Sunday, May 17, 2009

Imposing Order on Chaos

Wow, for the first time in a month I have no unopened e-mails in my inbox and I deleted enough that everything fits in the little window without scrolling down. I hate having a lot of stuff sitting in my inbox, which got me thinking about a post I read on Write to Done asking writers for their three best writing tips. Since before I got to it, the comments were pretty full, I thought I'd post my tips here on my blog.

Only, my writing tips aren't specifically about the act of writing. They have more to do with finding your own system for imposing order on the chaos that allows you time to write and just as important, to submit, preferably successfully.

The common wisdom is that creative minds tend to be chaotic. In my early years, I was the poster child for that theory receiving regular "N"s for "Needs Improvement" on report cards that factored that into our grade. We were required to keep a loose-leaf notebook with dividers for each subject which teachers took a perverse delight in turning upside down and shaking, bringing attention to my wayward habits of not punching holes correctly or placing reinforcements over them once I had.

To this day I can't punch uniform holes in papers, even with a three-hole punch, let alone the single-hole jobs we carried in our schoolbags. Only now it doesn't matter, because I choose to keep my important papers in folders and file boxes as opposed to binders that take up too much room anyway.

Which, finally, brings me to my point. Even writers need some kind of system. Sitting in a cube at O So Boring, Inc. you may have dreamed of a life where all you did was write all day. When that day comes, you soon realize that there's more to it than that. No one comes to weed through your Word files and take out what they want to publish. You need to submit, and submitting requires a system––top-tier down or bottom-tier up––along with recordkeeping. so you don't submit the same story twice to the same market or submit again too soon or simultaneously submit when it's not allowed (okay, we all cheat on that last one). You need to keep receipts for office supplies and contest fees so if/when you do win $,1000 or get that big advance on your book contract, you don't, unfairly, pay taxes on the full amount. If you freelance, you need to track deadlines, invoices, and payments. In short, you need to "get organized"––two words that not only strike fear in the hearts of creative people, but appear anathema to the process.

This is only because the self-proclaimed "orderly" people insist––like my teachers with their binders––on one method of organization. For years I struggled with the supposition that "order" required a clear desk, that stacks of papers on the desk and floor equaled chaos. Papers placed in hanging folders in file cabinets equaled order. Only, for me, out of sight was out of mind, and I'd forget to do things that weren't right in front of me.

In reality, this is one time where the end really does justify the means. I do keep a spreadsheet for my submissions, but if that reminds you too much of your old office job, there's nothing chaotic about keeping a list in any old wordprocessing document. The point is just to have the information somewhere that you can easily check it. My expense tracking for tax purposes amounts to throwing all my receipts in the same drawer all year long and then weeding through them when it's time to file my return. Deadline reminders can be notes on a desktop calendar, a calendar system on your laptop, or stickies on your wall, and don't underestimate the use of storage bins for everything from manuscripts to journals you've been published in.

So, my tip to writers is, don't underestimate the need to get organized. It's as important in writing as it is in any business or even everyday life. However, recognize that the goal is to impose order on the chaos, not to necessarily do it the way your fifth grade teacher said it should be done. You'd be surprised how easy it is when you do it your own way.

1 comment:

CashewElliott said...

"Only, for me, out of sight was out of mind, and I'd forget to do things that weren't right in front of me."

Me to a T. So I have crap lying everywhere. as soon as I put it in a file, it's gone. Eek. Makes me think that I was supposed to do something today, but I don't know what. I know it has something to do with all the files I shoved stuff into two days ago. Do I dare open the drawer to figure it out?

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