My 2015-16 writing plan

I carry blank paper wherever I go, just in case inspiration flies by. But I’ve also learned over the years that creativity can and should be scheduled. Otherwise, we run the risk of cultivating writer’s block, waiting for written magic to happen instead of creating the routines that inspire and protect it.

How do you schedule creativity, though?  What does a creative schedule look like?  And how do you act on it?

Every writer is different, and you should do what works for you.  That said, I’ve always found it helpful to see how others schedule, maintain, and finish their projects, so, I thought I’d share my 2015-16 writing plan and supporting schedules and talk a bit about the processes I used to fashion them.

Have a look-see below, and feel free to share what works for you (or ask questions) in the comments.

Making the long-term writing schedule:

A good long-term schedule requires a lot of thought and self-reflection.  It’s not just about setting goals, although that is satisfying.  It’s also about treating all aspects of your personality as equal: you can’t just work, you also have to play; you have to be productive, but also allow time for creative growth.  And you have to be able to set deadlines.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, and I’ve by no means perfected it.  But here’s my method, as it stands…

First, I list all of my writing projects on paper.  I try to think big picture with this, rather than going in-depth with short story titles or chapter headings (those will go on weekly schedules). Then I write down the career and life goals I can achieve as I meet these goals, such as “apply for jobs” or “seek out literary agent.”

Then, I rank all the projects and goals, asking myself the following kinds of questions:

  • What makes me the happiest?
  • Which of these projects serves as stepping stones toward goals?
  • Which of these projects can wait for a rainy day?
  • Which of these projects are linked to outside supporters–advisors, committees, conferences?
  • Which of these projects/goals are for personal gratification?
  • Which of these projects/goals will result in employment?
  • Which of these projects are the easiest? the most difficult?

Things often shake out into a fairly clear hierarchy, but inevitably, a few end up tied for priority. This is where it’s been helpful to have a trusted advisor.

I tend to lay out three or four different options for goal-completion, with different combinations of priorities and deadlines, and then I show them to someone who knows me well and has also achieved some of the things I want to do.  I ask questions about lurking pitfalls, talk through my timelines, and try to stay open to tweaks in my plans.  Eventually, over the course of conversation, I end up eliminating one or two of the plans completely, and then lumping the others together into a manageable, meaningful conglomeration that helps me sort out my priorities.

For this particular plan, the conversation involved my advisor demanding that I be more self-compassionate, finishing the dissertation in a year and a half instead of a year, in order to allow room for new research trajectories and processing time. It meant lowering the number of jobs I aim to apply for.  And, thank god for Robert, it also meant adding more creative writing goals to my list, because he could see how much they meant to me and that I needed that permission.

After settling on an 18 month plan with a specific set of projects and goals, I printed out a detailed writing schedule.  This is just one sheet of a larger chart that ends in October 2016:

writing schedule

The projects I’m prioritizing are listed across the top.  First are the long term projects–my dissertation and the first Energist novel, both set for completion by next autumn.  Then the other three categories are shorter term projects–blogs and a short story series that will help me to maintain my enthusiasm, build my brand, and hopefully establish some sort of online presence while jump-starting productivity on the big things.

The days of the week run down the side of the chart so that I can space out due dates.  Dissertation chapters and Energist chapters are monthly goals, and blog posts and the short stories are weekly or bi-weekly.  I made these choices based on years of experience with how my writing speed varies by genre.

I also made my schedule personal and idiosyncratic.  For instance, I wanted a paper schedule so I could put stickers on it, becaaaaause….stickers.  I wanted a column for “Other Projects” so that I could record tutoring hours, short story contests, or archival work.  And, as a synesthetic, I matched the color/feeling of each project to complimentary days of the week.

Jane Watson and Saturday are both a light and sparkly yellow.

Aloisius and Friday are burgundy.

I am weird.

Making the short-term writing schedule(s):

Now that the big picture stuff is set, you have to actually make it happen.  That requires knowing how to break your projects down into manageable sections, schedule them around work and responsibilities, make lists, and check things off.  It also requires that you know when you are most productive, what routines sustain you, how you cultivate inspiration, and, for chrissake, how much rest you’re going to need.

This last semester, I made the mistake of compiling schedules based on the first set of categories alone.  I had so much work to do, and so many responsibilities, that by the time my weekly schedule was filled in, I had no room for inspiration and rest.  Even though I love teaching, I was pretty miserable at points.

Lessons learned: 1) Especially if you are in introvert, like me, you need to leave time in your schedule to just be alone; 2) Holistic schedules that remind you to eat and exercise, as well as work, are your best friend.

With those lessons in mind, I fashioned a set of schedules to guide my progress over the next year and a half.

First, I continue to maintain my bullet journal, which allows me to set monthly goals and make check lists.

Second, I printed out another set of Excel sheets that break down the month by weeks.  The days of the week go across the top with hour by hour breakdown along the left side.  Pretty self-explanatory–I fill these in so that I can meet weekly goals and set up tutoring sessions after my summer off.

