Framing and Finishing: Of Housebuilding and Writing.

The first draft of a book is like a house under construction.

Saturday morning at a few minutes past midnight, I completed my work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir. Or at least, the first draft. The first draft of a book is like a house under construction: the foundation is poured, the framing’s done, the walls and windows and doors are in, and the roof. (And you hope it doesn’t leak.)

But inside, it’s a mess. The detritus left by the workers is scattered all over. The floors are plywood; the walls not yet wallboarded, the wiring and plumbing roughed in.  There is a lot of work left to do.

And so it is with a manuscript. It’s as messy and incomplete as the house. The garbage needs removing: the scenes that don’t add to the story, the plot line that complicates or goes nowhere, the characters who add nothing.

Walk through the house with a critical eye. Maybe a framed wall is in the wrong place; maybe you want a window where there isn’t one. Changes can still be made, although they’ll add time and take work. Better now than later, though. Later is much harder (ask anyone who’s renovated: a house or a book.)

Then it’s time to complete the plumbing and wiring, the connectors that link themes and plot and story together, often mostly unseen, and get the wallboard up.  Inspectors – or structural editors – are a good idea at this point. (Actually, the inspectors are almost certainly legally required, the structural editor isn’t – the analogy’s not perfect. But you get my drift.)

And then it’s time for the finishing. The painters and carpet layers, the cabinet makers, the tile installers, making sure the colours blend or contrast, the fine carpentry is precise, the transitions from room to room, carpet to hardwood to tile, are smooth. Another place a designer, or friends with good eyes and aesthetic sense, can help. Maybe your first choices are too trendy, too minimalist, too overblown. Is every space used well, not too crowded, not too empty? In the manuscript, I – or my beta readers, or my editor, or all of the above – are checking description, dialogue, and the cadence and flow of language, looking for monotony, purple prose, repetition, and a host of other things that affect the story.

Now the finishers are gone. Time for a thorough cleaning: they’ve been careful, but they can’t help leaving some mess. Sawdust in a corner; carpet threads; a dropped finishing nail or two. Time to sweep, to vacuum, to wash all the counters and floors. Time for the proof reading, and like sweeping and vacuuming and washing, use more than one technique: hire someone, listen to your book, change fonts. (There will still be one or two nails on the floor, or a drop of paint somewhere: it’s inevitable, just like the typos that slip through.)

And now the house – and the book – are done. While the finishing’s been happening, so has the exterior. You know your neighbourhood: what works?  Brick? Siding? Shingle? Stucco?  Same with the cover. Neighbourhoods and genres have their conventions, and you probably want to fit in without looking identical to every house on the street, or book on the bookstore shelf.

Right now, what I have is that mess: something that looks like a book, but inside is an unfinished jumble. There’s a lot of work to do before Empire’s Heir is a book someone will want to live inside. I’m letting it settle, and then I’ll start.

Love & Adversity on the High Seas

Emma Lombard decided she’d like to know a little more about her family history – and discovered a female ancestor who had run away to sea.

Emma Lombard’s Discerning Grace is a high seas adventure with an adventurous heroine – a young woman who runs away to sea rather than marry a boring old man. Here, Emma talks about the inspiration for Grace, what she does for fun, and what it means when she’s staring off into space.

What inspired you to write DISCERNING GRACE (Book 1)?

I’ve always been a little nosy—I know, I know … curiosity killed the cat! But back in 2001 during one of my regular letter-writing sessions to my grandmother in England, I decided I’d like to know a little more about our family history from the older generation. Once they’ve passed it’s so hard to find out what kinds of people they knew and the sorts of things they got up to.

So, my darling late grandmother, whom I was incredibly close to, indulgently began answering my questions and documenting memories of her own childhood and stories of ancestors. All it took was for me to read the opening to one of her letters and I just KNEW I had to write a story about it! This is what the letter said, ‘Your GGG grandmother was only 16 when she ran away from home to marry a sea captain … her family cut her off and she sailed the seas with him …’

Come on! What author couldn’t resist a little bit of real-life inspiration like that?

