I had one goal for September (which, in my defence, I set with only 5 days of the month remaining), and that was to have an outline of the next novel.
Usually I write manuscripts on the fly; I have a beginning, two or three turning or high points, maybe some other beats which need to happen "in the middle…ish", and an ending to drive toward. I've never successfully pre-plotted a novel before writing it, and I thought it was time I tried. Properly tried. So for the past few months, while world-building and plot-storming, I've restrained myself from diving in and starting with the words because this time, this time, just this once, I wanted to have some sort of skeleton in place. Nothing too detailed, because that's too big a change. Just a starting point and then a string of beats/scenes/points that lead — cohesively! — all the way to the end.
Which I don't have yet. The end, or the skeleton.
And it's October.
No battle plan survives first contact, huh?
I have been quite prolific on the plot-storming, though: the novel notes got so copious they took over my journal and I couldn't find my task lists in amongst all the maundering about trolls. I had to succumb and order myself a second, separate notebook, to contain them. (From "no" notebooks to two, in a month! It's a slippery slope!)
The weight of two notebooks may well force me back to just the one, and I'll simply have to resign myself to burning through the pages, but for now it's nice to have an entire notebook dedicated to the trolls.
Last week — because I've been down on myself for how little time I scrape together for writing — I decided to track where my time went.
I didn't drill down deeply into anything, because an overview is all I wanted. And it's not something I'll be doing every week, because the law of diminishing returns will start to bite too deep. Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to see and/or demonstrate to my mind just how lazy I am or am not being.
Let's start with the three big ones mapped in there first of all: sleep, mothering, and work:
Each box is 2 hours; grey is for sleep (50.25 hours in total, which is an average of 7.2 hours per night); the diagonal grey lines (3 hours) represents the sum total of the time I spent engaged in midnight negotiations with Squawk, settling and re-settling her; pink is for mothering (I only counted time I was unable to multi-task beyond simple 10-20 minute bouts of housework or chores, otherwise the whole box would be pink, pink, pink); and the light green is time at the day job.
First thing my brain noted at this point: there's really not a lot of time left over. Only 11 boxes = 22 hours = an average of 3 hours per day. ("THREE whole hours per day?" my brain screams. "Why aren't you writing for 3 hours per day!?")
Second thing my brain noted: I haven't yet filled in time spent in transit to/from the dayjob. That was 4.5 hours = 2.5 boxes. That leaves me with only 8.5 boxes = 17 hours in any given week to call my own. Two hours and twenty four minutes, on average, per day.
Here's how I spent them:
- 3.5 hours on writing
- 6 hours on TV
- 2 hours reading (Raj Khanna's Falling Sky, for those who are curious)
- 3 hours journalling
- 2.5 hours blogging (drafting posts; I drafted more than I published this week)
TV is an obvious place I could find more writing time. But it's worth noting a lot of my TV viewing is actually multi-tasking, as I'm usually chasing down internet errands (paying bills etc), typing up any handwritten writing notes of the past day/week, chatting to Squawk's dad, or keeping up my pitiful end of long-distance correspondence with friends and family. This particular week just gone my TV hours were almost entirely spent updating my resume, which hasn't seen the light of day since 2009 and was (still is) in exceedingly poor shape. Once that's done, I'll be able to reclaim a little more of my evening towards writing. Probably not the whole of the 6 hours, but maybe 2 of them…
Journalling is another potential time-sink, as I freely admit I've been tweaking what I do and don't capture by hand. However, it's only since I instituted the daily journalling habit that I've been more consistently productive. I use my journalling time to revise what I achieved that day and to plan out what must (and potentially can) be done the next day. Not to mention clear my head so I can go to bed thinking about my stories instead of about the niggly, nagging tasks that would otherwise crowd my thoughts.
Looking at the boxes, my temptation is always to see if I can't scrape away a grey box or two. Just one hour's less sleep… but I've learned from bitter experience that the less I sleep, the clingier and more demanding and difficult Squawk's behaviour grows. It's a horrendous cycle, and yes there are less grey boxes, but it's pink that takes its place.
