Battling Against Distraction
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 multiplied 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?
Hamlet Revisited, by Jane Lindskold
For more by Jane, see her website at www.janelindskold.com.