And so, that is how my purely fictional, historical naval adventure— with a dash of romance—blossomed. I’ve been thrilled by the journey of writing it and all the research too, but most of all, I’ve loved imagining the incredible courage and fortitude it would have taken my ancestor to choose such a life! Plus, there is my GGG grandfather’s side of the tale to consider too. As my grandmother put it, they were ‘obviously a very enlightened couple, and she a very, very liberated woman.’

What was the best piece of writing advice you received when starting out?

To give my main character, Grace Baxter, more agency instead of her being a victim of circumstance. I was pushed to get her to create and direct her own circumstances. This was a bit more of a challenge having a female lead character in the early 1800s because of societal restrictions on women in those days. But I also figured that there had to be pioneering women, even back then, who broke the mould. Since Grace is inspired by my three times great grandmother, who indeed bucked the norm in her day by leaving her well-to-do family in England to elope with an English sea captain and live with him at sea, I felt I had a little more leeway to play with when writing Grace’s character. And besides, what’s a rollicking romantic adventure without a feisty heroine!

What is your favourite historical era and why? Do you have a favourite historical female? Why?

I’m open when it comes to reading historical fiction through the different eras, from Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric The Clan of the Cave Bear, to Vikings and Romans, through to later centuries like in Wilbur Smith’s Courtney series. As for writing it, I’ve been so immersed in the 19th century since I’ve been writing my own books, that I have a soft spot for this era. There’s a great balance of knowledge and information out there since it wasn’t too long ago—say unlike the ancient Egyptian era. I have huge admiration for historical authors who write about ancient times. The research required for that is mammoth (snigger)!

While there are many well-known historical females, my research unearthed a whole world of unknown women whose stories have not had a spotlight shone on them. These have been my favourite historical females to find—mothers penning journals about parenthood, sisters writing letters to relatives from the other side of the world, wives aboard ships keeping diaries that recorded tiny details of daily life not captured in a ship’s log books. It took me ages to find some resources that spoke about women aboard ships who were not just there to entertain the sailors, but who played a pivotal role in sailing the ship, raising a family aboard, and supporting industrious endeavours. These are some of my favourites:

  • Seafaring Women by renowned historian, Linda Grant De Pauw
  • Female Tars by Suzanne J. Stark
  • Hen Frigates by maritime historian, Joan Durett
  • She Captains by maritime historian, Joan Durett

What message are you sharing in your books?

The themes in my first novel, DISCERNING GRACE (Book 1), include:

  • an independent woman
  • the importance of love over money
  • appearances can be deceiving
  • love can conquer all
  • triumph over adversity

Does each book stand alone, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?

I love reading a long series where you can immerse yourself into another world and get to know the characters intimately through several books, so it felt perfectly natural for me to write a series too. It has been a joy to evolve my characters from their young and naïve selves in the first book, and mature them through their life experiences in subsequent books. Discerning Grace (Book 1) is out now. The second book is nearly ready to publish, and I have complete draft manuscripts for books three and four.

A movie producer wants to turn your book into a movie and you get to make a cameo. What would you do in the movie?

Ooo, isn’t this every writer’s dream!

Due to the nature of my story aboard a 19th century Royal Naval tall ship, there aren’t that many female characters, though I could play no role on the ship since I get hideously sea sick!

I would have to stick with a role that is safe on land, so perhaps one of the dinner guests in my opening scene.

You have created images for your main characters, how does that help you write them?

I asked my beta readers to send me images of real-life people who they thought most looked like Seamus and Grace. Those images, along with the descriptions from my book, created the basis for the artwork I’ve commissioned (because I can barely draw a stick man!) They turned out exactly as I envisaged them in my mind’s eye!

It has been marvellous to have them drawn so young and fresh when we first meet them. For the subsequent books in the series, I can envisage the deepening of Seamus’s smile line beside his mouth, or the crow’s feet around Grace’s aquamarine eyes. I don’t necessarily speak to my characters, but I do sit and watch them interact and play out scenes in my head (it must look like I’m staring into space, and not working, when I do this!) I only need to look at their body language in their artwork for an inspirational reminder about how they react physically and verbally to different situations.

