by Ellen Buikema
Great writers make their stories authentic by allowing us to experience what their characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch—capturing the senses so we are fully involved. Adding sensory details about smell into your writing creates a stronger story bond for your reader.
Scent memory is potent.
Memories fade as time passes, but a faint whiff of a loved one’s perfume can send your mind’s eye smack into a scene from a forgotten past. Sense of smell is a person’s most robust sense. You can be in a familiar place with a blindfold on and your nose will let you know where you are.
- The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense.
- It brings emotions to mind. We are attracted to each other by smell.
- It helps us survive. A foul smell warns us of danger, like when we smell food gone bad or smoke choking the air.
Sensory unit in the classroom.
I introduced my young students to lessons on the five senses. For the sense of smell, I used those old black plastic film canisters with tiny holes poked in the lid so there was no way for the students to peek at what they were going to smell.
Every canister was labeled with a number. Each child checked out the canisters one at a time to avoid copycatting. Their answers were noted and discussed later during circle time. I enjoyed watching their facial expressions during whiffs. Everyone smiled at the cinnamon oil.
One child smelled my neck and said, “You smell like my auntie. I don’t know why.” Must have been the cocoa butter.
Writers can use the sense of smell to show a character’s background or to move a plot forward.
Say your main protagonist is a child in an orphanage trying to come up with a way to run away from her situation. A fire breaks out somewhere in the building. She smells smoke, alerts whomever she can to the danger (she is a good-hearted character). Recognizing her chance to leave in the chaos, she grabs her belongings and runs, thereby moving the story forward.
Ways to develop a sense of smell in writing.
Our brains are wired in a way that makes us hyper-alert to unfamiliar sensory information, including smells. If you want to unsettle you characters, add in rotting, chemically, goosebump raising smells into your story.
- After spending time indoors, step outside for a bit to be in a different environment.
- Our sense of smell adjusts and after a while there are scents you won’t notice.
- Walk back inside and take note of what you smell.
- Open up the refrigerator. Do you have a science experiment brewing in the rotter? (In our house that’s the drawer where food is forgotten and goes to die.)
- Think about how certain smells, known and unknown, might help to define your characters.
- Write a paragraph about the smells your character loves and hates.
Smelling recall of another time, person, or place
Smells can cause flashbacks to warm, wonderful times or a place of horror. The same smell can bring joy or pain dependent upon the individuals experience at the time they were exposed to that particular odor.
Some people love the smell of lilies. I cannot stand them. To me they reek of death. I don’t know why, and probably would need hypnosis therapy to figure it out.
- In your mind, revisit different times in your life.
- Your best friend’s house from childhood
- Family homes
- Movie theaters, drive-in and indoors
- What smells do you associate with those places in time? What emotions?
- Write a paragraph about the odors and try to call to mind the emotion without calling it by a specific name.
Many authors use sensory writing well.
The following quotes are from writers who use the sense of smell effectively.
“The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Bruce Barcott, Weed the People
“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.” Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
“Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing -- which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn't actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can't decide.” Jim Butcher, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files
“I emitted some civetlike female stink, a distinct perfume of sexual wanting, that he had followed to find me here in the dark.” — Janet Fitch, White Oleander
“So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.” Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” James Joyce, Ulysses
"After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes. The kerosene smelled like lacquer, and I kept feeling waves of nausea. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks." Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith
“…ripe piss, ancient cabbage, dead and rotting rat — was on Danny's skin, in his hair, in the fibers of his suit; Varian inhaled that scent like a penance.” Julie Orringer, The Flight Portfolio
“There is little difference between the Zulu warrior who smeared his body with Lion’s fat and the modern woman who dabs hers with expensive perfume. The one was trying to acquire the courage of the king of beasts, the other is attempting to acquire the irresistible sexuality of flowers. The underlying principle is the same.” Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
Other Links we love:
If you want to make your readers feel what you’re describing, use the power of scent. Understanding how compelling the sense of smell can be, use it to entice your reader.
What sense do you use when writing? What writers do well with sensory writing? Do you have any examples you’d like to share?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.
by Lynette M. Burrows
Many writers spend days, weeks, months, even years creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. The best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon data points like the genre, physical attributes, favorite desert, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow even to the point of what many call writer’s block. Not that those data points are unimportant, but focusing on the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. That emotional journey ties everything together into a book your readers can’t put down.
