writing schedule

Mandatory Honesty…

…for twenty-five minutes at a time

My colleagues have made compelling arguments that writers need to simply write. This is, admittedly, hardly a revolutionary position – the problem of “butt in chair” is well-known in writing and in all creative endeavors. The fact that we’re still able to express new perspectives on this problem speaks not only to Monique and Jeff’s curiosity and bravery but also to the stubborn intractability of the creative struggle.

As a writer, I’m no less filled with fear, indolence, and self-doubt, but I am perhaps more eager to believe in systemic fixes for these problems of the human heart. One such fix that’s worked for me is an approach to work known as the Pomodoro Technique®, which is at its core simply a series of commitments to focus on a single task for 25 minutes. There are more details, of course, and you’ll find a complete explanation at the website of its creator, Francisco Cirillo, but for me the brilliance and power of the approach lies in this commitment. No multitasking, no checking email or the news, no cop-outs – just do one and only one thing for a short while.

Twenty-five minutes is a magical duration: about the length of a 70’s sitcom, it’s not long enough to be scary, it’s not even a half-hour—but it is long enough to make real progress. (Just think about how much trouble Laverne & Shirley got into in one episode!) Pomodoro® further mandates a 5-minute break at the end of the work session, which is about enough time to reflect on how much fun that was, do some stretches, get some coffee, and let your fingers and brain relax from the swirl of creation. (Speaking of which, hang on, time for my break.)

The mandatory breaks are just as important as the work periods, as they give you the endurance to complete a series of four work sessions, at which point you take a thirty-minute break. During this longer break, there’s time to look back on what you’ve just accomplished and be amazed – it’s a positive feedback loop that not only feels great but also charges you up for the next round of four sessions.

There is one final requirement, though, an ingredient without which I’d have nothing but unchecked boxes on a post-it note: honesty. You must honestly commit to the singular focus, and hold that focus through discomfort, doubt, and distraction. You must have the self-awareness to see when you’re straying from it (like I just did, wanting to stop composing and search for the image I’d like to have two paragraphs up), and the discipline to get back on track. And then, when you’re done, you must honestly give yourself the credit you deserve for successfully engaging with the perennial and intractable problem of human communication, one bite-size chunk at a time.

Check out his website, give it a try, and let us know in the comments how it’s working for you.

tell-tailors.com is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo


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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