Words for Writers: How Do You Get Anything Done When You Have Lots To Do?


You’re a cool person with a bunch of different talents! How do you manage to focus and make progress on so many different things? Do you have any particular strategies for breaking disparate goals into non-scary steps? Do you ever get overwhelmed?


Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say!

YES. I absolutely get overwhelmed.

In fact, last night, looking at my publishing schedule for the next two years had me reaching for and finishing nearly a whole bottle of wine.

Step #1 for being overwhelmed – accept that you are overwhelmed, that it is a LOT of work, and awknoledge HONESTLY and REALISTICALLY how long it is going to take. Step #2 – call friend, talk it thorugh, and de-stress, adn let this talk with your friend excite you about the project. Step #3 – SLEEP. Everything looks easier when you are well rested and letting your brain do a defrag while you are unconscious ALWAYS makes things more logical and make more sense in the morning.

So, how do I do all my projects and get them in on time…

Mostly, it’s by finding tools and lifehacks to A) NOT PANIC and B) GET IT DONE. It’s taken me about ten years, but these are what I’ve come up with:

The most important tool in my arsenal to prevent panic and to get it done is ORGANIZATION

–          Now, I’m not talking Pantser vs. Plotter, but rather the kind of organization that means everything is exactly where you need it, when you need it, and is found easily.

–              Use the right program for you. I write novels in Scrivener, and comics and screen plays in CeltX. I used to use FinalDraft, and I find it’s more intuitive, but Celtex has the option to have multiple tabs open, and builds a character/location/prop etc. catalogue for you as you type, which is like, half the work when you’re done the script. I love Scrivener because of all the amazing features, and because it makes reorganizing mansuscripts very simple. I am a pantser who plots only as little as necessary, and as such I spend a lot of time playing Jenga with my work as it’s evolving. I love the Targets feature, and teh virtual cork board, so my notes come with me wherever I go. Honestly, Scrivener has saved me HUNDREDS of hours of set up/formatting/not-finding/reorganization time. I will never write in straight-up Word again. (Though I always EDIT in Word because of the stellar Track Changes feature, which in itself saves HOURS AND HOURS of editing time; much better than reading someone’s handwritten notes on a MS and trying to parse what they mean as you transcribe them into the MS.) And with the ability to make notes and keep a digital scratch pad, it’s also helpful because I can write a scene, jump forward and make a note to myself about bringing back something I mentioned in that scene or a special plot point back, then jump back to where I was. I find it is MUCH easier to be creative when I’m not trying to keep EVERYTHING in my head, and I have the answers easily accessible to me when I DO need them.

–              Make an Organization Wall –  My current is whiteboard paint and frames, where I can keep notes for different projects separated, but I’ve used mirrors, taped recipie cards to the wall, used a bulliten board and separated things with ribbons, pit latticework on teh wall and thumb-tacked notes to it, etc. I find this really useful because everything I need to know is available to me in one glance. I have To Do Lists, Who Did I Lend That Thing To Lists, lists of what my characters look like, or themese I want to touch on, or projects I owe people. Basically, if I can make a list out of it, I make a list and I put it on the wall. Some people who come over tell me it’s overwhelming, but for me it’s calming, because I know I have it all up there and therefore cannot forget anything. It also makes it easier to sleep because if things are rolling around and around in my brain, I can get up, write it all on the wall, and go to bed knowing it won’t be forgotten now.

–              Carry a notepad at all times, transfer notes to digital files or rip out pages and tape them up on your organization wall.

–              Keep a Calendar of due dates  – include on teh calendar when you need to have the first draft done by, and when it needs to be turned in, and be reasonable about how much time you need between first and final.

–              Shift priorities if necessary – if something comes in with a higher priority or closer deadline, I shift and shuffle and conga-line things back to accommodate it. And then I inform the other people involved with the other projects of the change and tell them my new expected due date. Everyone appreciates being kept in the loop.

–              As much as you are able, do things as you’re thinking of them. If you think, “I should draft the pattern of that dress” then DO IT RIGHT THEN if your schedule allows for it. That way you wont’ forget about doign it later, or get stressed out when you realize you have seven other things to do. Wash the dishes when you THINK about washing the dishes. Get the mail when you THINK about getting the mail. And if you can’t do it right then, add it to the list right then.  The more you do as you’re thinking about it, the less you’ll have to berate yourself over later.

