On Tuesday, around 10 pm, I finished the first draft of my next Smokey Dalton novel. I would have finished on Monday, but Dean and I have been dealing with some serious business matters for the past ten days, and on Monday, we had to do real-life business things that involved people, not computers or mentally time-traveling back to 1970. And we certainly couldn’t make things up, or we would have made some pretty serious mistakes.
I get very focused at the end of a book, and I speed up because I want to finish and move to the next project. I have a lot of next projects. I have three short stories due in the next two weeks. I need to go over a first draft of a different novel, and add a few things that I thought of later. Sometimes I leave novels to “cool” and then the subconscious tosses in the missing elements. Since I usually write out of order, this habit generally works to my advantage.
I’m leaving Street Justice to cool while I finish up those tasks. And as I’m doing those, I’ll also write at least two more blog posts for the Business Rusch, several smaller items that WMG needs, and maybe a mystery story (since the three I owe are science fiction (2) and romance (1), and I’d like to get to this great mystery idea that’s been hanging fire for weeks now).
Why am I burdening you with all of this? For two reasons. First, I planned to write a long and involved post tonight about the Patterson ad, royalty statements, and book distribution. In fact, I started it in the middle of the night Monday when I couldn’t sleep. But I’m tired enough that I worry I wouldn’t do my best work on the blog, so I’m going to put it off until next week.
The other reason? Some of you know that for the last 10 days or so of April, Dean was writing a novel from start to finish. In fact, he was writing a novel and blogging about it at the same time.
We’re always writing, and we’re usually writing novels at the same time, but it’s rare for us both to be going at top speed at the same time. Generally, one of us serves as back-up for the other, making sure the other person eats properly, gets up from the desk enough, and gets enough sleep.
We couldn’t really watch each other’s backs this time, and it led to some interesting things that I didn’t quite realize until today.
Today, I grabbed the battered and scratched grocery list that had been sitting on the dining room table for weeks, and headed to the grocery store. Usually I do the shopping and the cooking because I have so many food allergies that it’s just easier (and less time consuming) for me to handle this stuff.
I go once a week, grab enough to last, replenish what we used up, and bring it all home. Dean carries his weight in other ways. He does the dishes if I cook, and he handles repairs/light bulbs/etc.
For the past two weeks, maybe three, I didn’t go to the store. I ran out of time. I also ran out of time to cook. Fortunately, I cook too much food most of the time and freeze the suitable leftovers. In March, I actually had to buy more food storage containers because we hadn’t been eating anything frozen. I wondered if our eating habits had changed.
Au contraire. I did not realize I was storing up for April.
All of last week, we ate what I had stored. We also ate through our extras. We almost ran out of tea, which, believe me, almost never happens in my house. (Some wag at the grocery store today looked in my cart at the four boxes of cereal and said, “Wow. Someone in your house likes Raisin Bran.” I didn’t tell him I was stocking back up.)
Getting extra food and freezing leftovers aren’t habits that came from my Depression-era parents (even though Mother did try to instill in me the virtues of using everything, a lesson I still ignore). These habits come from decades of freelancing.
Back in the early days, I learned to buy in bulk because checks came irregularly. I could get through the lean times with extra boxes of cereal and lots of frozen homemade food.
Later, though, those same habits became important in a two-writer household for months like the one we just went through. We don’t have a housekeeper or a secretary. We have to keep track of things ourselves and can’t farm it out to an assistant. (I suppose we could afford one, but that person would be lurking in my home and breathing my air, and at some point, I would just have to kill him. No, I’m not the most rational person when I’m working. I’m a writer. Why would you expect otherwise?)
Without an assistant, Dean and I muddle through. Most of the time, even a two-novel finish isn’t as complicated as last week because, on top of the dual writing sessions, we also had to handle some heavy-duty business stuff that took hours out of our days. Despite my vow to eat healthier in 2013, a vow I’ve mostly kept, I ate too many lunches from Burger King because I’d run out of everything easy to fix in the house, and I knew if I went to the grocery store, I’d lose too much writing time, a fact borne out today, when I lost two hours in the aisles at Safeway.
The frozen meals do help though. We eat less crap when we have frozen homemade food. And it’s something we’ve done for years. We have a lot of habits that have simply become ingrained, habits I didn’t entirely realize others lacked until Dean’s blog this past week.
If you haven’t read the blog, you should, and you should read the comments too, because in the middle of that novel, Dean did a lot of mythbusting.
One myth in particular stood out for me. Most writers seemed to believe that you had to spend a large chunk of time at the computer to write anything of value.
That can’t be farther from the truth. In fact, large chunks of time at the computer harm a writer. They rarely help one.
I’ve always wondered how so many writers develop carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries from their writing. When Dean and I teach, we always stress that a writer needs to have her workplace properly set up. I blogged about that early in The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. Your workspace should be set up for your body style, not for someone else’s. I also tell writers to get up every hour or so.
