Greetings, oh faithful readers!
I’ve got a guest post for you from a great friend and writer named Thom Brucie. Thom and I started out as college professors at the same time about a decade ago. As Thom had far more practical life experience than me, he quickly became a mentor regarding my scheduling practices as a writer. His advice was essential for my flittering brain.
I’ve asked Thom to share those same tips with you as well. This is a long post, but it’s well worth the read, I promise you!
By Thom Brucie
Thank you, Mark, for inviting me to discuss the importance of scheduling in the life of a writer. This blog post will likely interest those who are not yet full-time writers, those who are writing while juggling work, school, family, and other responsibilities. I will discuss two aspects of scheduling: First, the components of scheduling a project (for instance, a novel); Second, the practice of scheduling daily writing time in order that one might actually complete that novel.
During my years in construction, I utilized a scheduling system called the Critical Path Method (CPM). Simply explained, a CPM chart identifies the first steps of a project (for example, the earth work and grading), and it ends with the final walk-through and final inspection. The success of a construction project rests on this principle: finish the project on-time and in-budget, and the project will earn a profit. Each project establishes a start date and an end date, and once these two time parameters are determined, the contractor works to complete that project within that designated box of time. The CPM chart sets up intermediate “must-make” points in time; these critical moments are tied to specific dates. For example, one must pour the foundation before one can erect steel. Structural framing must be in place before the roof can go on. You get the idea.
When I began to write, I utilized this business experience. I wrote out a sort of CPM chart for the main action of the plot. I began with the opening scene, and I finished with the ending sequence of the climax and the dénouement. I plotted where and when each major scene began both within the story itself and also within the time-frame of the fictional calendar.
When I begin work on a story or a novel, I do not know everything about the characters, the setting, the plot, and I might not even know the ending. I accept this as reasonable. Nevertheless, I write out all that I know. If I do not know a specific scene, I insert a blank box with a note such as “write a love scene here.” If I do not know the ending, I imagine a vague idea, and I write, “the bad guy dies.” Close enough. The object is to shape a physical representation of intention, a tangible object that reflects the ultimate book or story, which begins as a thought and results in a text through the arduous adventure of creative invention.
A CPM chart is expressed along a horizontal line, stretching from the start to the end. On the jobsite, I hung the schedule on a wall so I could quickly identify where we were in the actual placement of materials, and at the same time, I could see what upcoming critical actions must be prepared for. Obviously, it also kept everyone alert to our goal of completion.
In reference to the writing craft, I found that writing out a horizontal chart of scenes and critical points of conflict provided a similar feeling of control. I could see what the story-form looked like from start to finish, even if, at first, it was vague or incomplete. This gave my unconscious additional freedom to dredge up interesting metaphors, new characters, and plot twists. Additionally, it provided the comfort of knowing what I would be writing the next day.
Above the flow chart of scenes, I wrote out the fictional calendar: day, year, season, all relevant knowledge necessary to maintain a sense of time-order in the flow of plot elements. For instance, if a woman character is pregnant in the plot, the outline will chart and locate conception date and birth date in order that the child is not born too soon or too late according to the time-line of the fictional calendar. If the child must be born too early or too late for plot purposes, that date can be established, and necessary events can be scheduled around that exact time-event.
Beneath the chart, I hung sketches, character outlines, maps, and other visual cues that I found helpful in conceiving the fictional world.
Early on, the schedule of points dealt more with what needed to happen in the plot, and not with the length of time for composition. This error resulted in delays in writing that I did not control because I had not defined an end-date for the writing itself.
I learned that establishing a completion date for a writing project is as important as setting a completion date for a construction project. Without this end date, one might struggle with procrastination, writer’s block, fatigue, or frustration. Therefore, I added to the schedule of events in the plot, the schedule of real time, and I initiated start and end dates for the writing of critical scenes. This became and remains an important component of my writing discipline.
Do not be so bound to the schedule or the events that you cannot or will not change if the storyline changes or a new, previously unknown character emerges. These actualizations of unconscious pressure on the creative act often prove meaningful and inspired.
On the other hand, do not let your creative juices draw you away from the competent framework of the story as you envisioned it when it burst into awareness. If unbid ideas become so flamboyant as to draw you away from the passion of your story, write the intruding ideas down in a separate notebook; you might have a second book. If you do have a second book, write it after you complete the first one. Finish what you start.
Furthermore, if, for any reason, the schedule is not met, simply revise it, and keep writing. We held the same attitude in construction. If a change order or a mistake on the blueprints caused a delay, we simply added the new work required, changed the end-date, and revised the critical moments.
Life is not perfect, but it is often manageable – allow for change and manage it.
Below is a shot of the original picture I made as I began to think through a recent novel.
It reveals the general idea, beginning, intermediate scenes, climax, and dénouement. Above the plot outline, notice the one-year time frame allowance for the first draft. I normally set up monthly goals, and the months appear above those scenes I attempt to complete that month. Below the chart are narrative ideas regarding each chapter, with special emphasis on particular events or character actions I feel are imperative or that become more clear through the writing process.
