Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Can't Write Until I...

“Writers never want to work, never. They all find any excuse not to sit down and look at an empty sheet of paper or a blank monitor -- the room’s too hot or too cold -- they have to go to the toilet -- pencils need sharpening -- the typewriter needs a new ribbon -- the keyboard needs cleaning -- the pictures on the wall need straightening — the wastebasket needs to be emptied — or it’s lunchtime."
~ Andrew J. Fenady, A. Night in Hollywood Forever

Although author Andrew Fenady may be speaking only for his book's main character -- a detective-turned-nonproductive-novelist -- what my blogging colleague Linda Stone calls "deceptive distraction" is an issue for most writers.

It certainly was an issue for an award-winning Albuquerque author who once lamented to me during a book signing that a certain computer game was keeping him from starting his next book. It's an issue for me, too, as I try to juggle the seemingly competing demands of creation (working on the final screenplay and novel in my Q'ntana Trilogy of fantasy films and novels), revision (revising screenplays #1 & 2 and novel #2), production (helping get a MoonQuest feature made) and the rest of my life.

It's not always easy negotiating competing demands, let alone dealing with the reluctance many writers feel about writing. (Canadian writer June Callwood once said, "I hate writing. I love having written." )

Sometimes, it's not time to write. We're not ready for the story, or it's not ready for us. Sometimes, too, we need a break from writing to regain our focus. Linda Stone calls such breaks "receptive distractions."

But if you've heard yourself utter any of the following, you probably are dealing with neither timing nor focus. You're dealing with the kind of distraction that prevents you from moving forward with your writing:

• I’d better check my email/voicemail/Facebook...

• As soon as I [insert task here], I’ll be able to write without worrying
about it.

• I can’t write on an empty stomach. I’d better get a snack...or fresh coffee...or...

• Let me just see who this is on the phone/at the door/in this new email/Facebook message...

• Let me just respond to that tweet (it's only 140 characters), Facebook message or text message...

• That bathroom floor and [insert anything here] is disgusting. I’d better clean it first...

• Oh, I really need to call/text/SMS [insert name here] before I can start.

• I can’t write until I [insert distraction here]...

• Let me just Google that, then I’ll be ready to write.

As I tell students and coaching clients, writers often have the cleanest windows, floors, fridges and toilets, the most up-to-date filing systems or the best record for returning calls or emails because, in the moment, just about any task seems more palatable than sitting down to write.

If you fall into that category, here are seven suggestions to minimize distraction and procrastination until you have completed your day’s writing (or, at least, your first installment):

1. Keep all Internet- and smartphone-related distractions out of sight and earshot until after you’ve written. Don’t check your email. Don’t open your web browser. Turn off all notifiers for email, Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, SMS and/or smartphone apps that flash, beep or ping.

2. Don’t answer the phone or check voice mail. To avoid temptation, turn off your phone’s ringer and your cell phone while you’re writing and, if you use an answering machine, turn off the sound so that you can’t hear who’s calling. (Don’t cheat by looking at the caller ID screen!) If you're on a smartphone, either turn it off or put it in airplane mode. (Don't cheat by switching the wifi back on, which you can do on some smartphones.)

3. Don’t open the morning paper or your mail. Don’t check to see if they have arrived.

4. Don’t open your checkbook to pay bills or visit your online banking site. Don't visit any website! (Remember: You're supposed to have closed your browser!)

5. Don’t start that book you’ve been meaning to read. Don’t pick up that book you’re a few pages from finishing.

6. Don’t pick up a sponge, mop or cleaning rag.

7. Don’t do anything unrelated to writing.

Again, perform no task or errand until you have written. If that has proven impossible, keep pen and paper or laptop by your bed and don’t get up until you have written.

That was how I got through the first third of my first draft of both The MoonQuest and its first sequel, The StarQuest.

Another benefit of making writing your first assignment of the day (other than getting it done!) is that you won’t waste time during the rest of the day doing all the things you normally do to avoid writing.

What kinds of distractions to you succumb to? What strategies have worked (or not) for you? Please share them here.

And when you're done, shut down your browser or phone, free yourself of all potential distractions, open a fresh page in your word processor (or pick up pen and paper), and start writing.


Just do it.

You can write.


• You'll find additional tips and inspiration on my website, where you can read my "Rules for Writing," sign up for my mailing list and read/hear free excerpts from The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, from which this piece was adapted.

No comments: