Battling Against Distraction

A few weeks ago, in the comments to my Wandering about the local birds,

Possible Distraction

Dominique asked how I managed to write, especially with so many attractive distractions. Here’s something of an answer, adapted from a piece I wrote for Tor.com some years ago.

These days, I’m lucky enough to be a full-time writer. However, when I started writing, that wasn’t the case. Looking back, I see that habits and skills I cultivated at the beginning of my career continue to shape how I write today.

I started seriously applying myself to writing fiction immediately after I finished graduate school, even as I worked several part-time jobs, searched for a full-time post, and dealt with the usual demands of daily life. Then and there, I made three decisions. These basic choices remain the keynotes of my writing habits to this day.

1) Writing Gets Priority. This may sound simple, but it’s actually very hard. Life seems to nibble away at writing time. For almost all my adult life, I’ve been in a serious relationship. I’ve owned and/or maintained my own home. I’ve always supported myself. No kids, but pets, gardens, gaming… I love to read. All huge time-eaters.

But no matter how drawn I am to these other things, I write. When I had another full-time job, I wrote seven days a week. Now that writing is my full-time job, I write five. This holds even when I have a “working weekend” doing book events or conventions.

2) Avoid Boxes At All Costs. I put this decision second only because I had to be serious about wanting to write before it could come into play. However, in many ways this is my creed.

There are many accounts of the curious writing rituals. This writer can only write in complete privacy. That writer must have a certain drink or food. Another one has to wear certain “writing” or “lucky” clothes.

I resolved that my ritual would be no ritual. Privacy would need to go out the window. At the start, I lived in a small apartment with another person. Even when I had a larger place, much of my time was spent on a college campus. I shared my office. Students wandered in and out. So did my highly interesting colleagues.

Therefore, my “room of one’s own” would need to be between my own ears.

The same ruthlessness had to be applied to the question of equipment. When I was finishing grad school, the hot new PC was the IBM 286. Bulky. Immobile. Expensive.

I touched-typed easily and quickly, but nevertheless I realized that the machine was a chain. I decided to pursue fiction writing longhand. Sometimes I simply carried a folded sheet of paper in my pocket. Most of the time, I managed to keep my current project on a clipboard along with my notes for whatever classes I was teaching.

Because of these two decisions, I wrote everywhere and every day. My first five novels were written longhand. So were hosts of short stories. I wrote while my students took quizzes. I wrote while waiting for appointments. I wrote when my gaming group met and my character was “off-stage.” Memorably, I wrote an entire short story in a faculty meeting. (“Relief,” published in the anthology Heaven Sent).

Most importantly, I wrote.

Sure, I had to retype those longhand manuscripts, but this was a good thing. Retyping forced me to carefully consider each word. I did a lot of revising as I retyped.

Time of day is the other big quirk by which writers trap themselves. I’ve known writers who need to write first thing or they won’t “get into it.” I’ve known writers who can only write at night when the world is quiet. I’ve known writers who can only write when their routine chores are completed and they feel they now “have time.”

Often these writers adopted these habits for all the best reasons in the world, but what started as a good thing became a trap. I decided that no time would be my time. The reverse of this is that, for me, all time can be writing time.

Makes all the difference in the world.

3) Be Flexible About Goals. This is a two-parter, really. The other half is “But Have Goals.”

When I started seriously addressing myself to writing, I had the good fortune to also be involved in an on-going correspondence (via snail mail) with author Roger Zelazny.

In one letter, Roger mentioned almost as an aside that three or four times a day he’d sit down and write three or four sentences. Sometimes the piece he was working on would catch fire and he’d find himself writing a lot more. Sometimes he’d just get those few sentences.

He commented that he never failed to be amazed how even just a few sentences a day could somehow turn into a finished piece. Roger also mentioned that no matter how well the writing had gone the day before, he never gave himself a “break” because of that. The next day, he started with a fresh quota.

Well, I’ll admit I was somewhat indignant when I first read this. When was I (who was teaching five courses, sometimes five preps) going to find three or four times a day to write anything?

Then a little demon whispered in my ear: “Three or four multipled by three or four is twelve.”

Twelve. Twelve sentences, once a day. Surely I could manage that much. Twelve substantial sentences, of course, not just a “yes/no” conversation.

Suddenly, indignation vanished. I felt eager and excited. I felt even more eager and excited when I realized that this tactic was working. I wrote short stories. Eventually, I wrote my first novel, then another. And more short stories.

I never let any other form of writing take over my quota. My non-fiction writing, of which I did a considerable amount, was done on the side. So was writing related to my teaching.

As Roger had said, sometimes those twelve sentences were enough to make my imagination take hold. I’d write a lot more, sometimes until my hand cramped and I was writing in a weird shorthand.

