Therese here, elbowing in for a quick sec to say woohoo, our first week of donations in the Writers for The Red Cross auction has earned $450! Don’t miss this week’s packages, including “The Kitchen Daughter” Book Club in a Box donated by Jael McHenry; a signed copy of Donald Maass’s not-yet-released book The Breakout Novelist; a 100-page critique of your work-in-progress by author Ann Aguirre; and signed copies of Anna Elliott’s Avalon series. Bidding begins today. Back to your regularly scheduled blog post…

Balancing my writing career with all my other responsibilities is a constant challenge, and I always joked that what I really needed was an intern. Now, my “office” is a corner of the living room of a typical Manhattan one-bedroom apartment, meaning that even my desk isn’t a full-size desk, so onsite help was out of the question. (The writing life has its elements of romance, but it is also jam-packed with unromantic logistics.)

But we all have more than we can do ourselves, or at least it feels that way, right? If you are writing with the goal of publication, no matter where you are in the process, you’re looking at two important and sometimes conflicting types of work: the craft and the business. In struggling to find time for both, you may find you’re not satisfied with the progress you’re making on either.

I was lucky; I actually got the intern I’d been joking about needing. An opportunity came up (via the magic of Twitter) to post a listing for Winter Term interns at Oberlin College, and after interviewing several applicants, I selected one to work for me this past January. He was incredibly helpful. At the time I was several months away from the launch of The Kitchen Daughter and needed help tracking down information on everything from festival deadlines to book bloggers’ timeline requirements to the Facebook and Twitter accounts of my favorite indie bookstores. He even helped out on the historical research for my next book, currently underway.

But what if you can’t get an intern? Simple. Be your own.

Here are three easy ways:

  1. Separate your work. The business and the craft aspects of writing are both absolutely necessary to tackle, but if you’re anything like me, you use different parts of your brain to address them. And it can be hard to switch back and forth. If you’re trying to finish a novel draft and research agents at the same time, try setting either a completion goal or a time goal on the writing before you tackle the agent stuff. Maybe you work four days a week on the writing and only research agents on Fridays. Or maybe you write 10,000 words before you switch to research. For my intern, I separated things I absolutely had to do myself (talk to my publicist) from things I didn’t (find out if Prairie Lights has a Facebook page). And if there are enough different things you’re juggling, this is inextricably linked to…
  2. List your tasks and set priorities. More often than not, when I found a spare 15 minutes or so to work on something writing-related, I’d spend that time looking through my e-mail trying to remember what all I had to do. For the sake of my intern, I had to list out what I wanted him to work on, and at the same time I got in the habit of keeping a similar list for myself. Lists are magical. You don’t need to label everything down to the gnat’s eyelash with rankings and details. Just have a list. Put things that are more important toward the top. Then when you have that 15 minutes, hit the list. It seems so simple, and it makes such a difference.
  3. Go easy on yourself. Since I’d obviously never worked with this intern before, and I have only the haziest recollection of what I myself was capable of when I was a senior in college, I gave him the task list, set reasonable deadlines, and then just let him be. Contrast this with how I treat myself: more often than not, I tell myself I should be doing more and doing it faster, staying perfectly focused, knocking out both fiction and pieces like this one with a speedy and accurate hand. Do not drive yourself nuts this way. If it takes you five days to write a page, that’s how long it takes. This may seem contrary, and it is, but setting more reasonable goals can actually make you more productive than sky-high ones. Give it a shot and see.

These guidelines won’t give you an extra pair of hands, but they may help you do more with the pair you have.

For the comments below: How do you make yourself more productive? And what would you do if you had an intern?

[Image via Flickr's Creative Commons by drooooo]

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.