Wednesday 21 July 2010

Time Management and the Writing Life

Fiona, in commenting on Cath Staincliffe’s interesting guest blog yesterday, asked me to talk about my approach to time management, in trying to combine a career as a writer with a day job as a lawyer, as well as domestic life. So I thought the least I could do was to try to rise to her challenge, by giving my own perspective on the writer’s life.

My strong belief is that a great deal in life depends upon your mindset and motivation. This helps to explain, I think, how some people are able to cope with what seem to be dreadful problems, perhaps including disabilities or personal tragedies, and still get a huge amount out of life, whereas there are others who seem blessed with remarkable gifts as well as good fortune, yet who remain fundamentally discontented with their lot.

With writing, I do think that mindset and motivation are the key to achieving a reasonable level of productivity in the time one has available. It is a huge privilege to be a published novelist, and I’m grateful that I’ve been granted that privilege, as well as being proud of it. But it was always my burning ambition, and so – for instance – I chose to work in a firm whose two most senior people had published books (not novels, though one of them would have liked to write westerns) rather than one where I might have made more money, but had much less encouragement and opportunity to write. Part of the knack of making the most of your time is choosing your priorities. Things that aren’t priorities for me (do-it-yourself, for example, comes high on the list, I’m afraid) are things that I try to avoid, so they don’t get in the way of the writing. I hope this doesn’t seem excessively self-indulgent. In my case, I have to admit that it helps that there are countless things that I’m hopeless at, so it’s relatively easy to decide what to focus on – in particular, writing.

When I’m asked by those who want to write a novel and get it published how to go about it, the best guidance I can give is just to keep at it. The secret of success in most fields is pretty unglamorous – it has a lot to do with keeping going when it would be much easier to give up, especially if you have a full-time job and family obligations. I am absolutely certain that there are many better writers than me out there who have written countless first chapters of novels they never managed to finish. But it would be a bit disappointing to have 'I nearly got round to completing a novel' on one's tombstone.

And keeping going does entail writing regularly. I don’t write fiction every day, but I would like to, and I do write whenever I get the chance. Sometimes time is very limited, but even writing a little is better than writing nothing. It doesn’t matter when you write – some are larks, I’m definitely an owl – as long as you get something down in black and white. And writing something not very good (I confess, I do this a lot) is better than waiting for inspiration to strike and not writing in the meantime. If you have written something, you can always improve it. And the process of revision can prove very satisfying, when you finally see something worthwhile emerging from a draft that at first seemed a mess.

But there’s one other thing that I sometimes forget to mention when asked about time management and the writing life. Writing is a solitary activity, but writers benefit enormously from support and encouragement provided in various different ways by family, friends and fellow enthusiasts. I know that support means a great deal to me – and it definitely helps maintain the necessary mindset and motivation. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve gained immeasurably from people kind enough to read and occasionally comment on my posts. So, to Fiona and everyone else who contributes to my efforts, perhaps even without fully realising the value of their input, thank you.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks very much for sharing the ways in which you manage so brilliantly to combine your writing, your "day job" and your family life. It's not an easy thing to do at all, is it? But I would have to agree with you that if writing is a priority, there are ways to manage it. I also have to agree 100% that knowing and learning from other writers is of enormous benefit. I know I've gained immeasurably and learned so much from the other writers who are kind enough to be a part of my world.

Alistair Macfarlane said...

I was a songwriter from about 12 years old until about 30. Then I got married and quit the music business.
I always found that the best songs are the ones that came out quickly. If I had to work on it too much, it didn't make any sense.
It must be different as an author. Your ideas can ruminate, I guess, and you can come back to it.
It's not so immediate.
I became a widower in 2004 and have just recently started writing again.
It's not any easier!!!
Any medium is always personal. For instance, I cannot read Quentin Jardine without cringing.
I'm sure there are more authors out there I haven't read yet. If it wasn't for my Mum's death this year I would never have heard of you.
This is a bit of a ramble but like I have said before,
I really love your work, Martin, and it was always nice to hear people say how much they liked my songs.
So I will say again, I love your books.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And how kind you are to make time each week to remember a book we might have forgotten. Thanks so much.

Eric Mayer said...

Despite your explanation I find it hard to image how you actually manage those two careers. However, I find it heartening that not making do-it-yourself a priority may be helpful since I avoid do-it-yourself projects religiously out of necessity. I could write Ulysses before I could put in new kitchen cabinets. And I can vouch for how time consuming such projects are, especially, if like me, you can't really do it yourself. I recklessly attempted to fix a leaky faucet last week and although I finally succeeded, the task took half the day. I think the faucet laughed itself dry actually. Anyway, I will now console myself that the longer I go without patching the shed roof the further along my writing career will be.

Fiona said...