The chart and the notes change as I begin to learn specifics of the characters and of the plot. Space disallows the full complexity of everything I put on my writing wall. I am a visual person, and the more visual triggers the better, for me at least. However, I trust that this picture and the guidelines above will give you a sense of the flexibility and of the benefit of creating and utilizing this tool.
As the responsibilities of my family, teaching, and administration began to grow, I found that the time I spent on writing decreased, disappeared for a while, and when I did return to creative work, I struggled with inconsistent efforts.
Then I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and one part of this book helped me to learn how to schedule my daily writing time. Franklin succeeded in business, science, invention, manufacturing, politics, and, of course, in writing. As part of his daily routine, Franklin scheduled his entire day. Here is a snapshot of his schedule, from the Autobiography (85).
Notice the simplicity of the form, and yet it shows a 24-hour day. It also includes a number of components: Two moral questions: What good shall I do today? and, What good have I done today? Notice the space below each question where Franklin wrote his answers.
He scheduled time for eating (NOTE: three full meals); time for sleeping (NOTE: seven full hours every night); time for work, conversation, organizing, cleaning, banking, and so on.
Notice that part of his morning/waking ceremony included “contrive day’s business.” This preparatory thinking clarified the goals and the main objective for his work day. He did not go to work to see what might happen. He did not go to work simply for a paycheck. He went to work with expectations, a plan of action, and one primary goal all in place before he left home. Thus, he spent his work energy on focused design, keeping extraneous interruptions to a minimum.
This planned focus also pertains to writing. I generally plan my next day’s writing as I prepare for sleep. As I mentioned, I am a visual person, and I imagine the scene or the dialogue I am getting ready to write. The next day, I write it. There is a story that Hemingway always stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. The next day he had to finish the sentence. Thus, he began writing by writing. The point is that scheduling is as much about planning as it is about the physical task of writing.
In my own life, like Franklin, a variety of responsibilities and desires continually compete for my time. I realized that I choose to give fair effort to both, but often failed with one whenever the other generated greater pull. I also realized I wished to give up neither my responsibilities nor my desires. I wanted both.
I developed a concept of scheduling mini-days–specific, scheduled boxes of time devoted to identified tasks allocated throughout the normal flow of a 24-hour cycle. As Franklin assigned designated hours for work, sleep, and so on, I recognized that part of his discipline required start and stop times. For instance, at noon, whether he was thinking or experimenting with electricity, he stopped work, and he ate. On a construction site, we did the same. I recognized that stopping to eat did not interfere with the completion of the project. It simply allowed time for us to eat lunch, a reasonable daily nutritional activity. We did so every day, regularly, on schedule. I find, too, that I can eat at a regular hour once each semester’s schedule of classes is established. Eating does not interfere with success. Not sticking to a fairly rigid schedule does.
I wondered “what is the difference between Franklin stopping and starting and my own stopping and starting?” Only one difference: Franklin set his schedule based on both his responsibilities and on his desires. Naturally, he was influenced by the needs and the expectations of others, for he had many personal and professional relationships and responsibilities. As I do; same as you, I am sure. Yet, he acted on his desires with the same focus and acumen as he acted on his obligations.
How did Franklin manage both? He managed his attitude.
My construction scheduling experience allowed me to make a smooth transition to academic life. I simply made a CPM schedule of my weekly academic responsibilities. What I did not do was incorporate the same seriousness and commitment to my desires as I did to my responsibilities.
I did not intentionally minimize my desire to write and maximize my responsibilities at work. I simply gave in to the perception that responsibilities – family, work, Monday night football, and so on – carry more social weight, or importance, perhaps even more validity, than an individualized desire such as wanting to write a novel.
Franklin did not make such an error. He formulated a belief that his responsibilities and his desires weighed the same, and he acted on that belief. This attitude resulted in his ability to devote the same consistent, passionate energy to his desires – his inventions, his writing, his creative work – as he devoted to his personal, professional, and political responsibilities. Every day, within each day, from 8 a.m. to noon, he worked.
So do I, essentially. I suspect that is true for many of you as well. I recognize Franklin’s 4-hour work block as one mini-day within his 24-hour day. Therefore, each task he assigned himself, whether creative or regulated, became a charted block of time. By assigning specific boxes of time for each goal-directed task, and by starting and stopping as if each block were its own day, he worked a little each day on each task, and by accumulation of effort, brought forth significant results in heterogeneous disciplines.
I began slicing my daily schedule into mini-days. I call these scheduled components mini-days because the phrase implies a sun-up to sun-down passage of time. The notion of a day holds prominence in my reflection of and appreciation for the passage of time. I awaken with the awareness of “a new day.” So the term “mini-day” holds power for me because I can psychologically and emotionally grant power to the philosophical impression of “day.” As such, I can give equal value to the mini-day of breakfast, a 4-hour work cycle, and a 2-hour block of writing time. Each conjures a different level of passion, of course, but each also earns equal commitment.
