Thursday, March 8, 2012

So... Why Pulp: Being in Your Write Mind



It’s no secret, I write a lot. It’s what I love to do, and currently I don’t have a day job. But there comes a point where that urge to get something on the page is defeated by what is going on around me. I’m not talking about the stack of unread books piling up, or the hottest online game that is calling my name so seductively. Oh they’re temptations all right, but much more easily avoided. I’m thinking about the hardcore situations, like a fight with the spouse, family illness, loss of a job, head pounding noise in the background… you know, those days or weeks when life gets in the way. What do you do to overcome that kind of distraction and find all your marbles so that you can still hit a deadline?

Well, I hate to tell you kiddo, but unless your heart is made of stone, and you have titanium nerves, you can’t. There are just some situations that are going to preempt writing. If it’s serious enough to be life altering to you or your family, and the need is immediate for you to be there, fire off an email or phone call to whoever is waiting, briefly explain the situation, and then get back to it. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t had to take time off to deal with some personal challenge. Nine times out of ten you’ll find empathy on the other end, and your inability to meet your writing obligations will be understood. That tenth time… well that person is just going to have to sit and grumble, because crises do have to be dealt with. As long as that unwanted sabbatical isn’t a regular thing, there should be no repercussions. Most small publishers are running a shoestring budget, so yeah, it sucks when you have to hold things up; but we adjust and move on.

The trick here is to be able to tell the difference between an actual catastrophic situation and something that can be worked around. That’s not always as simple as you think! When you have a pressing project and things are not going well with the actual writing, it’s easy to let background situations become major distractions. Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about!

Yeah, me too. I have one of those going on right now. The hot water heater here on the farm, which is our future home under renovation, bit the big one last night. Not terribly conducive to showering or anything else that requires more that liquid ice from the tap. I have an appointment tomorrow, so I will be heading back to the old homestead where most of the family and pets are still living, and staying at least overnight so I can shower and do all those things that require hot running water. Ah, but my PC stays here, and there are going to be frustrated guys swearing and thumping things around all day, when my netbook needs a battery boost. It’s another unexpected expense, and that really nags me too. I could blow off writing for the day because I’m upset about all that’s going on around me I suppose…

No, I’m not giving in to that. This is an unfortunate and inconvenient situation, but it can be worked around. In fact it’s the perfect opportunity to retrieve that time doing laundry and other chores, eat takeout off paper plates, and concentrate more on writing. This column is due by tomorrow night, so I am working on it today while my netbook battery charges. That’s why I have the portable machine, so I can take my writing to go. Saved on a flash card, I can pick up where I left off once I am at the other house. In the meantime, if it gets noisy here, I have headphones. As far as worrying about what’s going on, writing is the perfect distraction. I’ve done what I can about the situation and no amount of over-thinking it is going to help.

That’s what I call being in my ‘write’ mind. You learn to shove what has been dealt with aside, and go to work. It takes practice and self-discipline, but if you want writing to be your career like I do, it’s vital. You have to know when to say no to people, how to still those nagging inner demons that are looking to distract you, and get back down to business. And writing is a business, as well as an art form, because if you don’t treat it as such, you’re not making the transition from hobbyist to full time writer. I’m determined that someday I’m going to get paid for what I do at this keyboard, and so I treat it like I would any job. I show up at work just about every day around the same time, and do what I know I should be doing, as if I had a time clock to punch and a boss watching me. That’s the attitude you need to cultivate as a pro. You can’t wait until the time is right, the stars are aligned, and the entire world is in perfect harmony. I take the muse by the short hairs and hold his toes to the fire of creation. Over time, it gets easier to wring something out of yourself.

Besides this column, I’m working on a difficult writing project right now, one where I am completely out of my element and tackling a brand new genre that I have very little experience with. I knew I would struggle with it, and so I began it long before my late summer deadline. I’ve already done a lot of research, have some ideas on paper, and have started the actual story. This early launch assures me that if I hit a tough patch I can back off a bit before I get overly frustrated, and go work on something else for a few days. That’s kind of like getting back on the bicycle you fell off and riding somewhere else, so that your mind doesn’t register a general fear of bicycles. I can work at a relaxed pace, yet it adds time padding in case some more crushing deadline looms. Since I do editing for Pro Se, and that often involves someone else’s deadline, my schedule can change overnight. Part of being in the ‘write’ mind is not procrastinating, or putting off the hard stuff until last. Get it out of the way first, and things go far more smoothly later.

