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The Magic Formula: Setting Priorities

I have a confession to make. I’m writing this post the night before it’s due to go up. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, bearing in mind the 12 hour time difference between Western Australia and New York, but it’s not good either. Ideally, I like to give myself a few days to iron out errors and glitches. But sometimes the rest of my writing work, or indeed the rest of my life, gets in the way, and that makes me uncomfortable. Like the White Rabbit, I hate being late. I prefer to be in control: of my work, of my situation, of myself. It’s no surprise that on the planner to pantser spectrum, I’m right at the planner end.

So what got in the way this time, leaving me on the verge of offering one of those ”I am Juliet’s dog and she asked me to write this post” pieces? Deadlines. Most of us have them, and it’s in their nature to sneak up on us. The deadline for my current novel, Harp of Kings, is four days after this post goes up.

It would be nice to have a manuscript finished and polished around six weeks before the deadline. I used to do that. Then it could be put away for a while and checked over with fresh eyes later, in time for final tweaking. I wasn’t so efficient this time around, but I do have a complete, revised, and carefully checked ms ready to go. Revisions included cutting around 16,000 words to get the ms closer to the required length of 125-130K. I don’t think those cuts did the novel any harm, though it’s always painful to delete hard-won words. Gone are the days when I could get away with a 200K-word doorstop.

So to priorities – I wonder how other writers determine which tasks come first and which can wait? While on the last frenetic gallop to get this book finished, my online presence dwindled. I visited my Facebook author page daily and responded as quickly as I could to posts; I answered questions on Goodreads, but not always promptly; I responded to emails from readers, again with quite a delay. But my blog, linked to my website, was completely neglected, and various snail mails from readers sat on my desk for far too long unanswered. That was bad. Readers are an author’s lifeblood, and those who make the effort to send handwritten letters deserve quick and considerate responses. Readers who don’t use Facebook, and there are plenty, missed out on months of news about the forthcoming series and other projects. But the novel had to be written. And finished on time, not only because of a contract, but because there’s another contract and another deadline coming up in (ulp!) just over two months, for a work not yet finished.

Don’t get me wrong; I love having work to do, and not only because it pays the bills. But I’d like a magic formula for managing writing, editing, revision, promotional activities, social media and the demands of the non-writing life, which in my case includes looking after my crew of needy little dogs, being a mother and grandmother, and the standard range of domestic tasks. Failing magic, maybe a useful list would help. Where do we start?

I have some suggestions. I’m hoping your comments will expand the list.

Start with self care. It’s too easy to set that aside when the pressure is on. Get enough rest. Find time to relax with friends and family. Read an old favourite book. Do some exercise you enjoy. Listen to music. It can be hard to make time for those things when it feels as if every moment you spend away from your desk is adding to the looming pile of tasks to be done. But looking after your mental and physical health is key to being able to cope.

Write down your tasks. I need two lists, one for writing-related work and one for everyday things like getting the car serviced, medical appointments and so on. Identify jobs that are relatively quick to complete (writing a blog post is one of those, or should be; answering emails from readers is another) and those that are urgent, and get them out of the way first. There’s nothing like ticking items off a list to boost your morale. If you’re handling a long-term project, such as writing a novel, you might give yourself milestones to be reached along the way. A scene, a chapter, a section; revising a certain number of chapters. Untangling a plot snarl. You may want to tick off a daily or weekly word count or page count. Or as an alternative, plan to spend a set amount of time per day on that project, whether it’s a three hour stretch or three one-hour sessions, or less, or more. It does help to break down that massive task into short, achievable steps.

Celebrate your successes in some small way. High-five your dog! Eat a chocolate! Take a good look at the deadlines for your projects and work out what is achievable over the life of each; put up key dates and targets on a spreadsheet or your calendar. Look after your monster nicely. It will become a lot less terrifying. Ask for help; you may be surprised by how much support is available. Weigh up what is important NOW and what can wait for later.

Some authors manage to keep writing novels at the same time as teaching, travelling, blogging regularly, reviewing and making promotional appearances. I salute their energy! Not all of us can maintain that kind of work rate. I had to make the decision not to travel outside Australia this year in order to manage my various writing commitments. I’m trying to keep up with my social media, but writing is still my number one priority. It’s important that we go on loving what we do, fellow writers. Don’t let the flood of tasks drown you. Keep that passion burning bright.

Photo credit: ID 18985452 © Jozef Micic Dreamstime.com

How do you manage your priorities? What is your magical formula for making it all work?

About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written twenty novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet’s most recent series was Blackthorn & Grim, which one reviewer referred to as ‘Holmes and Watson in medieval Ireland’. The three Blackthorn & Grim books were published by Penguin Random House US and Pan Macmillan Australia. They are also available in audiobook from audible.com. Juliet is currently working on a new fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards. When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.