Writing Advice – Business & the Writing Life

Collecting posts I’ve written about the writing life and managing a writing career

The Shortcut Only Works When You’re The First to Find It

A thing I’ve been thinking about this week.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts to becoming a published writer. The default published writers tend to give is simple: write a lot, keep improving your craft, submit a lot, keep going. This is how many of us got our start, and its how many of us keep our careers going, year after year.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts, but it isn’t exactly true. Every now and then people do find a work-around to the old ways of getting published. They wrote a novel and published it to their blog, only to have it picked up by a publisher. They launched their backlist as ebooks after years of being rejected, and suddenly they had a massive career.

There are people who fanfic on Wattpad that got picked up, or they cultivated a project on social media, or they podcasted their story, or they did an early iteration of crowd-funding. There are dozens of stories about people who found their way around traditional publishing’s gatekeepers, and those stories tend to get repeated in every news article or review that springs up around their work.

None of these things are necessarily shortcuts, as they still require work and effort. They just took a different path to publishing, because publishing likes it when authors show up who can write, possess and audience, and come with a ready-made marketing hook. These people get talked about because their path into traditional publishing were exceptions to the rule. They are news because they remarkable, usually because they’re the early adopters who took a chance just to see what would happen.

The first person to capture an audience by blogging their novel was doing something unique; the hundredth person to do it will find that the shortcut was only faster because it was so rarely used. The thousandth person is basically throwing a penny into a wishing well and hoping it pays off. We’ve seen this trick before, and unless you’re doing it better, it’s not going to be the same.

Even if you possess the same level of skill and talent, it’s almost impossible to recreate that success by taking the same path the trailblazer followed. The more a path gets used, the greater the diminishing returns for the work put in.

What You Deliver, What You Sell

The folks over at Writer Unboxed recently put up a pretty good post about what going to a writers conference really buys you. As someone whose in the thick of organising a major writers conference myself, it’s always good to see these things discussed and get some idea of how other people are placing value on the conference experience.

It’s also a useful reminder of something that’s been true ever since I first started working with writers: writers will map their future success onto some pretty weird-ass things. Which means there’s a big difference between the things that will have the most benefit for attendees, versus the things you actually have to sell in the marketing to get them at the conference.

I make very little secret about my personal belief that networking and discussion between writers is the most valuable thing an event like GenreCon can offer the writers who attend. Attending a course or panel where you learn something important is great, but the long term benefit of having a broad pool of other writers who are aware of your ambitions and your work is significantly greater.

Your network is a source of advice and support, and it can be an incredible source of work if you’re engaged and active in the community you’ve built up. I’ve sold a novella because of my network, and first got my gig at the writers centre because of it. I’ve had blog posts turn into paid work, taught workshops, and landed freelance gigs. And I’ve learned far more talking to other writers over lunch or drinks than I have in the vast majority of the workshops I’ve attended, because workshops trend towards the general out of necessity and your friends can be very specific in their advice

But the thing about networking you keep in mind as an organiser is this: it’s not sexy. It appeals to no-one, particularly among a community with more than it’s fare share of reclusive introverts who prefer not to talk to people. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of, say, pitching your work to publishers or doing workshops. You spend a lot of time focusing on those things when selling the experience, knowing that they’re thing that will get people through the door.

And every time someone contacts me, stressed out about the details of pitching or workshops, I find myself having to hold my tongue. They’re often freaking out because they see these as the big opportunity, a chance to get discovered and have their work launched into the big time. I just want to sit them down with a cup tea and say, stop stressing about the pitching, just focus on talking to people about things that aren’t your work all weekend. 

The idea of having your work discovered is strong, particularly when the wall between you and editors feels impossible to breach, and no-one likes the idea of networking. It feels too much like business cards and cynical interactions, nothing at all to do with art.

Networking, done right, is none of that. It’s just taking a deep breath and forgetting what you want for a while, focusing on finding out about others. Spending fifteen minutes talking to an editor about the books they love will do far more for your career than a short, five-minute pitch. They’re going to hear a lot of pitches over the weekend. They’re going to have significantly fewer conversations about how awesome Georgette Heyer is, and it’s not like they’re going to be unaware of the fact that you’re a writer when you meet at a writer’s conference.

