Managing Yourself

It used to be a joke between my husband and I, when I started writing full time.  He’d come home, find me particularly cross and ask if it was a rough day at the office, and if the characters had refused to obey.

He did not know it wasn’t as much of a joke as he thought, nor, to be fair, did I.  Nor that the problem wasn’t so much the characters but the employee of my own, self owned business.

Much is said about how to “behave like a business person” but very few people tell you how to be a business.To be fair, that was less important under traditional publishing models.  I always thought it funny when I was told things like “remember it’s your career, you’re in control” because we had practically no control.  Our decisions on what to write, when, what to let molder in the drawer, whether series would be finished or left hanging mid-series, or even if our books would be distributed in such a way that the fans could find them, or not show up in any bookstores and not be listed as part of the series (cough) at Amazon was not ours.

Sure, if you were a bestseller and they were eager to make you happy, you had some control. (Depending on the house, you might have a great deal of control or just the ability to move release dates and request a new cover.)

I was mentored by and grew up as a writer around a few bestsellers and mega bestsellers, and even they had to take contracts they’d rather not, let a book go they really wanted to write, or write a book they had almost no interest in, because the publisher demanded it.

In fact, honestly, there wasn’t a ton of difference between bestsellers, even mega bestsellers, and those of us trapped in the purgatory of midlist.

The thing you could apply to both of us is that we couldn’t call our souls our own.  You had to dance to the tune, and more importantly, you had to pretend to enjoy it.  In such circumstances, telling you to manage your career was like telling a beggar extending his bowl out in the cold and damp to manage his income.

If you got to J. K. Rowling’s status, what we called the “drop dead” status, you could do whatever you wanted, of course.  The reason we called it the “drop dead” status is that you could tell your publisher to drop dead, and before you hung up there would be a limo at the door to take you to your contract signing for a few million with one of the rivals.  There were at any given time maybe 10 people in the world at that level. And sometimes fewer.

But — and this is germane — traditional publishing did have something that was useful for the writer: structure.

You could, of course, sign a contract and never deliver, but, weirdly, the number of people who do that is miniscule.  Most people who sign contracts consider themselves honor bound to fulfill them.  But creative work being what it is, and us working from home, it helps to know someone else is waiting, and someone else WILL nag you.

Of course, that’s also part of working for trad. The less you want to do a book (and with me, often — more often than I’d like — it’s not the book but how I feel about the house) the harder it is to stop being called away by a million little things that happen around you every day (one of my bestseller friends told me to book weeks in hotels. As many as I wanted finished books. Because you had to isolate yourself to make it happen.)

Weirdly getting prodded at regular intervals did get the work done. Even if you didn’t appreciate it.  (There was a book, weirdly the highest grossing in royalties for me, which means it’s doubled my advance) which I truly had NO interest in writing (it was work for hire, and I’d applied for a different one in the series, but been given that one, because no one else wanted it.)  But I did have an interest in paying two mortages, as we were attempting to sell the first house. And so, I accepted the contract, but couldn’t sit my but in chair to do it. Until the book not only had a cover, but I was getting DAILY phone calls.  Which is when I wrote the book in three days.  (In my defense, part of the delay was that I’d got severe concussion and was dealing with vision changes, fugue states and who knew what else.)

The good news that you are now free and you can tell whomever you want (including your readers, though I never found reason for it, since I like mine. But you know, if you really feel a need to say tell people you hate them for nominating you for an award, you can do so.  It will only cost you your name not your career.  Hell, it might not even cost you your name.  It’s been borne upon me that not only are conventions irrelevant, our internet games might be also. There is a public that buys on Amazon but is not on social media nor reads blogs. Indications are it’s the majority.) to drop dead comes with the bad news that you are now both boss and employee, and that writers are horrible employees, full of bad habits, slaves to their fancies and absolutely unreliable. The only thing you can say for us is that we’re not as bad as artists.

If you’re laughing at the preceding paragraph, you shouldn’t. It really is very hard to manage yourself.  We used to have a joke in the field that when people quit their day job to write full time they’ll never finish a book again.

The joke is not wrong. It’s very difficult to discipline yourself to the use of time without artificial constraints, and the whole day which stretched in front of you gets eaten up by little stuff (I call it nibbled by ducks) so writing never happens.

I’ve faced this twice now, once when I quit to stay home and write, after the move to Colorado. (Impaired by toddler, of course.) and once when the kids went to college.  I’d been used to setting my writing hours by the hours they were in school, and suddenly that structure was gone, which weirdly, translated into less writing.

And I’m facing it again now, with dispensing with the “nagging by publisher” in going indie.

So, some of the things below are what I’ve done and some what I need to do.  And some are what I have done and need to learn to do again, now that the moves are over and I need to set a routine again.  Of course I could have chosen a better year for this than the year of two weddings and hopefully no funeral, in which duties to our sons, duties to our parents, and remaining duties to my outgoing publisher are likely to keep me traveling all over the country (and abroad) from March through September. (And I suspect that’s only because the family hasn’t come up with things for us to do in October yet.) But one does what one can.  And in the turmoil getting discipline into my writing, that is, managing my sole employee who happens to be me is extremely necessary.

