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Hidden Choices: Time Management For Writers

Hidden Choices: Time Management For Writers

A few days ago, I found a thread on a writer’s message board where the original poster offered a course about book cover design. The proposed course didn’t go over very well. Responses complained about the price of the course (“Two hundred dollars would buy me a lot of book covers.”), while others suggested changes to his website and more samples of past work. Through the full range of comments, though, nobody mentioned time management for writers. Why would they? It was a thread about cover design. Or so it seemed.

A quality book cover is fundamental to your book’s success. We’ve all heard, “never judge a book by its cover,” but that’s exactly what readers do. Have you scrolled through the pages on Amazon, looking for your next great read? Probably. If you’re like most people, you scan the book covers first, one after another. You skip past the covers that don’t have the “right” look. The story itself could be the best ever, but most readers will never find out. A great cover might not convince you to buy the book, but it can make you stop and look.

Time Management Decisions Disguised as Something Else

What struck me about the thread was the overall “do-it-yourself” tone of the original post and many of the replies. The original poster essentially said I can teach you how to do your own cover. Responders argued that I don’t need you to teach me because I can teach myself. Both assertions miss the point. The key question isn’t can a self-published author learn professional cover design, it’s should she?

“Can I?” is a very dangerous question for writers because, at least to some degree, the answer is usually yes. You can learn to produce a book cover. You can learn to format your book, build a website, or set up a Facebook page. The question to ask isn’t, “Can I do it?,” but, “Should I?”

Both sides in the cover design thread focused on the “Can I?” question: “Can a self-published author learn to produce her own book cover?” The better question would have been framed as a “Should I?” question: “Should I spend the time and money necessary to learn how to do a professional cover design?”

How much time should a writer spend learning the basics of cover design and color theory? How much time can she afford to spend away from her writing? Wouldn’t she become a better writer by focusing almost exclusively on her writing, and not splitting time between writing and graphic arts? These are important questions. The answers to them are vital, because in the end, they’re not questions about her ability to learn a new skill. They’re time management choices for a writer disguised as something else.

Writing Time Is Your Most Precious Resource

Writing is hard work. Human nature being what it is, there are times when writers find reasons to do almost anything rather than sit down and write. Fortunately, for those so inclined, a writer can distract herself on an almost endless number of other things–like learning about cover design–things that feel like work, and not procrastination. I didn’t get a chance to write today, but my .html skills are getting better every day! She will become a better writer by writing, not by playing with Photoshop.

Money Isn’t The Real Issue

You can hire a professional cover designer who will produce (hopefully) a beautiful book cover costing thousands of dollars. Most writers don’t have that kind of money to spend on a book cover, so they consider doing their own. Get a copy of Photoshop and watch a few YouTube videos. How hard can it be? And there won’t be a bank-breaking check to write. It seems like an attractive option when publishing on a shoestring.

There is another alternative. There are lots of very inexpensive cover design alternatives, with some as low as ten dollars! Some of the low-priced designers do surprisingly high quality work. My guess is that most will do a better job than a writer moonlighting as a cover designer. Given the wide array of alternatives, it just isn’t necessary to sacrifice your writing time in search of an inexpensive book cover.

Time management for writers is crucial to a writer’s development. The more time a writer spends writing, the better the writing will be. Writing will become easier. Falling into the trap of doing tasks–like cover design–serves only to delay and hinder. Put your focus where it should be: on your writing.

And, do you you really want to know how a Layer Mask works?


Revision Is Writing

Revision Is Writing

I find quite often that, when thinking about the writing process, new writers know they have to write and finish a first draft, and that there is some form of editing and proofreading that comes afterward. What they sometimes miss is what comes between the first draft and final editing: Revision. Or more specifically, the role revision plays in the writing process.

The revision phase is where the real crafting of a story takes place. As Malamud said, it’s where the writer shapes and enlarges ideas from the first draft and crafts them into a final story. It’s where the real writing, the most important writing, takes place. Hemingway, ever terse, seemed to agree when he reputedly said, “The first draft of anything is sh**.”

There are some high-volume writers who would disagree. This kind of writer may have a goal of publishing a new book every month or two. With such a schedule, speed is key. If you’re looking for ways to cut production time, cutting the revision process entirely would seem an obvious choice. But by definition, a reduction or elimination of the revision phase brings a reduction in quality of the final story.

