I am a slug. Not in the literal sense…I don’t have an allergic reaction to salt and, last I checked, I don’t leave a trail behind me. I mean that I am generally inert and move slowly toward whatever nebulous goal I’ve laid out for myself.
I’ve really been slacking about writing lately. Part of this was due to travel. Part of this was due to being “busy”. But these are excuses for my natural inertia. My lack of progress is entirely due to my fundamental lack of discipline.
I’ve been reading like a fiend lately. Mostly I read blogs and “tweets” from successful writers, attempting to get clued in to the Secret, the hidden cache of fairy dust that will bestow success upon my endeavors. I’ve found that I not only learn more about the craft but I also get reassurance that I’m not the only one with an invertebrate alter-ego.
Lately I’ve come across two blogs from successful writers that discuss this topic. Nancy Kress, a successful science fiction author and writing instructor, discussed the topic recently in her blog. Kristine Kathryn Rusch also explored the subject quite extensively on her blog as part of her on-going series “The Freelancer’s Survival Guide“.
Every writer has a hard time either getting started or continuing to write. This happens for as many reasons as there are writers. There are distractions both from the real world (family, friends, your day-job) and the virtual (Twitter, Facebook, World of Warcraft). There is cake. There are aches, pains, appointments, books to be read, movies to be watched, and shiny objects to be spun until the colors make you sleepy.
As Rusch points out, many of these excuses spring from habits that manifest from the fact that your writing often comes after real world concerns. Unless you’re a full-time writer (and I’m not), writing is something that is often done when everything else is done. And, because writing is work, human nature dictates that I find more things to do before I sit down to work.
So, is it now time for me to buy knee-spikes, a cat-o-nine-tails, and a hot poker? Do I have my wife lock me in my room without food until I produce a draft? No…not quite. But it is time to start thinking about what I’m doing in a different way. As Rusch points out, the trick to this discipline thing is that it isn’t really discipline. “It’s figuring out how to get yourself to work.”
I know that I won’t be able to force myself to write. Coercion has never been my strong suit. I think that this is going to become a process of trial and error, a series of advances and feints, with some small retreats, in the battle against my inner slug. I’ve got to find the biggest culprits of distraction and, Barney Fife-like, “nip it in the bud.”
One way to do this is to look at my setting: where and when I write. I have to type to write…long-hand just doesn’t do it for me. So I have to have a computer. The “main” computer in our game room is where I usually like to sit. I’ve got a nice big screen and the latest version of Word. It’s also where all my work and background notes are saved (I have back-up drafts on a flash drive). It also connects me quickly to Facebook, Twitter, my email, the Internet Movie Database, NetFlix, my choice webcomics, and World of Warcraft. The room has no door and is usually the warmest room in the house during our hot Texas summers.
Now, I say this is where I work. However, more often than not, this is where I think about work, and then generally do something else. I balance my checkbook. I check my email. I tweet. I surf. And then I regret. I just realized today that most of the writing I’ve done recently has been either between projects at my day-job (don’t tell) or on my cruddy old laptop at the local coffee house.
Everything I’ve read and heard about writing emphasizes the need for a distinct place to write. A place with a door. A place without distraction where you go for one purpose and one purpose only: to write. Rusch even goes so far as to suggest creating a space without the Internet (gasp!). This slug is going to have to create a space for himself.
I don’t think I can entirely do without Internet access, but I do think I can remove WoW from my craptop and move it to some other room of the house. I think this is why it works so well at the coffee house: the machine is slow enough that Internet access is somewhat laborious and WoW is nigh impossible anyway. It can pretty much only handle my writing. While the wife is whupping ogres on the shiny gaming laptop, I actually get some work done. I think I can also carve me out some space in another room of the house…one with a door. As I overheard a panelist tell an attendee at a conference recently concerning how to shut out the kids, the dogs, the T.V., etc. “Just shut the door!”
Nancy Kress takes the concept of setting one step further. She suggests looking at whenyou write as well as where. If you’re a morning person, get up early and write. If you’re a night owl, then do it before you head to bed. Find out what works and go with it. “Your fiction deserves your best, whenever that is.” I try to write when I get home from work but before my wife gets home. This hasn’t worked so well. I usually stay up pretty late, regardless of what I do, so perhaps I should look at starting later. Kressalso suggests writing at the same time every time. With practice, your brain will start producing words unconsciously at this prearranged time, making your job easier. I’m not sure if I buy this, but I do think that routine is a good tool to use to wrangle your mind into shape.
So when sitting down every day or every week in my fortress of solitude, how much time is enough? Even if I find the holy grail of self-discipline, I can’t spend all my spare time scribbling. The exact amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to. Stephen King, in his On Writing, suggests 1000 words per day. This is from one of the most prolific authors around. Anne Lamott (in Bird by Bird) suggests 300 words per day. At a conference I attended today a panelist suggested 30 minutes per day, minimum. Nancy Kress suggests starting at writing at least 3 days per week with at least 500 words. She also suggests not writing too much and stopping when you know what happens next…this way you don’t drain yourself of energy and can come to the page fresh and with new ideas the next go round.
There’s no magic number. The point is to create a goal that moves you forward and is achievable. I’ll start with 30 minutes per day, everyday. We’ll see if I figure out when my best time is (I suspect later at night, but real-life may dictate this more than anything). So it is written, so it shall be done.
I’m also going to carve out my writing space. We have a “library” that has an old press-board desk with a lot of junk on it. I think I can claim this as my own and move the craptop in with some of my essential references. Now, if I can get the cats to cooperate…
Finally, Rusch offers a piece of vital advice: find the love. Acknowledge what brings you here every time and celebrate your accomplishment with something you enjoy. Every time I settle into bed at night and think about how I didn’t write today…again…I feel awful. I feel guilty and disappointed in myself. So why not celebrate when I do what I’m “supposed” to do? If I can get a “good” thirty minutes in (or maybe even more), then I can catch that cheezy kung-fu flick that my friends at Netflix planted in my mailbox. Better yet, I can do it guilt-free!
It’s sometimes tough for me to remember that writing is something I want to do. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. I have no taskmaster but myself…and I can be pretty harsh about it. The slug can run (kinda) but can’t hide from me. I just have a hard time prodding him from time to time. But, as Kress says, discipline can “help you find your natural rhythm, rather than have to impose it each day by a wrenching act of will.” So instead of prodding him to greater speeds, maybe I can just guide him into the right garden.