Lisa Cron calls it your character’s misbelief. KM Weiland calls it your character’s lie. Brandilyn Collins calls it inner values. And Donald Maass says it’s how we get readers to make their own emotional journey. What are they talking about?
Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is.
When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll call that inner guidance “value,” from now on.
Keep the Train Moving
Lisa Cron calls those values the story’s third rail. In an electric railroad system, the third rail is the rail that supplies the power. It keeps the train moving.
Your character is a nurse who believes other people’s needs are greater than his own. He skips lunch to take care of a patient’s needs. He doesn’t leave at the end of his shift until another nurse arrives to care for his patients, and he stops to help a panhandler who looks ill.
Each of those situations shows his positive value. So far, so good. The lie he tells himself is that he’s fine. He can do with skipping a meal, or less sleep, or less money. That his needs aren’t important.
Loss of Power to the Train
If you haven’t created your character’s values or you aren’t consistently expressing those values, your story runs out of power.
Two patients share a single room. One patient is a famous singer, the other had emergency surgery last night and is in a lot of pain. Your nurse notices the singer has lots of boisterous visitors and the surgery patient cannot rest. The nurse keeps walking because it’s lunchtime. And he's broken the reader's suspension of disbelief.
That’s a full stop of the story and maybe your reader’s interest.
A story needs to run down a track toward and ending, but there also needs to be a push and pull.
More Than One Value
There is a direct correlation between a character’s values and emotions. And it’s not only one emotion or value your character needs. The character also needs a value that prohibits him from reaching his goal. Otherwise, why has he not been able to reach his goal before the story starts? This is where the fullness of your story’s power comes from.
Two incompatible (not necessarily opposite) values drive your character. This ensures that he will struggle to get to his goal. It’s why he hasn’t reached this goal prior to the story start. These conflicting values provide him with a struggle without external antagonists.
Your nurse believes marriage is a sacred trust that must be unbroken. And he has a wife who is ready to divorce him because he’s always working extra and never has time for her. Now, his values are in conflict. His wife needs more of his time and so do his patients.
How can he reconcile those two sets of needs? This story will be about how he decides which value he can break and which one he cannot.
Your Character’s Lies, Secrets, and Scars
The why behind your character’s lies, secrets, and scars is important. It’s the backstory that supports the lie or secret or scar (emotional, not necessarily physical). Your reader doesn’t need to know the whole backstory, but you do. If you understand why your character will believe one thing to the point of making choices that are self-destructive, you will empower your story.
As a child, your nurse may have witnessed his father’s deep devotion to his dying mother. That's a scar. He could have been further traumatized by his father’s total collapse after the mother’s death.
His father’s collapse and need to be institutionalized is your nurse’s secret, his shame. His lie to himself is that he fears he will suffer the same fate if his wife divorces him. That lie might force him to make decisions that go against his belief that his patients’ needs come before his.
I’ve tied his lies, secrets, and scars all together in this example, but your character can be more complex with separate reasons behind his lies, secrets, and scars.
The Relationship between Value and Theme
As a person, you may not think much about your values. As a writer, the more you use those values in your main characters, the more powerful your story becomes. This increased power is especially true if you use your characters’ values to sharpen the point of your story, your story’s theme.
Let’s say your theme is community good is greater than personal good. Your character’s overt value can be the same or a variation of that. Your nurse’s value that other people’s needs are greater than his own fits nicely in this theme.
Forgive me, but I’m going to use the easy target, a pandemic. Your nurse’s supervisor is asking him to work extra because some of his co-workers are sick. His wife is asking him to go to her parent’s mountain retreat with her. If he doesn’t go, she’ll consider the marriage over.
Based on his previous choices and lessons he’s learned, his decision will be to work for the community good (your theme). His wife serves him the divorce papers she’d already had drawn up before she leaves. He learns he’s strong enough to let go of her, that caring for his community makes him strong, and you can end your story there. Or you can add a little twist that he’s beginning a new relationship with a co-worker whose values are the same.
Don’t tell your reader about the alignment of your character’s values and your story’s theme. Just like the train conductor collects your ticket without discussing the function of the third rail, your character’s decisions and actions reveal his values.
Test His Values in Every Scene
How and why your character overcomes his struggle is why we read.
We humans live every day with lies, secrets and scars. On at least a subconscious level, we read to find ways to make it through our personal struggles. So the more you put his value to the test in every scene, the more you hopelessly hook your reader.
Let your reader feel the struggle your character feels, see it from his eyes. Test him in ways that will surprise and thrill your reader. They will love you for it.
