Intern Insights: Strategies for Achieving Your Creative Goals

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to time, in part because time travel factors into my manuscript, but also because scheduling is one of my biggest challenges.

Family life, teaching gigs and volunteer work quickly fill my days—not to mention the household chores I should be doing (my home could easily be mistaken for a dust bunny rescue). With all those tasks competing for my time, writing sometimes feels impossible.

Talking with other creatives, I’ve discovered I’m not alone. Finding that balance of fulfilling obligations and achieving creative goals can be as elusive as a mythical treasure.

But some people manage to get everything done and write or illustrate or both. Perhaps their strategies and experience could provide a map leading to the treasure of more time.

A few of them—Sarah Aronson, Stacy Wells, and Dani Duck—agreed to share their secrets.

Sarah Aronson

Sarah Aronson

What’s your time management strategy for meeting your creative goals?

I love this question! It’s one I’ve had to face head on, since my writing life is really a writing/teaching/school visiting (and don’t forget family) life.

To complicate matters, I am also a writer who likes to work on multiple projects at the same time.

And I’m a writer (like most writers) who needs to counteract that business with down time for inspiration. So my day needs structure.

Here’s my strategy:

I start with assessment. I think about what I need to accomplish during the next three months. Once I know how much time I’ll have for writing, I set goals that are realistic. (We can talk about my rewards system later.)

Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines (Beach Lane, 2019)

When I’m busy, my goal is to write for 1-3 pomodoros a day, five or six days a week.

The Pomodoro method is not my invention! It is something I was introduced to by my friend, Jenny Meyerhoff, when I was struggling with my perfectionist syndrome. If you buy the official program, you get a tiny tomato timer. (I really like saying that.)

Personally, I prefer a big hourglass. I call it the sands of time.

Here’s my version of the method:

  • For 25 minutes, I write without distraction. No stopping. I write until the sands run out.
  • Then for 10 minutes, I don’t do anything. (If I have an easy day, I might take 25 minutes here.) I let my ideas marinate. I stay away from all social media. I make no phone calls. This is the key to this program. You have to welcome inspiration and let it come to you.
  • When those minutes are up, I write for 25 more minutes. Again, no distraction.

Why this works for me: For 25 minutes, I can do anything. For an hour, I can resist social media. During the marinating part, I always find an epiphany.

The second 25 minutes is my favorite part of the day.

Bottom line: If I only have an hour, I can usually write three-to-five pages. Or sometimes two. Or nine lines. Quantity doesn’t matter.

For me, it is the practice of writing that keeps me engaged with my story. So if I’m working on two projects, I might repeat this in the afternoon. Or at night.

The Wish List: Survival of the Sparkliest (Scholastic, 2019)

How long have you been using this method?

I started doing this in 2014, when I challenged myself to write all the books I thought I couldn’t write. (I gave myself six months.)

What I discovered changed my writing life. When I write without expectations, I’m happier. I’m more creative. I take chances I didn’t take before. (Sometimes my writing toolbox needs to be in the closed position!)

Pomodoro helps me play. And play is the best way to create. Writing for 25 minutes feels like play. It’s a challenge I can succeed at.

(When I’m done, I get a square of chocolate.)

Has it improved your productivity? Your creativity? Both?

Absolutely both. Writing is a lot less scary when you are playing. It’s a lot less scary when you know you only have 25 minutes.

Sometimes, when I’m not busy, I’m tempted to keep going—to forget the down time. But I don’t. That is the best part. The empty space. The thinking. The stillness.

In the stillness, my mind is allowed to wander. It is my creative meditation. When I am still, I can hear the voice of the story. I can usually answer my own questions. That stillness and time is the most precious gift I give myself. In that time, the magic happens.

Here’s my bottom line: We are all busy.

We are all hard on ourselves.

We all have big goals.

By using the Pomodoro method, I keep it fun. I keep writing, but I also have time for the people and things that are important to me—which ultimately inspire new ideas in my stories.

Making time for the aspiring writers is the best work I do. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me that there are lots of ways to practice our craft. If and when this method stops working, I will take my own advice and try something new.

This writing life is long. There are many ways to find our way to the heart of our stories.

Stacy Wells

Stacy Wells

What’s your time management strategy for meeting your creative goals?

This is something I had struggled with for years until I heard something YA author Maggie Stiefvater say. She’d had a full-time job, but when she decided to make writing a priority she committed to a specific day each week at a very specific time.

When I heard that I felt like she gave me permission to make writing a priority and to do what works for me and my family. That I could achieve a type of balance that would meet my family’s needs as well as my creative ones.

From that moment on I decided I would commit to writing every Tuesday and Saturday night.

On those nights, I leave the house and meet with my writing partner Jennifer Looft. Our meetups start with sharing our goals for that session then move quickly to writing. We map out our time, usually three or four two-hour writing sprints with short breaks in-between.

Stacy’s 2019 Writerly Goals

How long have you been using this method?

I made the commitment about two years ago and have been going strong since.

Life does have its way of interfering with a tightly crafted schedule, so on those occasions when a night doesn’t work I move things around so that I will write Friday night or Sunday morning, instead.

Has it improved your productivity? Your creativity? Both?

