Friday, 24 April 2009

Habits (a Thursday night coffee break)

It’s Thursday night again, time to brew Friday morning coffee. Same Chock Full o’Nuts as last time, and the Bigelow teas sampler nobody touched last week is still here (each bag individually foil wrapped). I do have a selection of bagels this time – the Bagel Basket, where I grab lunch, had a slow day and plenty left over. They’re day-olds now, of course, but if you toast them, who’s to know? Couple of different cheeses, some regular butter and a cinnamon-butter my daughter loves but I never acquired a taste for. Help yourself while I get organized.

It is difficult for me to write this.

What makes it difficult is a project my son is working on for his game business. The details of the project are unimportant. In fact, I don’t know any details. I can’t even tell you if the project is part of development or sales.

More important than the purpose or objective of the project itself, at least to me at this moment, is the location of the project. He’s got the dining room table covered with paraphernalia. It’s stuff that can’t be moved; stuff that could not be moved last night. Stuff that will likely not move all weekend long. Oh, it will change shape and arrangement as he works on it; parts will certainly come and go. But the essential fact of its presence on the dining room table will not change.

And the dining room table is my writing space. I always sit in the middle of the long side, my back toward the wall so that I can see into the kitchen or the living room or out the window, depending on which way I turn my head. I don’t sit in one of the wooden chairs, of course. I use the nicely padded incidental chair (though it hasn’t been involved in any incidents I know of) that usually lurks in the corner. My son is using that chair now.

If one were to be objective about it, there’s nothing wrong with where I am right now. I’m in our bedroom, where Valerie usually studies (she’s working on another degree). Seating is comfortable, my laptop is at the right height, and Valerie is on night shift, leaving me with the peace and quiet to compose.

But this is not my writing space.
And that makes it difficult for me to write.

I am a creature of habit. I like things to be the way I expect them to be. Perhaps it’s a function of my ADD; or maybe it’s an artifact of advancing age. In either case, I need a certain amount of structure to be comfortable.

As a writer, structure is important. You can’t go through life jotting down a few words at stoplights or filling your notebook during commercial breaks. Writing is not something you do when and only if everything else is done. If you don’t treat writing as a job -- something that must be done for a certain stretch of time or until a certain quota of words is produced each day -- you will never accomplish anything. Or, if you do finish something, take six times as long to get it done.

For many of us the process, the ritual, of getting ready to write helps us settle into the craft. Gets the mind in writing mode, helps us transition from “real” life to the world of our stories. But there is a tipping point. When the preparation for writing becomes as important as the writing. When any interruption of the pattern makes writing impossible. (Or, in the case of this essay, more difficult.)

My first novel, Wolf Hunters, is about 97,000 words long. I was given 90 days in which to produce the manuscript (which was supposed to be 90k) but with my self-doubt, procrastination, and general unfamiliarity with the process of producing a novel on deadline, I almost didn’t get it done. 50,000 of those words were written in the final month. (And remember, for every word I keep, I usually throw out three.) How did I do it? At the time I was working direct support rather than case management, and my hours were flexible -- with most in the early morning and evening. I went to a Port City Java that was central to my client’s homes and built myself an office. Not a real office, of course; a favorite table where I could sit with my back to the room. I had a baseball cap pulled down so I could see nothing but the laptop and headphones on so I heard nothing but jazz, and I typed like a mad thing.

This worked out pretty well. I made my deadline and I was proud of my work.
From that point on, I had to go to Port City Java to write. And when I was there, if I didn’t have my cap -- or worse, my headphones -- it was a struggle to get words out. Even finding someone else at “my” table was enough to throw me.
I realized what had happened of course. Once I was aware something had happened. I had conditioned myself to associate quality production to a specific set of circumstances in that one setting. The ritual had become the most important part of the creative process. I eventually broke the Port City Java habit, though it took me another year to shake the nagging suspicion that I would be writing more and better at my window table with Coltrane in my headphones and a steaming mug of organic Kenyan in easy reach.