Still Not Convinced?
Look at the three character's images on this post. What impressions do you have of them? They aren’t the same, are they? Yes, we chose these images for the greatest contrast. But the difference between each of these characters is more than just the clothes or setting. We humans make judgments about what other people value. You probably have a few ideas about what lies, secrets, and scars those three have.
It’s their lies, secrets and scars that make them individuals. And in the story world, those values keep those characters moving toward an inevitable clash. A clash you, the writer, can use to hook your readers to the very last page.
Have you created a character from his lies, secrets, or scars? How did that move your story forward? If you haven't tried this method of character building before, will you try it now?
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Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction readers can't put down.
Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. In Fellowship, the series companion novel, a desperate young man and his siblings hide in the mountains from the government agents who Took their parents. Book two of the series, If I Should Die, will be published in 2022.
Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
by Lisa Norman
I've been providing technical support for computers and software in various forms since the 1980s, and for most of that time I've worked with writers. As a writer and an indie publisher, I'm fascinated by the tools authors use to create books. Writing is a creative process, and the tools we use can enhance or destroy the magical creative energy that feeds the muse.
The first writing software that I fell in love with was called Liquid Story Binder. Written by an author, it had a bundle of tools that made writing a joy. My productivity soared, and I learned that working with software that works the way I do makes the writing process easier.
Sadly, Liquid Story Binder is no longer being developed. It still exists, but technology is moving ahead, leaving it to fall into the realm of quaint antiques.
The good news is I have new software that I love. I'll tell you about that in a bit.
The 6 Phases of Writing (and why they matter)
First, I want to talk about writing, because the key to finding the perfect writing software is understanding how you work as a writer.
Writing has roughly 6 phases:
- draft writing
- editing (where the magic happens!)
- publication (including the query process for traditional authors or formatting and distribution for indie publishing)
How much time you spend in each phase will be different for each author. Where you focus your efforts will reflect your process. Depending on how you work, you'll want different tools.
There is no one tool that is perfect for every author.
A Roundup of Writing Tools
When I finally accepted that I couldn't use Liquid Story Binder anymore, I went in search of a replacement. My muse had gone on strike and was refusing to cooperate and I needed a new tool. Sadly, she turned out to be finicky.
Because I work with so many authors, I hear about a lot of tools that different writers tell me they can't live without. I held each tool up before my picky muse in the hopes that she would respond. She turned up her nose at nearly everything. (More on her favorite later in the post - she continues to surprise me.)
If you haven't explored writing tools lately, here's a roundup of some that I've come across. Some you may know of. Some you may have already discarded. Some may surprise you.
These tools find their way into many areas of a writer's process. Most of these only do one thing, but they do it well.
- Paper. Don't knock this one. J. K. Rowling herself swears by it. Sticky notes, whiteboards, poster boards — these are fundamental, classic writing tools
- Rocketbook — paper, meet computer
- Freewrite— for those who like to type
- Scapple — mind-mapping software from the makers of Scrivener
- Plottr — plotting software
- WorldAnvil — created by gamers, loved by authors creating worlds, contains interesting options for letting others play in your world
- Grammarly — software to keep you from annoying your editor later
For years, the staple of writers everywhere. Some writers maintain older machines just so they can keep using their favorite one. Even if you write in another program, you'll probably need a word processor at some point to interact with editors, agents, etc.
- WordPerfect — yes, it is still around
- Open Office (free)
- LibreOffice (free)
- Google Docs — free and includes collaborative editing features
- Microsoft Word — the industry standard
More Advanced Writing Tools:
These do just a little more than the standard word processor. Some are specialized. They tend to have a more minimal editing interface than word processors.
- Final Draft — used for screenwriting
- Evernote — you'll be surprised what you can do with it (free and paid)
- The Novel Factory
- Storyist (Mac Only)
- One Stop For Writers
Fancy Writing Tools:
These seek to be everything an author could ever need. Some are more effective at this goal than others.
Used mostly by indie authors, these tools are designed to help you turn your completed novel into a polished product that can be uploaded to vendors.
- Reedsy — I think of them as a clearing house for author services, but they now have a formatting app
- Vellum (Mac Only) —creates a beautiful, finished product without a lot of stress
- Sigil (free) — for creating epubs
- InDesign — like all Adobe products, this one has a learning curve, but it produces lovely print versions and covers
My Favorite Writing Software
People are surprised by what I picked. The winner for me was...Evernote.