Since I own this artwork, I’ve actually created my own Redbubble store called, By-the-Book (yes, like the name of my newsletter), where my readers can grab their own favourite keepsakes.

What do you do for fun? What does a perfect day look like?

In everyday life, I’m Mum to four teenage sons—my men children, all of whom are taller than me—and two cantankerous cats who often thrash it out for a spot on my lap! I live in the perpetually sunny city of Brisbane in Australia. I love building jigsaw puzzles (especially Wasgij, backwards puzzles), playing Candy Crush (my secret shame!), and playing board games with my boys—though gone are the days when used to I beat them, they whip me soundly now. And I totally suck at Risk! Having raised four rambunctious boys, my perfect day these days constitutes solitude and silence. It doesn’t matter where, as long as those two ingredients are present.

AUTHOR BIO

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series.

Connect with Emma: WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramGoodreads

A Changed World

It became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions.

A year plus 10 days ago, I was in Rome, experiencing the feel of the city and visiting locations that would be settings in Empire’s Heir: the Imperial Palace, the Baths of Caracalla, others. The virus was a problem further north in Italy, but I had no worries about going to Rome. The world changed rapidly after that – we flew home to Canada from England a month later from an eerily empty airport, on a half-full flight, to restrictions that have fluctuated in gravity, but never gone away.

I hadn’t started Empire’s Heir yet: I had a general idea of the story, but little else. After I started writing it, it became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions, and the meaning of space as something both necessary and isolating.

In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, we were introduced to my protagonist Lena. Eighteen, facing war and hardships, she remains remarkably resilient – although not unscarred – throughout the three books. At the beginning of Empire’s Heir, she is forty. Mourning the sudden death of her third, unexpected child, she’s trying to make sense of her life.  Events set in motion at the birth of her oldest child, Gwenna, are shaping affairs both political and personal. She’s floundering, trying to reclaim some control of her own destiny – and she’s lost some of the resilience she had as a younger woman.

Cillian, thirty-three when we first meet him in Empire’s Hostage, is fifty-three. In a 7th century world, he’s far from young, and he’s coming to terms with the restrictions and losses of age.

I was growing old, and age brought loss, of things small and great: the acuity of hearing, the rapidity of thought… I had thought I accepted this decline; that my injuries had taught me to live with things lost.

The subplot of trying to live with loss, to rebuild lives shaken by uncertainty and unexpected change and its aftershocks, runs through the story, shaping it as I write. I can immerse myself in history and my faux-7th-century world. But the real world intrudes, influences, insists on inclusion, if in subtle and hidden ways; some, I may not even realize. Is this the book I would have written had there been no pandemic?  I doubt it.

Featured Image: The Aurelian Walls, Rome: Lalupa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? The Borgias

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Neil Jordan’s The Borgias, especially Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia. This isn’t a period I know much about, and so it was instructive in the general history of the time and place, if not the details.

But how well does it really reflect the time period?  To answer that question, I turned to Anthony R. Wildman, author of The Diplomat of Florence, a novel of Machiavelli.  Machiavelli’s life intersected with the Borgias, and like most people, I knew little about him except his reputation and that he wrote a book called The Prince. So when I had a chance to review Wildman’s novel for Helen Hollick’s historical fiction website Discovering Diamonds, I jumped at it. 

Here’s what Tony Wildman had to say about The Borgias:

In 2011 the world was treated to not one but two versions of the story of the Borgia family presented in the form of a TV series. Probably the most famous and immediately recognisable was the Showcase series, which starred Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, pope Alexander VI. It certainly had the superior budget, was lavish and beautiful looking, and fulfilled the key criteria of being an entertaining retelling of the story.

But for my money, the lesser known French-German-Czech version called Borgia: Faith and Fear was more interesting, and marginally more historically accurate (though that should not be the prime criteria for judging what is, after all, a work of fiction). Where Showtime gave us a version that was consistent with modern sensibilities, the European series felt much more historical.

