On Time Management

Ed. Note: This post marks the announcement of two things. First, our new series launches today – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them.” Every Thursday, one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).

And we’re excited to kick off this series with the newest member of our Murderers’ Row, the British Texan himself, Mark Pryor! Enjoy the column below and welcome Mark to the site!

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​By Mark Pryor

I’m known as a fairly jolly fellow, I like to laugh and make other people laugh, too, which means I’m all in favor of book signings being lighthearted, fun affairs. And there’s one question readers ask me that’s guaranteed to get me giggling: “Do you get writer’s block?”

You know what writer’s block is: you wake up and take the dog for a long walk in the countryside, wrestling with what to write next, or you curl up in your leather armchair with pad and pen, desperately seeking the next line for your work-in-progress. Perhaps you fuel yourself with coffee and turn up the Mozart to get the creative juices flowing, to get over the hump of un-creativity.

“Writer’s block,” I chuckle. “I bloody wish.”

​Allow me to explain. I get up at six every morning, and ready my three kids for school. After dropping the littlest one off I then head to my day job, collapsing behind my desk, hands grappling with a gigantic flask of coffee, at around seven-thirty. I look over my cases for the morning, while a lucky few county jail inmates look over my shoulder​ and assess my progress (hopefully that’s all they assess)​…

Caption: there’s a wee park to the left, and some nice trees.

The windows you see belong to inmates awaiting trial.

I’m told they can only see into my office when the lights are on.

Very reassuring.

I head up to court at nine, staying there until noon or one (it’s in the same building, so I’m lucky​ on that score​). Then I head down to my office, and eat lunch at my desk while working. Or maybe reading some news. Fine, catching up on​ book ​gossip, whatevs.

I stay at work until five, then head home, and it’s an hour-long commute — Austin is a nightmare at rush-hour, truly. But I have NPR on the wireless radio device and get occasional pleasure at swearing at other drivers cutting in and out of traffic and flashing my badge to scare the people illegally using their phones (totally kidding!).

Anyway, I’m home by six or thereabouts, knackered and ready to relax for the night, maybe pen a word or two.

Except when you have three kids, they don’t much care if you’re worn out or wanting to write. Three kids under the age of twelve, with their activities and delightful little needs (homework, balloons to blow up, soccer practice to ferry to, etc). Or, frankly, cuddle with on the couch and talk, because they’re at th​ose stellar ages where they like to cuddle and talk.

(Oh, I also play on two soccer teams, which shouldn’t get me too much sympathy because that’s totally self-inflicted, I know.)

All this means, as you’ve guessed, that I don’t have time for writer’s block. It’s a luxury I can’t afford.

*      *    *

I do most of my writing on weekends (obviously!), but putting words on paper is a solitary business, and I’m painfully aware that every hour I’m at the library or a cafe writing is an hour away from a family that, in my opinion, I don’t get to see often enough as it is. I can’t fathom the idea that I’d be sitting there, latte in hand, wrestling with the demons of creativity yet unable to find the words, the story, the characters. It’s a frustration I don’t have time to feed.

​It’s not just a lack of time that gets me past potential blocks. ​

I’m​ also​ helped by the way that I see my stories. And I’m sort of curious to know whether other authors are the same: once I’m sitting down to write, the story starts playing in my head like a movie. I’m just describing it, writing down what I see.

I should back up here a little. This movie-in-the-head thing is a privilege that I have because when I’m not writing, when I’m commuting, or playing taxi for soccer practice, or in a meeting with my boss (kidding again!) then I’m thinking about what needs to happen in whichever book is on the go. I’m imagining plot twists and chase scenes, I’m thinking about disagreements that characters might have. The B-roll, as it were, never switches off, and scenes dance in my mind all the time so that when the latte is ready and the comfy chair available, I can sit down and get to work.

And in other snatches of time, lunch breaks, or the minutes between kid-cuddles, I do what I can on whatever needs words added to it. (This very piece, 800-plus words, I wrote in forty-minutes on a lunch break, then edited at home in the time it took my son to mix me a vodka-Campari. He’s quite slow.)

I do wonder what it would be like if I didn’t work full-time, if I could write novels for a living. On one hand, I picture myself going from producing two novels a year to writing three or four, and I think about how wonderful that would be. But then I wonder if the narrow windows of time that I have now are the very reason I’m so productive. That fear of a wasted moment, pushing me to knock out 1,000 words an hour for three straight hours.

What if I had all the time in the world? My wife working, the kids at school, nowhere for me to be, no one to report to…I wonder. I wonder if my life has been so busy for the past few years that it’s not a packed schedule that’s hard for me to manage, but those empty stretches of time that I’m not familiar with. Would I fill them with the frivolous moments I now have to eschew? Would there be more internet surfing? Would I take up knitting? Right now, when one of those precious windows opens up I am forced to write. I worry that as a full-time writer, if those windows were as long as wide as my every day, I might not have the discipline to be as productive.

The obvious comparison, given my office neighbors, ​is that of the inmate released after years in prison. After having his every moment regimented and dictated by others, he’s at a loss in the free world, wandering unhindered but ​directionless, aimless and unmotivated.

I don’t know the answer, I really don’t. Maybe all that freedom would dampen the creative sparks that I nurture all week, or maybe I’d write five books a year. I don’t know which would happen but, like my hypothetical inmate, I sure would like to have a year or two of that freedom to find out…

Mark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now a prosecutor with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the Hugo Marston mystery series, set in Paris, London, and Barcelona. The most recent is THE PARIS LIBRARIAN, which the Toronto Globe & Mail says “has it all… a finely structured plot that’s one of Pryor’s best books yet.”  The first of the series, called THE BOOKSELLER, was a Library Journal Debut of the Month, and called “unputdownable” by Oprah.com, and the series was recently featured in the New York Times. Mark is also the author of the stand-alone psychological thriller, HOLLOW MAN, and created the nationally-recognized true-crime blog ‘D.A. Confidential.’ As a prosecutor, he has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

To learn more about Mark Pryor’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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Comments

  1. Wendy Tyson

    Great post, Mark. I can relate. As an attorney, author, and mother of three, my days are over scheduled and often a bit more chaotic than I’d like. But that lack of free time forces discipline, especially when deadlines loom. I often wonder if I’d be nearly as productive if I counted my writing time in hours rather than minutes. I sometimes think the current schedule allows all those ideas to ferment and take shape so that my actual writing time is spent writing. But I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to test out a more flexible schedule. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jenny Milchman

    Welcome to The Thrill Begins, Mark! Thanks so much for the honest look and help with this universal problem.

  3. Jenny Milchman

    PS: You asked about other writers’ processes. I get the movie thing–it can be like that for me too–but even more what it is, is a wavering wall, kind of watery, you know? Given the movie reference, think a M. Night Shyamalan FX. And if I put my hand up to that wall, then my whole self, I can pass right through it, and be IN the world of the story. I don’t have to write it so much as live it. It’s exhilarating, terrifying, awe-inspiring. I treasure every day I get to write.

    And cuddle with my own kiddos, 11 and 13, too. Thanks for saying so. Soccer ferrying is a bonus 🙂

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  5. Liz Milliron

    Mark, you sound like me. I often tell people “I don’t have time for writer’s block. I get one hour a day, five hours a week. I can’t waste it.” I might get a couple hours on the weekend, but that’s rare (although I do have one kid with a driver’s license now – will that help or hurt?).

    Like you, I wonder if I’d be less productive if all I had to do was write. Maybe, maybe not – but I sure would like to find out.

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