Here go a few things to attempt:

1- Set a schedule to write.  This works wonderfully.  I used to set Saturday morning aside for short stories and got so trained to it that when we were out of town for the weekend, the story arrived unbidden at the right time.

1a. Your schedule might be dependent on children, or day job, but try to set it to the clock, not “when I’m done with” or “until they come back from school. Otherwise when you lose that, you lose the writing.

1b. Shut the door. This means both the physical door and facebook and other distractions.  Pretend it’s an office, and the boss is looking over your shoulder (well, you are.)  You can see music being allowed, but is your boss really going to be happy at your browsing facebook?

2- Keep to the project.  No, seriously. Your first impulse on going indie is to think “I can write anything!  And you will write 10 beginnings. Then 100.  And never have anything to show for it.
Set a publication schedule and try to keep to it (yes, I’m already running late. What else is new?)  DO NOT let yourself start new books till that one is done.  Starts are always more attractive than finishes.

3- Set up periodic schedule revisions, but don’t be too lax with yourself.

Look, this month I’m really late because I caught cold from hell. And every time I try to work I set myself back again.  So, yeah, one of the books will have to be moved, and the other needs to be finished today and tomorrow.  I need a schedule revision. Being sick is a thing, and writing is not the vital occupation you must kill yourself for.

BUT remember writers are unreliable and trained to lie.  Don’t cut yourself too much slack.

4- Reward yourself.  I haven’t tried this, and rewards for me are a little difficult, since the things I really like I can’t do without impinging on my husband’s time (take your mind out of the gutter.  I mean going to museums, or the zoo, or a weekend away.) Or rather, I can do them myself, but it’s not as much fun.  I’m going to try for smaller ones, though. You know, finish that section and get an hour in front of the TV with a mystery. Or take the afternoon off to do some art. That sort of thing.  With the big rewards for finishing books.

Peterson says that if you don’t reward yourself with something tangible (when you’re self-employed you can’t pay in cash)then you’ll slowly grind down and be unable to write.  He might not be wrong.

5- Play mind games.

If you come from traditional, you have some spectacularly bad habits.  Well, I do, at any rate.  And if you don’t, you might have them from your day job.  In my case there’s an habit called “they’re not serious till you have a cover.”

So for the book I MUST deliver tomorrow (i.e. send to copy edits) I sent myself a cover.  Because Publisher Sarah is REALLY serious.

Of course, if I get to the point of calling myself three times a day, my husband will have to put me away.  So let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, as I go write.





  1. Am not a creative writer, but lack of structure can damage a wide range of occupations.

    My take away is that despite this unusual day, I need to make some practical use of some of the time I have slack in the schedule. Later all.

    1. Agree, as illustrated this morning at the office, where I was thinking, “Maybe I should prepare a briefing on such-and-such, because we might need it sometime.”

      I languidly set myself to work on some slides. Hearing, a short time later, “Hey, we’re having a meeting tomorrow on such-and-such!” did a lot to focus my efforts.

      But not enough to keep me from commenting here! 🙂

  2. One of the things that has helped me tremendously in my career when I went fulltime is that I had good work habits from my day job. I was very used to the ‘9 to 5’ structure and I brought that with me. Of course the problem is that over time, you start to drift out of that and work longer hours and even weekends and ‘days off’ disappear in your rush to meet the self imposed deadlines.

    You definitely need to rein that in, or you’ll start to burn out.

    Moving halfway across the country didn’t help that either, but I did set up my office here the exact same way I had it at my last house (even bought the same exact cheap desk) to cut down on ‘distractions’. I have been debating closing the door during that time, but the dog and the cat, who like to visit, probably wouldn’t care for that. But we are all creatures of habit and we need to remember that and use it to our advantage.

    As for people bugging you to get the job done, my fans are not afraid to do that. Half of my social media interaction is dealing with them asking for the next book. So that helps.

    But I can honestly say that your list is just about perfect. Especially the part about rewards. It’s very hard to reward yourself, we’re all so used to rewards coming from someone else. Thankfully my other half makes sure that I do it.

    1. That is the nice thing about a regular work schedule: there are times when you’re supposed to be writing, and you need to stick to those, but there are also times when you DON’T need to be writing, and you can relax and do other things.

      I had that problem with my college/grad school research. I was in math, so the nice thing was that I could be “working” while I was cooking or swimming or taking a walk, so I didn’t have to be chained to a desk. The bad thing was that I could be working while cooking, swimming, walking, etc., so I was never really free and always felt guilty any time my thoughts drifted away from ways to modify the bicriticality theorem or something like that. Things got much easier when I switched fields and needed to be in the lab coding or running simulations. Then, I could close the door at the end of the day and get on with my life.

