How Do You Spend Your Time?

Recently, I started keeping track of how I spend my time. I don’t use a fancy app—I had a look at a few and quickly knew that I’d never use them. They required way too much work to set up. Besides, I don’t always carry around electronics. Life is better without being tethered to a phone or a tablet.

Instead, I keep my time records on index cards. I write a line every time I start something new, as in:

4:12—writing blog on time tracking

That’s all I need…because the point of this isn’t to come up with any sophisticated analysis of exactly how long it takes me to write 1000 words or edit 10 pages of someone else’s manuscript. The point is to understand what I’m doing.

First, how do I really spend my day? Am I putting in a reasonable number of hours? Or are there huge gaps when I’m not doing much of anything? I don’t begrudge myself relaxation time, but if hours at a time are disappearing and I can’t say where they went, that’s not good.

So now I’m keeping track. As I’ve said, I use index cards to record when I start new activities. One index card is usually enough for a whole day, and that gives me a picture of what I do. How long do I spend getting ready to work in the morning? How long do I take on breaks? How much time do I actually spend when I walk to the library and back?

Then, every morning, while I’m planning my day, I transcribe my times into a notebook. Really, this is just copying the times from the index card; it takes three minutes at most. But if I see that I frittered away a lot of time on the previous day, it orients me to use my time better today: less time spent disappearing down the many rabbit holes available on the internet.

It’s simple, but so far it’s working. I’m spending less and less time in black holes, and more time on things I actually choose to do. Let me emphasize that I’m not using this to beat myself up or to eliminate stuff like playing video games. Taking time for fun is important. The point is to notice if I’m spinning my wheels on stuff I wouldn’t actually choose to do if I thought things through.

So I’m reading more, and playing less computer solitaire. Go me! Less black hole time is good.

Sharing: August 26, 2018

More things I’ve liked recently:

Article: Ray Bradbury’s Greatest Writing Advice
Many interesting quotations from Ray Bradbury about writing and writing technique. Unlike many SF writers of his generation, Bradbury loved to talk about writing and the writing process. I don’t agree with everything he says in the article, but it’s all good food for thought.
Book: Starless by Jacqueline Carey
I’ve loved Carey’s work since Kushiel’s Dart, and I plowed straight through Starless at top speed. Starless is the first book set in a world where almost all the gods were cast down to earth for challenging the king of heaven. This has left the sky without stars and Earth with a ton of gods who’ve each adopted relatively small groups of people as their followers. Excellent world-building and many endearing characters, as well as an interesting story. I don’t know if there are more books to come, but the world offers plenty to explore.
Movie: Your Name
An animated movie from Japan. Two teenagers find themselves waking up in each other’s bodies every other day or so. The girl lives in a small mountain town, while the boy lives in Tokyo. Naturally, they have difficulties coping with the swaps (and with trying to “improve” each other’s lives)…but just when you think you know how the movie is going to go, there’s a twist that redirects everything. Hugely popular in Japan, and well worth watching for anyone anywhere.

Patreon Posts

I just sent out my first post to Patreon patrons. It’s taken me a while to figure out what special thing I can add to these posts, but I think I’ve finally come up with something good.

I have a great concept for a story titled Miracles & Wonders. The story is comprised of small sections, each of which is relatively self-contained. There’s just one problem: I, uhh, haven’t figured out how to end the story yet.

So I’ve decided to send out one section a month, in the hope that by the time I exhaust all the sections I’ve planned and/or written, I’ll come up with a suitable ending. If not…well, okay, my Patreon peeps will at least find out that stories don’t always work out.

So by signing up for my Patreon, you get to watch a story in progress. I hope you find the process interesting.

Eye Candy

Everybody listens to music…

Well okay, I don’t do listen much, because I get way too distracted. I can’t listen to music and do anything else at the same time. But anyhoo…

Everybody listens to music. Everybody seeks out music. And everybody can find music because there are a zillion sources from iTunes to Spotify to Bandcamp.

