Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Guest Blogger - Cricket McRae

Keeping the Mayhem at Bay

First off, thanks to Pamela and Terri for inviting me to guest post! When I learned the subject would be the mayhem of being an author, I first thought of the good kind of mayhem.

See, as a mystery writer I get to create mayhem for my characters on a regular basis. It’s required. Every time my sleuth, soap maker Sophie Mae Reynolds, gets into another bind I try to make it just a little worse. And then, a little worse than that. Near misses, rotten people, bad behavior and even murder – it’s all great fun.

And then I thought of the not-so-good flavor of mayhem. The kind that reduces writing time and productivity, and has a negative impact on creativity. For me, that’s being unorganized when working on multiple projects.

My office isn’t exactly a Superfund site, but let’s face it: I’m not a terribly neat and tidy person by nature. So it is with some effort that I’ve developed a few ways to keep the potential mayhem under control.

First there’s the big picture. I use a Gantt chart in an Excel spreadsheet to schedule all my projects for the upcoming year. It’s a bar chart that illustrates projects over time and allows you to break them down into smaller tasks and track progress. I plug in everything I know about then tweak it until things look reasonably doable. Every three months or so I update and adjust the contents, and add upcoming items to my master to-do list.

A year might include final edits on one book, researching and writing my next Home Crafting Mystery, launching a new blog, writing three short stories, writing a series of articles, promoting a newly released book with a blog tour and/or signing tour, mentoring a teen writer, and developing a new series. That’s on top of daily promotional activities, blogging on Inkspot, working with my critique group, interviews, guest blogging, keeping up with what’s going on with the publishing industry and, of course, the ubiquitous email.

It’s not possible to do all of it at once. Some deadlines come from others and some I determine from my personal goals. The chart lets me figure out how to fit it all in so I can relax, let go, and deal with what’s in front of me at the moment.

The yearly chart also includes vacations, conventions, conferences, holidays, classes taught and taken, the uber-productive months in the middle of winter, time in the spring for getting the gardens in, and time in the fall for harvesting and food preservation.

Other ways I organize my office and my time tend to be paper based. My desk blotter is a big monthly calendar with lots of space to write. Next to it is a daily planner with a page per day for to-do lists and notes. Several notebooks stand at attention on the return behind my desk chair. One contains my master to-do list, with urgent, upcoming and important tasks highlighted. I go through the whole list about once a week, adding items and crossing others off. I try to break each task down to its smallest component parts to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Each project also has its own notebook full of ideas, reminders, research, scenes, character studies, etc. Most have pockets where I tuck the myriad of notes jotted throughout the day as thoughts occur to me. When I turn my attention to a given project I go through those notes and transcribe or toss them. One notebook is devoted to blog post ideas. Another tracks marketing contacts, bookstores, etc., including notes about whom I’ve contacted, when, and what it was regarding. All the notebooks are hodgepodges of loosely organized information.

And finally, when I start plotting a new book I usually do a rough outline using index cards and then tack them to a length of blank newsprint hanging all along one wall. The more tension in a scene, the higher the card goes on the wall. This allows me to see the flow of the book in general, track subplots, rearrange scenes, and spot holes and potentially dull pacing.

Wow. Now that I’ve related all these specifics, I feel terrifically organized and on top of things! That’s an illusion, of course. I barely manage to keep the mayhem of writing at bay with these admittedly old-school methods. But barely is good enough.

Speaking at Third Place Books in Seattle, comedian Lewis Black described his predominant mental state while writing. He said, “You know that feeling you get when you’re twelve years old, and it’s Sunday night, and you haven’t done your homework yet? When you’re writing a book it feels like that all the time.”

He was right. It really does feel like that.

I’d love to hear how other people organize their busy lives!

Author of the Sophie Mae Reynolds Home Crafting Mysteries
#4: Something Borrowed, Something Bleu, July, 2010


  1. Its good you do add vacations and some off time in there too!


  2. Without scheduled vacations I'd never take any time off ; - ).

  3. Wow is right. I don't care what you say it sounds as though you are very, very organized. I can see how it would be a temporary thing, what with time moving onward and all, but it still looks really good on paper.

  4. I'm thinking you should organize my office. LOL I love the blog and I agree with mare you are looking really good on paper.
    Keep writing your wonderful books.

    Pamela James

  5. So even with all these organizational steps in place, what are your biggest distractors?

  6. Ha! Well, at least it looks good on paper. Now if I could just lock myself in my office for ten hours a day.

    Terri, the worst distraction for me is probably the kitchen. Some new -- or old -- recipe is always calling. Or the compulsion to make bread comes over me. It's always something. Then in the summer the gardens chime in with their siren song.


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