Remember, my muse was on strike, refusing to produce much of anything despite being showered with a variety of different writing products. As a geek, I was growing desperate and began considering what it would take to rebuild Liquid Story Binder for a modern mobile world. I sat down with a techie friend and showed him Liquid Story Binder, wondering if there was any way we could get a team together and build something similar.
"You don't need to. Just use Evernote."
"But that's for taking notes!" I was sure he didn't understand the writing process.
"I wrote my thesis on it. It works a lot like what you're used to. You use it the way you want. Bonus: it is automatically backed up in the cloud. It even keeps a revision history."
I didn't believe him at first, but then I decided to try it. My muse started giggling right away. The minimal interface felt like home. I moved some drafts out of the old software into Evernote as a test, and my little muse immediately started writing, connecting pieces, and throwing all her creative energy at her new toy.
I'm a plantser, doing some plotting and a lot of off-the-cuff writing. My research looks a lot like throwing clippings into a bin and hoping to sort them out at some point. Ideas come to me at random times, and I need a spot to capture them before they run away.
Evernote understands me.
Evernote lets me work however I feel like working today. The search function means that I don’t need to sort those clippings. It is almost like Evernote does it for me.
I have notebooks for my research, clippings from the internet, emails forwarded to Evernote, scanned drawings, etc. I'm loving mind-mapping and, for now, I use Scapple and link the files to the planning notes for whatever project I'm working on. Images show up on the notes in card view, so I can quickly see pictures of characters, etc.
I've used several methods for planning my novels.
In Evernote, you can build a "dashboard note" — a home base for a project. It can contain links to other documents, etc. As my story comes together, my outline will be in this dashboard with links to different chapters that I'm working on. Rearranging them is easy. I also link to worldbuilding and character indexes.
For writing, the distraction-free interface in Evernote is perfect. Evernote formatting doesn't go beyond the VERY basics. I'm sure this would drive some people nuts, but it lets my muse come out and dance all over the page.
If I'm in a mood and need to hand-write, I use a Rocketbook, then blast the handwritten notes into the cloud. It does a pretty good job of interpreting my handwriting! I can even dictate to my phone if I don't feel like typing or writing.
The best thing for me about Evernote is the flexibility.
If my daughter wants to go to the beach, I can stop writing, grab my phone, drive her to the beach, pick up my phone, and go right back to writing.
For many years, I was the family's designated caregiver. I've written in almost every hospital in western Washington. I've written at the beach, on playgrounds, on trains, planes, and automobiles, and even on the top of a mountain on Unalaska. (Go ahead...look it up.)
Evernote has great portability
Portability is key for me.
I have health issues, so carrying around a heavy laptop doesn't work for me. Back before the world changed, I went to a write-in with only my tiny purse. There's a picture of a Tardis on it for the Dr. Who fans. As I sat down at a table, someone offered to hold my spot while I got my kit out of the car. I said, "Nope, I'm good." Out came my (admittedly large) phone. Out came a foldable keyboard — folds out to almost full size. Out came a tiny stand for the phone. My fellow writer was stunned as I proceeded to get down to work.
Ah, but what about editing?
For now, I export my notes and put them into Microsoft Word so that my editor can go over them. She likes Word. I like her. It works.
Because I'm an Indie, I use InDesign and Sigil for final formatting.
When it comes to marketing...I'm back in Evernote, with templates and notes for future campaigns.
Evernote holds my:
- to-do list
- my grocery list
- notes from every client contact.
Evernote is my brain.
What about you?
Which programs and techniques do you use for writing? Have I missed any programs that you love? It is November, the time when many new writers discover a love for the craft. Let's put together a roundup of how we write and share all the tools we love in the comments!
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Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.
Interested in learning more from Lisa? See her teaching schedule below.
- December -- It's a Wonderful Writer's Life (think Advent calendar for writers)
- January -- Crazy Easy Awesome Author Websites
Note: the Evernote link above is an affiliate link.
Photo credits via Canva Pro.
by Eldred Bird
Our characters need to be relatable and have depth so they’re easy to get attached to. One of the highest compliments I've received about my writing is about my characters. Seeing as how I’m kind of attached to them, that makes my whole month. So how do I create that bond between a character and a reader? One word—backstory.
If you really want to figure out where a character is going in your story, you first need to know where they came from. Everyone has a past—you, me, your best friend, the stranger at your door delivering the pizza—everyone. Our past experiences have shaped who we are now and how we react to the world around us. It should be the same for your characters.
Our job as authors is to dig into our character's past to find out where they hid the bodies.