Thinking Ahead

I just put a full slate of 2018 deadlines up on a whiteboard. With the first semester of my PhD over I’ve had a little time to start thinking about writing work again, and the presence of a significant other in my life has generated a lot more focus on my long-term strategies and short-term tactics than I’ve managed in a long while. There is something about having to tell someone else about your day that makes it easier to navigate the garden of forking paths that make up a writing career.

Also, rule one, when you’re a writer in any kind of relationship: do not be a wanna-be heavy metal bassist sponging off a series of significant others. Which seems unfair to a number of heavy metal bassists who work incredibly hard at their art, but it’s John Scalzi’s metaphor, not mine.

July is also a useful month for taking stock – looking at what’s worked for the past six months, figuring out what goals I set for myself that need to be shed. And planning a year ahead tells me what I need to be doing now, in terms of processes and research and getting shit done to clear the decks ahead of time.

There are lots of westerns in my near future. And I probably need to re-watch Death Race at some point.


I never really got the knack of outlining books, but I keep trying to do it. Notebooks are filled with rough sketches and scene ideas, documents pile up on my hard drive. I’ll boot up scrivener and diligently create file cards that work out my plot, step by step, along with the details about what will happen in the scene.

The logic of outlining makes sense to me, and I have the kind of obsession with story structure that makes the planning and deconstruction fun, but it isn’t the way my story brain works. I blame it on too many years of running RPGs, where your approach to narrative is 30% replicating the feel of big, iconic genre moments and 70% responding to the immediate input of player choices that complicate things.

I work better when I’m in the middle of things, looking for hooks to latch onto and take things in a new direction.

And yet, it’s time to start writing a new novella, and I’m sitting down to plan. Filling notebooks, sketching out ideas, figuring it out as I go along. The goal is to be done by the end of July, ’cause I want to compress some work habits while figuring out how my writing will work while accounting for someone else’s schedule alongside my own.

What Writing An Offline Journal Taught Me About Writing My Thesis

I started writing a pen-and-paper journal for three reasons.First, because I spent months as a reasonably well-paid blogger and worked around the corner from a store with a wide range of notebooks. Then people started giving me notebooks as presents. And now my flat is overrun with blank Moleskins and Leuchtturm’s and Decomposition notebooks, and I’m working my way through them as quickly as I can (mostly, so I can buy new notebooks without guilt).

Second, because I need a place to process things and make notes about what’s going on in my life in way that is not blogging, Facebook, or Twitter. The years I spent writing on Livejournal, and the early days of this site, have been incredibly valuable when looking back and figuring out yearly patterns, and occasionally I need a black-box which reminds me why I made certain decisions that look considerably worse in hindsight.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I’d hit a point where various research into why things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works had convinced me that starting a gratitude journal was probably useful for my overall mental health, but I am severely adverse to the idea of gratitude journals and never maintained one for more than three or four days before getting irritated and pitching it aside.

The goal of gratitude journals – hacking your brain so it gets used to scanning the landscape of your life and registering opportunity and positive events – made a lot of sense to me. The process usually attached to that just felt heavy-handed and twee. So I ditched the process and kept the goal, incorporating it into a general journal practice, and hit upon something that I could stick with.

After four months of doing this, I’ve stumbled across a fairly important realisation about writing in general:


My first attempts at writing a journal were sporadic and loaded with resentment. I disliked the process and wanted it to be over with, because the feeling of self-indulgence got to me really fast. Journaling felt like wasted time, given all the other things I’m meant to be writing that people are actually paying me to write.

What turned me around on the process – and got me working on it regularly – as the advice to write it as a letter to yourself. Start with Dear Peter, end it with a sign off. Create a sense of distance between yourself-as-writer, and yourself-as-reader, and make it clear that you’re writing for an audience of one.

Writing seems like a solitary activity, but it has more in common with acting than you’d think. In some ways, writers are constantly playing to an audience, figuring out how to make the best use of their space to generate effect. Except our space isn’t a stage or a set, our stage is a series of reader expectations based on genre, language, and place of publication.

Writers work to understand those expectations and find ways of using those expectations to surprise and delight the reader. It’s one of the reasons new writers are urged to read widely and read often, so they can develop an understanding of what those expectations are and how other people have used them.

Writing is at its hardest when that audience, or their expectations, aren’t clear in your mind. It’s like walking out on stage and forgetting your lines, or walking into a party where you know no-one and aren’t sure how to behave. The audience is there, but you don’t know how to play to them anymore.

This week, I’m working on my thesis prospectus. Four thousand words where I sum up the first four months of research and outline where I expect my project to go.