But, most importantly, I created a set of 24-hour clocks, managing my periods of work, rest, and wellness over weekdays and weekends.  I’m effectively on fellowship while I live with my brother, and the weekday clock below reflects that–my job is to write often and to write well, taking full advantage of the rent-free gift he’s given me while NOT taking advantage of his generosity.

How to make a 24 hour clock:

writing weekday

(My design is modeled on this representation of the research Mason Curry did in Daily Rituals)

1. Draw two concentric circles on a sheet of paper and divide them off into 24 segments, labeling the segments for each of the hours of the day.  Then make a band around the inner edge of the clock to allow for simultaneous activities (if you’re the sort who multi-tasks).

2. Think long and hard about when you are most productive.  Is it a few hours in the morning? Do you come alive at night? Do you need two chunks of productivity, or can you work straight through?  Whatever your method, own those hours. Do NOT schedule anything else in your most productive times if you can help it.  Guard your time and your mind.  Make a note of where those hours are on your clock and color them in so that they stand out. Mine are forest green.

3. Claim time to sleep and process.  I’m the sort of person who needs eight hours of sleep, and I’m not ashamed to say it.  So I selected an eight hour block that would allow me some time to wake up, have tea, do yoga, read a bit, and set the tone of my day before I jump into writing.  I also gave myself time for a catnap in the afternoon (labeled sexta after the Romans) because I love sleep, and it helps me to clear my mind for further afternoon work.  I left these spaces white.

4. Don’t forget your body.  You have to eat, and I highly recommend that you also get some exercise.  I am not the sort of person who sits down and focuses on a meal–I sort of graze every two hours throughout the day with a constant flow of tea.  The little rose segments reflect that, and the rose band at the end of the day reflects the fact that I’ll likely have a snack and chat with my brother at the end of the day, as well as make recipe selections for weekend shopping/cooking.  The vibrant blue segments reflect my exercise plan, which includes yoga in the morning and running in the afternoon.

5. Think about the other processes that go into your writing–editing, inspiration, socialization, blogging, contest submission, etc.  Make sure that you set aside some time for those.  On my clock, these activities are in light blue with a segment unabashedly dedicated to TV and film because I honestly get a lot out of visual stories.  But it’s also a good idea to schedule TV-time if you’re the sort who gets caught up in marathons.  Yes, Netflix, I’m still watching…

6. Color it all in, display it prominently, and follow it.

I also made a 24 hour clock each for Saturday and Sunday.  Although this might seem a bit counter-intuitive…if I don’t schedule my resting periods then I just fill them in with work.  My default setting after eight years of graduate school is “right now, meet goals, weekends are for wimps” so I had to literally fill in visuals that remind me to chill.  I scheduled cooking, reading, language work, nature walks, Druid study, and artwork.

I’m not gonna lie.  Putting “make art” on an actual calendar that I intend to follow made me a little teary-eyed.

So, there it is–my next year and a half scheduled down to the month, the week, the day.

Granted, there will be some shifts in the schedule when opportunities present themselves.  And I’ll need to start tutoring again this fall which will mean relinquishing some of my evening hours two or three days a week (sad).  But for the summer, and for the largest majority of the time I can muster after that, this is me.

Now…to get going.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

4 thoughts on “My 2015-16 writing plan

  1. So very pleased that you realize the gift you have been by your brother and are making positive and concrete goals for your time in the Northwest. I would agree that just thinking about being creative doesn’t get you too far and it takes work and diligence to put pen to paper.
    I am pretty sure you have time scheduled for beach time with your parents too…right??

  2. Oh man, I love process/planning talk a little too much. One problem I’ve faced in the past when I set long-term goals for myself with sub-goals scheduled out like this is, if I slip on a date for a sub-goal, other dependent dates also slip, and it winds up bumming me out to see all that careful planning get rearranged. Do you have a strategy for dealing with this, Erin? Or possibly you don’t mind it when it happens (or possibly it doesn’t happen to you due to the amount of practice hitting academic deadlines you’ve had).

    Great post, as always 🙂 Also woo bullet journal!

    • My advice to you would be to think about *why* you’re missing the sub-goals and how it feels when you do. Is there some balance you need to shift, or something you need to relinquish? Are you giving too much of your time to other people? Do you need to be more self-compassionate about the time you allow yourself for completion of tasks? If you’re procrastinating, what are you afraid of, and who can help you meet those fears head on?

      For me, it turned out that I was missing creative sub-goals because I was always putting academic work first. And if academia was going to sustain me for the rest of my life, then it wouldn’t have hurt so much to keep pushing my creative work off to the side. The way it stung every time made me rethink the amount of control over my life I give to various things. I took some of the sub goals away from graduate school (reduced number of job apps, reduced goals for article publication) and gave some of those to creative work (new attention to brand building, short story writing). And….it feels awesome.

      On the other hand, it might simply be that you’ve over-planned. In that case, make sure that you leave wiggle room for things to happen at unexpected pace, or in a different order than you expect. Like, I have all my dissertation chapters on the schedule in order, but I’m open to finishing Chapter 4 before I hit Chapter 1 and so on. And I don’t plan out the next day of writing until the night before, because I never know what mood I’ll be in, and I have to pay attention to that. Etc.

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