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!