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical. Assassination, whether by the knife or poison, was a routine tool of statecraft; power was everything, and those who possessed it could do the most outrageous things with impunity; supposedly celibate cardinals and popes had mistresses and children who they openly acknowledged and used for the extension of their own power; political alliances were abandoned without a moment’s regret; and women were for the most part powerless chattels who had no expectation of ever being allowed to choose their own husband. In this world, the Borgias were perhaps a little more extreme than their rivals and enemies, but only a little more; indeed, much of their reputation for depravity was manufactured by their successors in power, who were themselves just as guilty of the sins of simony and treachery. And that is where Borgia: Faith and Fear is more faithful to the times.

In the American series, we are invited to be shocked at the way the Borgias behave, mostly by means of setting up the Borgias’ principal enemy, cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, as a ‘good guy’ who is constantly outraged by the behaviour of his nemesis. But in the European version, we are spared any of that moralising, and the bad behaviour (some of it very bad) is presented almost without comment. As a result, you feel as though you are watching real, actual 15th century people, and that is quite a trick for anyone to pull off, on the screen or on paper.

You can check out Anthony Wildman’s books on his website. Many thanks to Tony for this article!

Legacy of the Brightwash, by Krystle Matar: A Release Day Review

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world.

The choices we make are complex, and our reasons for making them sometimes understood, sometimes not. We are influenced by our upbringing, our society and its place in it; by an immediate situation. Sometimes no choice is right, or safe, or even moral: like Odysseus, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, deciding which choice leads to the least grief.

Tashué Blackwood, the protagonist of Legacy of the Brightwash, is a man who has had to make such a choice. In a complex world of power and subservience, Tashué walks carefully, following the law and staying safe, even through the imprisonment of his son for refusing to give in to the laws of the Authority and register his Talent; even through seeing his son’s mother taken to a breeding program to give more children with Talent to the Authority.

But all men have a breaking point. For Tashué, it is the discovery of a mutilated child’s body on the banks of the Brightwash, a child with an unfamiliar tattoo on its neck. Torn by offered power and influence; by a woman whose love is forbidden to him; by his love for his son and by his own conscience, Tashué is a man fighting not only a corrupt society, but his own past.

Krystle Matar’s debut novel has both outstanding world-building and character development. There is nothing superficial or stereotypical about either her world or the people in it. While clear parallels can be drawn between Matar’s fictional world and our own, it stands as a unique creation. We are shown pieces of its structure, but like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle the outline is there, and some parts are more complete than others, but it’s not a finished picture – just like most of us don’t have a thorough picture of our own histories, either personal or of the world in which we live. Instead we have hints, echoes, memories, allowing the reader to slowly build a concept of what has shaped both the world and its inhabitants.

It’s an immersive world: Matar uses all our senses to evoke luxury, horror, pain, exhaustion, love. Characters’ thoughts are shown to us, their fears and obsessions, their momentary joys, their disgust and doubts. That Tashué is a tormented man is made abundantly clear. Matar is a skilled writer: words and sentences and paragraphs flow, show, sometimes overwhelm the reader with sensation and emotion.

The magic – Talent – is nearly irrelevant to the book, except as a metaphor for difference, for something that can be used to separate one group of people from another, to control and degrade – and sometimes because of that constant debasement, explode. The truth behind the mutilated child is both horrifying and a logical extension of the arrogance and privilege of the ruling class who see only themselves as truly human.

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world. Its ending raises more questions than it answers: mysteries have been solved, but Tashué is far from being free of conflict – nor is he likely to be. Truly a magnificent first novel. I look forward to its sequel.

Featured image: Image by Brigitte is always pleased to get a coffee from Pixabay 

Kinds of Love

On this day that has become synonymous with celebrating love, I’m thinking about how May Sarton’s book influenced mine.

