By the time I finish the first draft of a novel, my desk is awash in file cards, stacks of books, notebook pages, scraps of paper, pencil stubs, coffee mugs, and other things that don’t bear close inspection—some of which may possibly have legs.
Because everything falls by the wayside when I’m in the home stretch of a novel, there are also smudges on the computer screen, smears on the phone, crumbs in the keyboard, and spider webs in the corners. Not to mention dust, dog hair, and general disarray.
Clearly, it’s time to clean.
It’s also time to organize.
Being a Virgo, I embrace the concept of organization. Sadly, that embrace isn’t always a close or long-lasting one.
And, being a Virgo, before I take action, I prefer to have a plan. A plan, of course, requires a list. (I love making lists. I REALLY love checking off the tasks I’ve completed.)
The best list is made on a fresh, crisp, bright white sheet of paper and written in pen, never pencil. Tasks noted in ink are more difficult to erase or write over and therefore signal genuine commitment. So, pen in hand—a pen containing black ink and featuring a medium or thick point—I make a list of the steps involved in tackling the project.
#1 Assessing the Situation. Depending on the time of day, I might do this while sipping a mug of coffee, or I might have an adult beverage in hand.
#2 Gathering Materials. This part is almost as good as making lists because it involves searching through cabinets for folders and binders and colorful plastic tabs. It may also involve—oh, joy!—a trip to an office supply store where I can roam the aisles for an hour or more gazing a plastic tubs, rolling carts, clips, tacks, and tape.
#3 Deciding Where to Begin. Should I organize first and clean later? Stuff every stray bit in a garbage sack, clean, and then file and arrange those bits? Start in one corner and clean and organize as I go? Start right now? Put it off until tomorrow morning? Should I gather a few more materials first? Change the vacuum filter? Buy a new container of spray wax?
#4 Deciding What to Toss and What to Keep. Like many writers, I’ve accumulated newspaper clippings, Internet articles, and notes jotted on napkins, file cards, and grocery lists. Some are stacked at the edge of my desk and some tacked to my four bulletin boards. My fear is that I’ll toss the one note or article that might be the seed for a book, so the stacks lean like that tower in Pisa and the bulletin boards are as shaggy as the pelt of a yak. And then there are the file cabinets and those boxes in the closet under the stairs. But let’s not go there. Let’s just admit that darn few things get tossed—at least not for a few years.
#5 Getting to work. Often this requires a return to Step #1 and the fortification of a beverage.
#6 Admiring What I’ve Accomplished. Ah, the clean window, the gleaming desk, the crumb-free keyboard. Each time I enter, I pause in the doorway, gaze around, and sigh at the perfection of it all. But because of what comes next, I never capture the clean moment with a camera.
#7 Vowing Never to Sink to Such Depths Again. Notice that I don’t vow to keep my office neat and organized. I know I’ll get tunnel vision toward the end of a project and be overcome by clutter. So I stick with a promise to remain somewhere above the previous level of grunge and grubbiness. Not having that level documented in a photograph allows me to kid myself into believing I manage to do that.
What about you? Are you also prone to let things slide until you’re overtaken by a tumble of jumble? Or do you keep up with your clutter and crud? Most important, do you have a secret system for keeping up—or a creative and believable rationalization for falling behind—that you’d like to share?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).