–              But at the same time, follow the passion – if you are writing and get a SUPER COOL IDEA for a scene later in the script, hop forward and write it! Right then! While you’re excited! There’s no rule saying you have to write anything in order. *I* certainly never do. (Another reason why I love Scrivener) It makes the writing much more fun, I’ve found.

–              Keep all current and active projects on your desktop. (Or, if you have physical things, out where you can see and access them easily, like a sewing table.) I know this doesn’t work for people with cramped quarters, so you’ll have to figure out the best way for that to work for you.

I do this so that I have a very clear picture, every time I turn on my computer of what is still outstanding. This also helps because if I don’t feel like working on a specific project, then I know exactly where to go to find another one that needs attention.

But I keep my current sewing projects on dummies in my living room, so when I’m ready to chill and unwind, I can just swing the fabric onto my lap while I’m watching a movie and hand-stitch on trim or something easy to do with my brain off.

–              Make templates and lists of things that need to get done. I keep templates of invoices, press releases, media releases, etc. so that if someone asks for one, it’s as easy as bringing it up, punching in the details, and sending it off. I have a list of “Things To Do For Each Book Once It’s Finished Being Written” which includes reminders to register the book with Access Copyright and the Public Lending Rights organization, send copies to my hometown library as a donation, write back-cover copy, but together a cover-art-ideas pinterest board, etc. I have a spreadsheet of book review sites and book awards that is still sort of garbled, but when I don’t feel like being creative, I go in to the Excel and straighten it out a bit more.  Each time I’m asked for something that’s not on the list by my publisher/editor/agent, it GOES onto the list for next time. Yeah, doing all this – making the templates and the lists and then actually FOLLOWING them takes a lot of time. Took me weeks. But it saves me panic and anxiety attacks over accidentally missing something, and it makes certain I am prepared for any request I might get.

–              Keep Excels of EVERYTHING. Every cent going out, every cent going in. Keep excels of contacts for reviews or press releases. Keep excels of authors you’ve requested blurbs from, and their responses. Keep excels of

–              Organize your receipts as you get them .I have a plastic acrodian folder that goes with me onto every set and to every writing event, and the pockets are labelled with the categories of allowable tax expenses according to Revenue Canada – Meals, Travel, Hotel, Office, etc. The moment I spend money while “working” I write the name of the event on the receipt and file it. Saves me DAYS come tax time. I know others who do this by taping paper bags to the walls of their entry ways and emptying their wallets or pockets as soon as the come in the house, and others who keep different folders in their office filing cabinets, etc. It’s a real time saver, because you never go “Now, why did I spend that money? What was this cab FOR again?” and wasting time looking it up.

I know this all makes me sound really, really anal, but the truth is the more organized you are the easier it is to just do the thing, get it done and out of your way, and keep yoru brain decluttered so you can focus on the creating part of things.

Give each project a specific time, and keep things running in the background.

For example, my voice acting. I try to do all my recording for auditions all on one day, at one time. But I also keep profiles up online, and always have messages up in all places where people might be looking into me and my work stating how to get in contact with me and that I’m seeking representation. This is a very passive way to get work, but it does get me work sometimes.

I also try to only do one project at a time. I work on one novel, and then a script when the novel is done, and then a cosplay when the script is done. But I also keep open to the possibility that I might have an awesome dream or thought that will be great in another project and allow myself to ditch everything to work on that one for a bit while the excitement is still there. That way the voice of the book remains consistent and I can focus on the narrative.

Be ruthless about what you say yes to.

In the beginning I said yes to everything because I wanted to get my name and my work out there. Now I find that I receive more invitations than I can reasonably accommodate, and I’ve had to cut back on my convention appearances, blurbing books, and submitting shorts to anthologies. I weigh each project carefully, and try to figure out if it will foul up my delivery dates for other things and/or if it will do anything to further my own career or exposure. But I’m not totally ruthless – I say yes anything that sounds really super fun, especially if it’s something I’ve never done before (like being a Stage Kitten at a Burlesque show at Pride! That was cool!). I also say yes to things that help out charities and initiatives that I support, and that could help give back to my community or give a boost to another writer/actor whose work I feel needs more exposure.

But submitting to contests, or being asked to do free work, or anything that will eat into my time and isn’t guaranteed to give back? Nah. Not worth it.

Beg for timeline extensions if you need to.

Publishing and the entertainment industry are pretty hurry-up-and-wait. There’s generally always wiggle room.