And I’ll be honest – it’s damnably unpleasant compared to writing other things. I don’t know the audience I’m playing too, and I don’t know how to surprise them. Or, to put it another way, I’m not yet certain I even have all my lines down yet, but there’s people coming in to see the early play rehearsals where the cast is still learning the script.

It helps to remember I felt this way about writing in a journal four months ago, and I felt this way about writing fiction a decade ago, and about writing poetry, and RPG books, and theatre, in all the years I wrote things before that.

The nice thing about this is that you can get to know an audience and their expectations, once you know that’s what you’re looking for. You read enough, and you pick up enough advice, and somewhere along the way, you figure out who you’re writing for. You build a picture of the audience in your head and you figure out what they’re after.

Everything gets a little easier after that. Not a lot, just a little, but it’s usually the line between I am going to get working on this and oh, wow, there’s cool things on Netflix right now.

On Aggressively Curating Facebook Feeds

I spent a hair over six hours on social media last week, which is considerably more extensive than usual courtesy of the extra time spent losing my mind over Riverdale with friends. And I used to think my approach to managing Facebook so it didn’t eat all my time was pretty goddamn tight. Then I read this post on Lifehacker about unfollowing everyone on your friends list to transform the default feed into a desolate wasteland and I was all, holy fuck, that’s genius.  

I haven’t quite gone scorched earth yet, but did elect to get really, really aggressive. Yesterday I opened up the new Newsfeed Preference system which makes it far, far easier to see who you’re actively following and began to really, really ask myself if everyone on that list was posting stuff that I either a) wanted to engage with on a daily basis, or b) actually cared about on a daily basis.

An hour later, my default feed only shows content from twenty-four friends, my two favourite authors, one of Australia’s best reviewers, two family members, the Facebook group we use to organise my weekly Superhero game, the Facebook page for my local cafe, and the two groups I have to follow for uni purposes.

Everyone else is curated into lists – gaming friends, writer friends, editors,  family members – that I check into at specific times but don’t really care to see on a daily basis. Or, you know, I’ll search for them when I want to see what they’re up to or I have something to post to their wall, in much the same way I’ve done for the bulk of the people I know for the last three years.

Now, I’ll admit makes Facebook spectacularly dull. Instead of a rotating stream of new content, I can watch a post about my friends sitting in a bar or getting the PLR done at the top of my feed for a half-hour or more regardless of how many times I hit refresh. About half the people I’m following only post/like/comment on something three or four times a day.

But that’s good. I’m after dull. Facebook has its own ideas about how it should be used, but what I’m after is a steady stream of information from people I really, really care about rather than a deluge of information that I’m half-interested in.

I’ll be trailing it for the next month to see how it goes, but over the last eighteen hours or so the pace has switched from ongoing distraction to remarkably pleasant way of catching up with people.

Which, all in all, makes it easier to get back to writing.

Writing and the Marketplace

It’s 5:16 on a Tuesday afternoon. The day is starting to cool and I am sitting on my couch without shoes on and I am Youtubing Cure songs as I type this. I’ve written a bunch of words today. I discovered a structural flaw in the novella I’ve been trying to write, which means there’s a bunch of rewrites on the way. When I’m done with this, I’ll be heading off to write a bunch more words.

But for the moment I’m sitting here, on the internet, thinking about the scene from Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s Howl where Allan-Gisberg-by-way-of-James-Franco says:

In San Fansisco I had a year of psychotherapy with Doctor Hicks. I was blocked. I couldn’t write. I was still trying to act normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be heterosexual and something was wrong with me.

And Doctor Hicks kept saying, “what do you want to do? What is your hearts desire?”

And finally, I said, “well, what I’d really like to do is just quit all this. Get a small room with Peter, devote myself to writing, contemplation, and fucking. Smoking pot and doing whatever I want.

And he said, “why don’t you do it then?”

It’s an incredible moment of art-porn, leveraging all the mythology of the artist to catapult the viewer into the next act of the movie. I doubt there is an artist of any stripe who doesn’t hear that and feel a little wistful about what might be.

I’m thinking about this scene a lot because I’ve spent the past few months reading novella after novella. Not intentionally, just by virtue of there being a wealth of books with about 150 pages on my shelves after years where “book” meant something with closer to 300 pages and a lot more time required to read it. Just prior to writing this, I finished reading Warren Ellis’ Normal and I am quietly coveting the talent that went into both the design and the content.

