Whether you write full-time or only a few hours each month, your writing time is limited. And, as a writer, you are often your own boss, so you must decide how you spend that time. How you use
your time can impact your success as a writer (however you define success). New projects, requests, opportunities and time-drains pop up nearly every day. Some may occur to you as you scan guidelines and blogs; others may be requests or suggestions from people you know; while yet others may be ideas that your muse has dropped into your brain. If you're like most people, you can't work on them all. You have to prioritize. Let me recommend the use of categories such as Yes, No, Maybe – and Maybe Later.
Before deciding what to do with an idea or an opportunity, it helps to know yourself. This sounds easy, but sometimes requires a reality check. Perhaps you are thrilled by a particular project but must recognize that you are not ready to write it. The idea for "Jocasta" came to me when I was 14 years old, but I was well aware that I lacked the talent, skill and knowledge to write that novel. I put it into my maybe later category for decade.
Here are some questions you should know about yourself. What interests you? What do you want to work on? In which areas do you have expertise? How can you develop expertise? Do you have the skills to write what you want to write? If not, can you develop them? Do you have the time and the energy? What are your other commitments? What do you believe you deserve in recompense for this work? What other questions make sense for you?
You also should know what you want, both for right now and your future. Also, as you pursue your writing career, your answers and criteria may change. At the beginning, when you are learning to write, you may be willing to work for nothing more than the thrill of creation (and it is a real thrill). Later you may be writing to pay the bills, or you may have a contract requiring a particular project.
You should say yes when the project interests you, when you have the skills and the time to do it, when it offers a worthwhile return and when it deserves to be prioritized above other projects.
You may say yes to projects that do not meet all these criteria. I have written many articles about developments in the energy field that were only of mild interest to me. However, they did not take a lot of time, the pay was reasonable, and I find that doing occasional articles helps keep my writing disciplined. Also, I like having a mix of projects to work on -- some fiction, some nonfiction, some long and some short. After finishing a section of a novel, it helps to take a break and to do a few shorter pieces.
You should know the mix of projects that you prefer, or if you prefer to keep your head down and work non-stop on something.
If you have said yes to a project but are having trouble continuing, then you should examine your commitment to that project.
This is an important word, and one that you may feel guilty using. However, unless you say no when you need to, you may not accomplish much, and people will ask you to work for little or nothing.
The first person you must tell no is yourself. Besides the general time-wasters (and we all have them), you may have to say no to some projects. If you want to finish a particular project, you can't spend all your time starting others.
After you tell yourself no, sometimes you must say no to other people and opportunities. I was asked to join a poetry-writing circle. Turning this down was easy because I rarely write poetry, and in this case the organizer understood. I said no to a random person who wanted me to send him, at my expense, an autographed copy of one of my books. He was not a reviewer, so I saw no advantage to it. (Actually, I did not say no, but I did not answer his email.)
Frequently people suggest ideas for books or articles to me. Many of the people making these suggestions know nothing about my writing or the article market and so usually their suggestions go into the "no" category. Other writing professionals -- my editors, my agent, my co-author -- are far more likely to suggest projects that are worthwhile.
The maybe category is interesting. You may use it when you have an idea that interests you, but for which there are several reasons why it is difficult. You may currently lack the time, or perhaps it needs more research. You can put these ideas into your maybe later category.
Some maybes are due to requests from other people. In these cases you may not be passionate about the projects, but will consider them depending on what you can negotiate. Here are a few of my maybes.
One editor with another e-zine wrote to ask if he could post one of my Crafting Fabulous Fiction articles from Writing-World.com at his website. I do sell reprints, but apparently he wanted it for nothing. In this case the maybe became a no. However, my note to him was friendly and polite, because there's no reason to offend someone who may be in a position to pay later. Besides, I might want to use his outlet for publicity later.
Whether or not you want to give away your work depends on what stage you are in your career, your relationship that you have with the person making the request, as well as the relationship that you hope to have with that person in the future.
Plenty of people -- strangers, friends and family members -- approach me about editing services. When it is a stranger, I tell them my rates and ask for a description of the project. If I have the time and if I feel that I can add value, we often work out a deal. If you find yourself in this position, I recommend starting with a sample, so that you can make sure you're compatible with the author, and insist on receiving a deposit up front before you begin the project.
The situation is far more delicate with friends and family members. Their requests are flattering, showing that my reputation as a writer is growing in my personal circle (often the hardest set of people to impress). But it can still be awkward, because (a) they often have no idea how much they are asking, (b) they may not like what I have to say, and (c) they may feel, and sometimes with good reason, that they should not have to pay me.
So, to do or not to do? Sometimes with not-so-close friends I explain what is involved and the request evaporates when the friend realizes that the manuscript is not ready. I try to point them in a helpful direction without losing too much time. With others, especially friends who are competent writers, I will often say yes because we make a trade: I will read their manuscripts if I can count on them to read mine.
Family and very close friends are another matter. This is where bartering comes in. My husband does all sorts of extra chores when I review his papers. You may not be able to get hard cash when you do writing-related work for a family member, but you may get something repaired, be relieved of some tasks, or get taken out for dinner.
I also think it's good to sometimes say yes to the maybes, because they open up new markets and opportunities and even relationships. One author who contacted me out of the blue requesting a favor has turned out to be an invaluable resource, making me aware of some publicity opportunities, while I was able to introduce her to some reviewers. However, before I replied to her request I downloaded the free sample portion of her book from Amazon to evaluate her writing.
Sometimes you should take the road that you have not traveled; it can make all the difference.
These are potential projects that speak to you but which you cannot do right away. Perhaps it is a neat idea but you need more work before you can fully commit to it. In other cases you may not currently have the time, or the idea needs to simmer.
The maybe later projects are those that you need to save in some format so that you don't forget them. Perhaps they will all be in one file with a few words associated with each. As a project idea grows, you may give it its own document.
Having a file of maybe later projects can be extremely useful. It keeps your ideas and possibilities in reserve, so you don't feel as if you are losing them. It means that you may not have to start your next project with a totally blank page, but can tackle it with a running start. Knowing that you have other projects waiting for you can spur you to finish your current projects. These are all good ways to manage your writing time.