28 September 2007

Guest Blog: Jeff Abbott

Okay, it's official. Philofaxy has gone--temporarily--fallow again. But like the proverbial Little Engine, I think I can, I think I can, I know I can bring it back again. Actually, that should be WE can, because the comeback post this time is from a special guest blogger, Jeff Abbott. The following passage was inspired by, and originally published on, a discussion forum on 43 Folders.

I hope you all find it as inspiring as I do:

I’ve had nine suspense novels published; my most recent, FEAR, was a top 5 bestseller in the UK. I’ve also done some rewriting work for a major film studio. I use a simple GTD set up, paper-based, to both clear the decks so I can deal with the administrative side of being a full-time novelist and get my creative writing done.

I use an @Studio context for all my creative writing work. If I need to write five pages each day in completing a draft, then “write the next five pages” is a next action and it repeats until the draft is done. Not glamorous but it keeps nose to grindstone. If I need to devote an afternoon to brainstorming, I will block out that time on my calendar, to be as sancrosanct as a business appointment would be. If I have more than one project—say a rewrite on a novel and writing a film treatment—I may divide the day between the projects, just as if I had two appointments that split my day. So some example Next Actions for @Studio context might be: —write the next five pages —rewrite character bio for Lucy —brainstorm on how James can steal a gun in Chapter 13 —rewrite murder scene from new notes on blood splatter or in the case of film work: —reread Act One to find a more dramatic way to introduce the character of Fred.

This sounds uncreative, I guess, but this keeps my focus on what I need to accomplish to move the book/film forward. If I have a brainstorm I capture it and deal with it later if it’s not relevant to what I’m writing at the moment. If I feel like surrending to distraction (say I’m writing and I suddenly feel I must get on the internet to research some obscure data, a common way for writers to avoid working), I add that as an action for @Online so I remember it, but I don’t let it derail me from what I’m doing at the moment.) If I’m not worrying about what to do next, my brain is free to concentrate on the art. So my writing next actions tend to be different depending whether I’m writing first drafts or rewriting.

For research, I will use a mix of contexts—@Online for web-based work, @Errands for when I need to go to the library or the bookstore. If I’m interviewing someone, the context depends on if it’s face-to-face or more likely, through email or phone. I don’t have a lot of phone calls to make in a normal day, but I do use an @Office context for calls and administrative stuff—filing and research I’m doing via phone. I use an @Home context for normal family life.

When I’m on book tour, I create an @Tour context just for that period of time, although since my publisher handles the details of touring for me most items land on the calendar (radio interview or book signing or print interview), but I feel better having the context when I’m out of the office—although it could be argued it’s a project not a context, but I don’t want to think that much.

I now have a part-time assistant and quite a bit of those next actions that used to crowd @Office and @Errands are now delegated. I use Someday/Maybe lists for things I’d like to do in the future, but NOT for forthcoming book ideas—those get captured and then processed into a notebook where I keep such musings.

I used to try to do all my simple GTD via my Mac and my Palm, but I found it distracted me from writing (mostly when I’m at the computer, I just want to write). I also never found an electronic way to manage projects that I liked. So I now use a Filofax Classic A5 to hold all my project notes, my To Do lists, and my calendar. It lays open on the desk all day. I keep a lot of blank pages in there for idea capture and I find the paper approach is easier to review than on the computer. Again, not at all sophisticated but simple and it gets the job done. The tabs on my Filofax read: PROJ—for all project notes, and also includes a vertical year planner with due dates for projects so I can see my year at a glance DO—my next action lists IDEAS—whatever I need to capture LISTS—books to read or buy, movies to see, music to buy MAYBE—a Someday/Maybe section REF—reference that’s useful to have always—phone numbers, sources, the last time I had my oil changed, etc.

I do think GTD is very useful for ensuring forward movement on creative projects, but I think there is a big danger in fiddling overmuch with the system instead of doing actual work. I keep thinking an electronic way might be better but I haven’t found one yet, so I’ve happily stuck with paper. Hope this is helpful.