But many of us don’t seek out visual stimulation. The number of people who go to art galleries is tiny compared to the number of people who go to music venues.

Of course, there are plenty of visual sources besides galleries: Instagram, Pinterest, Deviant Art, to name a few. There are also infinite quantities of cute animal pictures out in the world…for which we must be grateful on days when almost everything else in life sucks.

But if you’re a writer, you should be constantly filling your eyes with visual input. Geography, for example. What can a desert look like? We’ve all seen picturesque sand dunes, but what other possibilities are there? What do desert-dwelling people look like? What do desert settlements look like? Desert animals? Desert rocks? You never know when you might need to write a scene that takes place in a desert. Filling your eyes and brain with desert images ahead of time gives you resources to draw on if you need them.

The same goes for other environments. Also for things: castles and railways and factories and alleys and parks and crustaceans and whatever exists in the world. And people: people of all ages, types, cultures, past and present.

Make a point of seeking web sites and other sources of diverse visuals. Do it every day. Make bookmarks for images that interest you. Cover your writing desk with pictures that get your juices flowing.

These days, it’s a cliche to ask, “What music do you have on your phone?” But I remember a Robertson Davies novel where a character asks, “What pictures does he have on his walls?” That really got me thinking. And I started figuring out what visuals might put me in the mood to write.

Writers should have pictures. A lot of them. And writers should make a point of seeing new things every day.

[Candy cane picture from]

Making It Matter: Characters

In the previous post of this series, I talked about using Morning Pages to get ideas for what you want to write about. This is a way to see what’s just beneath the surface of your mind: something that’s ready to emerge.

But once you’ve found such material, what do you do with it? The answer is to come up with characters for whom it’s important, and to put them in situations where they’ll be forced to cope with the issue.

Let’s say you find yourself thinking about taking a stand on something important—a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days. (Gee, I wonder why.) To use this theme in a story, you might develop a character who finds him or herself in a position where taking a stand seems necessary, but where it’s also going to have serious negative consequences.

After all, there’s no drama if a character has things easy. If the issue is just, “We should be nice to puppies,” the character isn’t going to lose friends, alienate family, and risk jail time for spreading that message. (Yes, I’m sure some of you out there can quickly come up with a scenario where being nice to puppies is hugely threatening to the social order. But chill. You know what I’m getting at.)

So you make a character who’s torn between (at least) two strongly weighted alternatives. Remember that the character should be someone you care about, and that readers are likely to care about too. Also remember that the character should have something significant to lose…and not just in a material sense. The character should face an emotional price, whichever option (s)he chooses.

Then be honest about consequences. Even when an issue has an unambiguously right decision (if such a thing ever exists), there are bound to be negative consequences even when you do the right thing. People get hurt. Things go wrong. Side effects happen. It’s never perfect sweetness and light.

But if you’ve chosen to write about something that truly means something to you, thinking and writing about such matters is a worthwhile way to spend your time, even if the writing is difficult.

Writing is good. Writing about meaningful things is better.

Making It Matter: What If You Don’t Know What You Want To Say?

In a preceding series of posts, I’ve talked about making your writing mean something.

Your writing should be about more than just people running around doing stuff. It should be about something that matters. I’m not saying you should deliver some kind of “message” (although there’s nothing wrong with that if there’s a message you think the world needs). However, I’m saying you should write about something that’s worth the time you invest in writing it, and the time that a reader spends reading it.

In other words, you should write about something that you and your prospective readers care about: learning to love, dealing with pain, finding friends, coping with family, making the world a better place, et cetera, et cetera.

But what if you don’t have anything to say? Or what if there are things you want to write about, but you’re worried that your thoughts will be dull or that people will laugh at you?