But I wrote.

When I began writing full-time, I adapted this goal. Early in a project, my goal is still just getting something on paper. Later, I expand that and try for five pages a day. Toward the end of a novel, when I’m eager to find out what’s going to happen, I’m back to those days when my hands are cramping and my back is stiff, even when I shift chairs at my computer.

I suppose that this setting of production goals is a violation of my “no boxes” rule but, on the other hand, if I kept to that, then it would be a box of its own, wouldn’t it?

So, Dominique, does that help? If anything I wrote raised questions for anyone, please, don’t hesitate to ask!

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12 Responses to “Battling Against Distraction”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Thanks Jane.

    I may just borrow some of your methods.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Me too. My hardest challenge is making the time to work. (Well, second to knowing when I should leave a piece alone that is).

  3. Tori Says:

    I think this is really really fantastic advice for novelists. While I’m not a fiction writer, I think that I will have to seriously adopt these rules once I start writing my big scientific papers during grad school. Just getting started seems to be what stalls me, so the many little goals becoming one big accomplishment could be a very effective method.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Y’know, Tori, when I was writing academic papers, I often found that initial thesis statement was most of the battle.

      Sometimes, I actually copy it out and pin it in front of me so I wouldn’t lose sight of what I was trying to prove.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Not that I’m great at writing science papers, but I think the biggest challenge for me was figuring out what story best fits the data. Then you have to tell it in 2000 words or so.

        I also recommend the “10 pm rule.” Assume that whoever’s reading your precious manuscript is reading it at 10 pm. That person is probably a parent, certainly has a full-time job, and is probably tired. Therefore:
        –Write clearly.
        –Tell people what you’re talking about in the introduction.
        –Tell them what each paragraph is about in the frst sentence of that paragraph.
        –Tell them what the paper was about in the conclusion.
        –And yes, do this in 2000 words. Which means keep it simple and save the fascinating subplot for another paper or an appendix.
        –Then read it at 11 pm before you turn it in.

        Now, of course, I didn’t take any of this advice when I was in grad school. I was in grad school for a very long time, too.

  4. Paul Says:

    I found this piece more educational than any article I can ever remember reading in any of the traditional writer’s magazines. I saw that I had put myself in some of those “boxes” — letting (many) other things take priority, needing uninterrupted time to write (or thinking I did/do, because I hardly ever get it), putting the day-to-day chores behind me before feeling I’m justified in spending writing time, on and on. This is more helpful than you probably even realize. I may print it out so I’ll have it in front of me in the future. And I may also start carrying paper and pen around with me.

  5. Emily Says:

    This seems like a pretty effective method. I mean I have heard of a lot of those rituals that would seem to do more harm than good. I love writing (more for the sake of writing than an actual career choice) and the mood to write strikes me rather suddenly and if I don’t sit down to it, I’ll turn it over in my head and it gets stale. So having paper on hand would be a good thing for me to do! Thanks, Mrs Lindskold. Your Wanderings are always fun to read and this one was very helpful. ^^

  6. Ann M Nalley Says:

    One of my favorite sayings is: “Hard work beats talent when talent won’t work hard.” As a teacher, I have days that are inspired (and I hope, inspiring!) and then there are days when I am not certain if I reached even ONE of my students! Jane, how wonderful that you both work hard AND have so much talent! It’s an unbeatable combination! (I’m being called by my nine year old! I meant to write more, but real life intrudes!)

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Glad to have been of some service. If there’s anything related to writing that people would like to hear about, don’t hesitate to ask me, either here in the Comments or via e-mail.

    jane2@janelindskold.com will reach me.

    I can’t promise I’ll get to it right away, because sometimes I need to think about how to respond, but I won’t ignore you.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Heteromeles’ advice above is good and solid.

    His “10:00 pm rule” is great.

    The version I was told by another fiction writer was: “Assume whoever is reading your story is up late, his coffee is cold, and he needs to run to the bathroom.”

    In other words, assume less than ideal conditions!

  9. Rowan Says:

    In my grouchier moments, I wish critical theory was written with the 10:00 pm rule in mind. It seems like it’s purposefully written sometimes to be as difficult as possible even when reading in the best conditions. Like… the opposite.

    Does that mean that when I’m writing for theory I should assume my reader is lounging on clouds, eating fresh bonbons, and has no inclination to sleep?

    Hmm…

    • heteromeles Says:

      Rowan, it depends. Do you want to communicate or obfuscate? Some people (such as those who write bureaucratic documents and film contracts) deliberately pervert the 10 pm rule to make sure that language slips through unnoticed.

      You know your audience best. Will they love you for making some recondite jewel of multidimensional discourse comprehensible for once, or will they excoriate you for being too low-brow and accessible for their circle?

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