Martin, thank you very much for responding to my enquiry. I realise there has to be a burning drive to want to achieve something, and you make me see that although I claim to be unimaginative I do have my own field of creativity. I choreograph folk dances and when I have the germ of an idea for a new one I'm obsessed until I can put it down on paper, try it out (with little bits of cardboard in lieu of dancers at first) and polish it before publishing. My husband, I know, becomes bored with all my ramblings although he is my best critic in the end. I often write half a dozen dances in a short period....and then my muse (sic) slumbers for several months until the next creative spurt!

Dorte H said...

And by blogging and writing posts like these, you and other writers are an immense source of inspiration and encouragement to budding writers.

My own main obstacles are Chronic Fatigue. (The plural was deliberate). First of all, I suffer from fatigue most of the time, obviously, but when I have spent my best hours of the day on my teaching job, my concentration span for that day has often been spent as well. So advice such that you should just write and not worry about the quality is very valuable for me - and I think I am beginning to learn. But if I ever make it, it will probably first of all be because of my infinite stubbornness :D

Paul Beech said...

Martin – This is an inspiring post, thank you. I’m grateful to Fiona for asking you to write it!

I’m afraid that when I became a manager and joined the bulging briefcase brigade, I rather let my creative writing go. But then I’m not as efficient as you. After all the immediate pressures of the day, I ended up with reports and so on to complete at night. I simply hadn’t the time, energy or mental freedom for creative writing. I never lost the ambition, though. And having now taken early retirement, I’m writing a first novel.

With four grown-up children and five grandchildren, I’m always in demand for DIY (which unfortunately I’m rather good at!) and childminding, so progress with the book is slow. Still, progress there is: I’m enjoying it, believe the “little and often” approach will see me through, and will worry about finding a publisher when I come to it.

Yes, your time management post is inspiring; I like the “can do” spirit. You say you gain immeasurably from those who read and comment on your blog. And, as one such, I’d have to say I gain immeasurably from your blog! I enjoy your books enormously and find your blog sustaining.

More power to your blog – and to your excellent guest bloggers! Cath Staincliffe was terrific yesterday.

Regards, Paul

Ali Karim said...

A very inspirational peice, and one that hits home, hard

Thank you and see you at Harrogate


Martin Edwards said...

Your generous comments call for individual replies.
Starting with you, Margot! All I can say is that the detail and quality of your own posts strikes me as deeply impressive. Thanks again.

Martin Edwards said...

Alistair, please do tell us about your songwriting. And of course I am so pleased you like the books. I agree about the intensely personal nature of creative work.

Martin Edwards said...

Patti, it is no hardship at all. In fact, a very enjoyable discipline.

Martin Edwards said...

Eric, I love the idea of the faucet laughing itself dry. I am afraid our house still bears the scars of my long attempts to be 'practical'. Never again, even though over many years my incompetence has been a source of entertainment to the neighbours....

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Fiona. I know one or two people who say they are unimaginative, but in fact are not. As you indicate, it's about recognising where your strengths lie.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm sorry about the chronic fatigue, Dorte, but I'm sure from reading your splendid blog for so long that you have what it takes to achieve success with your writing.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Paul, and good luck with the writing. A little and often is a very good plan, far better than binge writing and then a long lay-off!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Ali. I shall be there, but only briefly, I'm sorry to say.

Alistair Macfarlane said...

First off, ididnotwriteundermyownname.
I wrote some hits for some UK bands in the Eighties and if you don't mind, I'll just leave it at that.
Like I alluded to, songwriting is more immediate.
The song has to be there, otherwise it just becomes an idea that will never come to fruition. You can occasionally come back to it but it will never be the same as the rush of the song that almost takes the same to write as is does to perform. Writing melody and lyrics comes hand in hand with me. I rarely wrote one without the other. Ideas form in your head as to the sound of the song and then you try and put it all to paper(or computer as I do now).
Good songs,I find,always come through some kind of hardship. Break ups, bad relationships, general crap.
It's hard to write a happy song,I find. If I try,it always seems so cheesy.
Does this make any sense??
Please let me know if you ever come to Canada and I will buy you a glass(or two) of wine.
I am on Harry Devlin #4 right now.....

Len Tyler said...

Just to add, Martin - as I've said to you before - that I really admire the way you manage a demanding day job, produce the books and write one of the best blogs currently in existence. Another great post anyway. See you in Harrogate hopefully.

Martin Edwards said...

Alistair, that's very interesting, and I agree about songwriting. I wrote a few songs myself as a student, but without any significant success. A long time since I've been to Canada, but I'm keen to go back one day and explore more thoroughly.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Len, I very much appreciate your comment. I'll be in Harrogate, but only briefly this year. Hope to see you - maybe in the bar!