Many long years ago, I read a novel called Kinds of Love, by May Sarton. It is about exactly what the title implies – so many different ways to love: love of friends, love of a spouse, love of wild things and the land, love of children, love of place, and how all those things combine to create belonging. It was one of those books that stayed with me: not the details of it, but its wisdom and its truths.

So on this day that has become synonymous with celebrating love, I’m thinking about how May Sarton’s book influenced mine – all five (soon to be six) of mine, because while they are not romances, different kinds of love also anchors all my books.

Love is at the heart of the key conflicts of the books: love of place conflicting with love of a person; love of a person conflicting with love of family; love of an ideal sometimes conflicting with both. In the name of love, compromises are made, sacrifices offered, lives voluntarily restricted to meld with another’s. The deep love between friends is as important as sexual love; the love of family – both found and biological – creates both tension and peace.

Children are conceived and born, changing lives, bringing yet another sort of love. People die, and death rocks and challenges relationships, and questions if love is worth the pain. Love is sometimes for an idea, or an ideal: the greater good, the world that could be; sometimes it is for the minutiae that makes up lives: the familiar, mundane moments. Love is sometimes at the edge of relationships, the intrigue of what might have been; sometimes it is past, gone, remembered fondly or with regret. Love is sometimes rejected, sometimes fought against, rarely simple.

Because isn’t that what love is? Not the romance associated with February 14th, not red hearts and roses (although they have their place), but the complex intertwining of lives, needing patience and forgiveness, sharing and space, always a balancing act.

In the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, four of my main characters have been together for nearly twenty years, through war and its aftermath and the creation of a new peace. But life is not static, and as challenges both political and personal are changing their lives again, whether they can find a new balance will be, once more, a question of love.

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Featured Image: Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

Marco Polo & Kublai Khan: Two Views

Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

In my monthly newsletter, News from the Empire, I’ve started a new section on historical dramas and books that complement them. I’ll be reposting those to my blog occasionally. This is the first.

I watch a lot of historical dramas, although ‘historical’ should often be taken with a grain of salt. (Or a bag of salt, in some cases.) Right now we’re watching Marco Polo on Netflix, and I’m finding it – regardless of its poor reviews – both entertaining and beautiful. Partly this is because I was in Mongolia in 2019, and while the show is filmed in Kazakhstan, the terrain is nearly identical, the horses actually look like the thousands of Mongolian steppe horses we saw, and I slept in a ger (yurt) camp for 5 nights. (We were in the Altai mountains, looking for – and finding – a snow leopard.) So it’s very familiar in terms of landscape, which is always my anchor. 

Some companion reading from the Mongol viewpoint can be found in Bryn Hammond’s books. A good place to start would be with Against Walls, described by the Asian Review of Books as ‘Total and instant immersion… thoroughly compelling and powerful.’ 

Here is what Bryn answered when I asked her what she thought of Marco Polo:

I think John Fusco’s Marco Polo on Netflix had an odd reception. It seemed to me audiences weren’t ready for these Mongols. I watched in frustration as reviewers who had little exposure to Mongol history suspected historical license and didn’t see the truths the series told. Scholars of the Mongols didn’t necessarily like it either, because of its fictional strategies.

It got a few big things right. It presented real Mongol culture. It acknowledged the freedoms and political agency of Mongol women. It did justice to the cosmopolitan court of Khubilai Khan. Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

Khubilai – performed with human substance by Benedict Wong – perhaps should have been the titular character. As seen in the series, he staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian. He was a conscious innovator in the old world of China. For example, he introduced a universal script, Phagspa. It didn’t outlive its sponsor, but nevertheless was a great experiment in change. Imagine if the script to write all languages, functional and effective as it was, had been more easily accepted, instead of rejected by conservatives.

There are different ways to understand ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. I have my own creed by which to write my novels, in that I treat my origin text, the Secret History of the Mongols, as sacred, nothing to be changed or omitted if it’s in there. But the Secret History is as much a work of art as of history-writing. So, I try to be true to Mongol artistry, as well as Mongol self-portrayal. Is that the same as ‘history’? Yes and no. History’s a slippery animal.