What structures do you use as a writer? Location? Time? Music? Goals?
What things do you do to get your creative engine running and keep it on track?
And what rituals have you developed that get in the way of your writing?


Debs said...

I'm in awe, 97,000 words in 90 days is so impressive.

I know what you mean about writing space. I write my blog, emails, letters where I am now, which is where the family computer/printer is and is used by everyone.

However, when it comes to writing my books, I work on a laptop and my favourite place is the peace and tranquility of my shed. I don't listen to music or anything when writing, and love it in the shed as I'm surrounded by photos and bits that inspire me. My son asked yesterday why the shed was filled with so much rubbish!

When it's too cold out there, I work in the conservatory, again, it's quiet and looks outside.

In order to get going, I need to make a mug of tea, but that's about it.

Flowerpot said...

I write in the bedroom but as we have a one bedroom flat that's the only place I have to call an office! I cant listen to music while I'm working - I need absolute quiet, but I do tend to need a mug of Rooibosh tea int he mornings, water in the afternoons. Oh and biscuits when I get hungry!

ChrisH said...

Excellent post, Kevin (and so beautifully written, if you don't mind me saying). It's true that I'm at my most productive when I'm in a good routine (and I'm not at the moment!). That means starting writing (as opposed to playing on the computer!) as early as possible and sticking with it until I've got a minimum of 500 words. Now the embarrassing stuff (embarrassing because I don't 'do' mumbo-jumbo), when I really want to call up The Muse, I, er, light an essential oil burner just to let it know I'm ready to start. When I'm so deep in my writing that I forget to top up the water and the room fills with fumes I know it's working! (Nooo, I can't believe I've admitted that!)

Leatherdykeuk said...

I can't write anywhere but at my desk with my clunky desktop PC. I don't have a laptop, but when someone (on holiday, say) offers me the use of one I decline. "I need my library" I say, meaning the 20,000 pieces of writing I have on my hard drives. There I can find any obscure fact of continuity, like the colour of the curtains in Ada's sitting room.

Lucy Diamond said...

Great post! (I hope you get your table back soon!)
I have a lovely office which used to be the old coal cellar of the house, although thankfully the previous owners put in French windows so it's not coal-dark inside any more. When we moved here it smelt absolutely ripe though where the walls were so damp and rotten but my husband tanked them and we painted them a gorgeous soothing pale green, so it feels a really calm, light place now, looking out onto the garden and conveniently near the kitchen.
I love it in here, it's my little refuge where I can keep all my books and spread out my stuff just the way I want to. I can't work anywhere else!

Rowan Coleman said...

This is a great post, ut I've got to say that if I have discovered anything recently its that you just got to sit down and get on with it. I can't get into my office at the moment, I'm supposed to be moving shortly (with a large amount of luck) and the place is in utter dissaray - there isn't one tranquil spot! So I just close my ears and eyes to what's going around me (that is when various members of various professions such as estate agents and solicitors aren't doing their best to stress me out and I get on with it. I don't have time to be precious!


CC Devine said...

I write at my kitchen table on my laptop and sometimes require music to 'get into it' whereas I need silence at other times when my concentration is bad.

I can write anywhere if I have the desperate urge to get the words down but the reality is that my preferred writing space is here and that usually results in better output.

What is important is plenty of space to spread out all my stuff. I want my notebooks, annotated drafts and interesting articles to be readily available.

I used to write in the morning but recently I've found that I faff around during the day and only really settle down around 8 or 9pm when my day is winding down. I light some scented candles and like working my lamplight. Perhaps this better for me at the moment because the chance of interruption by family or friends is much reduced, I'm not sure but I loved this post and hope you get your space back soon!

Denise said...

The children's author Jacqueline Wilson spoke at the Winchester writers' conference a couple of years ago. She said one of the hardest things she had to learn to do was to write anywhere. Most of her books are now written during snatched bits of time in taxis, on trains and whilst waiting to do talks like that one! She said you might not like it, but you can do it, and finding the time to write was more important than indulging yourself in writing rituals that stole your time. Really tough words but something I've been trying to follow ever since!

Annieye said...

What a lovely charismatic post and I agree - really well written.

