Considering I haven’t posted a blog article in a couple months, you might be tempted to say I’m lazy. Just for the record, I’ve been allocating all my time to finishing a damned sci-fi novel, in between standard and a few non-standard life issues.
Cue the sound of blowing raspberries.
Truth is I am easily distracted in my writing process, defined as taking too many side trips in storyville, or getting shanghaied by other projects. It’s not unusual for me to write 10K words, then dump over half of it next day, cussing aloud for allowing myself to be drawn to unrelated tangents. It has something to do I think with my inability to compartmentalize a random synaptic twinkle without bounding after it like a dog after a stick.
As for diverting to other projects, it’s better demonstrated with an example. A couple months back, a group of fellow writers I hang with thought we should do an anthology. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is commonly a book or collection of selected writings by various authors, usually in the same literary form, or the same period, or on the same subject. It can also be a collection of selected writings by one author. Never been much of a short story writer. How hard could it be?
Don’t answer that.
Just what a card carrying ADD writer like me needs, an invitation to board yet another distraction express. OF COURSE I’d like to participate. Thought I’d be efficient by skimming the hopper of story ideas for a suitable candidate. Couple of edits, change a few words, and presto, back to the novel.
That went over like a dirigible filled with argon gas. I developed the character, and immediately fell in love with the story line. I painted the scene from memories of an old Shaker community I researched a bazillion-years-ago. Next thing I know, I’d written over 20K words, started wearing pants with suspenders, and used words like ‘thee’ at the dinner table.
So what’s the problem? Couldn’t compress the story to be ‘short’ (I’m a pantser in need of an intervention if you forgot). My writer buds sensed it as well when they read the first draft. It wasn’t the usual affable commentary with ‘Gee whiz, this will be a great short story. Questions made the rounds in our circle of chairs, like ‘what happened to such-n-such?’, and ‘you’re going to leave me hanging like this?’, and sorry dude, what part of short story did you misinterpret?‘
Starting to get the picture now? My ‘writer style’, vernacular for characteristic behaviors associated with the amusement park known as my brain, goes deep into the story, unwilling to fit a great idea in less than 10K words. Too many neat side trails to explore. I’ll start an idea, and not show up for meals. Nature calls to use the bathroom go unheeded until the cerebellum controlling automatic reflexes radios in with, Attention, urine release in five seconds – four – three …
Raise your hand if in the voluminous mail sack we call email, held invitations for time management courses specific to writers. Man-o-man, look at all those hands. It’s the subject du jour in writertopia. ‘Sign up today and learn how to organize your thoughts, finish that novel and not go crazy.’
Let’s clear the air. My definition of crazy is ‘mentally hilarious’, and I consider the word ‘organize’ akin to a four-letter epithet.
Sorry – got distracted.
First step in any intervention process is to recognize the problem. Check – got that one covered, I’m an effen basket case and proud of it. Next up, identify actions required to change. How am I supposed to sift through a copious list of books, online help sites, and select one that covers the bases? Remember that dog and stick mentality? Picture me as a gold retriever three tacos short of a combination plate, trapped in a gymnasium with an automatic tennis ball server stuck on rapid fire.
I settled on Time Management Tips for Writers, by Michelle V. Rafter. She gets the nod because it popped up on the first line of Google search. I mean – to get that slot means she has big mojo with the search engine gods – doesn’t it?
Ms. Rafter offered twelve helpful hints in short, easy to read order for quick scanning. (Another flaw in my character is speed reading, defined as just the facts ma’am – because I bore easily – which can lead to missing key points – wait, what were we talking about?).
Oh, right, the tips.
- Turn off distractions: A worthy starter. Now, how do I turn off the one distraction that gets in my way – ME.
- Use a timer: Oh, I’ve tried that. My cell phone dings several times a day for one thing or another. It takes a nanosecond to press stop without losing a train of thought currently holding my brain hostage. I could wire my chair to an electric outlet and time it, but I’d probably set the chair on fire.
- Use a goal buddy: Michelle suggests having someone schedule regular check-ins to see how it’s going. Might work if I answered the phone while I’m working. Warbling phones have become white noise to me, like the air conditioner switching on, or the dog barking to go out (which I have to clean up later). I do work with a couple of awesome writer buddies, but I don’t think they’ll be into calling me up to see how my day is going, and ask if I need a potty break.
- Set goals: I set goals all the time, and forget them just as often. Setting a goal is a plotter thing. I’m a hard-core, easily distracted pantser. If I remember to wear pants, I met my goal.
- Reward yourself: You had me at ‘cocktails’. My wife knows exactly how to bring me back to the real world. I made your first martini. In truth, my reward is reading a first draft and saying, ‘damn, that’s good’. The feeling doesn’t last long, though. See Tip # 6.
- Break up the day into chunks: My best creativity is in the morning. I save the afternoon for trashing stuff that sucks from the day before. Forget evenings – martinis and productivity are not bedfellows.
- Follow a formal productivity regime: Oh God, this is beginning to sound like thirty-years of corporate experience, where ‘productivity’ was used in every other sentence, along with white-boarding, sticky-noting, and encouraging phrases like ‘collaborative brainstorming’. I don’t brainstorm, I brain-shit. It’s a messy business, but it works for me. Besides, memories of work-related productivity processes still give me the tremors.
- Use to-do lists: I’m an amazing list maker. I’ve been doing it for decades. I’ve got lists everywhere. Remember the movie, ‘A Beautiful Mind’? How’s that working for ya?
- Work when nobody else is: I’m retired. There isn’t anybody else, except my wife, and she has dibs on what free non-writing time is available. If I’m not writing – nobody – that’s me – is either.
- Work when you’re “on”: I’m always “on”. Just ask my wife when she catches me pacing the room, acting out a scene, mumbling to myself. When I’m “off”, it’s because I’m asleep.
- Tackle the hardest stuff first: Of all the tips here, this one makes sense, and I work at practicing it – until my creative imagination farts out a new thought. Then it’s off to see the wizard, merrily skipping down distraction brick road. Often makes me wonder how I stayed employed.
- Hire help: Michelle mentions hiring someone to complete banal chores like housecleaning, gardening, grocery shopping, and other tasks that don’t involve writing. On a retirement budget, I’m lucky to be able to hire myself. My wife considers me the hired help, often shouting through the heating register with “shouldn’t you be cutting the lawn?” Cue sound of a mournful sigh.
A tip of the old fedora to Ms. Rafter for the effort. For a normal writer, it is an excellent starting point, which comes with her invitation for a more personal, one-on-one intervention. As for me, should be obvious by now the concept of ‘normal’ is not an adequate descriptor. My siblings blame it on childhood years spent in the basement, lost in my own world.
If you stumbled here in search of answers, my profound apologies. I’ve learned to accept my quirks for what they are, and know I must trudge undeterred to completing things as best I can in distraction-ville. The answers are out there, like Ms. Rafter’s Time Management Tips for Writers, and I’m sure you’ll do a better job of sorting through other help articles on the internet.
Oh, in case you’re interested if I finished the ‘damned sci-fi novel’, I’m close – as in two chapters to go. So, enough chatter, back to the basement man cave where the radon and I have some unfinished business.
* Humorous graphics courtesy of the wonderful world of Pinterest, another site where I spend way too much time surfing.