So, there's that, huh? I'd estimate last week as pretty typical for me: a little more big-ticket errands (such as the resume) than normal, a little less dayjob time than normal, pretty standard Squawk-care and actually my sleep levels were on the plump rather than starved side of normal.
Turns out, being a full-time mum and part-time employee doesn't leave much for after. In other news, water is wet, the earth is round, that big yellow thing in the sky is known as a "sun".
Squawk sings — constantly, about whatever she last overheard, or whatever stray thought passes through her head, or who knows where she gets her inspiration. I don't.
This morning… this morning I overheard her crooning a dirge to Ani about hairballs.
Yesterday Squawk was questioning me about ambulances.
She knows they're for treating sick people, and whenever she sees one she'll put on her face of earnest sympathy and proclaim "Someone's feeling sick!" — but yesterday she wanted to know why this imaginary person was feeling sick. (We've been in the "…whyyyyyy?" phase of toddlerhood for some time now.)
I said there could be lots of reasons, but one was maybe they'd had an accident.
And Squawk got all solemn and wide-eyed and honestly, it was the face of a tiny person contemplating just how horrendous life could possibly be/get, that someone might need a whole truck to come to their rescue, and she whispered: "…Wee-wee?!"
Toddlers, guys. They're bonkers cute.
Since finishing Cherry Crow Children, I've not had a true writing routine or heck, any routine whatsoever beyond the putting-out-fires approach. Namely, I do what I need to for Squawk and the dayjob and the running of my household and relationships, and try to squish thinking time on the new novel and promotion for Cherry Crow Children into whatever corners are left behind.
It's not been working. But I put up with it, for a spell, because I've needed the break, because life and health.
Six weeks ago, after signing up to Flipboard and immediately being inundated by articles on productivity and sleep cycles and writers' routines, I decided to wrest back a smidge of control and instituted a new routine: no screens in the hour before I want to fall asleep; an alarm (silent, vibrate-only, hidden on the mattress under my pillow to ensure it doesn't also wake Squawk) set for an hour before Squawk is "allowed" out of bed; leaving my notebook and slippers ready so all I had to do was stumble out of bed and into my desk chair. So far, so ambitious.
Oh, and I planned on no more than 7.5 hours sleep a night.
Most wouldn't consider this deprivation, but we all have to work within the bounds of our individual circumstances. Mine include physical/mental limitations for which sleep is an important part of staying healthy. But writing regularly is also vital to my staying mentally sound, so this, one sleep cycle, was my attempt at a balance point. Maybe, I told myself, if I could just stumble through the first few days of mismanaged sleep, I'd hit that sweet spot where I fall asleep within a minute of putting my head down, and 7.5 hours would be liveably insufficient.
The very first night, Squawk woke me one hour after I went to sleep. Not stirred, but woke. Inconsolable, sitting up in her bed with all the blankets thrown off, sobbing because she needed me and Dad wouldn't do, it had to be me, and then it took me an hour (of her begging to come into my bed) to coax her into lying back down again. One hour, and an absurd amount of cuddles and kisses and sips of water and even a few desperate verses of Baa Baa Black Sheep before I could crawl back into my bed and fail to get back to sleep for I have no idea how long.
I spent most of that time swearing at the productivity dilemma: all the advice on maintaining productivity argues against skimping on sleep; all the advice on writing whilst mothering advocates staying up late or waking early to scrape together some time sans-kinder. Ha. Ha ha ha. (There is no solution to this puzzle.)
And here's the other piece of the puzzle: all the advice on how to carve out time whilst mothering is based upon the status quo.
But what the fuck is status quo when it comes to a toddler, and thus her parents? Squawk is always sick. She is always tired. She is always wanting to be with me, or more preferably on me. She's growing, teething, mastering new physical skills, dealing with the bumps and bruises of practicing said skills for months beforehand, dropping her naps, carving out her own relationships and place in the world… She has nightmares, or she's too hot because she refuses to take off her normal clothes before putting on pyjamas, or she's too cold because she insists on going to bed with no blankets (in Melbourne, in the middle of winter, in a house with no heating) because TODDLERS. There is no daily predictability.
