I am a to-do-lister. I live (more or less) by the to do list. Every day, on my calendar, which, thanks to the kind folks at Apple, syncs between my computer and phone, I have, usually at 9:00 am—but that’s just kinda arbitrary—an event called “to do [date].” Today’s “to do 7/27/21,” for instance, includes the to do list item, “FAH Post,” which I am endeavoring to cross off right now. This list includes various editing and ghostwriting goals—a certain number of pages or chapters or words to finish today to stay on track toward various deadlines.

I also remind myself to exercise and read and do other thing designed to keep myself healthy and on top of my adult life. All sorts of things will find their way on there, and at the end of every day I can see what was accomplished, what needs to be pushed to tomorrow (or the weekend) , and what, lets face it, probably wasn’t going t happen in the first place, like “DAILY Exercise,” which almost never gets checked off.

Don’t judge me, man—I’m busy.

Since I’ve been doing this, which is a long time, going back to well before I started using the online calendar app, I’ve had various writing goals locked on to my to do list—and all too often missed day after day. I’ve tried actually scheduling time every day—blocking it out on my calendar—as writing time, like Kazuo Ishiguro told The Paris Review he does:

I usually write from ten o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock. I try not to attend to e-mails or telephone calls until about four o’clock.

Or less concrete blocks, like Connie Willis describes:

I try to write mornings and then do everything else in the afternoons. And I usually split my writing time into blocks: half an hour on research for the time-travel novel, then an hour on the novel and an hour on something else. If things start going well, then I just keep going, but if not, then the switching out helps me to be productive.

And I’ve definitely set word count goals, based on advice from some of my favorite authors, like Ray Bradbury and J.G Ballard, who got quite specific:

Every day, five days a week. Longhand now, it’s less tiring than a typewriter. When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript.

Two hours in the late morning, two in the early afternoon, followed by a walk along the river to think over the next day. Then at six, Scotch and soda, and oblivion.

I’ve tried looser goals, even one-word to do list items like “Write,” or even blocked out whole days to “Write as much as possible,” like it seems works for Nnedi Okorafor, who said:

I tend to write first drafts swiftly and nonstop, putting it aside to cool only when it’s complete (which means it carries everything in it; it’s out of my head and on the page).

I’ve had marginal success with short-term projects with all these different approaches. Most recently I’ve hade “Write for 30m” (m = minutes, not meters, for you Olympics fans) stuck on my to do list and that gets checked off maybe once or twice a week. I don’t know that I actually function well in a short time limit. That was a bad idea for me to begin with.

But this is the sort of trial and error I hope everyone out there is doing. If you’re happy with how much you’re writing and happy with the quality of your writing, then absolutely keep doing what you’re doing, but if you want to challenge yourself to write more, if you’re having trouble finishing stuff, try all these ideas. If you look at the work of the authors I’ve quoted above it’s impossible to say that any one of them are wrong, even while seeing at a glance that they’re all doing it at least a little differently from each other. It should be kept in mind, too, that these aren’t authors with “day jobs,” so writing time and work time are one and the same.

So then what’s on my to do list today, writing-wise (other than “FAH Post”)?

Write something of value

This is what I’ll be going for through at least the month of August. What I want is to write something I believe has value—that has value to me—every day. If that takes thirty meters—check that: minutes—so be it. If it takes an hour and a half, great. If I spend the afternoon writing, hooray. If I get seven hundred words or seven thousand, I’m doing great. If it’s part of a novel or my next book of writing advice or this blog or a poem or a short story or an outline or notes… if it feels valuable to me, then: success!

Why do we write in the first place? Is it to check items off our to do lists, to have written some number of words? In The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Norbert Wiener wrote:

Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

Looking back on all the writing I’ve done that wasn’t rushed to an exterior deadline, all the writing I’ve done that I’m actually proud of, that’s the feeling I’ve had. Not that I achieved some number of words or minutes, but that I wrote something that made me think, Hell, I can do this.

And if your to do list contains any other items you can’t actually do, you’ll want to take a second look at them, too.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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