Thursday, November 12, 2015

How did I get that done? A post about work habits.

Sometime around February of last year, I got the germ of an idea for a new story. For months, this idea simmered in the back of my mind. Then a few more thoughts came and I wrote them down, but overall I felt frustrated. I couldn't focus to work out my ideas, and I didn't have a clear sense of the overall plot, of where the story was going. Over the summer I felt especially frustrated, as more ideas took shape, but I did not have the time or space to work them out. By the beginning of September, I had about 20,000 words, and still no clear sense of the direction of the story.

Two months later and I've just finished a 62,000 word first draft, and have a vivid knowledge of how the characters and the plot progress and tie together. I also have a good chunk of a second book written, and the final chapters of the third: It's going to be a trilogy. Today I'm taking a little step back, and thinking, how did I do that?

Though I will confess that two major factors in accomplishing this were: 1. The kids finally went back to school. On most weekdays I have a few uninterrupted hours at my disposal, and I've been disciplined to sit down at my computer and use them well, even on the days I initially didn't feel like it, and 2. The more I wrote, the more I was enthralled with my own story, which caused me to be a bit obsessive, and want to get back to writing it whenever I had to do other stuff.

But I'm noticing a few other habits have evolved that are working for me, too. I'll write them down here in case anyone else might find them helpful. Many of us have things we want to do, dreams we want to accomplish, and it's so easy to let them slide away--to let the busyness and tasks of daily life completely take us up. Maybe you want to make an intricate quilt, or write a screenplay, or train service dogs or learn viticulture or to play an instrument. But the dream never feels important enough. Maybe it seems self-indulgent or impractical, or maybe you just can't conceive of how to begin, with all the other stuff you have going on.

You DO have to believe in the legitimacy and value of your desires. They are not simply "selfish". Of course the bills must be paid and the laundry needs done and the groceries need bought and cooked and the kids have a basketball tournament this weekend. All of that still needs to happen. But you are a person, too. And what you really want to do--not simply what you have to do--should factor into the mix somewhere. If it doesn't, here's just saying it straight, your family situation or your own perspective or maybe both are not actually healthy. But that's a different topic. Here are some practical habits and ways of thinking that have evolved for me:

1) USE THE TIME YOU HAVE: Most of us have some time at our disposal. When other members of your family are watching TV, you could claim a free hour. When you have to take your kid to practice across town, stay in the car with your project or your laptop instead of doing errands. It won't hurt the kid to go to the store, and having an hour to yourself is precious! Same with naptime and littles: Use the precious naptime to do something meaningful for you. The chores can be done later with a baby in a front-pack or on your hip. Negotiate with a friend or a husband for some free time--I'll give you a half day here, and then you do the same for me. It doesn't have to be a lot of time--little bits can be OK. Just make a start, and plug along, and you'll be surprised how it adds up in the end. I wrote a whole post about this here, back when I had finished my first novel and worked five days a week at a bank.

2) LEARN WHEN AND HOW YOU WORK BEST: Many accomplished people rise very early in the morning and finish a ton of stuff before 8 am. I've learned that my mind moves at the pace of thick sludge before 8, so that doesn't work for me. I've also learned that if I take an hour or two to get the obnoxious stuff done before I sit down to write--do the dishes, sweep the dog hair off the floor, do some banking and bookkeeping (which I do for my husband's business), make the necessary phone calls, or prepare a package to mail--I will focus much better. If I sit down with a will to write first thing and keep getting distracted by the disgusting dog-hair littering the floor, I may have spent more time writing, but I get less done in the end.

All I really need to write is a decent chair that supports my back and a relatively silent room, something that can be a bit hard to come by in our busy household of 6. Some people like music in the background or the buzz of a public place. I've tried that, but it doesn't work for me. Kind of like in college I learned that I could stare at my notes or flashcards all night long, and the information would never stick. But if I recopied my notes by hand, it was all there. Everyone is different. So notice what works for you, and what doesn't.

3) THERE MAY BE LITTLE "COMFORT TRICKS" THAT HELP YOU SETTLE IN: I like a cup of tea by my chair at all times. It often ends up half-drunk and stone cold, but making the tea seems to send a little signal to my brain that it's time to focus now. I go through a LOT of tea, and this nice strong decaf black, which comes gift-wrapped on my doorstep all the way from Ireland for the unreal price of 7.99, was a such a great find!

4) REALIZE THAT YOU CAN ONLY TRULY FOCUS ON ONE THING: I've always had way too many interests: I want to learn to paint and create knitting patterns and take awesome photos and read interesting articles on all manner of subjects and try new recipes, and on and on, all at the same time. But time is limited, and if I ever want to gain any ground, I can really only focus on ONE thing. That's hard for me. 

Also, since I immersed myself in writing this new novel, other things have suffered a bit: The fridge gets more empty before I get to the grocery store, the dog hasn't been walked every single day, and once when immersed in my story, I forgot a doctor's appointment and got a rather nasty pink slip in the mail. I'm just one human person, and I'm doing the best I can. It's not like I let the other stuff drop completely, but I can't say I'm doing as good a job at the details of life as before. But before, I wasn't getting any writing done, either. It's kind of like politics: To actually get anything accomplished, the art of compromise must come into play. Which is difficult for us perfectionists and black and white thinkers, but it's just the way it is.

5) REALIZE THAT THERE MAY BE TIMES IN LIFE WHEN YOU HAVE TO LET IT GO: Maybe it's a colicky baby, or an ailing parent, or an international move, or a teenager going through a crisis time. There are seasons in life when you have to let all else drop and focus on a present need. It's OK--realize that this, too, shall pass, and then you can write or do whatever again. But don't put off what you really want to do for years on end.

6) MAKE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE: Entire books have been written about this. Here's a few things that have made a big difference for me: Make your child pick only one sport or involvement per season. Refuse to be busy more than three nights a week--this can be difficult with kids of different ages, but stick to it as much as possible. Only volunteer for one or two things that are most meaningful to you. Unless, of course, volunteering and community involvement is the thing you love most to do. And for some extroverted souls, it is! For example, I teach Sunday School, but I don't volunteer at my daughter's elementary school. Go modest buying things like houses and cars so you are not over-stressed and stretched financially. And don't feel like you have to make everything from scratch unless that is your joy. Find some nice, store-bought items you can bring for a party or potluck.

7) TAKE BREAKS TO MOVE YOUR BODY, ESPECIALLY IF YOU'RE OVER 40: I wish I could stay in my chair all day, every day, and write (or read, or knit, or draw) without consequences. But the pain of a sore back or neck or hip will interfere with and stop your creative endeavor like nothing else. And sometimes moving your body is just what you need to release a creative idea that just isn't coming together. The finale that ties together the entire trilogy for my new story came to me while taking a break from writing and walking the dog. Then I couldn't wait to get home and write it out! Even a quick and vigorous scrub of the bathroom can serve as this kind of break. When you feel things getting stale and frustrating, take a break and move.

8) IF YOU ARE A WRITER, USE SCRIVENER: Scrivener is awesome. For plotting and organizing and then compiling your writing into any kind of format--ebook, kindle book, PDF, Word file, whatever--it works so much better than the word processing software I used to use. There's a thirty day free trial, and at $40, the price is totally reasonable. There is a bit of a learning curve, but there's lots of free help from other generous and kind writers on the web, and simple google searches when I'm stuck have yielded everything I've needed to know.