First, if you’re worried about such things, you are not alone. Plenty of writers go through bouts of insecurity and impostor syndrome. Furthermore, writing about things that matter can dredge up all kinds of baggage, and dealing with that stuff may not be easy. It’s even harder if you’re coping with depression, anxiety, or other such conditions. I am totally not the person to advise you on those kinds of trouble…except to say that you should consider finding someone who is qualified to help you. Caring for yourself is important, and may be a prerequisite for being able to write at all.

Second, remember that unless you’re a professional writer with a contract in hand, you’re under no obligation to show anyone your writing. If you write something and then decide to hide it in a drawer (or more likely, to stash it in a computer folder with some boring name that’ll discourage other people from looking at it even if they hack into your system), that’s totally fine.

In fact, I strongly recommend that you don’t share your work with anyone too soon. Work on it until it’s in a shareable state. It doesn’t have to be perfect (especially if you’re giving it to alpha readers or a workshopping group) but it shouldn’t be too raw. Go back and revise the piece until it’s ready to leave the nest. And if that day never comes, so be it. Every good writer occasionally has stories that just don’t gel. If you don’t sometimes find that you’ve reached too high, then you aren’t trying to reach high enough.

With those two caveats out of the way, let’s talk about finding meaningful stuff to write about. Sometimes you already feel driven to deal with a topic, and that’s great. Write what demands to be written. But other times, you might just struggle.

This is where daily writing comes to your rescue. In the first real writing workshop I ever took (an embarrassingly long time ago), we called this “freefall”. Now it’s often called Morning Pages. (That link tells you where the name comes from.) Whatever you call it, the idea is that you write freely and loosely every day—not to create something you’d ever show to anyone else, but just to let your brain play around. See what surfaces from your subconscious. Plumb your memories and your senses. Practice getting words on paper or pixels, just to develop your word-slinging skills.

Then (and this is important), review your morning pages a few days later. Read them over. Mark them up. Do certain themes or images keep repeating? Are some passages more alive than others? Are there points where you approach something that’s close to the bone, but then shy away?

Over time, morning pages will show you where your mind is at: what you’re truly concerned about…what engages your brain and your heart.

So that’s where to start. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use what you find in your morning pages if and when you’re ready to write a story.

Making It Matter: Theme

The reason I started writing this series of posts was because I wanted to talk about Theme.

The idea of Theme scares lots of people, including writers themselves. I blame this on badly taught English courses, which often force students to state the theme of a story, novel or play. When this happens, you can get the sense that there’s a single correct answer: that a good piece of writing ought to have a single statement of what it’s about.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Very short stories may indeed only be about one thing, but any longer piece is about multiple subjects. Furthermore, few pieces of writing can have their “meaning” boiled down to a single easily stated idea. Meaning is cumulative. It’s also ongoing, even continuing past the point where the story ends. We’ve all heard the saying that the journey is more important than the destination; it’s a cliché, but in writing it’s also true.

So I see no reason why a story should have a single easy-to-articulate theme. At the same time, a story should be about something: something worth writing about. A novel takes months or years to write; why spend so much of your time on something vapid?

Write about something that has actual human meaning. Love. Friendship. Loyalty. Growth. Forgiveness. Change. Loss. Redemption. Warnings of danger. Wonder. Reason. Corruption. Kindness.

I’m not saying you need to have some message you want to preach. If you do, go ahead—there are things that people need to be told (although you and I may disagree on what those things are).

But if you don’t have a message, that’s fine too. What kind of message can you have, for example, about love? Certainly nothing that hasn’t been said a million times before. But writers will be writing about love as long as writing and humans exist. Why? Because it’s a subject worth writing about. It’s a subject that’s never exhausted, provided you aren’t just going through the motions. It’s a subject that’s close to many writer’s hearts, so they’re driven to write about it.

And what if you don’t know your heart? What if you can’t tell what you’re driven to deal with in writing? Those are excellent questions. I’ll talk about them in the next post of this series.

[Image is the famous theme from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.]