I really like the novella and the novelette as a form. Given my druthers, I would happily write them to the exclusion of all else. But the reality of being a writer with any kind of professional, I-would-like-to-be-paid-for-this aspirations is that you increasingly look at novel-length fiction because it’s basically the stuff that gets decent advances.

For all the mythology around art for its own sake, there are very few writers or artists I know of who have managed to completely disregard the marketplace around art. They may try to leverage it in different ways – some will go for the mass market and rack up sales, others will try to to establish cultural worth and seek funding that surrounds that – but in the back of our heads there are fundamental decisions that get made because the market is there.

Writers are often told they shouldn’t write to market. That they should follow their passion and write the story they want to write. I don’t disagree with that advice, but I do think there are limits to it, because your desire to write is not a singular goal. The stories you want to tell will come up against your need to be read, or earn money, or develop an idea.

And so, if you want to write fiction, you’re going to end up writing books. If you’re going to write poetry, you’ll get used to performing. If you’re going to write theater…well, it’s been nearly two decades since I went anywhere near a theaters script, but I’m betting there is a similar process going on there. If you’re interested in fantasy as a kid in the nineties, you spend a lot of time pondering how to write a trilogy.

We all make concessions to the marketplace, even as people scorn the idea that art and the market go together. Because the marketplace is where we’re connected to audiences, and it’s where we connect with the art we consume.

It’s incredibly hard to separate art and commerce as a creator. I sit down occasionally and ask myself what, exactly, I’d be likely to write if I wasn’t considering where it might be published. What would change on my list of projects I’d like to do one day? What would get re-prioritized?

I’m not sure I can even conceptualize an answer to that, because thinking about markets is so ingrained in the way I write these days. I suspect I would end up writing short, slightly weird stories whose sole purpose is entertaining a half-dozen people among my friends who can provide more immediate feedback on what they like and what they don’t.

How to Become a Writer

It starts with the question you get asked when you’re young, and the answer that comes into your head is something to do with books, maybe?

It starts with being shy, and moving around a lot all through your childhood.

It starts with the trinity of SF from your childhood: Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, and G-Force. It starts with David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, which you saw far too young because you liked science fiction and there was no home video back then, so it wasn’t like you could just watch Star Wars again.

It starts with hearing your dad read The Hobbit in his classroom. It starts with the soundtrack of your pre-teen years, inherited from your father: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Queen singing Flash, the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

It starts with your first William Gibson short story at fourteen and having your mind blown. With Neil Gaiman comics at sixteen, which blow your mind again. With Enid Blyton books all the way back when you first started reading: Mister Galliano’s Circus and The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.

It starts the first time you think consider that mind-blowing feeling and want to be responsible for inducing it in others.

It starts with your mother accidentally buying all seven of the Narnia books, when you were only supposed to be picking up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, because the bookstore only had them in a boxed set and you didn’t really understand how money worked at nine.

It starts with getting angry with The Last Battle, because you understood allegory at age nine just fine.

It starts with years in country towns, away from movie cinemas and arcades and other distractions. It starts with growing up without the internet. It starts with Dungeons and Dragons, and your halfling getting eaten by a carrion crawler. It starts with picking up Dragon Warriors, ‘cause you couldn’t find a copy of D&D to purchase. In your head, goblins will always be fey, wyrd creatures who stab people with icicles and dance on moonbeams. When you finally run D&D, years later, it’s disappointing to discover that goblins are just smaller, weaker alternatives to orcs.

It starts with moving away, learning to run the game yourself even if there’s no-one to play it with.

It starts with hitting the limits of your school library and deciding there should be more books to read. It starts with your dad tricking you into reading Lord of the Rings at age ten. It starts with seeing artists portrayed on eighties TV sit-coms, that weird blend of creativity, heavy-metal, and punk rebellion. It starts with Nick of Family Ties – not belonging, but slowly accepted. A nice, safe version of being the outsider. You spend years with bad hair and a single, dangley earring your ear because the character of Nick Moore is imprinted on your brain.

It starts with realizing you’ll never be metal, or punk, or an artist, but fuck it – you can create things. You do okay with words.

It starts with realizing there’s something wrong with the world, and the best toolkit you have for reshaping it into a world you can handle living in are all narratively driven.

It starts with Spiderman and Iron Fist and X-Men and the realisation about how little you knew about appropriation as a kid.

