The further you get, the less time you have
Writing takes time – this is something we all know. What you don’t often hear about is the amount of hours it takes to do the admin needed to do the writing. I don’t mean having a day job or posting the average 3.5 quips per day on Twitter that’s recommended to keep up your profile without overwhelming your followers – I mean admin to the keep track of all the Stuff. Left brain logic and right brain creativity are hard to meld, but keeping on top of admin can actually give you more time to write.
Last month I wrote about following guidelines when submitting to competitions, agents and other opportunities. Alongside the writer who double-booked an article, there’s plenty of other examples of how keeping track of your submissions can save your hide – and potentially your career. A few years ago, a publisher told me about a manuscript they were considering: it was an exclusive submission on the acquisition track, had been okayed by marketing and they were about to make an offer – then another publisher announced the manuscript had won a major prize, which included publication with them. The first publisher was livid that the author had lied about the exclusivity of the submission, then hadn’t informed them that it had been picked up elsewhere. Word about this type of stuff-up gets around, and being organised can help you avoid these potentially career-ruining situations.
I used to be great at holding all the Stuff in my head, but I’ve found the more I’m juggling the more organised I need to be. So here’s my ‘system’. It can look – and at times definitely feels like – high-level procrastination, but it’s saved me missing deadlines, inadvertently resubmitting the same work to publishers, and a stack of time in the long run.
It’s a running joke that writers will have files named STORY FINISHED, STORY FINISHED FOR REAL, STORY REALLY TRULY DONE THIS TIME, AND STORY DONE THIS TIME YEP FOR SURE. And stories are constantly evolving. I have versions of the same short story rewritten at different word lengths for different competitions; and completed manuscripts at 1.5 spacing, double spacing, first three chapters, first 10 pages, first 50 pages, Australian English and US English and all possible combinations of these because different agents/publishers/opportunities want different things.
So my naming system? I date drafts – and ‘finished’ versions. 'Story 2-4-18', for example. ‘Story 2-4-18 DS 12TNR 50pp’ is Story double spaced, 12-point Times New Roman, first 50 pages. I used to go by ‘time modified’, but found opening older drafts made this unreliable.
I have a folder for each title, which includes synopses (again, different lengths for different opportunities), and a folder of the pieces I’m currently working on.
When I submit something I make a new copy; name it with the MS title and person/publisher/comp I’ve sent it to; and save it the relevant folder – submissions, grant applications, competitions, agents. If there’s more than one document, such as the MS, cover letter and synopsis, I’ll create a folder for that submission as a whole. It’s fiddly, but I can easily find what I’ve sent to where, and find files that I can modify for the next opp.
Whether it’s on your phone, Outlook, Google calendar or hanging on your wall, calendars are vital. But don’t just write in due dates – include the steps: when you want to have drafts completed; when you need material back from others; when you have a blog post due to go up the next day (thank you, phone calendar reminder, for this post!). This will save you rushing at the last minute and you can also see when work clashes. Work days, meetings, appointments – even expected competition result announcement dates are all useful.
I use a similar system to filing documents, with folders for competitions, agents, grant applications, and writing group material where I move autoreply responses, feedback – anything relevant. But I also have a horrendously long list of emails in my inbox that don’t fit into any particular category.
Despite trying to keep a notepad on me at all times, I’m often without – especially if I don’t have a bag with me. So I’ll use my phone to email myself notes or observations, and they go into a folder to open when I’m next on my laptop.
Email, especially web-based ones like gmail, is also a handy as you have a copy of whatever documents you’ve sent. And emailing yourself drafts or important documents is a great backup.
Writing and spreadsheets. A weird combination, but so useful! Other than the spreadsheet I keep for my freelance work, I don’t use Excel for maths. Spreadsheets are perfect for keeping and updating lists. You can do this using other programs, including word processing, but I find spreadsheets to be less awkward in the long run.
The main sheet I use is for submissions. It’s broken into sections: picture books, MG, YA, and articles; and colour-coded based on opportunity type, and response. Red is a rejection, green is an offer, magenta is shortlisting, orange is a suggestion for another opportunity. Agents are pale orange, competitions mauve and mentorships/programs pale blue.
I have columns for the project title, who I’ve submitted to, the date, format, received date, reply date, feedback, contact name and notes. I keep comments, such as what people did and didn’t like, as they’re useful for revision. The main advantage of a system like this? If you get a publication offer you know exactly who else to contact to withdraw your work so you don’t end up burning bridges, like our author friend mentioned above.
There’s also a separate spreadsheet for agents I’ve found on Manuscript Wishlist that includes what they’re looking for, which I use to personalise each pitch.
If you haven’t already picked up by now, I’m a stats geek. And Query Tracker (QT) feeds into that perfectly. The website enable authors to keep track of who they’ve submitted to, how and when, and the response. QT is primarily for US agents and the information is crowdsourced – the site relies on members to update their own information. I’ve found it useful regarding expected response times, and also to see what agents are accepting. This can be useful when you’re starting out to help manage expectations.
This screenshot, for instance, shows submissions to one agent over six months. QT has highlighted mine in yellow. There are different icons for rejection, closed query, and partial and full request. The purple one up the top is an offer of representation. From this and other graphics, I could see that several agents were clearing their inboxes before Christmas. Clicking on a line will give you information about the project, so you can see what they’re rejecting or interested in. What QT can’t tell you regarding quick response time is if the agent and writer have had previous communication. There’s a free version or you can pay to get all the features, but I’ve found it’s been so worth it!
We’re talking writing, not exercise, right? I’m undergoing some serious ankle rehab at the moment to try and avoid surgery. I use my Fitbit not only to keep track of steps, but also to remind me to move. A reminder will go off at 10 minutes to the hour if I haven’t done 250 steps that hour – prompting me to walk to the kitchen and make a coffee or grab a snack (which kind of defeats the purpose). The reminder can be annoying when I’m on a roll writing and this is when I ignore it. It’d rather do the movement later than lose the flow.
I’ve also started using my Fitbit as a silent alarm. I like to write early in the morning, and the alarm buzz wakes me up and not the rest of the house, unlike the alarm on my phone.
So those are the main ways I organise myself. There are a stack of writing-specific programs and gadgets – such as Pomodoro, an app based on the Pomodoro technique, where you spend, say, 20 minutes working, take a five-minute-break and repeat – but I try to work with what I've already got.
If you’re aiming to be published, the admin time increases the more you put yourself out there. It might take days to research agents or publishers, and more time still to craft query letters and format your work correctly. The trick is to be realistic – and organised. It can take a while to set up your systems, but keeping them updated will save many more hours searching back through emails or looking up dates or contacts.