Tracking your work with the help of calendars, notebooks and lists is probably one of the most neglected aspects of being an author, and yet I don’t think we can live without them. We certainly can’t write effectively without them.
(I can hear the criticism in my head by now. Malcolm Lowry, for example, wrote “Under the Volcano,” one of the great novels of the 20th century, without the help of a year-at-a-glance calendar. Do I think William S. Burroughs carried a notebook with him and wrote down everything he ate and thought? Actually, yes he did. And so did Lowry.
In short, writers use whatever tools are available to them to preserve their ideas, keep track of their work, and get their books written.
When you’re in the middle of a big project, you may be thinking about weeks or months. It’s easy to lose track of the days. You may not have a problem with missing deadlines, losing track of your business, and solving a crisis at the last minute. But if a little foresight a planning can help avoid those traps, that leaves you enough energy to direct toward finishing your books. And isn’t that why were here?
That’s where calendars come in handy. They range from wall-sized models that display a year to individual pages that you can create with Microsoft Publisher in MS Office. I use the latter option when I want to print out only one or two months as part of a special project.
Calendars can be used to keep track of any important task, including public appearances, book deadlines, monthly writer’s club meetings, tasks that have to be performed at a certain time, such as entering contests, and tax deadlines. A 12-month wall calendar can let you plot your publishing schedule, starting with the manuscript deadline and including dates to have the manuscript edited, cover art created, and marketing efforts in place. You can even add tasks that you want to perform at the beginning of the month that are not tied to a particular date, such as checking your book inventory well ahead of public events so you can order new copies in plenty of time.
Plotting your activities on a 12-month calendar lets coordinate your activities so there are no conflicts. It lets you determine your productivity and estimate how much money you could earn. You can adjust your deadlines well ahead of time so you can stay on top of your work.
Outside the Box: Consider adding a multi-year calendar to your arsenal. Create a timeline, consisting of a single line, marked off by years and subdivided into months. Use it to keep track of notable events: book publications, public appearances, and any major signposts that you want to recall.
The one we use at Peschel Press covers the years 2010, when my first book “Writers Gone Wild” was published, and stretches to 2018. I have consulted it while writing promotional material and to remind me how far I’ve come in a few years, and what I needed to do to get better.
Hi, I’m Bill Peschel, and I carry a notebook.
Hello. Thanks for helping me get this off my chest. I’ve been carrying a notebook for about ten years. I started small, a little 10-pager from a supply my dad saved from his job at the steel mill. That wasn’t enough, so I moved up to a 25-page spiral-bound job you can fit in a shirt pocket. But my need grew. I’m up to a 200-page spiral-bound with plasticized covers that could fit in a pants pocket if they’re big enough.
Oh, I resisted. Dorothy Parker sneered at a certain type of writer who carried a notebook around. It seemed so pretentious. Can’t you just write? It’s like Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman, who was immersed in the Method technique, “why don’t you try acting, dear boy?”
Now, I can’t live without my notebook. It’s attached to my hand like an appendage. I like notebooks, and I think you should use one as well. I’m a notebook pusher.
1. Portable. You can carry one everywhere. If the spiral holding the pages together is big enough, you can clip a pen to it so you’re never without one.
2. Requires no power, no software, no learning. Just grab and go.
3. Flexible. Start on page one (I start on page two, in case the first page gets damaged) and go straight through. Or keep a daily task list in the front section and use the back for recording speech, images, and ideas.
4. You can tear out notes for other purposes.
5. You can record anything and everything: to-do lists, story ideas, article drafts, bon mots and quotations from books and magazines. It’s a commonplace book, diary, self-help assistant, partner, and friend.
