Batching Your Tasks

As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve recently started my doctorate. I’m presently enrolled fulltime, but the completing of this research investigation is hardly the only project on my plate. (Who the heck has ONE project on their plate anyway?)

Over the years, I developed a time blocking schedule where I worked towards the completion of tasks/goals by spending a little bit of time every day working on each task or goal. This meant that I shifted between 3-5 different projects every day and I would spend 1-3 hours on each task. Although I was constantly shifting gears, this system worked because I was strategic in how I organised the completing of these tasks.

For instances, I’m a morning person so my mornings were always spent working on high priority projects or projects that required a greater amount of cognitive or creative clarity such as novel writing, reading and analysing journal articles, or drafting/revising assignments. My energy is much lower in the afternoons, so I usually spent this time working on lighter tasks such as marketing, administration or research.

In between these tasks, I would frequently check my emails, ebook sales (published under a pen name), tend to domestic tasks (laundry/baking/candlestick making) or run personal errands.

For years, this flittering between tasks worked for me. I enjoyed the variety that came with each day and the satisfaction of daily, steady progress. This system suited me and my temperament and I had no problems winding down and switching off at the end of the day.

Then something changed. With no warning at all, the system that I had used to organise my life stopped working. Shifting between 3-5 tasks every day no longer felt invigorating or satisfying. Instead, I felt scatterbrained and overwhelmed. What made matters worse was that I could no longer switch off. I was waking up at 12am to the sound of my inner taskmaster reading out my to-do list. I had worked hard to train my brain to focus intensely on one task for a short period of time before switching to another task and now my brain didn’t know how to switch off.

The system that worked seamlessly for years was defunct. I needed to find a new system!

I first heard of ‘batching’ a couple of years ago, but I never gave it much thought. After all, I already had a system.

If you haven’t heard of this time managing technique, here’s the low down:
Batching is when you organise your day, week or month to the completing of one task or the completing of similar tasks. For example, my blog posts are written in real time. I spend a few hours every Thursday writing and revising a blog that is then posted on Friday. Rather than writing one blog every week, I could batch this task by dedicating one whole day to writing and editing enough blogs for a whole month.

This intense focus allows you to stay in the one headspace for an entire day/week/month rather than flittering between multiple tasks that require different levels of skill or concentration.

When it comes to batching, you choose the time frame and the task. You may want to dedicate a whole month to the completing of a major project, or you may dedicate a whole day to writing. Some tasks don’t require a whole day but you still want to stay in a similar headframe. If that’s the case, you could group similar tasks together such as domestic chores: houseworks/errands/bills or marketing: content creation/social media posts/ads/copywriting.

At the top of this post I mentioned how I used to constantly check my emails. While ‘batching’ a task like emails isn’t feasible for me, I have decided to dedicate one hour every day to this task. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of will power to do this. Checking my emailing became something I did whenever I needed a mini-break from whatever task I was working on. Email is disguised procrastination. It seems like you’re being ‘productive’, but usually you’re just wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, mini-breaks are good! Just don’t spend your mini-break in front of a screen checking email or social media. If you’re taking a mini-break, actually have a break. Stand up, move around or stare out the window.

How about you? Do you use the batching method or a different technique to get your tasks done?

 

 

 

Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

New Project = New Process

I recently started drafting the novel that will become the creative component of my doctorate thesis. Although I’ve previously written one full-length novel, three novellas and numerous short stories, I found myself asking the question: “How the heck do you do this?” 

The truth is, my fiction writing muscles have become a little rusty. In the past six months, most of my focus has been on the craft of academic papers, assignments and my thesis. As part of honours, I was required to submit a novella, but most of the past six months were spent editing that story – not drafting. It’s a lot easier to edit a first draft than to write a first draft.

I have confronted the dreaded blank page many times in the last six months in the writing of the previously mentioned papers, but it is far easier to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.

Non-fiction has a set structure and a particular voice. There is the introduction, a body that contains a clear argument and a conclusion. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence and a concluding one that ideally, leads to the next paragraph. It must have a distinct voice, whether it be your natural speaking voice or one that is appropriate to the topic or in-house style guide. Non-fiction must be backed up by fact, whether that it be in the form of research or experience. Through trial and error, most of us established a set process on how best to write non-fiction pieces.

I start with a vague question or area of interest. Then I read. A lot. I make note of useful papers and record exciting or relevant quotes. This stage goes on until I sense that I have read enough material. Usually, that means I’ve started to notice links and connections between the sources and my own ideas or question. Key ideas become heading and each heading is given a particular word count. Then it’s basically paint by numbers. A conclusion is added and then the introduction. That’s my process. And it works. Your non-fiction process is likely different from mine, but I bet it’s pretty much the same every time.

Fiction does not adhere to set processes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a process, but I also enjoy messing with that process and challenging it. Fiction writing is creative after all, right?

I wrote my first novel with no outline and no character profiles. What guided me was an idea I had for a pivotal scene, the kind that happens towards the end of a novel. All I had to do was figure out how my characters got there. Of course, the first draft was a complete mess! By writing an outline, timeline and distinct character profiles, I was able to see all that was wrong with the manuscript and then fix it. Since then, I’ve written three novellas. For these, I used skeleton outlines (paragraph summaries of each chapter) while simultaneously writing character profiles. This worked better, but of course, there were still a few hick-ups. And in case you’re wondering, there will always be hick-ups! For my honours project, I decided to write a really detailed outline which quickly became the first draft, but because I was so intent on figuring out the structure and logic of the story, I spent little time developing the characters. It was only later during the editing phase that I constructed the character profiles that helped transform them from puppets to people.