Don’t get caught with your pants down.

For example: Don’t just write a script, also write the one-page synopsis, the treatment, the cast list, the locations list, the one-paragraph pitch, and the elevator pitch. That way if someone asks for it, you have it, and it’s easy to send it along. This goes a long way to avoiding panic and meltdowns and losing sleep to create these documents and get them to someone now now now.

Be honestly aware of how long it takes for your name/work/project to be recognized and known.

I know people who start a business, or a project, or a amagazine, or whatever, and if they’re not internet-famous within six months, give up and start something new.

My name and my work now come up on Google searches, and there are press resleases about my forthcoming work, and people introduce me at parties as “this is J.M. Frey and she’s going to do a project with our company,” and that is all super duper cool.

But all of that has really only started happening in the last year.

What you probably don’t know is that:

-I was a child actor, and have been working on building my resume, going to acting classes, and doing auditions for about twenty years. I had an agent for a while, until he effed off with everyone’s money in 2010, and I’m still seeking a new one. And I work maybe once per year.

-I began voice acting in 2005, and have done bunches of workshops and classes, and have been looking for steady voice acting work and a voice acting agent for a decade now. I book work maybe once per year.

-It took me ten years to get to the Master Level in cosplay, with some really hilarious fails.

-My parents spent thousands on braces, dance lessons, singing lessons, and acting groups when I was a child.

-I began writing short stories in 1990 and fan fiction in 1991; I was NEVER a Big Name Fan and had no big fan following to convert into an origi-fic audience when I began writing original work

-My debut novel was 64 drafts, and I wrote and rewrote it nearly constantly over three years.

-I submitted to over sixty agents and small presses before I was accepted.

– I spend on average three times as much as I make on marketing, equipment, and supplies for both my acting and my writing businesses. (Thank god I can claim all of this on my taxes!)

– The WRITING part of writing is SLOW and a SLOG and it is BORING. I write about 1.2k words per hour, and the last time I was tested I wrote 65 WPM. As the averge length of my manuscripts is about 100-120k words, that means it takes me about 100-120 hours to write JUST THE FIRST DRAFT of a book, and that DOES NOT COUNT the rewrites, the dithering time, the stuff that I write and then cut out, etc.  It’s probably closer to 200 hours for a first draft, and that’s only the ACTUAL WRITING time. That’s not the getting-up-for-a-tea time, or going-for-a-walk-to-brainstorm time, or any of the rest of it. And I’m sure editing takes probably about 5 hours per thousand words, or thereabouts, for me.

Now, these are MY numbers, and not a fair metric for yourself, because you might do things faster, or slower, or whatever, or have better luck or breaks. There’s no knowing how long anything will actually take, but be prepared for it to be a long time and have the mental strength to stick it out anyway.

Try to combine exercise and work if you can. Here’s how I do it:

Make yourself accountable to people.

-Do NaNoWriMo or the 24 hour script competition, or any of those contests that are about just sitting down and vomiting it out. Have fun, make art, meet people, get a built-in support system, and have fun!

-Tell people what you’re trying to achieve, so they’ll root you on and celebrate with you when you get there. (My favourite text to send is: “FIRST DRAFT IS DONE!! BOOZY BOOTY CALL NOW! SEE YOU AT THE BAR IN TWENTY!”)

-Set a daily deadline. For me it is 5k words per day. If I can’t hit that, I don’t beat myself up, and I don’t try to make up the next day. I accept that today it just didn’t happen. And if I hit my 5k and I want to keep going, I do. I’ve had 10k days before.

-Also try to set a daily schedule. Carve out project time and tell people that’s what it is, and then make it sacred. For example, “7pm-8pm is my project time. I will answer that email, text, facebook request, etc. at 8:01.”

Give yourself time to NOT work.

-keep weekends for not work, or any time after 6pm, or whatever. Give yourself permission to chill. You’ll be more productive when you’re back at it if you’re relaxed, well fed, well socialized, well hydrated, and well rested.

And to be a bit facetious about it…

I also have no pets, no spouse, no children, no day job, and for a while I had no cable and no internet at home!  So if I was BORED, I worked on a project. And when I needed the internet, I took my laptop to the local bar, hung out in the back corner with the bartenders, and updated my websites, etc. from there and got my socialization time in at the same time.

I hope this was all helpful to you!



For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: How Do You Get Anything Done When You Have Lots To Do?