Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

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 Originally published in ForeWord Magazine's Publishing Insider Blog in March 2009. (Note: as the link has been down for several months, I am reposting it here.) Copyright C.M. Mayo. All rights reserved.

With several books published, including a big fat historical novel forthcoming this May, it might seem I just karate-chop my way through any writer’s block. In fact, for me as well as for many more prolific writers, it’s a daily struggle. Writer’s block can have a multitude of sources, but one that is almost universal is disorganization. It’s difficult to start on chapter 15 when you can’t find your notes— or when you’re facing such a Himalaya of notes that, well, to say the same thing, you’d have to spend an eon sorting it all out before you could sit down to write. I don’t think we need Dr. Freud to analyze this one. It’s a pedestrian problem with pedestrian solutions. Here are mine.

1. A small (purse-sized) notebook and / or 1/4" stack of blank index cards

I always carry these with me to jot down ideas, words, overheard dialogue, and sometimes even drafts of paragraphs or outlines of plots. By writing things down, I don’t lose them and also— this is subtle, but crucial— by keeping pen and paper with me at all times, I signal to my "artist self," I’m ready to write.

2. Post-Its

I buy the canary-yellow 1 / 12" x 2 " blocks in bulk. I use them for the same purpose as the notebook and blank cards (and I sometimes carry these in my purse as well). Post-Its have the added advantage that I can stick them on drafts, other notes, and inside the covers of the books I’m reading, to note any vocabulary or syntax I’d like to use in my own writing.

3. Paper, Paperclips, Staples, Stapler, Scissors, Tape, Rubberbands, Paperweights

It’s important to keep these organized and at hand. I keep mine on a tray— having them all together makes it easier to find them and easier move them for dusting.

4. Pens, Colored Pens, and a Yellow Highlighter

These require their own a special mug, the wackier the better.

5. Files and a Filing Cabinet (or 10).

Lest the piles of little cards and Post-Its start sprouting out there! The more filing cabinets the better, but if you don’t have the room, filing tubs (plastic boxes with handles) and "banker’s boxes," inexpensive cardboard boxes for files, work well. Be sure you clearly label the boxes— best to use one of those blank index cards for that purpose.

6. Stack of Tabbed Folders and a Labeler

The benefits of using tabbed folders I understood, but a labeler? What was wrong with neatly hand lettering a label, for heaven’s sake? But when I finally took David Allen’s advice in Getting Things Done and started using a labeler — mine is a Brother PT-18R— I realized what I had was— I’m not kidding— a mental health tool. Chapter 4? Labeled. Notes on Minor Characters? Labeled. Very Zen.

7. Stack of Large Manila Envelopes

For any files that get too fat and filled with too many Post-Its and index cards. When I’m ready to sort through it all, there it is. Meanwhile, the envelope gets labeled.

8. Two Corkboards (as Large as Possible) and Plenty of Tacks.

I use the first cork board for blocking out whole chapters and the arc of the plot. Ideally, the cork board should hold a minimum of 20 pages of writing. The other cork board? That’s for the usual stuff that ends up on a cork board like filings to a magnet: tickets, souvenirs, photos, take-out menus, drycleaners’ receipts, etc.

9. Log Book

This is your witness, your shoulder-to-cry-on, your champion, and if nothing else, once you’ve finished, an illuminating record.

10. Manuscript Box and Ribbon

The ribbon— preferably a nice silky one— goes around the manuscript, not the box; this makes it easier to lift it out and keeps the pages from flying around.


Further reading:

David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Regina Leeds, Zen Organizing: Creating Order and Peace in Your Home, Career, and Life

Julie Morgenstern, Organizing from the Inside Out