It starts with figuring out how to pass IT at school. You can’t code and have no interest in learning, but you’ve grown up with computers since the days you loaded files off tape and you can get pretty damn good project partners by agreeing to write the documentation.

It starts with getting told all the things you’re pretty shit at, which should preclude you from making a career as a writer: you can’t spell worth a damn, and your grammar is fucking horrible. Your handwriting is abysmal, chicken scratch filled with random capitals just because you started a new line of the notebook. You get by in English because you read fast, which gives you plenty of time to bug the teacher with questions. Mostly, about communism, because Russia’s iconography is on goddamn point through most of the cold war.

It starts with reading Wuthering Heights in school and recognizing the metaphorical significance of the hearths before the classes even started, and suddenly you’re hooked on this shit forever.

It starts with wanting to do an arts degree, because you think it will be a place you finally feel at home. It starts with realizing how wrong you are about that, and spending three years avoiding classes because you can’t quite get over your crippling shyness around people more interesting than you are.

It starts with doing okay in some classes, despite your lack of attendance. Poetry, and script-writing, which gets you seconded into a theater to work as a playwright on a project that comes closer to getting you sued than you’re really comfortable thinking about.

It starts with a few years writing poetry, because you need to figure out who you are and being a poet seems safe enough. You win a poetry slam and people pay you. You publish poems and people pay you. You finish your degree. You do an honors year. You write a terrible thesis and a not-quite-so-terrible poetry collection, which earns you a spot as a PhD student.

It starts with slowly realizing there are other people in your degree who are interested in speculative fiction, and having awkward conversations about it.

It starts with getting invited to tutor in your writing program, and having to explain how writing writing to other people in ways that make sense.

It starts with marking assignments. Hundreds and hundreds of short stories and poems and essays which start to illuminate just how much you’ve learned since you were eighteen.

It starts with getting some freelance gigs writing for gaming books. It starts with hitting the point where you can an article published in Dragon magazine. It starts with seven years as in a PhD program, teaching and lecturing and writing things, without ever feeling like you’re any closer to getting published.

It starts with Clarion South, getting locked away with sixteen other writers and a host of instructors who actually know things about making a living as a writer, and suddenly learning that there’s a way to apply all the skills you’ve picked up while teaching for seven years.

It starts when you figure there’s nothing to lose with writing SF, just like you intended to when you first went to uni: you’re thirty years old; your relationship is ending; it’s becoming increasingly apparent that academia is not your thing, not when the other option is getting things published. You write and you write and you write some more, and suddenly the publications appear.

It starts the first time you realize how different a writing career feels from the inside, compared to things other people assume are markers of success.

It starts with fucking up, and realizing that this will not stop you. You’ve built up a profile as a writer once, which means you can do it again.

It starts with starting over. Building from the ground up. Getting back to writing again and again. And it’s not about a burning, unyielding passion for writing – you’re well aware that you can walk away, get your kicks from playing computer games instead of writing stories or books. You can get your kicks out of writing a blog, if that’s really your thing.

Besides, there are plenty of gigs out there that can use your felicity with words. You’ve worked a few of them, over the years, all of them considerably more job-like than the gigs you dreamed about as a pre-teen. You can make a comfortable living, if you’re willing to commit to them.

It starts the first time you think, fuck that, I’d rather be writing the things I want to write about.

It starts right now. ‘Cause, hell, there’s so many starting points. So many things that feel like they’re the thing that really got you started. You can build a nice, clean narrative about what really made you want to write, but you’re painfully aware of the differences between narrative and reality.

Reality isn’t clean. Reality isn’t linear. The moment you start shaping a story, you’re manipulating experiences to generate effect. To make the point you want to make, make the reader feel the thing you want them to feel in that moment.

So yeah, fuck it, it starts now. It starts with writing something, and finishing it, and putting it in front of an audience.

Then it starts when you finish, and move on to the next thing.

Some Thoughts On Writing and Mental Illness

Every night I take 25 mg of Valdoxan before I go to bed, nudging my brain towards a healthier normal. Every morning I start tracking data on my preferred stress, depression, and anxiety management app, marking hours of sleep and minutes of exercise and whether I’ve had contact with the outside world.

Every week I’m learning to pay more attention to the default narrative in my head, and the defence mechanisms set up because of those narratives, so I can better at identifying which are actually useful and which need to be dismantled. Every couple of months I get a blood test to see if the Valdoxan is doing unhappy things to my liver enzymes.