Early mornings are my best writing time and my ritual is (1) make a cup of tea, (2) check Facebook and perhaps blog while I drink it.

Once I've finished my tea I open up my novel and then edit the previous session's work. I set myself a target for number of words to write. Usually, I'll have already done my research for what I am planning to write and so I just, well, write. If it comes out all wrong and I'm unhappy with it then I just shrug my shoulders and know that I'll fix it when I edit tomorrow.

I like low music while I'm writing and chocolate is always welcome!

Revisionista said...

wonderful & v. timely post, Kevin. Since the semester just ended here I'm trying to figure out what kind of routine/ritual I want to start. Last week I was going to Starbuck's each morning--since I refuse to pay for wifi there, I was left with nothing to do but write. I found myself getting into a serious trance-like state. It was wonderful. But I think it's like you said, if your favorite table is taken or you can't get a seat next to an outlet, it feels like you can't write. So, I need to find a way to get into my trance wherever I am.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I am lucky. No kids. My own study.

You can see a bit of it here:

I have a loose ritual which has survived from when I worked in museums. Deal with the mail (and these days visit blogs). Read the news (mostly related to literature and to my past work as I still do consultancy work for a museum publisher). Make a mug of coffee. Clear the decks of any other stuff that needs doing (and there is always other stuff). That leaves me the afternoon and evening (in theory).

Interruptions are the worst thing. If I'm in mid-flow and someone comes in it takes a while to pick up the thread and the momentum. The 'zone' always looks robust from the inside, but seems remarkably easy to shatter from without.

Leigh said...

This post spoke to me: I write best sitting up on (or in) the bed, headphones on (preferably my studio headphones, but the little white iPod ones will do), listening to the same fifteen music tracks over and over. The door must be shut. If it is dark, the curtains must be closed. I must have either a beer/cup of tea/glass of water, beside me, and it's always nice if there are a few pieces of chocolate too...

This is the best place to be. Where I feel safe.

I came here from the study, which I shared with my husband, when things between us became difficult. Now he no longer lives here, I have a study all to myself (on of my life's dreams), but I do not, cannot, write in there again yet. I have recently rearranged the furniture, and plan to paint the walls. Then, maybe, I can feel safe in that room again.

I have, at various times, developed all sorts of little settling-down rituals, including one which involved playing three games (no more or less) of Pathwords on Facebook, before I could begin writing. This, I recognised eventually as a procrastination exercise - though I disguised it as relaxation - and have managed to stop.

But I am too a creature of habit, and for me safety is in rituals, breaking them is hard. Thus, I understand your pain, and hope that your dining room table is free very, very soon.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Firstly, apologies for missing so many coffee breaks recently ~ blogger has been blocked via our work server, so I couldn’t do my sneaking posting in the mornings, and pregnancy fatigue meant I couldn’t manage to log on at home in the evenings. But I am now on maternity lave, so will be able to check in again (at least until the baby arrives!)

I don’t have a routine currently, but I work much better when I do ~ what has worked very well for me in the past is getting up an hours early and writing before work in the mornings. When I can sustain that I tend to be very productive. What gets in the way for me is thinking that I have to have the exact right set of circumstances: ‘oh, I can’t start writing because I only have twenty minutes, and I don’t have my favourite pen or the right type of notebook…’ I need to master the art of anytime, any place, just get something down!

Hope you get that table back soon :-)

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Very interesting post. I write in my office which is a first floor room in my house. Most of the day I am not disturbed but once my daughter comes home from school at 3.30 I can kiss goodbye to concentration. I wish so much I could be more disciplined but my daughter comes first and as she is autistic, she needs my constant supervision.

I could never listen to music whilst typing, I'd be concentrating too much on the lyrics or the instrumentals, being musical myself I have a habit of differentiating orchestras and that would put a stop to any work being done.

I guess the only rituals I have are looking after Amy, and when extra help is needed on the farm I have to step in. But the house work gets neglected, I haven't used an iron for years and if I'm really bored during the day I switch the tv on. But that's desperate!