The high-volume writer would argue (maybe) that they sell tens-of-thousands of books (or more) and their readers think the quality of their work is just fine. Absolutely true. If you thought this post was to say the high-output, no-revision writer’s work is bad, you’ve missed the point.

This post contains two primary messages, both aimed at newbies. First, crank out the first draft. So many writers, both new and more experienced, get bogged down in trying to get their stories “just right” the first time through. Why happens is it takes years to finish, if they finish at all, and the final story becomes overly mechanical. Stephen King once wrote (On Writing?) something like, “Write your first draft as fast as the gingerbread man can run.” You should.

Second, and unless you’re trying to publish faster than the gingerbread man can run, the revision phase is where a newbie writer can unleash his or her creativity and craft the core ideas from the first draft and take the story to its full potential.

Prioritizing High Return Activities For Self-Published Writers

Prioritizing High Return Activities For Self-Published Writers

If you’re a writer, and specifically, a self-published writer, you’re a business owner. You’re probably already a pretty good writer, but perhaps less experienced with running a small business. One of the leading causes of small business failure can be traced right back to the decisions business owners make about how to spend their most valuable resource: time.

If a business owner makes $208,000 per year, he or she makes $100 per hour on a forty-hour week. She may make that kind of money because he’s very good at selling the company’s product to customers. Or maybe he’s great at maintaining and building client relationships. Or negotiating deals. Whatever the specific tasks, certain things the owner can do are more valuable and bring in more money to the business than anything else.

Business owners are entrepreneurs. They are confident in their abilities to do things themselves. It’s all to common to see that $100 per hour owner spend four hours installing the latest software upgrade on his laptop or run to the office supply store to buy new pens. These are things a ten or fifteen dollar per hour assistant could do with ease, freeing the business owner to focus on high return activities.

Unless you’re Hugh Howey, or one of a small group of highly successful indie authors, you’re probably not making $100 per hour writing just yet, but the general concept still applies. What is the highest and best use of your time? If you feel driven to write and publish a book, or to become a professional author, is your time better spent writing, or figuring out how to build a professional-looking website? Writing, or learning Photoshop? Writing, or setting up MailChimp for the first time?

My favorite writing advice came from Stephen King in his book, “On Writing,” where he advised simply, “Write a lot and read a lot.” If we asked him today, it’s doubtful that he’d amend his advice to include, “and learn how to format your eBooks.” If you want build and indie writing career, one of the best things you can do would be to focus on the high-return activities of writing and reading and push most of the rest out of the way.

Just like a successful small business owner.

Writing Lessons From Watching…John Taffer and Bar Rescue?

Writing Lessons From Watching…John Taffer and Bar Rescue?

Bar Rescue is a SPIKE TV reality show hosted by industry expert John Taffer. Each week, a failing bar owner calls Taffer for help and the turnaround specialist shows up to save the day. The show typically starts with Taffer and helpers in his car, watching surprisingly bad bar operations using hidden cameras. Something so shocking happens that Taffer can’t take it any longer and proclaims, “I’m going in!” Inside, Taffer confronts the owner, yelling ensues, and it becomes clear how hopeless the situation really is. This will be the bar that even Taffer can’t save. By the end of the hour, the bar has been saved and lives have been changed and everyone is happy.

Based on the brief description of the show, it’s hard to imagine why the show is still on television. Apparently, though, the show finished filming its one hundredth episode earlier in 2016 and is more popular than ever. Are viewers really that fascinated with alcohol, drink mixing, and the bar business? I don’t go to bars and have never had a mixed drink in my life, yet I’ve seen maybe twenty episodes of the show. What is the attraction?

The answer can be found in the last place you might ever think to look: John Truby’s classic book on screenwriting, “The Anatomy of Story.” It’s about story structure. The principles therein apply to novel writing as much as screenwriting. Whether it’s Truby’s 22 Steps, The Hero’s Journey, or other takes on classic story structure, Bar Rescue follows it’s own template using fundamentals of classic storytelling. The bars and drinks are just props. It’s the storytelling structure that makes the show work.

People recognize and respond on a deep level to universal elements of good storytelling. It’s like something in their head says, “You’ve seen this before and like it. You need to see how this story ends this time.” It’s the voice that tells someone with no interest in bars and alcohol to watch the last thirty minutes of Bar Rescue to see how the episode ends. It’s the voice that makes a reader want to finish your book.

Understanding that voice, and how it responds to story structure, is valuable information.