I still have bad weeks. I was in the midst of one seven days ago. My stress responses still need work, because they’re currently front-loaded with the message: for the love of god, procrastinate to the point of self-destruction. I was stressed last week, but I hadn’t even processed that until the stats on my app laid it all out for me and I was like, oh, that’s why I’m sleeping two hours a night and obsessively playing computer games I hate for twenty fucking hours a day. 

There were very few parts of my blogging gig for Queensland Health that felt personal, but working on this one was fucking hard, for the simple fact that I went through every goddamn thing on the list.

It was about this point, last year, that I first realised things were getting very bad.

I did what I thought were proactive things to deal with that at the time. Some of those were good – including the conversation that eventually led to me going back to university on a PhD scholarship – but some where just slapping a band-aid over a gaping wound. I told myself I could just work harder, do better, and everything would be fine.

It would take another four or five months, a shitload more stress, and some pretty insistent friends and family to actually get me to consider the fact that there was something up with my mental health.

The funny thing about blogging for Queensland Health was the sheer amount of time spent looking at data and statistics that I’d otherwise ignore. When it comes to mental illness, the stats I keep coming back to were these:

  • 45% of Australians are going have some experience of mental illness in their life
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men will experience some level of depression
  • Only 35% of people with anxiety and depression will access treatment

Stigma around mental illness, and a general lack of knowledge, tends to make up a big part of the 65% doesn’t access help. Given my general reluctance to go see a GP when I needed it, or even recognizing I was going through something where help would be useful, I totally get how that happens.

I had the advantage of knowing multiple peeps with depression and anxiety issues, talking to them about what was going on, and still had myself convinced that it wasn’t something I was experiencing right up until the doctor suggested antidepressants and counselling.

And even after you learn about depression and anxiety, there are all sorts of ways the stigma fucks with you: don’t talk about it too loudly; don’t talk about it too often; don’t talk about it with the wrong people. Don’t bore the pants off people with you and your problems.

And really, fuck that shit, because it becomes part of the problem.

Depression is not a light switch that flicks on and off. It’s not a clearly deliniatied line where you go from okay to not okay the moment you step over. Regardless of how it’s used in clinical settings, depression is colloquially used to group together a whole bunch of mood-related disorders, of differing levels of intensity, that affect people in different ways.

Part of the reason I wondered around without looking for help for so long was the relatively lack of exposure to people whose experiences mimicked my own, or who experienced symptoms at levels of severity I didn’t quite relate to.

Beyond that, I’ll admit to another slice of foolishness: I worried about writing and depression. Not in an I’ll-never-write-again way, ‘cause hell, I got this far, nor in a I’m-a-writer-and-I-cannot-work-if-I’m-not-depressed, ’cause…well, I can tell you how much work I did while depressed and anxious and it pretty much amounts to fuck all.

No, I worried because my brain was wired to worry. I worried about getting treated the same way I worried about that stupid thing I said when I was eleven, or the same way I fretted about saying something stupid in that email I just sent, and the same way I obsessively rehearse conversations with people I’ve hurt or pissed off, as if I’ll somehow be able to make it all okay by taking back that conversation and inserting the one in my head instead.

Which is, I worried to the point where worry filled 90% of my waking moments, because worry felt like control to me.

And when my GP suggested that I was actually not okay, I worried in a what-will-this-actually-be-like-and-how-will-depression-affect-things way that sent me looking for other writers who talked about their experiences. Reading about other writers talking about their shit helped a lot back then, which is why I occasionally pop up and talk about my experiences here.

So let me be clear: Shit went wrong. I got help. I’m still getting help and working shit out. It’s an ongoing fucking thing.

And writing is better because of it.

But I am just me, and let’s be clear, in writing terms I am small beer. Since I’m an rigorous bookmarker of useful links, here the short list of folks who write a hell of a lot more than me (with a hell of a lot more success), whose posts about their own mental illness helped a lot when I went on medication last year:

Note the incredible diversity of conditions, experiences, and coping mechanisms out there. Mental health is not one-size-fits-fucking-all.

For all my resistance to getting help, and my occasional nervousness about medication and frustrations with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, going to my GP and letting them know I might not be okay was the best goddamn thing I’d done in about ten fucking years.

Don’t talk yourself out of getting help if you have even the vaguest suspicion you might need it. It’s really not worth it.