CJ xx

Captain Black said...

I've already OD'd on coffee today, so I'm just going to be boring and have a glass of water.

My habits vary quite a bit, depending on what type of writing-related activity I'm doing. Having said that, I'm quite flexible and none of the habits are all that rigid. I live by myself so there's (usually) no interruptions from anybody else. Anyway, what structure I do use goes something like this...

Plotting & brainstorming: I actually can't be at the computer for this. I suffer from blank-page syndrome, so I have to go to another table and use old-fashioned pen and paper for these aspects. For most other activities, I need the computer as I don't involve paper for the actual writing process.

Research: If I'm not using the internet, which admittedly forms the lion's share of my research tools, then I go wherever I have to go. Within reason.

Storyboards: This is often done initially on paper before finding its way to the computer. Sometimes I just do it on the computer directly.

Writing & Editing: My dining room table (sorry KeVin) which has my lap-top (only) computer on it. Ironically, I don't like working with a lap-top on my lap. To get started, I usually re-read whatever I wrote last on that project.

Reading & Testing: I try to come up with a test plan before getting stuck in to proof reads. That way I have quantifiable goals and can monitor how I'm progressing. An old habit from my software development days.

Backups: Call me paranoid but I do incremental backups every day and full backups every month. This is very much part of my ritual and I would definitely start to panic if I didn't do it.

Deployment: By that I mean submitting, succeeding, getting published and becoming a writing success. Um... I'll let you know.

A new habit I'm trying out is to ignore e-mail, blogs and social networking until after I've produced some significant work. It's going pretty well so far; I'm really not missing anything important by postponing those fabulous distractions. Many writers recommend this kind of discipline, and I'm starting to believe they're right.

Thanks for a great topic KeVin and well done on your mammoth word-rate. Regarding the dining room table: correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you the boss?

Lane said...

Your post sings loud and clear to me KeVin. My kitchen table has recently been taken over with 'stuff which cannot be moved' and now I'm forced to write (or try to) squashed in a corner of my bedroom on a wobbly makeshift 'desk' and it's thrown me.

I must admit I like writing on/in bed but the temptation to snooze is too much.

As for rituals, I don't really have any apart from having tea/coffee/nibbles nearby. Like Leigh I used to play three games of WordTwist or Scramble on Facebook but not so much now. No music or radio ever when writing.

I hope you get your space back really soon - or manage to adapt to your new space.

Calistro said...

Ooops I'm late! Sorry!


My main ritual is waiting for it to get dark before I write. I'm not sure why - I think I just like how quiet it is at night (which is ironic because I like to write with music playing or the TV burbling in the background).

My other ritual is procrastinating like crazy and only starting to write when I've grown bored of facebook, twitter, myspace etc, there's nothing on TV, the flat is clean and I can't think of a single excuse not to write!

I don't really have 'a place' where I write. I used to sit at my desk but now I've got a diddy netbook I often sit on the sofa and write. The other week I needed to get out of the house so went to a pub near the seafront and wrote nearly 1,000 words using a pad and pen (something I rarely do).

Lane said...

Graeme, that's a jolly fine writing space you have there.

Leigh Russell said...

I find I don't need rituals to help me procrastinate. I seem to have a natural flair for it. As for getting the creative engine running - there's nothing like a deadline! Although I'd prefer not to have too many like the one my publisher gave me recently:
Me - When would you like the proofs back?
Publisher - Yesterday would be good.
I'd do anything for my publisher (I love her, she's given me a three book contract) but...

Leigh Russell said...

ps Leigh - please check out my blog. As a fellow Leigh, you're invited to my Virtual Book Launch, if you're interested.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

If you call booting the computer, jumping on to the Internet, checking mail, reading blogs and losing track of time a ritual, then I've got one. I know I should write first and do this stuff after, but I'm just stubborn that way.
Location: Now that I finally have a 'proper' desk in my bedroom (knocked off two bedside tables to get it to fit) I'm a lot more disciplined that I've been. Having a dedicated workspace does indeed help.
Time: The night. Main reasons: it's cool, it's quiet, I'm energized and I just like being awake when everyone else isn't.
Music: Not usually. When I do it's either 80s rock or melancholy jazz.
Goals: Hm. Once the intent has firmed itself into a concrete goal, then yes. External deadlines are the best for getting me to buckle down, though; self-imposed ones not so much.
Rituals that get in the way of writing? See first sentence.

