Wednesday, September 07, 2011


It’s Labor Day as I write this. My weather radio has just screamed out a tornado warning and, for the fourth time, I had to cut power to my computer and head downstairs. I sat for a half-hour, impatiently watching it rain, and then returned to my desk to work until the next alarm. 

I resent the storms’ disruption of my work, but it's only when I click on my iTunes playlist containing ten (!) different versions of Pachelbel’s Canon—my ultimate “go to” music when I’m stressed and sleep-deprived—that I finally realize how ridiculous it is to let a thunderstorm's delay get me out of sorts. Something’s gotta give.

I stand at the junction of a bunch of train tracks with several engines barreling toward me at top speed. The carnage will be ugly, and yet I can’t compel myself to pull the levers that will shift the tracks and avoid an epic derailment.

Since I realize I have to scale back, like any good obsessive-compulsive type who plots her novels with meticulous precision, I make a list of my ongoing commitments and their deadlines. What brings in money, and what doesn’t? What has tangible marketing benefits, and what doesn’t? What am I morally, if not contractually, obligated to continue? What do I enjoy, and what is a time-suck? What am I hanging onto out of sheer Scots-Irish stubbornness?

What can I get rid of that will free up time to, oh, I don’t know, write this new freakin’ book that’s due to my publisher on March 1? The one I haven’t started? That one.

Here’s the problem. I don’t want to let anything go. Every blog commitment, every book review, every volunteer op, every freelance gig—I love each and every one. I feel blessed to have the opportunities to do so many cool things. I mean, how many people get paid to read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series over a two-year period and blog about it—how awesomely fun is that? How could I turn down the chance to copyedit paranormal romance novels for a new publisher, to watch these wonderful stories take shape and know I had a small part in it? How can I scale back on the book blog I’ve spent so much time and developing over the past year?

And yet there’s the new book. The deadline. The day job that, as much as I’d like to step away from it, is the least expendable of all (unless, of course, I want to write my next book on the back of a piece of cardboard while sitting in my new home under the I-85 overpass).

My first three books were written in a haze of innocence, for the fun of it, for the love of it. I wrote the first one to get rid of some residual Hurricane Katrina post-traumatic stress. I wrote the second because the first had been so much fun. The third? Well, it’s my problem child, and we won’t talk about it. I’ve locked it in the attic to deal with later, like the eccentric aunt the family wants no one to know about.

Now, suddenly, here’s number four. And for the first time, I have a deadline.

Here I am, metaphorical hat in hand, looking for ideas. How do you balance? How do you decide what to let go of, when you want to selfishly keep it all?  What criteria do you use to decide what to take off your overloaded plate when you're hungry for every experience?


Anne Gallagher said...

Hah! When you find the answer please let me know. Juggling has never been my strong suit, I'm pretty much hit or miss in what is important at this moment.

In your case, I'd say the new book is pretty important so if I were you, I'd go with that.

Suzanne Johnson said...

LOL, Anne--juggling is hard work! The new book definitely is #1 priority...I just can't bring myself to let anything else go. Yet. :-)

Christine said...

Hi Susanne: I have had to cut back on a lot of outside commitments beginning in 2012. I knew I'd be crazy busy with my teen who is graduating. And then a family friend who is like a mom to me got sick. With all the requested materials and contests I'm entering, I barely have time to stay above water and I don't work outside the home. I write during the day and put on the family hat at night. And if interruptions come like storms, doctor appointments, cars needing new batteries, etc., I am thrown off my schedule. I had made a commitment to write X amount of hours a day M-F, but sometimes I just can't make it due to the derailments.

And that is exactly what it feels like to me, too! Derailment!!

Good luck. I agree with Anne. The 4th book should take precedence over all other outside commitments other than family/dreaded day job.


Chris Bailey said...

Suzanne, my approach is like yours. The list, the deadlines, the priorities. I'm a little better at backing off or setting boundaries or saying no than I used to be, but I think that probably, somewhere deep down, I need the squeeze to produce. Plus, there's the heroic aspect of doing it all. Having more time just leaves room for second-guessing. Enjoy the deadline--it calls forth your survival instincts. You will make it!

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Christine...Yep, keeping my head above water--that's exactly what it feels as if I'm trying to do!

@ Chris..."I need the squeeze to produce"--you know, I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think my background as a journalist has made me very deadline-driven. It has its pros and cons. I tend to work better on deadline,and faster. But I also tend to procrastinate until the deadline's almost on top of me. Can't do that with a novel, so that might be what's freaking me out right now.

Kinley Baker said...

Great post, Suzanne. I always think I'm busy, then I'm amazed at how much busier I am two months later. Trying to stay above water is a good way to sum it up. Of course my husband would point out I don't have to go swimming in the first place. But I love to write and have to believe I'm heading toward the goal of no day job. Otherwise I'd go crazy. Good luck with Book 4! I'm looking forward to reading Book 1.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks, Kinley (I'll be glad when book one is finally OUT!) I had a brief moment a few weeks ago when I thought, "Hey, I'm caught up." Within 24 hours, I had a new pile of stuff on my desk. LOL. But you're right--that's better than not going "swimming" at all.

Cari Hislop said...

You may be looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Maybe it isn't all the other things you love to do that is the problem. Maybe the problem lies in your plot line or what you've decided should happen in the story. My stories always come to a dead stop when I try to take them in the wrong direction. If I were you I'd take out your characters and have a verbal outloud chat with them. Ask them if they're happy with how you've sketched them. Ask them if there's something you're missing.
Once you're excited about writing your story I suspect you'll find all the other exciting things falling into place on the prioity list.

PS Have you heard George Winston's version of Pachabel's Cannon? It was the first one I ever heard and is still my favorite. It's a solitary piano.

Good luck with finding your way into the story and reaching that deadline!!!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks, Cari! I haven't heard that version of Pachelbel's Canon--I can't believe I've missed one :-)

I actually have a pretty good outline of this story and am excited about some of the's built around a subplot my editor asked me to take out of the last book and use for this one, so I think my foot-dragging is about rethinking it as a central plot instead of a subplot. If that makes any sense :-)

Heather said...

To quote my college debate partner, "you don't have to sing that song twice, I know the words!" My day job is unpredictable and demanding (such a fun combination), so sticking to a schedule is a fantasy. What has helped me is to make a list at the end of the day of the things I need to do the next. I get a feeling of accomplishment (and control over my schedule) as I mark off completed items, and it keeps me on target. Where I get lost is when I have a large block of time - it becomes too easy to say "I'll get to that later" when I see the time on the books.

Suzanne Johnson said...

The lists are a good idea, Heather--I do this too, so I can at least see at the end of the day that something has gotten ticked off the list!

Louisa Cornell said...

If I knew the answer to that one I would NOT be running a bakery for Walmart! And I love the image of standing on the tracks with any number of trains coming at you. Been there! Still there many, many days!

I am a big believer in lists. Lots and lots of lists. My crew at work groans every time I show up with a new list.

What is it they say?

The good news is I checked everything off my "To Do" list. The bad news is IT'S YESTERDAY'S LIST!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Hah--Louisia, I'm going to have to remember that about "yesterday's list." I'm a hopeless list-maker too, and a tad obsessive (my crit partner calls me "Rain Man").

Lexi said...

Oh, how I feel your pain, Suzanne! I, too, have a full time job that is very demanding, an active teenager, and a teminally messy house. Stress landed me in the hospital last year while on deadline for book two. I am DETERMINED not to repeat the experience, to enjoy writing book three. Here's to you finding you zen!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Wow, Lexi, that is a cautionary tale if ever I heard one. I'm going to try to keep the stress in hand...hope you can as well!