Project Management for Busy Writers
Chicago-area writer Clare O'Donohue has published six novels, while also working as a freelance TV producer.
Her most recent book, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, was released earlier this month. LWP is the second in O'Donohue's Kate Conway mystery series.
Clare is also the author of the Someday Quilts Mystery Series.
How does she write six novels (count 'em--six!) and balance a day job? According to Clare, there's no real mystery to getting it all done. It's all about managing the project's component parts.
In my latest novel, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, Kate Conway, a freelance television producer, is working on two shows at the same time. Someone recently asked me if these fictional overlapping shows reflected real life, or if they were just creative embellishment on my part.
Kate and I share a profession. I’m a TV producer and writer, working mainly on the informational program side of TV (shows on A&E, History Channel, HGTV, truTV…) Like Kate, I’m freelance, and right now I’m working on three television shows at the same time, and yes, my head’s about to explode.
As stressful as it is, it’s the nature of the beast for any freelancer – sometimes there’s too much work, and sometimes too little. When people call and ask if you’re available, you say yes, and then find a way to fit the project in.
That’s usually okay. Being a TV producer is fun. I meet people from all walks of life from killers to congressman, actors, athletes, business owners and orphans. But it is also exhausting. There are constant deadlines and lots of demands, and I always have to learn something new for whatever assignment I’ve taken on.
And have I mentioned that it’s constant feast or famine? I have? It bears repeating.
Somehow the craziness has been a blessing when I write a novel. And not just because my work as a producer was the inspiration for Kate. Being a good producer requires serious time management skills. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work, questions, phone calls and emails. One day I went to get my teeth cleaned, and when I walked out of the dentist’s office I had a hundred new emails. A hundred urgent requests for information that wasn’t particularly urgent or even necessary, but required my attention to make my clients happy. I sat in my car and answered them, both grateful and annoyed that the invention of the smart phone made that possible.
When I’m confronted with a huge task like producing a show – or writing a novel – I realize I follow a few simple steps every time I take a breath. I make sure I’m as calm as possible. I get rid of annoyances – dealing with the little things to get them off my plate. Then, I look at the big project and choose which part I’ll work on first. I set an amount of time I’m going to work before taking a break. And then, as hard as it is, I ignore everything else and focus myself completely on that task. There is nothing quite so overwhelming as looking at the big picture. So I try hard to stay on the small one until I can check a task off my list, then I re-assess, move on, and occasionally have some chocolate. I’m a strong believer in the reward system, especially when it involves chocolate.
In TV the “what’s first” task isn’t always the same thing, but in writing novels it is - Chapter One. I figured this out a few years back when I wrote my first novel.
I didn’t have an agent, didn’t really know anything about publishing and was just jumping in with a lot of dreams and just enough stupidity to keep me from realizing how much the odds were stacked against me. (Not knowing you can’t do something is often the very reason you succeed.) Anyway, my sister kept talking about how she could totally see it on a bookshelf someday, that she knew it would get published. Lovely supportive stuff that only made me feel more anxious. It made the project seem big and important… and beyond my abilities. So I began saying, “I’m in chapter three. That’s all I care about – Chapter 3.” I would work on chapter three, and when it was written and my sister started talking about book tours and best seller lists, I would say, “I’m in Chapter 4…”
In fact, “staying in the chapter I’m writing” is now more than just about writing. I realize sometimes when something else in my life starts to get bigger than I can handle, I break it down into small chunks. aka chapters. It’s more manageable. Planning a vacation, dealing with a personal problem, trying to lose that annoying ten pounds… I break it down into little pieces until it’s manageable and easy to achieve. And I take another page out of my producer handbook, and set a time that I’m going to work on something, or worry about something, before taking a break.
I’ve now written six novels, and I’m working on number seven. When people ask me how I do it, I say I produce a book the way I do a television show. I stay calm, stay focused, choose a small task and stick with it. And in the end, there’s chocolate.
What skills do you share between your day job and your writing life?