I work best with structure and plans, and committing to specific times each week has been the best gift to myself as a writer. It allows me to be fully present at work and with my family knowing that my time for writing is carved into my schedule.

I found that my creativity is up, and so is productivity. I stick to my goals (though I sometimes miss by a few weeks) and usually know where I’m headed next. My passion, dedication and craft have grown, too.

On my non-writing days, I read and study craft, work with my critique groups, read for others, and read for pleasure (I’m always reading).

Dani Duck

Dani Duck

What’s your time management strategy for meeting your creative goals?

Focusing on a main goal was a huge key to my time management strategy. All the time in the world wouldn’t do me any good if I didn’t have very specific goals to get me where I want to be in life.

My main goal is to be a full time writer and illustrator.

I have two boys and it can be hard to create around being a mom. My eight year old is in school, but the three year old is home with me. Sometimes I can distract my toddler, but often it’s difficult to work while watching him.

Mainly I work out specific days and times with my husband where I can create. He takes the kids out of the house whenever possible.

It’s not always easy, but it’s been the best way for me to have the time to create.

How long have you been using this method?

I’ve always had some time to put towards creating things, but I didn’t always plan for the time.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been more specific with the projects I do. I’ve done things that haven’t done a lot for my career. Things I did that derailed my progress were participating in the wrong challenges, helping other people out with their projects, taking jobs that didn’t pay well and focusing on art that was outside the career I wanted.

Now that I cut out a whole lot of things, I can focus on work that will help my career.

Has it improved your productivity? Your creativity? Both?

Knowing how much (or how little) time I have has helped me focus on what I need to get done. It’s also allowed me to focus on what things will help me to achieve my goals. I’m getting at least one story written every month. I get and receive lots of feedback in my critique groups.

On Mondays I post a work in progress for #KidlitCollage (my friend Christy Ann created it) and that works out to one finished illustration every month.

I also get time to do extra illustration work, blog (and come up with blog events) and spend time with my kids. I’m really tired, but my productivity and creativity are pretty high right now!

You’ve created an event to help other writers achieve their goals. What inspired the Spring Into Writing challenge?

I created an event called “Smart Dummies” in 2015. It’s an event for illustrators to create a book dummy in one month.

I’m still doing that event, but sometime last year I decided I wanted to do an event for writers. It was difficult to decide what that event was going to be.

After a lot of talk and several polls I decided to scrap all ideas and create an event that was just about fun.

Fun and developing your love of writing is what Spring into Writing is all about!

What do you hope participants will gain from this challenge?

I hope writers become more magical from being a part of Spring into Writing! I remember how the show “Reading Rainbow” was taken off the air because it fostered a love for reading instead of teaching reading. I am no LeVar Burton. I want to be more like the kid I was when I watched that show. Kids learn and get better at things because they have fun. I hope that participants will read the posts and have magical fun like they did when they were kids.

How do writers participate?

Writers participate by picking a goal, following along with posts and working in the free downloadable booklet I provide. Participants participate as much or little as they want depending on their time. I’m hoping this event will easily fit into the schedules of most writers.

Most of what’s in the book are things to help inspire and hopefully make writing easier. In the book I have creative ways of visualizing characters and setting, getting to know your main character, writing prompts and a ton of silliness.

There is a lot of work that people can do in May, but I hope that it’s more of a creative recharge than work. I don’t want anyone focused on winning, so if anyone wants to change their goal at any time they can do that!

The challenge officially starts May 1, writers can register and join the Facebook group, if they like.

Thanks to Sarah, Stacy and Dani for sharing their time-management strategies!

Gayleen Concludes

Gayleen’s bullet-journalish daily to-do list

For me, these interviews reinforced that there’s no “one-size fits all” method for achieving our writing goals.

Whether you thrive with timers, setting writing dates, using a planner, finding accountability partners or mapping your time with a spreadsheet, do what works for you. And recognize that strategies often need to be adjusted as life situations change.

Unfortunately, there’s no treasure map for finding more time, rather it’s learning how to maximize the time we already have.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to wait until the new year to set a goal, start a challenge or make a change. Every minute holds the promise of a new beginning.

My biggest discovery has been to put writing first. Not just in the priority sense that Stacy mentioned, but whenever possible to literally make it the first task on my to-do list. Because an hour immersed in the world of my story lightens my mood and energizes me for tackling the rest – even if it includes rounding up those dust bunnies.

Cynsational Notes

Sarah Aronson began writing for kids and teens when someone in an exercise class dared her to try. Since then, she has earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published three stand alone novels: Head Case (Roaring Brook Press, 2007), Beyond Lucky (Dial 2011), and Believe (Lerner, 2013). Her most recent books are part of a young MG series, The Wish List (Scholastic, 2017-2019) as well as a picture book biography, Just Like Rube Goldberg, illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Beach Lane Books, 2019).

Stacy Wells is a middle grade writer, youth librarian and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She lives in Texas with her family.

Dani Duck lives in Surrey, British Columbia where she writes, illustrates and moms. She admits to being basically awesome, seldom boring and regretfully, not Canadian. Dani is an avid coffee drinker and chocolate fan and is now accepting commissions.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.