Monday, February 09, 2009

Writing Process

In an earlier version of me, I was working in a toxicology research lab. A biotech researcher -- a man of patriarchal bravado who disdained non-meat food and anyone to the left of Atilla the Hun, as the saying goes -- who was helping me with my project at the time observed rather sheepishly how silly it was that the presence or absence of a little dark band on a sheet of x-ray film at the end of the day could have such a profound impact on whether it counted as a "good day" or a "bad day." I'm long past being a lab rat, but a similar version of the same phenomena has an embarassingly large impact on my moods today: how much writing I get done in a given day is often the first thing I reach for when evaluating whether it has been a good day or a bad day. For that reason, I spend an undue amount of time thinking about writing process.

This post is not going to be some grand, insightful examination of writing process, just a pointer to two to much cleverer writers than I saying things on this topic.

The first is a post by wonderful science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson. She makes a number of useful points in the post, but I was particularly struck by her assertion that her goal is a mere 20 minutes or 400 words of new writing per day. That is easily inserted into even a busy schedule, and though it sounds like next to nothing, it actually adds up to, as she puts it, a novel and a half per year. She adds,

Fact is, when writing is your career, the actual writing is the smallest fraction of what you do. The rest is all the stuff of managing a career, such as doing research, reading and responding to students' manuscripts, filing, answering the phone, paperwork, outreach, travel. Not to mention the self-maintenance stuff of making and eating meals, doing housework, running errands, etc.

Which is an interesting point. I don't tend to distinguish writing quite as clearly from the other tasks that are essential to making the book that I'm writing at the moment, and perhaps I'd be happier about my progress if I did. Part of why I haven't been blogging so much lately is that I really, really need to finish the chapter for my social movement history book that I have technically been working on since September. Even taking into account that I haven't really been working on it for all of that time, since I spent six of those weeks on an entirely different writing project, a month or more in the chaos of suddenly and unexpectedly buying a house and moving, and a couple of weeks on seasonal shenanigans in Decmeber, that's still a lot of time. But much of that time was spent doing things other than writing the chapter -- in fact I only started writing it at the beginning of January, and that has actually come along fairly well, considering certain other distractions over that period. But perhaps a clearer distinction between writing and non-writing work that is related to the book would be useful to me.

The other piece, which Hopkinson's post links to, is an article called "Writing in the Age of Distraction" by Cory Doctorow. I've heard the name but I don't actually know anything about him and haven't read any of his stuff. However, this sentence left me quite prepared to hate him:

As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

Well,okay, not really. But that is amazing output for anyone, let alone a new parent, so his advice may be useful. He also advises 20 minutes or one page per day, every day, and a solid distinction between writing time and researching time. He goes into more details, including ones that are very relevant to the kinds of distractions that computers can provide, but it is the basic insight of protected, regular, not-too-long time that is valuable, I think.

In a way, I already do this. A couple of friends of mine whose professional lives involve a great deal of writing swear by a system that involves writing in discrete units of 45 minutes or so, with a break between units where you do something else entirely. It also includes certain other details similar to what is in the Doctorow article and various other bits and pieces about self-care and so on. I don't buy the whole system, but I've been using those focused 45 minute units with clear breaks, and have found it useful.

Anyway. I suppose all of this ends up as kind of an excuse for continued sparse blogging in the next couple of weeks. There is actually a lot less overlap between the time and mental space that go into working on the book and the time and mental space that can be used for blogging, so it's not a simple matter of using it for the former instead of the latter, but when my time and energy is limited by other things, it is definitely the former that gets priority.


Red Jenny said...

I don't know if this will help you, but when I had to be very disciplined with my writing for about 6 weeks, I relied on this little tool called "instant boss"

It's a small program you can download that helps you both work and take breaks. You can customize how much time you want to spend on each per cycle and how many cycles you want to complete. It tallies it all so you can keep track of how long you spend working. Personally I found it oddly motivating.

Good luck
I can't wait to read your work
p.s. if you need help with a little editing here and there I'd be happy to help. Sometimes it helps to have someone else look at a piece of work that is just not coming out right.

thwap said...

Do what you gotta do

Scott said...

Hey Jenny: Hmmm...interesting little program. I can imagine that it was useful! It doesn't seem to be available for linux, though. Which is fine, I use of a stopwatch in a similar way is a bit more ad hoc but it works okay. And mostly I lose more time to things that cost me a week or a day or a big chunk of a day than I do to the time-thieves that go after minutes and least I think so, anyway...

But I may take you up on the offer to have a look at some of the material here or there...not right away, but in a little bit...and likewise I'm always happy to provide fresh eyes or a little editing or the like for whatever you might be working on!

Hi thwap: Thanks!