Real People have Real Problems
There’s no such thing as a perfect human, so there should be no perfect characters in your stories either. Heroes with no flaws have no depth. There’s no story to tell if your MC is infallible, as they can never be put in a situation they can’t handle. Flaws, weaknesses, and personality quirks are what make characters interesting and real.
Most of these traits have their roots in the character’s early years. You need look no further than comic books to find heroes with tragic pasts. Every origin story is pumped full of pain, loss, and failure, usually leading them down a path of vigilante justice in an effort to heal old wounds. Most of these heroes could really benefit from some intense anger management counseling, which leads me to my next tip.
Talk to your Characters
When I create a new character, I like to get to know them before ever putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). The best way I’ve found to do this is sit down and talk to them. As we go through the interview process any interesting details about their past that come up get jotted down in my character file. I keep the conversation going until I can see their face, hear their voice, and understand their facial expressions and body language. After a few sessions like this, the character becomes so cemented in my mind that they become real to me.
The more real a character becomes, the easier it is to write from their perspective. Like an actor, I can put myself in their shoes and view the world through their eyes. It’s at this point where the magic starts to happen, and they begin telling me their story. The narrative becomes more personal when the character takes over and starts driving the bus.
Find Real World Examples
If I’m having trouble digging up the backstory for a particular character, I try to find real people to use as a foundation. Friends, family, and coworkers are all fair game, but I don’t make a carbon copy of anyone. I pick and choose details to shape a unique individual with their own special combination of traits. I’ve also been known to go out in public and do a little people watching when I’m out of character ideas. Going to settings similar to the story’s location can also yield some useful character details as you observe real world interactions.
Give Your Villains Some Love Too
As difficult as it may be, your villains should be as relatable as your heroes. Just as heroes shouldn’t been all good, villains shouldn’t be all bad. Their past has shaped them as well, though it’s bent them in a different direction.
Tragic, but believable backstories can create sympathy for an antagonist and show them to be more than just a monster. It helps the reader to understand their motivation, even if they don’t agree with their actions.
Weaving it into the Narrative
Now comes the hard part—working the past in without the dreaded data dump. Don’t hate me, but the truth is most of the backstory you’ve built will never be seen in the final edit. Too much dwelling in the past can kill story pacing and bore your readers to death. Most of the history you’ve created is there to give you, the writer, the opportunity to get to know the characters better so you can write them in a more realistic way.
This is the point where I sift through my character files and decide what the reader really needs to know and how I can weave it into the story without breaking the pace. I find the best way for me to accomplish this is to let the characters tell the tale. I work the needed information into dialogue, action tags, and scene descriptions. For tips on how to do this check out my WITS post, Let Your Characters Tell the Story.
Prologues and Flashbacks
One way to work in backstory is a prologue. If used intelligently, they can give insight into the MC’s past, but be careful. Prologues often become the dreaded data dumps we work so hard to keep out of prose. The need for a prologue may also be an indication that you’re starting your story in the wrong place. Keep this in mind and if you must use them, use them wisely.
The same can be said for flashbacks. Just like prologues, they often become data dumps. This will put the brakes on the action and kill your story pacing in a heartbeat. Flashbacks may also indicate that the story needs to start earlier in the life of the MC.
Some Final Thoughts
Like I said before, everyone has a past, including the characters we write. Sit down with your characters, dig into their past, and free the skeletons in their closet. Get to know them. Hear their voices. See their faces. Make them real to you and you’ll be better equipped to make them real to your readers!
How do you develop your characters and work their backstories into your manuscript? Who are some characters you’ve become attached to? Let us know in the comments!
Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
Photo credits: Eldred Bird
by Julie Glover
Have you tried using planners? Time management apps? Color-coded spreadsheets with goals and deadlines? And yet nothing seems to work?
Welcome to my club!
In case you’re a bit like me, let’s talk about time management for writers who hate time management.
First, what doesn’t work.
The System of Someone Who’s Not Like You.
Some writers seem to get 80 hours of work done in a precisely timed 40-hour work schedule while I can’t seem to remember it’s Tuesday. The personalities of those people and me are so vastly different that trying to adapt their system just isn’t going to work.
Someone else might draft a novel in two weeks, but I need eight weeks to turn out something I’m proud of. Someone else might write well on the subway or in a coffee house, while I need complete quiet or Bach playing through my headphones. Someone else might divide out their day in 15-minute chunks, while I lose track of hours when I’m writing.
