Monday, February 23, 2009

More On That Pesky Ole "Process" . . .

As some of you know, I talk a lot about the "process" I take to write my stories. In a real way, it's a process that is ever evolving as I learn what works and what doesn't work for me.

Cory Doctorow, SF-writer extraordinaire, writes a monthly column for Locus Magazine in which he expounds on the various issues plaguing the industry these days. But last month he took some time out to write about a common writerly foe -- distraction. More specifically, Internet distraction!

I think we're all quite familiar with that time-sucking demon, ain't we?

Anyway, I'm linking to the free article HERE, because it's just so darn useful. Especially to me. I was glad to see some of my habits are shared by Doctorow, while I've learned some new trick as well. Here's a few points I lifted straight from his article, with commentary by yours truly to follow:
  • Short, regular work schedule.
    When I'm working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I'm working on it. It's not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day's page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you've already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

This is almost exactly what I do! (yay). Except, the goal I set for myself is 1,000 words a night, or one whole scene (whichever comes first). I could definitely write 1 page in 20 minutes, but reaching that 1,000 word limit can take anywhere from 30 mins to 2 hours for me, depending on the scene. Some days (usually weekends) I max out at 2,000 words. But the rule to myself is to at least reach the 1k mark for the day. And yes, I also believe in doing this every single day -- weekends, holidays, birthdays, whatever. You must write SOMETHING every day, even if it is just one page in 20 mins like Mr. Doctorow suggests. I also use the technique of using the 24 hours between writing to flesh out the next 1,000 words in my mind. To jog my creative juices, I try to focus on one cool aspect/item/image of the scene I want to write (like a mini movie playing in my head) and take the excitement from that one cool item and expand on it. Again, just as Doctorow describes it. Yay, me!

  • Leave yourself a rough edge.
    When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.

This is something I NEVER do, but I'm so going to now! It blows my mind this entire concept of the "hint." Wow, where have I've been? I've always forced myself to finish out my scene no matter what. I know above I said 1,000 words or whichever comes first, but I always fib a little on this rule and try my damnedest to finish out the scene . . . no matter how falling-down dead tired I am that night. But it never occurred to me that this is why it is so hard for me to pick up from where I left off the next day. It's because I always try to finish off my writing for the night with a nice, pretty bow of completion! Next time, I'm going to try and leave a rough edge waiting. I have a feeling this is going to work wonders!

  • Don't research.
    Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.

OMG, this is definitely me. I mean, the over-researching part. I *wish* I was smart enough to not stop in the middle of writing and super research a minor detail through for 30 mins on the Internet. But do this I do! :) The funny thing is, I already knew about this method of using a technical placeholder from my writing classes. I just never use it. I definitely should. I've been getting around this potential time sink issue with my short stories by lately trying to do ALL the research before I even start writing. It's easier to control such things with short stories, though; not nearly as easy on novels I would imagine. That said, two of my most recent stories dealing with the moon have suffered greatly from the "Brooklyn Bridge" curse. Oiy!

  • Don't be ceremonious.
    Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It's nice to have all your physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.

Yeah, thankfully this is not my problem at all. Not even one bit. I'm very good about writing at a set, specific time and place -- all other distractions be damned! I've written with construction hammers banging all around my house, people shouting and shooting at each other in the streets (remember folks, I live in the ghet-to), and the delivery people ringing my doorbell all day long. I've even written while on the phone (although that was a one-time thing. Okay, a two-time thing.) I put it this way to my friends: NOTHING gets in the way of my writing quota for the day. Nothing. I also believe that a writer's space should be simple and utilitarian. And for the love of God, do NOT sit facing a window overlooking the garden. That way lies madness! I prefer to type facing a blank, white wall with the door shut behind me and a naked light bulb shining down on my head. If available, I would write in a cave or dungeon -- anything rather than get bombarded by visual distractions. I suffer greatly from staring off into space. If you don't give me anything to stare off into, my writing and personal disposition improves greatly, thank you very much. :)

  • Realtime communications tools are deadly.
    The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.

Something else I don't have to worry about. Everyone knows my distaste for web annoyances like IM and e-mail alerts. I have no such things active on my PCs. At all. I hate, hate, hate them. I don't mind being distracted on the phone while writing (surprisingly), but that IM ping would drive me fuckin BONKERS! To the point where someone would have to die. And despite what I said about the phone, I would disconnect it when I write if not for the fact that I rarely get phone calls at my house anyway. Years of caller ID screening and registering for numerous DO NOT CALL lists have finally paid off. Checking my caller ID log, I see that I get roughly one phone call per day on my house line (cell phones get checked at the door, so no one can reach me or Lisa through one once we're home for the day). It's good to be antisocial!

Anyway, that was a very good, not to mention useful, article for me to read. You should definitely click on the link if you want to read more.

2 comments:

Kim Kasch said...

If I was a person who waited for the right atmosphere - I'd still be single ;-) and I sure wouldn't have 3 kids.

David Batista said...

Ah, so you know . . . :)

LOL! You're too funny, Kim!

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