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Switching Brains

My ADHD brain is easily overwhelmed by switching tasks – so how do I do it?

In last week’s post about the key lessons I’ve learned from years of project-based work, one raised questions in several readers’ minds:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.

People were curious about the concept of rituals to prepare the mind for a new task. There are two ideas from educational theory and psychology embedded here, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In a 2017 article, Alison Wood Brooks, the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of a series of planned behaviours (a ritual) on the performance of people facing a stressful task. Her findings indicated ‘performing a ritual before entering a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance.’ Add to that the idea of giving your mind a bit of time to move from one area of focus to another, plus the benefits of movement on creativity (for more detail, read this paper by Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz), and you have some of the science behind the idea of the planned transition from one task to the other. (If you think back to your high school days, this is pretty much what the break between classes was for: move a bit, go to you locker, switch textbooks/notebooks – telling your brain that chemistry is done, now it’s time for history.)

The second part of this is ‘activating prior knowledge’. There are a lot of ways for a writer to use this concept of building on what you already know, but in this specific example, it’s again part of the transition. Once the transition activities (the ritual) are done, you bring yourself back into the work by reading the last 500 words you wrote, or your notes, or your outline. This is pretty much the writing equivalent of the recap scenes at the beginning of some television series. (Those of us who don’t binge watch are very appreciative of these. After a week away from a show, I need those reminders!)  

In my house, we use the shorthand ‘switching brains’. Time to write the weekly grocery list just after I’ve finished an editing session? ‘Wait till I switch brains’, I’ll say to my husband. Then I walk around a bit, stretch, water plants, pick up the cat – that sort of thing – before I look at the menu board, and the whiteboard that has all the things we’ve scrawled down that we need during the week (activating prior knowledge again), find paper and pen, and begin the list with a mind ready to focus on it, and not wondering if that last paragraph still needs refining.

These are some of the things that keep my ADHD brain, which is easily overwhelmed by cognitive load, productive. They won’t work for everyone, and like all habits, they take time and commitment to develop. What techniques do you use to help with balance and focus when juggling a multitude of tasks?

Coffee Cup image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Featured image:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

How does my project-based work experience help me as a writer?

A writing friend, who will remain unnamed (but he knows who he is) suggested the idea of an anthology of novellas the other day, an idea which immediately intrigued me. But I have a book to finish, and a lot of other projects and responsibilities: editing for a client, reading for blog tours and a review site, marketing (my own books plus our press’s), research, the community newsletter for which I’m the chair, a local writers’ group, and then all those things that are not work but life. How do I fit in a novella?

Most of the work I did in my previous professional lives, which spanned roughly thirty-five years, was project based. As a research associate, I juggled lab and field research for several professors and graduate students. As a special education consultant for our school district, I was responsible for special education services to 15 schools, K – 12; two teams of itinerant teachers, and the entire design and implementation of assistive technology services and training for the whole district, as well as many other required responsibilities. I had to visit my schools regularly, consult with and train teachers and educational assistants, liaise with parents….the list was endless. And yet, somehow, it all got done.

Reflecting on all those years of project-based work, what did I learn that now helps me? 