Why I’m Using Scrivener as a Multi-Project Writing Workspace

I am surprisingly tolerant of cluttering in physical space. I take comfort in stacking books around me like a defensive wall, scatter notes across my coffee table along with errant mugs, and pile my laundry by the doorway leading from the bedroom to the balcony/laundry because I’ll remember to actually do it that way.

I’m far less tolerant of clutter in digital systems, to the point where I actually feel excessively uneasy and reluctant to work when my email, RSS feeds, or work folders start to get out of control. Talking to people who leave thousands of emails in their inbox make me break out in a cold sweat, and I will say nothing of tab junkies who just keep opening a new page on their browser every time they want to add something to their to-read list. Dealing with any kind of shared server within a company or organisation, where files are often layered seven folders deep via arcane and confusion logic, is enough to make me weep.

When it comes to writing, I used to maintain a pretty simple file architecture that looked a little like this:

The drafft archive – I never got around to fixing the typo – housed all the half-finished works that I wasn’t currently working on. The current folder housed anything I was currently working on, from story drafts to novels to blogs in progress to PhD applications, while finished drafts sat in the revision folder until they were ready to move on to submission.

It’s a system that served me pretty well for the last few years, but when I started examining my work processes for systems that were no longer pulling their weight, I realised the file architecture no longer suited my workflow. There were, for example, about twenty projects stacked up in the current projects folder. Starting some drafts in scrivener meant that some projects were half-written there, while others were sitting as word files in the draft archive. The revision folder simply fell off my radar a lot of the time, because my focus was now split between short stories, longer writing projects, blogging, essay writing, applications, GenreCon, and more.

The “recent files” feature in word went a little way towards mitigating the effects of clogged-up filing systems, allowing me quick access to anything I’d used recently, but it also showed had the potential to be an enormous source of distraction. My current project would be right there next to notes for my RPG campaign, or that recipe I’d downloaded and saved for my “Cook this, goddamnit” folder.

I spent the last month trying to figure out an alternative approach, but I couldn’t quite come up with an file system that worked for me. Everything involved too much segregation between work spaces (which meant things would get ignored, the same way I’d been ignoring the revision folder) or too much clutter (which meant too many options were present when I wanted to start work).

Then, last week, I remembered Michael Hyatt’s approach to Scrivener as an all-in-one workbench for projects. I’d previously used Scrivener for long-form narrative drafts and found it…well, a mixed bag. I really like it’s wordcount functions, I really disliked the cludginess whenever I needed to change paragraph indents or fonts. It’s ability to facilitate top-level planning isn’t really something I use a lot, outside of some very specific situations.

Ambivalent as I am about its abilities as a word processor, I do have to admit one thing: Scrivener kicks ass as a filing system. It’s what it was built to do, really well, and once you break past the idea of one scrivener file/one project it actually starts unveiling neat little functionalities. I started out replicating Hyatt’s set-up – a workbench for current files in use, and a filing cabinet where things are broken down by writing area – and it took about six seconds to realise that Scivener had one big advantage over ordinary file folders.

This is the view that greeted me every time I fired up my workspace this week, with every part of my writing broken down by category and the current deadlines/priorities listed right there on the front of the folder. I know exactly which files to move up to the Workbench before I start writing, can switch easily between projects without opening a new file, and can use scrivener’s features to quickly snapshot a version before I redraft.

Rearranging the top level cards lets me reorder the priority quickly and easily, which means I can drag Thesis/Uni tasks to the forefront when approaching critical deadlines and ensure I scan those priorities before I check short stories or novels. Keeping rough drafts and redrafts in the same system, marked using scriveners label function, means I can never pretend that the redrafts aren’t there waiting for me while I focus on new words. If I’m ignoring a project, it’s because I’m making an active decision that it is less important than other parts of my writing rather than simply forgetting it needs to be done.

It also eliminates any meaningful difference between the space where I plan work and the place that I write it, in much the same way that my bullet journal does when I’m working analog.

Most importantly, it does the three things I want from any system I set up, regardless of whether it’s a white board, notebook or digital tool:

  • Focuses my attention on what needs to be done
  • Provides necessary context when making decisions about what to do next
  • Decreases the resistance to starting on a project

The next couple of weeks will be spent testing this as a system before I finally bit the bullet and migrate the archives of unfinished work in, but it seems to be working okay as a means of making twenty-odd current projects comprehensible and achievable.