American expat in Hong Kong and aspiring writer Shannon Young officially met her monthly income target in April, and in May had already achieved that target in 20 days. How did she get so productive?
Dear Displaced Diary,
It’s hard to believe it has already been two months since my last entry. The past five months have been exceptionally productive. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I wanted to get my new fantasy series off the ground by publishing the first two books within two months of each other. At that time, the first book, Duel of Fire, had just come out.
Well, I’m happy to report that Book 2, King of Mist, launched this past week!
For this entry I thought I’d take a step back to tell you about how I stay focused now that I am self-employed and my deadlines are generally self-imposed. (Even if you’re not a writer but are one of those expats with a side-gig or remote career—I suspect many trailing partners fall into this category—my strategies may be useful to you as well.)
The other reason I want to talk about this is that I’ve had a rather unproductive week—at least from a writing standpoint. The weeks when I release a book, it’s way too tempting to spend all my time refreshing my sales graph. So I also want to remind myself what I do to stay productive in hopes that it will get me back in the groove.
So here it is: Shannon’s Productivity Plan or, given that I’m now writing swashbuckling fantasy: How to Swashbuckle Your Way into Productivity.
Keep regular hours.
I go to Starbucks every day at 11:00 a.m. and stay until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mood and feelings on any given morning do not dictate whether or not I show up for work. I’ve tried going in earlier, but I find that I don’t usually get in the zone until 11:00 anyway, so I don’t force it. (Between you and me, not having to get up early is the best part of being a writer!) I catch up on news and social media, read emails, and check sales stats over breakfast before I leave the apartment, so I won’t be distracted by those things when it’s time to get to work.
Don’t take weekdays off.
It’s all too easy to reward yourself with days off when you work for yourself. I honestly think the biggest key to my productivity is that I don’t take days off except on extremely rare occasions. If I finish a book or draft on Wednesday, I start the next one on Thursday. Starting a new project is hard. If you simply roll right into it, you get to keep your momentum, and don’t have time to feel daunted by the challenges a new project presents.
Do take weekends off.
Burnout is real. I want to sustain this career for the long haul, so I don’t work weekends unless I’m on a serious roll or approaching a big deadline. I’ll sometimes go to a café for a few hours on a weekend afternoon—but I treat that as a bonus (as I quite enjoy writing), rather than a necessity.
Use the chunky method.
I block out my to-do lists by week rather than by day. I find it’s a lot more effective to set a word-count goal of, say, 15,000 in a week versus 3,000 per day. That way if you have a rough day, you’ll have a chance to make it up. Feeling like you’ve failed or haven’t lived up to your expectations for yourself can kill your productivity.
This method is especially helpful for edits, which are much harder to divide up by word count. One day you might edit 20,000 words and the next you might only get through 10,000 with the same amount of time and effort. If you plan to finish a draft within a given two-week period, you have some leeway on your day-to-day progress.
This method also makes it easier to figure out when a book will be finished so I can reserve my editor and cover designer at the right time. I also often group related tasks and tackle them all at once. Don’t feel bad if you miss a task on any given day. And if you finish your tasks early in the week, you can get more writing done!
Use breaks strategically
I’m now at the point where I can write for 6–8 hours in a single day, but I do usually hit a wall around the 4- or 5-hour mark. This is when I eat a late lunch and sometimes switch to another task (like email) for a little while before jumping back into the book. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to control your Internet and phone usage. Keep it confined to your lunch breaks! I’ve written before about the importance of sustaining writing focus: it’s a muscle you have to exercise.
What if you get stuck?
I’m definitely in the “writer’s block is a myth” camp. I believe if you show up and keep working, you will eventually break through the wall. No existential angst required! However, sometimes you have days where it’s harder to get in the zone. When this happens I have three tactics that usually work:
1 – Stay in the chair.
Keep your usual working hours, even if you’re not getting much done. Chances are you will find your groove a lot sooner than if you give up and go home.
2 – Work on something else.
You’re writing more than one book, right? Switch to a different one. Work on your outline by hand. Do a different essential task. Make sure you’re still in your chair. Checking something else off your to-do list is a great way to get back the motivation you need to keep writing. This is the strategy I’ve been using this week. I prepared an audition script for the forthcoming Seabound audio book and listened to samples from dozens of narrators. It was really exciting to wake up to a handful of completed auditions this morning!
3 – Read something good.
This is the method for when all else fails. Nothing helps to get the juices flowing in your head like reading a good, fast-paced novel. Make sure you choose a story you can get lost in without your writer or editor brain getting in the way. I have a few trusted authors who I know will give me a satisfying reading experience, including Lindsay Buroker and Sarah J. Maas. This isn’t a time to try a new writer. Stick to your favorites when you’re stuck.
Set big goals.
I’ve written before about what keeps me motivated. I want to build a career that I can sustain indefinitely without having to get piecemeal teaching work. The thought of that keeps the fire alive, even when work becomes a slog. I’ve barely looked up from my computer for the past five months. But I’ve also finished and published three novels in that time, one of which I hadn’t even started before the beginning of 2016.
In April of this year, I officially met the monthly income target I established as a signifier of whether I was going to make it or not. In May I passed that milestone in 20 days. So I guess this is my job!
Thanks for staying with me, diary. Reaching this target has taken longer than I expected at first, but it has been a great journey. I still feel like I’m just getting started!
Readers, I hope some of these tips will be useful in your own writing or self-employment journey. Do you have any other productivity strategies you’d like to share?
Now it’s time to jump back in to Steel and Fire Book 3!
AKA Jordan Rivet
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Shannon, I am definitely one of those people who needs to swashbuckle my way into self-discipline, particularly when it comes to writing. I can always think of an excuse to procrastinate! I really value your advice, and am sure other readers will as well. Thank you, as always! ~ML
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Photo credit: The swashbuckler was downloaded from Pixabay.
Inspiring and galvanizing post!
Great tips, Shannon/Jordan!