schedule. Look at the calendar. Be honest. Ask, How much time can I commit to every day? 30 minutes? 2 hours? Every week 10 hours?

Commit to a weekly schedule on paper. “I will write 8 hours a week, Mon-Thurs 7-8:30am, Sunday 10-12pm.”

Define it.
Rather than say, “I’m going to write a novel,” get granular and be specific. Identify which elements of your idea you can start to shape over the next several weeks. Perhaps it’s about identifying the big picture ideas, like story outline, themes, or cast of characters. Or perhaps it’s looking at an individual chapter in which you’re establishing the narrative voice.

Commit your writing goal on paper. “I will develop my idea into a new story; including an outline, characters, theme, plot, main problem/resolution.”

Log it.
Put the commitment to practice and monitor your progress. “Week 1: I wrote 8 hours, sketched general outline, sketched three scenes with main character.”

Repeat for 6 weeks.
At the end of six weeks, re-evaluate. Ask, How well am I sticking to my time commitment? More? Less? Am I being realistic?

List your achievements.
Review what you accomplished in this time, on paper: “I wrote X number of pages/scenes/chapters. I developed X elements of my story.”

Reset, start again.
Re-commit to a new 6-week writing plan on paper. Create goals to make them reachable. Small successes add up psychologically as well as materially.

Write away.
So, how do we keep allowing ourselves to get messy in the midst of all this organization? I like to encourage the Path of Least Resistance: That which gets the ink flowing. Whatever comes to mind in a given day that I already know about my story and my characters. It’s not only OK to write out of order, it’s necessary. Does a scene toward the end pop out clearly in the mind? Write it! It’s OK if you change it later. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that I can count on just about everything changing after the first draft.

Let the mess begin! So be it! See to it!

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