Another thing that is important for us writers in this over-connected day and age is to decide when and where to stay in touch. It’s very easy to while away the writing hours online, making Facebook and Twitter updates, checking and answering email, and then getting sucked into something else like chat or games. Same thing with the new phones, where you can do everything but make toast. (There’s probably an app for that…) Because I don’t know what else you do in your real life, I won’t presume to tell you what parts of those things are important. I will say how I manage the online networking and cell phone time, and why.

I have a cell phone, and it is my lifeline to family and services. On the farm right now, it’s my only phone. I keep it well charged for that reason. What I don’t have is a data plan or unlimited texting. I don’t text unless it’s absolutely necessary; not because I don’t know how but because I refuse to. First of all, I’d rather talk than type. I write all day long, why would I want to tap more buttons on a miniscule keypad? Secondly, texting quickly becomes a black hole of time-sucking minutes that take over your day. The people who have my number know that they can call me if they need me. I have voicemail, so I will answer now or call back ASAP. I can still type a few words or save my work while talking. As far as the other things you can do with cell phones these days, I don’t really want them. They are conveniences, but also a huge distraction. I need my mind on my work.

I love the social networking sites. I’m on both Google+ and Facebook (not a big Twitter fan—too fiddly) and I use them to communicate with family, friends, other writers, and anyone else interested in what I’m up to. I regularly use email and have several accounts designated for certain things. Unless I’m waiting for some kind of information or need a question answered immediately, I make morning and evening rounds online. The bulk of my day is off the social sites, out of chat, and not excessively checking email. I do have the internet up, playing background music that I write by, with another tab for Dictionary.com, and one for Google searches in case I need inspiration or information for a story. Just as if I was in a company workplace, I stay off the personal sites as much as possible while writing. I need to be able to concentrate on what I’m doing, and I’m not that good at splitting my attention. I never edit while doing something else; that is asking for trouble. I am sure to miss something vital and that’s not fair to the person whose work I am responsible for.

Settling down to work from home or in some remote location is never easy. You have to cultivate a mindset that this is important, and nothing that isn’t more pressing should interfere with it. Most of us writers who turn out quite a bit of material have a few little rituals we indulge in that help our minds get into that groove where things get done. For me, I have designated areas that I write from, my PC and netbook have programs I find useful (and no games), and I save after every session on several portable drives as ‘grab-and-go’ backup. My desk here on the farm is in the dining room and faces the wall, but I have a window on the left that has a view of the driveway and the one on the right looks out at a birdfeeder and over the field. I keep things around me that support my writing, like my daily word count tally sheet, and that all important army ammo can full of dark chocolate, my brain stimulant and reward. I have music selected for certain moods and headphones ready to be plugged in if the background noise is intolerable, as it often is on renovation days. My cell phone is within reach, assuring me that I can make and receive calls when necessary.

I select my equipment to fit my writing style, with the most ergonomic devices that are still conducive to comfortable working. I have an office chair that fits my desk and height well (I’m short), and use an orthopedic cushion and a heating pad on the bad back days. I chose a big 24” monitor for easy viewing, and desktop tools that I know work for me. I even have a backlit keyboard for nighttime writing with the room lights off. When I sit down, I’m ready to go. Sure you can write on anything; a pad with a pencil, or bang out a story with an old manual typewriter, but this is the stuff that makes me happy. You need to do the same—set up your workspace with as much ease and incentive as you can put into it, because the more you have going for you, the more actual writing you’re going to get done.

So give that some thought. If you want to be in your ‘write’ mind, make sure the environment you work in, and the mindset you bring to it, reflect that this is serious business. Writing should be fulfilling, but if it’s also a vocation goal, you need to treat it like one. It takes a bit of planning and a lot of temperance along with a will to get things done. My rules are not necessarily yours; you need to find your own comfort zone within your personal life. When you do, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish even in just a short period of time on a regular basis.

Now go write something!

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