I learned this one quickly. I am incredibly restless—so restless, in fact, that when a doctor ordered me to stay off my feet after I broke a bone in my left foot, I found it nearly impossible to take that advice. I was used to getting up every twenty minutes or so to go do something. I had no idea I was that restless until that particular injury.
But I also trained my body to move. I did so with tea and water. Before each writing session, I drink a little water. Then I bring a cup of tea with me into the office, and sip as I work. Eventually, my body demands that I get up and after a while, I can no longer ignore that command—even if my characters are all about to die in icky horrible ways. Even if I have just gotten a great idea and need to get it all down now. Even if I have finally figured out that missing piece to the plot puzzle. I still get up, and walk to the bathroom, then have another drink of water, maybe make another cup of tea, and head back, shaking my arms a little as I do so, making sure I stretch a bit, and avoiding repetitive stress injury.
I only had one such injury, and I got that in the late 1980s, when I worked as a secretary. I sat at a desk set up for someone seven inches taller than me, and eventually, I paid for that. It didn’t matter how many times I got up. I still got hurt, and vowed never again.
Dean gets up every hour or so as well. The fact that we both do this has led to another habit. We learned to write in small increments. We often write two hundred words in fifteen minutes, then get up and do something else. On Sundays, before our weekly writer lunch, I can usually manage only about twenty minutes of actual writing before we leave. I generally get 600-800 words done in that time, mostly because I know I will lose most of my afternoon to socializing.
What these short bursts mean is that we write a lot more than most people. If I waited for long stretches of time to write, I’d still be finishing Street Justice. I had several hours to work yesterday, but no time on Monday, five hours in snatches on Sunday, a long stretch on Saturday, and four stolen nonconsecutive hours on Friday. If I look back at April, which was a busy month for business and other things that had nothing to do with writing, I see only ten days with long stretches of time. I write most of Street Justice in April. I’d only be about a hundred pages in if I wrote like most of the commenters on Dean’s blog.
As readers of the blog learned, Dean writes that way as well. He writes a bit, does something else, then writes some more. He gets thousands of words done per day by doing that.
So do I.
The other thing we both do is we have a dedicated writing computer. I gave a live interview online a few years ago, and got to see the running comments from others on the message board. They made fun of me as a Luddite for making certain that my writing computer did not have e-mail or Twitter or any wireless connectivity. I don’t have a phone in my office either or a television or my iPad. No novels except my own. Research books are all the way across the room, out of easy grasp.
No distractions. None.
When I sit at this desk, I write. I do nothing else. Because I’m so firm about this, I know that the moment I sit down I am going to work. The habit becomes reality. I’m already thinking of the next scene as I walk through the office door. I review a little, and then start typing. And I do that until my timer goes off or nature calls.
Yes, I set a timer. If I only have a half an hour for writing, I set the timer for 25 minutes. Why 25 minutes? Because that way, I can finish my thought or the scene or make notes for the next writing session.
It’s a habit I learned when I was training myself to write.
I used to think starting was hard. Then I realized that I was just easily distracted. I took away all of my distractions, and set an obnoxious alarm across the room. Then I vowed not to move from my writing desk until that damn alarm went off.
I’m easily bored. Without books nearby or television or even a radio, I had a choice: I could either sit and stare into space or I could write something. I ended up writing something. And after weeks of this, I could ditch the alarm.
Now I use a timer just to make sure I’m not late to whatever appointment I have. (And those of you who know me, stop laughing. Yes, I know I’m still late at times.)
The physical habits feed the writing. If I hadn’t been getting up every hour or so for the last three decades, I would no longer be a writer. I’d be in traction.
If I believed I needed large chunks of time to write, I would have written maybe an eighth of what I’ve written over those three decades.
If I hadn’t figured out how to manage real world things, like grocery shopping and cooking, I wouldn’t finish novels as quickly.
Dean and I didn’t eat poorly last week, but we didn’t eat well either. I managed to get some exercise, although not as much as usual. If one of us had been finishing a novel instead of both of us, that person probably would have eaten better and gotten more time for exercise.
But we were keeping the household together kinda and managing pretty well. Just like we would have if we lived alone or the other person was out of town.
The habits kept us fed, kept us producing words regularly, and kept us injury free.
We’re both tired tonight, which is why I’m going to roust him from his office now. We’re going to go do something relaxing.
But we’ll both be back at it tomorrow.
Because writing is our job, and we treat it that way. Even down to the little things, the smallest of habits.
Writing demystified. That’s what Dean was doing last week.
Which is why I urge you to all go read his posts on that novel.
Me? I have to get rid of some tea, post this blog, and go do something fun—whatever that may be.
I have some major blog posts coming up, and now that I’m not doing a research intensive book, I might be able to do them. I appreciate all of the comments, e-mails, and links you’ve sent me. I also appreciate the donations. They’re essential. They make sure this blog is a paying venture, just like the rest of my writing work. The moment the blog ceases to fund itself, I will use this time for fiction.
Or naps. Right now, naps sound really good…
“The Business Rusch: Habits” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.