  1. Taking time to plan is a necessity. Not only that, plan backwards from hard deadlines. If I must have X ready on Feb 28th, what do I need to do to be there?  How much time do I need to do it? Schedule that time plus 10%. Plan yearly, monthly and weekly, and revisit your plans every morning to tweak as necessary.
  2. Be firm with yourself. If you schedule 2 hours to work on something, give it the two hours. At 1 hr 45, stop. Write the notes you need to pick up on it again, but that’s it. Move on to the next thing.
  3. Have a system for notes, so when an idea for project X pops into your head when you’re working on Y, record it, in whatever way works for you, and go back to project X.
  4. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
  5. Schedule down time, when your brain can just ponder on things. In my scientist days, that was either the walk between home and the university, which took about forty minutes each way, or the time spent driving out to research plots.  In my special ed days, the schools I was responsible for were anywhere from a half hour to an hour’s drive from my office. (I drove a lot.) Good mulling-over time.  Now it’s my daily walk, or my weekly get-out-of-the-city drive, or just my armchair in the late evening with a whisky and music.
  6. Do what’s most important first. I write between 8 and 10 in the morning: I may write more, but I get those two hours in at least 5 days a week. Then I work on other things scheduled by deadlines and importance. And don’t forget to schedule exercise and meals!!! (For a more detailed look at this, see this earlier post.)
  7. Be realistic, and do not spread yourself too thin – that way lies burnout. Say no to things, both to things your own writer’s brain offers you, and external things. Do they fit right now?  If marketing and branding matter to you, do they increase your exposure and promote your brand to the right market?  If they fit, but you don’t have time for them, take an hour, write some notes, and file it for when you’re finished what you’re doing now.
  8. Know when you need a break. For those of us who work full time from home, either as a result of COVID or because that’s what you always did, it’s really easy for the days to just blur and to work every single one of them. I mentioned my get-out-of-the city drives; I do these alone, with a packed lunch and a thermos of coffee in these COVID days, and I’m gone for 4 – 6 hours. Just me, the road, and music. If I don’t do this, I get very, very grumpy.
  9. Ask for help. No one else can write for you, but can they take something else off your plate to give you a little more time? Or give you feedback on a plot point or structure?  I’m blessed with a husband who’ll do all these things. If the project is externally driven, ask for extensions, or submit drafts for feedback before you get too far into it.
  10. Build in time for emergencies. This was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me. They will happen, whether it’s as simple as a jammed printer or as serious as a visit to the emergency room. Nothing ever goes as planned. Equipment breaks, someone phones, a child or pet is sick, you’re unwell. Effectively, this means I leave one full day in my week unscheduled (separate from my driving day) – a catch up day if I need it, a day to do what I want if I don’t.

Gods, you may be thinking, I just like to write. What I’m reading here feels like a JOB. I write when I can, or when inspiration strikes, and I’m happy with that. If you are, that is wonderful, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I know my situation – my time is my own, without pressing family responsibilities just now – isn’t everyone’s. But if you’re struggling a bit with getting everything done, perhaps what I gleaned from decades in project-based work can help.

Epiphany

A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I am ten years old, or maybe eleven. No older. I am wearing green shorts and a yellow shirt. I am alone; I often am: this is another time, another world, southern Ontario in the late 1960s. I can smell the dust of a July afternoon, feel the heat of the sun, see the purple of the vetch that lines the farm lane: the moment is fixed in my memory.

I’ve been out in the fields and woods, exploring, pretending, observing. The woodlot lies a quarter mile directly south of our house, twenty acres or so of field between the Norway spruce that line the southern edge of our yard and the woods. This is my world, and I share it with animals and birds I know: rabbits, groundhogs, the occasional skunk; crows, sparrows, robins.

I have – or rather my brother has, because this is meant to be a boy’s pursuit – a bird book written for young people. I look at it often; I like knowing the names of things: trees, birds, flowers, rocks. Even then I find my place in the world through its landscape – or, more precisely, although the word is not widely in use yet – the ecosystem that surrounds me.

It’s midafternoon, and I’m hungry. I’m heading home for a snack. Am I running? I think I might be. A bird flies up from beside the lane. I stop, in a moment of recognition and delight: a bright yellow breast, a distinct black V. A meadowlark, I tell myself. I’ve seen a meadowlark. Wonder suffuses me. They live here. They are real. A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I will go on to see hundreds, if not thousands, of meadowlarks across the Americas, to recognize their whistled, flute-like song as a harbinger of spring, to mourn their decline as a grassland bird. As agriculture in southern Ontario changed, fields that were once pasture now grow corn and soybeans; hayfields are cut earlier, destroying nests; old fields on the edges of towns become housing developments. I have to look for meadowlarks now.  But every first meadowlark of spring takes me back, just for a moment, to that ten-year-old realizing a world of wild beauty lay both beyond and within the familiar one, if I had the eyes to see.

Featured image: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62440