Think about it like this. Say you have a job, and your work day extends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. At one point or another, you have certain responsibilities at that job. You do them. Maybe the boss assigns some additional work at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and he says, “Do it now.” You do it. Obviously, our culture has indoctrinated us to work when we work. Other factors heighten this attitude as well, such as the reality of a paycheck.
I suspect most of us are fine with these rules, and we manage to survive each day to repeat the imperatives tomorrow. If you want to write, and you do not have enough money to quit your job, and if you do not wish to minimize your family relationships, and you wish to continue certain social experiences that you consider important, then you might consider this: If you can work when you are at work; if you can be a good family woman or family man each day; certainly you can be a writer. You merely must learn to hold yourself accountable for your writing hours in the same way you hold yourself accountable for your work hours.
You might call your scheduled activities mini-days, time boxes, activity, date, whatever term or phrase that elevates the time block to a level of imperative desire for you.
Sleep, food, companionship, and work took up most of each day for me. Nevertheless, I found some unscheduled hours that I could devote to writing if I could (1) eliminate distractions and (2) become as disciplined toward my desired-schedule as I was disciplined toward my required-schedule.
One difficulty I had to confront that perhaps may prove an obstacle for some of you is this: I was very busy. Almost always busy. In fact, too busy to write. This mini-day approach will not cure busy-ness. You must. Here’s how.
First, you must accept responsibility for becoming your own boss. Then, as you write out the assignment of your mini-days, recognize those components that are essential to your wellness as a creative individual living in a technologically complex historical time: being a wife, a husband, a parent, a child, a brother, a sister, or a friend, even an employee; making time for reading, prayer, reflection, conversation, and recreation; and remain aware of your physical needs: sleep, food, hydration, exercise.
In other words, explore in careful analysis the areas of value in your life. At the same time, you may discover expenditures of time that negate your desires. My wife and I turned off our TV years ago. Now, we talk to each other, every day. Your choices will be your choices, but you must make them and hold to them if your ambition and your art drive you to excellence.
You know how you make fictional decisions? You give a male character red hair and green eyes; you make him six feet and three inches tall; he is white and in his 20s; and you discover he is from a small ranching community in Montana. We refer to these decisions as creative limitations. They limit certain boundaries of this character. Say you decide that your opening scene takes place in Manhattan’s lower East Side. Another limit.
Here is the point.
A scene on Manhattan’s lower East Side will impel a created image in your reader that is different than a scene that takes place on a sail boat on the waters of Chesapeake Bay.
When you decide your character has red hair, green eyes, is 6’3”, and is a white male in his 20s from Montana, these conditions limit his behaviors, influence his dress, establish linguistic patterns, and so on. In other words, he cannot be 6’10” or 5’1” because these would change everything, including what size shoes (or boots) he wears. He cannot be black, Hispanic, female, Asian, or anything else except a white man from Montana. His upbringing in Montana will insinuate certain biases that a black male born in Detroit will not possess, in the same way that the white man from Montana will not possess the biases of an Hispanic woman from Cincinnati. A 20-year-old white man cannot be an 85-year-old Native American woman.
To clarify, creative limitations establish parameters within which your characters and your made-up world must remain consistent. When you say yes to one identifiable trait, you say no to all others that negate it.
The same principle controls the successful scheduling of time. If you decide to work from 8 a.m. to noon, you say no to all other activities that are not “work” during that time slot. If you must be at work at 8, you do not stay in bed until 9; otherwise, the consequences could be severe. When it comes to scheduling your writing time, if you take the attitude that when you write you say no to all interferences, you are likely to produce a reasonable number of pages. If you do not create pages, the consequences to your writing career could be severe.
Using Franklin’s layout as a guide, I utilize a simple 24-hour daily chart I made on an Excel spread sheet. Since I teach college, my daily teaching times vary, so I make a week-long chart that I hang on my office wall at school, and I hang a second copy on my home-office wall. Make yours to fit your personality and your own set of daily circumstances. Below is a general example.
|6:00 AM||Rise and Prepare for day|
|7:00 AM||Breakfast and drive to work|
|12:00 noon||Lunch and phone calls|
|5:00 PM||Drive Home|
|6:00 PM||Visit with family|
|7:00 PM||Dinner with family|
|10:00 PM||Prepare for bed|
Becoming a writer does not mean turning in your membership to the human race. On the contrary, artists, in my opinion, must reflect the need for the action of altruism in order for the world to have works of art that remind others of the blessedness of their lives and of the joys that exist in the journey we call living.
Becoming a writer does mean that you will choose to adhere to a daily schedule of disciplined activities, one part of which includes the physical act of writing.
All other distractions: fame, wealth, blah, blah, blah, tie one to the dizziness of busy-ness. Focus on the beauty of your work and on the dignity of your life-expression, and the meaningfulness of your writing life will create stories that others want to read.
Thom Brucie is the author of novels such as Weapons of Cain, poetry books like Moments Around The Campfire With A Vietnam Vet and various published short stories, such as “Nature’s Transgression.” Find out more about Thom on his website.
Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography. Joyce E. Chaplin, Ed. Norton: New York, 2012. Print.
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