  3. Yep, lack of business sense is causing me problems at the moment. Doesn’t help that I’m on medication and have excuses. It’s driving me to distraction, and not wanting to finish the current work, because–reasons (self-doubt about the climax being good enough).

  4. Oh, I laughed at the preceeding paragraph.

    I majored in music. For a semester I had an artist roommate. I moved out because of her drug habit. But oh, she couldn’t do the dishes (I cooked, per the Deal) or pay her share of the bills, or . . . anything. Brings back memories, ‘manage an artist’ fortunately decades in the past. Much funnier now than then, when the rent was due!

    Yeah, it would take a lot to convince me to ‘manage’ artists. Power of Attorney might be a good starting point. All Creatives are a pain to manage. But that Artist roommate made me look organized and on top of things, and that takes some doing!

    1. I’m afraid far too many people go into “Art” as a way of avoiding tackling their many issues, or doing any of the things they assign as part of “grow up and get a real job.” Which works great when their life is subsidized by student loans or parents, and terrible when they’re on their own. (Not unlike the coffeeshop guy who wears a beret and vapes with great solemnity and pronounces how his novel will revolutionize the world… he’s still working on the award acceptance speeches instead of writing chapter 1.)

      I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting many professional artists who are awesome businesspeople as well as great at art – and when they get together, man, you think writers spend a lot of time talking about IP and copyright licensing and plagiarism? Not compared to artists!

      Not that they’re stuffed shirts… they’re artists. They still have problems with which mug is for coffee, which mug if for dipping brushes into, when their attention is on their easel. Not that writers are any better, in their own way…

  5. Ah, yes, the lament of the self-employed, I know it well….

    ….my employees are lazy and my boss is an asshole!

  6. You’re so right about the power of structure. Until I read this I’d forgotten how wonderfully it concentrated the mind to know that the kids were going to be unleashed upon the world at 3PM and that for the rest of that day my primary job was going to be protecting the world from them!

  7. Work hours and maybe… coworkers. Not collaborating or something like that but someone to discuss schedules with, set goals, and who is working some segment of the same hours. Someone who notices if you don’t “show up”.

    1. THIS. My most productive time was when I had Amanda and Kate on AIM and we were all writing the same hours.
      IF there were a group of us near me, I’d totally rent an office for all of us at once. A single office, with just me is the same as being at home.

    2. I have actually priced out real estate to stick Peter, LawDog & Jim Curtis in an office away from home with office hours. Unfortunately, we’d need to be a fair bit more flush with cash than we currently are – and Jim Curtis notes he has the house to himself, and Peter notes that he has his own office (but really would like something away from the distractions of me and the cats.)

      (In this house, a closed door is an attractive nuisance. Unless the buggers are sound asleep, it’s about 0.5 seconds from closed door to scratching at the door… and they wake up to the “snick” of the latch.)

      I’m now contemplating a “writing shed” as a “remote” office for working hours.

  8. Everything you said about writing I encountered with taking on-line college courses. First one I ever took I screwed up so badly even Satan was taking notes on how to sabotage a course. Pure lack of discipline, plus a course I had zero interest in, but was required to take anyway. 1, 1a, 1b, and 2 are so very necessary to reinforce that discipline. Especially when you don’t have visible, corporeal classmates or teaches to encourage you just by their physical presence.

    Hmmm. How many of you would pay me $50 a week to call you once a week and nag you for 15 minutes about getting your writing done?

  9. What I’m doing here can’t remotely be called a business. For one thing there’s no sales or income.

    However, it may one day have those things, fingers crossed. Then I’ll probably have to square up and do things in a more orderly fashion.

  10. Lord, I hear you on that employee problem. Mine is supposed to show up at 2:00 every day, but she’s usually late with some sort of muttered excuse about how the baby wouldn’t nap without a story, plus she’s completely burned out. Then she usually leaves early with some story about needing to get dinner ready. I’ll be even now she’s surfing Mad Genius Club rather than doing the revisions I’ve told her MUST BE DONE BY THE END OF JANUARY, NO EXCUSES!!!!

    I’d fire her, but I doubt anyone else would be willing to work for me.

  11. Remember, before starting a new beginning, to circle back to the other beginnings and get them moving again.

  12. I had a very, very good system set up that worked for nine years. And then this semester started… Double the class load, triple the workload. (At least it’s not logarithmic!) I’m struggling to find writing time now.

  13. Lately I’ve been focusing on my excitement about the scene I’m going to write today. That gets me writing more promptly and keeps me writing a little longer than usual. It has had the nice effect of allowing me to *enjoy* the writing even more and to lay down more words than usual.

  14. I’ve got these Alpha readers. I’ve trained them to expect a minimum of a thousand words a day posted where we all discuss them. Or just cuss them. Or . . . well, it’s the only prod this empty nester’s come up with, and even when I don’t like the advice, they’ve made me think about it, and that helps me with the next scene . . . It works, now if I could just put a side some time every day to do something about marketing . . .

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