6. Nearly unlimited storage.
7. If you lose it, well, you lost a notebook. It’s not like you lost your smartphone.
Many authors use their notebooks to record their impressions during the day. Some of them, such as Mark Twain’s, have been published, so you can look over their shoulder and see their working habits. Other notebook-using authors include Agatha Christie (where she worked out her plots); Alexis de Tocqueville (he recorded by subject information used in “Democracy in America”; talk about writing by file folder!); Charles Darwin (scientific observations mixed with conversations and lists of books to read); Ernest Hemingway (experiences he would use in his stories, plus expenses, gifts and — for his first wife — her menstrual cycles); Jane Austen (dramatic sketches, verse, and moral observations); and Katherine Mansfield (everything, from shopping lists to story drafts).
3. Lists: I Hate Them / I Love Them
I love lists like I love diets. I’ve been on hundreds of weight-loss plans, and I’ve written out hundreds of to-do lists, yet I never seem to reach my goals with either of them.
That used to bum me out. I’d feel terrible when I go to the trouble to write down everything I have to do, only to get bored and irritated seeing that hectoring, nagging list, and I’d end up throwing it away. A few weeks later, there I am at the computer writing up another one.
I’m avoiding two lists right now. There’s a printed sheet of paper on my desk with these items:
* Seven ideas for posts
* Next actions for two books (one of them crossed off as finished)
* Six items for Peschel Press business (the January newsletter was done in February, the January report finished a week late, and I’ve added the rest of the year’s books to my spreadsheet but I haven’t crossed that off yet.
* Two handwritten tasks, unfinished.
* Two major projects born of recent ideas, also unfinished.
Does that make me a hate-lister? Probably. I’m not the very model of a Type A author. I’m as disciplined as Beetle Bailey, I am the despair of the writer I want to be.
Then I realized something: I was more productive with a list than without one. True, I never finished a single list I wrote out, but I still got things done. I didn’t lose track of my tasks, and some of the things on there it turned out I didn’t need to do now.
Writers get better by keeping their eyes, ears, and mind open to the truth: about life, about love, about people, and about themselves. Because we’re tool-users, we can learn how to get better.
In the case of calendars, notebooks, and lists, there’s a fourth element that we can use to make efficient use of them, and that is accountability.
Outside the Box: I found a powerful tool that helps me keep track of my work.
Here it is:
It’s a checkbox. Simple. Elegant. Begging to be filled in.
I use it in my notebook to identify tasks that I need to accomplish. It could be a question that needs answering, a book that needs ordering, or a plot idea that needs to be filed away. When I review the previous week’s work, I can spot instantly those tasks that I can check off.
I use checkboxes elsewhere. When I’m proofing a manuscript on paper, I place a check at the top of pages that don’t need fixing, and a checkbox on those that do. So when I’m flipping through the pages later, I can stop where I need to rather than scan each page for red marks. In a 500-page manuscript (double-spaced), those seconds saved can add up!
4. Private Accountant
What is accountability? It means having some way of evaluating what we’re doing, and holding ourselves responsible for what we do and don’t do.
This is a fuzzy concept, but what it boils down to is having someone looking over your shoulder who, at regular intervals, meets with you to see what’s going on, what needs to be done, and what you’re going to do next.
It could be your spouse. It could be a friend. It could be the Internet. It could be yourself.
Here’s how we do it at Peschel Press: Every Sunday night, my wife and I grab our favorite beverage and meet in the office. We go over the to-do list on the whiteboard. We cross off the finished tasks and go over what needs to be done. Do they still need to be there? Does it need to be modified? Then we add new tasks to the list, focusing on what the next action should be, that specific task that could be done in a day that would push that project forward. The list is prioritized so that the most important items are at the top.
Then we check the 12-month calendar, see what’s coming, and decide if there’s anything that needs to be done.
That’s it. There’s no recriminations over the tasks left undone. Even a Type A author would have a problem finishing the dozen items we usually have on the board.
Sunday is also the day I look through the previous week’s entries in my notebook and make sure nothing was missed.
That’s it. The Sunday business meeting is also a time for us to consider new ideas, reconsider the value of old ones, and make mid-course corrections.