For my latest project, it felt right to construct a (very) loose outline and a complete set of character profiles before beginning the first draft. I’ve set a word count for each day, and after I hit that word count I spend five-minutes brainstorming what will happen next. These ‘mini’ outlines are roughly one hundred words and are a great launching pad for the next writing session.

Now, for a word on word counts. For this project, I decided to set a fairly low daily word count. When writing the first draft, I usually prefer to get the ‘crappy’ first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can then get onto the next task: fixing it. Sometimes that meant writing 4,000-6,000 words a day. And that is not very enjoyable. This approach also zaps your energy and it usually affects your productivity the following day. So for this project, I’ve decided to end my writing sessions before I become exhausted. This way, I stay hungry and excited about the story.

I’m currently 15,000 words into the first draft. Though I know the general trajectory of the story, I will not hold the story to this outline if it no longer feels right. Stories have a mind of their own. They have their own natural and logical flow. If you show up and do the work, inevitably, the story will tell you how to write it. For instance, I started this draft with the intention of using a rotating, first-person point of view. And it totally didn’t work. So, I changed to third person. And so far, so good. Under the guise of ease, I set the story in a town I once lived in, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I was totally bored. Frankly, writing about a town I once lived in made me a little uncomfortable. It was too close to home and I didn’t enjoy seeing my fictional characters tromping around the stomping grounds of my past.

So, in 15,000 words, I’ve already realised that the setting and POV aren’t working.

You can plan and plot all you like, but sometimes, you don’t know whether or not something is actually going to work until you start writing. That’s ok though. I’ve worked on enough projects to know that I’m presently at the bottom of the hill that is my story. Though I can make an assumption about what the view from the top will look like, chances are that my expectation will differ from reality. The only way to find out though is to climb.

A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.

How to Produce Art when the World is Falling Apart

Sir Philip Sidney stated that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk little by little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.” Ezra Pound believed that “The arts, literature, posesy are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual.” And yet, still, sometimes, we struggle to justify our creative practice.

If you’re in the middle of a personal crisis, it’s unlikely that you will have the energy or the mental bandwidth to produce art.

If you stop to consider big problems like climate change, terrorism, refugees, our shrinking job marketing, rising house prices, the privatisation of health care and a multitude of other issues, sitting down to work on a short story or novel can seem self-indulgent and pointless.

What good is a novel when the world is falling apart?

It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of inadequacy because simply ignoring them won’t do anyone any favours. However, it’s equally important that artists continue to produce work despite this feeling of inadequacy. Art itself may not be able to solve our complex, incomprehensible social, economic, political and educational problems, but artists must continue to use their skills and ability because we need art, even if the world is falling apart.

At their most basic, novels provide a space for escapism and entertainment. At their best, a novel can inspire us into action by forcing us to confront our own behaviours and beliefs. We may ask ourselves why we do the things that we do, whether our behaviour is contributing to the solution or to the problem, and how can we change for the better both individually and as a society.

Stories don’t have to change the world. If you want to write stories for the sole purpose of escapism, both for yourself and your reader, then that is an honourable use of time. We need a little escapism. We need books that we can read at the end of a long day; books that offer comfort instead of further confrontation. It’s okay to read funny books or adventure stories or mysterious. Not only is it nice to escapes into a different world with different people and different problems, it is also nice to see those problems get solved.

Here’s the thing though, even nice books have value beyond mere entertainment. Whether consciously constructed or not, narratives contain the observations and reflections of their author. They are stories about people living with other people. They contain insight and knowledge about human behviour, our relationships with ourselves and others, our desires, strengths, and weaknesses. A novel is a response to the experiences an author has had and the observations they have made. They contain magic, and though this magic is unlikely to reverse climate change, novels can still teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in.

Novels have purpose.

A well-crafted and thoughtful novel that asks hard questions may not alter the general public opinion, but it can cause a shift within a reader. You may choose to write a dystopian novel based on scientific fact about where we’re heading environmentally, or you may write a speculative fiction novel about what the world would look like if women became infertile (The Handmaids Tale – Margarett Attwood), or if we intentionally used clones as a means for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro). Stories such as these act as a type of role play. They allow us to ponder and explore potential future spaces. If we continue to remain passive about particular issues, what will happen? Additionally, they provide a container for our personal and social fears. Not only is the writer able to unburden themselves, but it also allows the reader to experience their innermost fears while remaining within the safe, imaginary confines of a story.

The world may have a lot of problems, but when has it not.

If you’re still struggling to justify your need to create art, perhaps my final point will convince you. When we looking back on the type of art that was produced at any given moment in history, we can see the prominent concerns of that time through the themes, structures, and styles that are repeated across different works by different artists. We need to write stories that capture this moment in time. That explore our societal concerns. That showcase our collective psyche. Artists need to make their contribution to the historical record because we have skills that scientists and politicians don’t have. We can take incompressible problems and present them in a consumable format that will make you feel something, and that is a very special skill indeed.