It's weird how we get attached to places and things without realizing it, though. At one point a couple years ago I was in a good place mentally, setting goals, meeting them, being very organized about the writing lark. (It helped that I didn't have a day job at the time.) I was using an old computer with a dodgy monitor and it was like a comfy old slipper: we conformed to each other. Then I bought a brand new PC and it threw me off completely! The dazzling graphics, the high resolution, the speed... I wanted to play with it, not work. Three months later it died on me! Borrowed an old, barely functional laptop from my brother and somehow settled into a good groove with it. So on the one hand I want things to be perfect, but on the other hand...

50,000 words in a month, KeVin? You are amazing.

KeVin K. said...

"500,000 words in a month?"I know a couple of you have seen Wolf Hunters. This explanation will make a bit more sense to you. The rest of you just follow along and nod occasionally to look like you’re listening.

The way I got the story of how I got tapped to write Wolf Hunters, my first novel was originally conceived as a trade paperback anthology of novellas, each written by an established “name” in the MechWarrior writers’ stable. A major faction in the game universe had become too powerful and the developer wanted it to tear itself apart, and have each fragment go in a different direction. Details from each of these separate adventures set in motion events that might or might not prove significant later in the novel series. This break-up and formation of splinter forces was also to illustrate a new strategy mechanic to game play. Writers had pitched story ideas -- one or two sentence summaries – when the publisher decided to go with a mass-market paperback novel instead. None of the name writers had enough schedule flexibility to handle a novel on short notice. The editor asked fellow game editors who could handle something like this. She received several good suggestions, but none of them was available so she went with me.

She gave me a list of key points that had to be covered because later novels in the series were already being written, and the pitches of the other writers with strict instructions not to use anything they had suggested. The novel had to cover a lot of ground (it really should have been an anthology) and I wrote each subplot as a separate story. Though this will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the novel, I wrote the Jazz and Yulri story first. (That is actually a romance and would have been my contribution to the anthology.) Next I wrote the main through-story, focused on the primary character and including a murder mystery. Then because the lead character could not be the only one with a clear vision of what she was doing, I took a fellow who’d been third spear-carrier from the left in several pivotal scenes in earlier novels and made him a major player who had (surprise!) really been plotting madly while everyone thought he was standing around. (I made him the heroic lead in my second novel.) I don’t recall in what order I wrote the other stories. But I wrote the scenes aboard the Diligence -- a space tug captained by my son Anson – last. I then broke all the stories up, jigsawed them together in a way that made sense while adding and deleting paragraphs to make the transitions work. That bit actually took a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Finally, I wrote the conclusion, tying everything together. (I did miss my deadline. The ms was due end of business day Friday, but wasn't in their in-box until they opened up Monday morning. I did not sleep that weekend.) The only rewriting I had to do was not corrective – they wanted me to insert a character who would be a major player in a later novel in a few scenes so she’d have some history.

My second novel had a 120-day deadline and I had a much better understanding of the mechanics of what I was about that time around. I won’t say there wasn’t another final dash to the deadline but it wasn’t a patch on the final month of Wolf Hunters. (Which, by the way, I turned in as “The Lycanthrope’s Guide to the Galaxy” --still not clear on why the editor changed that title.)

liz fenwick said...

Sorry for being late - just back from Kyoto :-)

Great post Kevin. I can write anywhere with anything going on around me except music that I would choose other than classical. I can write on planes - partically useful with my life, the dinning table with chaos and cats running around me...BUT the key for me is to be in the story and at the moment I'm not. I need to force myself back in and not let the other things begging for my attention win be they emails, facebook....or even dinner. Oh, I am totally hopeless at writing when I am hungry :-)


ps Rowan - hope the stress lets up soon