Writer’s Diary #6: How to finish your novel: ditch the to-do list

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 10.17.44 AMWe’re constantly thinking up new things we want or need to do, adding them to the never-ending list, then moaning about never having time to do them. If you are a writer, you probably complain that so many things get in the way to thwart you that you will never finish your novel.

The answer? Don’t have a list! Obviously, it’s good to have goals, but when you have so many that you’ll never have any hope of achieving them, it’s counter-productive. Often you have so much to do, you don’t know where to start.

So, the idea is, only put on your list what you can reasonably achieve.

In one weekend, no matter how enthusiastic you are at the start, you will not be able to clean out the cupboards, start your novel, read a whole book and go to the movies. Pick one and do it. Then you’ll be happy you achieved your goal, and you won’t be disappointed in yourself for not finishing four other things on the list.

Sometimes one day at a time is better than making five-year plans.

I’ve got a long-term to-do list that has been the same for about five years. I never cross anything off it, because I never get to it. So it’s always lurking there on my virtual computer sticky notes, reminding me what a disappointment I am to myself and others. I’m going to get rid of this list soon.

I gave away superfluous clothes from my wardrobe recently. Two big bags full, so now I can find the clothes I wear. The clothes that went to charity were all things I thought I’d wear again. But I haven’t, so out they went, except for a few classics.

So now I want to take the same philosophy to my to-do list. I have to realise that I am not going to be able to write 10 more novels in the foreseeable future—and probably not ever. But I think I might be able to write one, and possibly two or three. So I should just pick my top three ideas and forget about the others. I’ve started all three of them anyway. Yes, I know. I should choose one and go for it. Actually, I’ve got a new idea that I think would be great and for which I could happily put all others aside for a year.

I’m making a new plan to finish my third book and to have it published. To do that, I will have to put all other things aside, particularly to-do lists, though unless I am successful in attaining a government grant, I won’t be able to give up paid employment. Still, eligible applicants have about a one in 10 chance of getting a grant in my category, so it’s better odds than buying a Lotto ticket.

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Wrap it up: the dreaded to-do list

Today’s post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge call for bloggers to write about the year that was.

With only two weeks of the year left, I checked my personal non-urgent to-do list, written in January,  and discovered that I hadn’t  done anything on it this year! I was a bit disappointed in myself until I realised that I hadn’t done these things because I didn’t need to. On the other hand, my work-based to-do list is down to one final project, and even that is nearly complete.
I like making and working through to-do lists. These days, I use the Stickies app, virtual post-it notes in pink, yellow, blue, green and purple, stuck to the front of my desk-top computer. On my iPad and iPhone, although I have several specialist apps for lists, I use Notes for stuff I have to do right away. It automatically then sends my list to my email.
There’s something satisfying about writing a list and then crossing it off as you complete each task. It reminds me of school exams, in which the teacher would write the time in chalk on the board in 15-minute blocks until the finish. She or he would then cross off the time as it passed, so students could see where they were up to. A school friend of mine applied this concept to everyday tasks she didn’t like, such as maths class. At the beginning of the class she would draw up her list: 10.00, 10.15, 10.30, 10.45, 11.00. Then she would cross off each time as it occurred. She said it helped make the class go quicker! My father would have said “Don’t wish your life away”, but back then, we didn’t really understand what he meant.

Remember these? My Time Manager folder, 1988-1998.

Remember these? My Time Manager folder, 1988-1998.

In 1988, the bank where I worked as a corporate publications journalist sent me on a Time Manager-brand course, which included this marvelous thick black folder (pictured above), in which you could manage your life, and which I used for 10 years, until computers superseded it. I still have this folder and the sections inside reveal all sorts of fascinating snippets from 20 years ago: how much I paid for rent at various places, the cost of living in Bangkok in the early 1990s, my aspirations, a list of ideas for books, never written. Hmmm, that novel set in the Australian gold rush era could  be worth resurrecting…
There are even a couple of long-forgotten British stamps, sent to me by a relative because I needed to provide stamped self-addressed envelopes when I submitted work to publishers (no email submission in those days). Apparently, there was something called an international reply coupon, but I could never find out at any post office what this was or where to get it.
Unfortunately, I culled a lot of stuff from this folder years ago which would have made interesting reading now.
So, unfulfilled to-do lists aside, what were my top 10 achievements for 2012? I made a list! Here they are in no particular order:
1. Completed my 10th back-to-back teaching semester as a university lecturer. As a contractor, I don’t get sabbaticals or opportunities to use research grant money to pay others to teach for me, so I have no choice but to teach every semester. I spoke at a conference, chaired sessions at another, and finished or nearly finished writing three academic articles.
2. Spent two weeks in Thailand, including visiting Bangkok for the first time in 11 years. I attended the Reaching the World writers’ summit there and read from some of my work-in-progress at a women writers’ night in Bangkok.
3. Went to the dentist three times. I’m the daughter of a dentist, but my dad died suddenly nearly seven years ago, so it was a big step for me in 2009 to get up the courage to go again regularly, to someone else. After a load of appointments to make things right again, I now have to go only every six months.
4. Got a doctor and plan to have all the tests I should have. I’m a great avoider of doctors, but these things have to be done. I started to change my mind when I read a story about a woman whose friend died of an illness that could have been cured if they’d caught it earlier. “My friend died simply because she didn’t go to the doctor for 15 years,” the friend said.
5. Completed about 15 paintings. My “new” hobby will be two years old in February. A hobby is good for your soul—I urge everyone to take up something they thought they couldn’t do but would love to have a go at. Singing, playing the guitar, painting, running, swimming, whatever. The great thing about a hobby is you don’t need to be great at it and it doesn’t have to bring in any money and you don’t have to do it at a particular time; all you need do is enjoy it.
6. Read more books than last year.
7. Committed to having one day off work a week, most weeks. I have been much more relaxed this year as a result.
8. Cleaned out my wardrobe floor, disposed of unwanted and unworn shoes. Now all the shoes sit neatly in pairs.
9. Arranged a birthday bash for my husband, which was a great success.
10. Started a blog (this one).

It’s a wrap!