If you want to try someone else’s time management method, make sure they’re a bit like you. How do view time? How long do you need to complete tasks? What helps you and what distracts you?
The Right Time Management Tool.
Have you been on the quest for that one planner, that one course, that one inspirational system that will make everything fall into place? Yeah, that’s not out there.
I’m not saying I’ve tried them all. But most time management tools are created for people who thrive with time management. For people who aren’t great at tracking time, you will probably have to adapt whatever tool you use to your particular way of working.
But your best tool might be something else entirely, yet adapted to your own workflow.
Carrots and Sticks.
Theoretically, reward and punishment should work to motivate better time management.
But those of us with an innately amorphous sense of time often find that no reward or punishment can overcome the sense of dread we feel at being nailed down to a schedule. Tell me I have to have something done by Friday, and I’m good to go! Tell me that I must work on that Friday project from 3:30 to 4:45 on Thursday, and my stomach hardens, my muscles feel heavy, and my interest wanes. Dangling or denying me a cookie doesn’t increase my desire to complete the task.
If there’s any carrot or stick, it must be for the project itself—not the specific, scheduled steps required to meet that goal.
Now, what does work.
Before I start these points, let me confess that I don’t know what will work for you. It’s a lot of trial-and-error for those of us who struggle with time management. But I am convinced that you can figure it out. Here’s what helped me and others I know.
Listening to Your Own Rhythms.
How do you work best to complete your projects? Is it by writing for three straight weeks and then taking a long break? Writing when the mood strikes and following that through until you’re spent? Writing in early morning or late-night chunks of time?
Pay attention to when you work best and then plan your schedule to that rhythm. Don’t worry if it would sound ludicrous to someone else. When you study the writing processes of various writers, you discover that a variety of time approaches work. What matters is not how you finish the book, just that you do.
Planning by Projects, Not Processes.
While writing with my co-author, we’ve had exactly one big disagreement. She is a time management guru, who not only lists the books she’s working on but plans out each step of drafting, editing, copyediting, proofreading, etc. (Good heavens, I’m exhausted just thinking about it!) Meanwhile, I just know when the book’s supposed to release. Every “deadline” in between now and then feels like a “guideline” to me.
However, we didn’t understand how the other worked when we started. Thus, I missed a “deadline” (read “guideline”), which made her anxious. Her anxiety made me anxious. And anyway…it devolved until we cleared the air, hugged like the besties we are, figured out a plan, and returned to writing excellent novels.
The point is that time management gurus like her plan both projects and processes. That’s way too much info for me to juggle. If you’re like me, you know what needs to happen from Nothing to Release Book, and you don’t want to write it down. It’s overwhelming! If you think about it too much, you’ll stop writing altogether.
No worries. Just track the projects and your next step in the project you’re currently working on. Step by step, you’ll get there.
Rearranging the Schedule (According to Your Muse).
What I write down on my calendar doesn’t have to happen exactly that way. I felt so much freedom and relief when I gave myself permission to rearrange the schedule when my writing did or didn’t cooperate.
For instance, some of my best writing has happened long after I should be in bed. But if I felt like the story and words were coming well, I didn’t stick to the schedule—I wrote well past midnight. Likewise, if I sat in front of my manuscript and nothing came, I learned to walk away.
This actually is a tried-and-true time management technique, but it’s a struggle for many who see that note jotted down on their calendar and internally demand that they check off that task on that certain date. As Elsa said, Let. It. Go.
For myself, writing in pencil helps this process, because if it really bothers me, I can erase rather than cross out a task. Then it’s like I never even planned to do it until it got done. And as long as it gets done, it’s a-okay.
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I still don’t love schedules, but I’ve come to embrace mine a lot more—now that I’m tailoring it to how I work, rather than trying to tailor myself to it. Even as I type this, I have “write WITS post” in the planner in front of me. Mind you, that was jotted down for Monday and it’s currently Wednesday. But it’s okay, because I left myself some extra time, felt free to move the task to a different day when the first plan didn’t work out, and came back to the computer after dinner when I felt like I could write.
What I have stopped doing is trying to be like the amazing get-it-done time managers whose systems are precise, colorful, impressive, and just not for me.
I’d love to hear from y’all! Which time management system has worked for you? What have you learned as a writer trying to manage your time well?
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Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.
Her most recent release is My Team's Fairy Godmother, the fourth of five YA paranormal short stories coming out this year.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Image credits: Jan Vašek and Gerd Altmann from Pixabay