Some thoughts about writing and organization systems

Illustration of office

Planning promotion; picture by author

There’s been a lot of talk recently about plotting vs pantsing (ie not-planning) on writer social media lately, including big publications like Literary Hub. The more literary venues tend to see discovery writing as a virtue–start with an idea and poke at it until a story emerges. Lots and lots of words getting put down and lots and lots of words getting discarded.

But pantsing/discovery isn’t limited to literary writing. I’ve encountered that notion amongst genre writers as well–perhaps not to the extreme of the lit crowd. Genre discovery tends to be more focused on “here’s a story I want to tell (often character-based), here’s the rough idea of where I want to go” rather than poking at a theme or an idea until a story emerges.

Well, that works for some people. But I’ve discovered over the years that I have achieved the most with my writing when I have some sort of organization or system to my writing. Part of this is due to the fact that I have unofficially diagnosed ADHD–that is, unless you consider a universal agreement by fellow special education professionals to the statement I once made to the effect that “I think I have ADHD” as a professional diagnosis. Several experienced sped pros with 10-30 years in the field, including a speech-language pathologist and an educational psychologist, snorted and all said “DUH.”

At sixty-four years old, I’m not about to start pursuing official diagnosis (though it would have been nice to have known this when I was much younger, then I wouldn’t have spent as much time running in circles trying to Do Stuff).

But I have noticed some common elements that seem to work for me in optimizing productivity.

First, I need to have dedicated computer space and an area where I can sit at a table or desk to do handwritten planning tasks. Both are absolutely necessary, and the photo above shows my current layout.

Second, I need to have a calendaring/to-do list system that allows me to plan daily tasks. This system needs to be relatively simple, portable, and, alas, on paper. I’ve not discovered an electronic system that works worth a hoot for me, and whiteboards? Hah! I find myself thoroughly capable of ignoring electronic organizers and whiteboards alike. A paper to-do list, however….

I base this assessment on past experience.

Back in the ’90s, I maintained a DayRunner. It had a monthly and weekly calendar, with a hole-punched tablet that allowed me to create daily lists. I could leave it open on the dining room table and check in with it regularly. I wasn’t writing fiction at that point in time, but I was ramping up a stone bead jewelry design business where I was selling online and through local bazaars, as well as placements in boutiques. At the same time, I was actively involved in school parent and extracurricular organizations with my son plus doing freelance clerical work. All of that included work on monthly newsletters (oh, Microsoft Publisher, how I loved you at the time), working from home creating invoices for a client, doing freelance bookkeeping for a couple of other clients, and coordinating a fundraising auction database. And other stuff.

I needed that calendar to track deadlines and appointments, including riding lessons at two different stables (which started in 1997 and went on for a few years).

Then I became a special education teacher and case manager. Lesson planners never really worked for me, except to note appointments for Individual Education Plan/special ed eligibility meetings. I resorted to plan binders–one for case management, so that I could track deadlines and schedules (special education case management operates under strict schedules–blow those off and your district is subject to Federal/State financial sanctions, and you’re likely to lose your job. Unless you’re white, male, and the coach of a winning team. I speak from experience). My case management binder also served as parent contact records, which proved to be useful when working with parents who weren’t inclined to cooperate with bureaucracy. Lesson planning usually worked best as an outline in Word–I tended to have general weekly/monthly plans, with adjustments based on student progress and interruptions ranging from sports to weather to high-stakes academic assessment. Most of my planning happened at the end of the week.

The year I started working part-time, on a three-day schedule with an actively hostile principal, those habits saved my butt. He wanted weekly reports, probably thinking I would find it to be a challenge.

Um. Not the kind of thing you do to a former paralegal accustomed to tracking time-on-task down to tenths of an hour (every six minutes). I was somewhat merciful, in that I resorted to quarterly hour tracking in my reports. But I gave him detailed reports, and copied them to my special ed director.

You want reports, buddy? Don’t mess with someone who is a.) a former paralegal, b.) has mild ADHD with hyperfocus capabilities, and c.) understands systems. I’ll give you reports, until you choke.

(Hint for someone facing this sort of situation–make time sheets and set a timer to record who you’re working for and what you’re doing every fifteen minutes or whatever time increment is required. Record in exquisite, excruciating detail, including the time spent tracking. Very few managers can handle that flood of detailed paperwork tracking)

More writing-specific, I got into the habit of at the very least working out loose chapter plans/synopses after my first series. Why? Oh dear God, the CONTINUITY PROBLEMS. I had to retcon the Netwalk Sequence series in several ways, and that’s one reason why I’m revising and reissuing the series, because things got too weird toward the end. Putting together the new version of Life in the Shadows has helped pull the series together big-time, in ways I didn’t expect when I was first planning the series reissue.

I half-assed it during my fantasy series, Goddess’s Honor. That one holds together much better, and while I’ll eventually redo it with new interiors, I am not planning an extensive revision.

The Martiniere Legacy benefited from my previous experience. There are still small continuity glitches, but the main trilogy–Inheritance, Ascendant, and Realization were planned as a whole and I didn’t release Inheritance until Realization was complete and I’d tweaked things. The later standalone books add pieces to the puzzle, but continuity differences can mostly be explained by different points-of-view on the events.

This year, I decided to embark on what looks like a lot of work–releasing several half-finished novella projects, revising The Netwalk Sequence, writing several alternative world Martiniere books, beginning a new Weird West multiverse project, and planning for the next series of fantasy novels, Goddess’s Vision. I had been muddling along but with the likelihood that Covid restrictions could mean more travel, I realized that I needed more planning and organization to keep things on an even keel.

Therefore, the organization as pictured above. Some serious thoughts about systems. Identifying and organizing long-term publication and promotion plans. Finding tools to make this work easier.

Will it make a difference?

I hope so.


Life in the Shadows, Book One of the 2022 Author Preferred Netwalk Sequence series, is now available for preorder. Official release date is March 17, 2022.

Find it here for Amazon and here for Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and more.

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