Even so, I have been keeping up my habit of too little sleep.
I can't say I'm getting heaps more useable time. Maybe one extra hour a day? Some days it doesn't go to writing so much as staring. Like the days something wakes Squawk and I have to spend the hour listening to her yell for me. (Yes, the door to her room and mine are both closed. Double-brick walls are no match for my kid's lungs.) Like the days Squawk has woken up so many times overnight that I can barely stop myself from throwing up when my alarm goes off.
I can say I'm crankier: more short-tempered, more business-bent, more easily frustrated. I get sick more often. I fall into despair more swiftly, and I find the world more heartbreaking and cruel than I remember it all being before.
But some days, I get a full glorious, golden, silent hour all to myself and my novel. And after a month of all this, I do have some more of the next novel world-built, if not plotted. I'm just not entirely sure how long I can keep this up.
Over the past few years, I've had a troubled relationship with my notebook.
It's the double-handling. Writing by hand necessarily entails typing it all up; and I never have enough time to keep up with it; and it seems inefficient. So I've been chasing my tail, trying to set up computer-based systems to replace my notebook. Scrivener for writing and organising my drafts. 2Do (lately; there's been a string of them) for tasks and reminders. Google Calendar for appointments. Drafts for taking notes on my phone; Simplenote and Notational Velocity for keeping my non-manuscript writing notes available everywhere; Dropbox and Sync and the list goes on.
The one thing I could never replicate on a computer was the feel of pen on paper, the slowness of it, the frustrating cramp in my wrist and fingers as my hand struggles to keep up with my thoughts and forces a precision of expression. For me, writing by hand is vital for brainstorming — and since my drafts are highly organic, and I brainstorm all the way through, it doesn't matter how many electronic capturing systems I set up. Sooner or later, within days, often only hours, I'm back to jotting down my thoughts in a notebook.
Then, at the start of the month, quite by accident, I stumbled upon the instagram #bulletjournalchallenge feed, and I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of all the pretty. (Seriously, have you seen what some people do with their notebooks? Have you seen how awesome handwriting can be, and how some geniuses use and play with white space and text orientation and combine sketchwork with organisation?
And damnit, I wanted the pretty.So I decided, since I couldn't jettison the notebook, to embrace its presence a little more. Not to be my everything, the way the Bullet Journal method encouraged, because the endless writing and re-writing and migrating of tasks made me baulk. But to incorporate some prettiness: leave some white space on the page; add some drawings or sketches here or there; add some scrapbooking elements, or some colour.
I found the handwriting freed my mind from all its internal nagging; and the permission to sketch and scribble was meditative, which I've been sorely missing in my life for some time now.
And within a week it happened: I went from noting down my days on paper, to actively planning them that way. My cloud task-list languished, while my notebook — which didn't need firing up, or to bleat and beep and buzz at me — was filled with completed tasks. More and more, I've adopted the whole of the Bullet Journal approach, including a monthly, weekly and daily layout. The monthly and weekly layouts seem more about summarising and tracking than they are about planning ahead, but I find the zooming in/out at a page-flip extremely helpful for planning each day. And all that migrating and re-writing of tasks I was fearing? Isn't really happening, because instead I'm actually getting my tasks done.
I think this article on the pitfalls of the electronic to-do list goes some way towards explaining why I'm preferring the paper approach of late, and why it's working. I still have a Trello account to track big-scale projects, which would otherwise span years/multiple notebooks; but that's really only for projects with no discernable start and end dates (like writing on-spec manuscripts).
Anyone else find pen on paper indispensable? I'd love to hear why! Or have you managed to make the jump to the cloud without looking back?
Squawk asked for "two hair ponies! On a same side!" … and now she looks like someone Dr Seuss drew.
Squawk's back on the Duplo, which means I'm back on the Duplo, which means this is the best dinosaur I could make today.
"There's your meal, mummy."