SUSANNA CALKINS on 5 Ways to Get the Writing Done as a Distracted Writer + GIVEAWAY of A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE

3297883Today we’re lucky to have historical mystery novelist Susanna Calkins with us. Susanna is serious about the history in her historicals—she’s a PhD! (She drops some research on us in just a minute!) Originally from Philadelphia, today Susanna lives in Chicago with her husband and two sons. She’s an educator and works in faculty development at a Chicagoland university. She was a debut(ante) not so long ago herself, with her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate.

Susanna has offered to send a copy of A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate to one lucky commenter; details are at the end of this post.

Welcome to the Debutante Ball, Susanna!

When I was asked to put together this post, I had to chuckle. Five ways I write when I don’t have time. Also known as The Distracted Writer. I have a full-time job, I teach three college courses on top of that job, and I have two elementary-age children. My first novel came out last year (A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books) and the next in the series (From the Charred Remains, St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books) is out in 2014. I also maintain a blog and do stuff to promote my books.

RosamundsGateSo I guess I’m busy. However, I don’t think of myself as either particularly distracted or disciplined. I don’t set aside a certain time each day to write, nor do I give myself daily word counts that I must meet. I can’t. I just don’t have that kind of time. And I don’t berate myself for not doing these things either. In my opinion, it would just set me up for failure because I can’t meet these kinds of self-imposed demands.

That’s what I DON’T do. So here’s what I DO, to make sure I keep writing when I have very little time:

When I have a free moment, I work on what I feel like working on. This is the way I’ve always worked, and I’ve come to learn that motivation theory bears out this instinct. According to scholars like Ryan & Deci (2000), people are more internally motivated when they are able to act with autonomy, when they have control over a task (and can make choices), and when they believe that the task they are doing has relevance (and/or significance). Since I tend to revise in layers, I may opt to develop characters, dialogue or historic detail, but I’m unlikely to do all three at once. Sometimes I only feel like doing ‘search and destroy’ operations to get rid of my verbal tics (e.g. using the same word too frequently, getting rid of adverbs etc). Frankly, if I don’t feel like writing, then I cast about until I settle on something that I do feel like doing.

Be mindful of my time and seize opportunities. Sure, it’s great to get a few hours on the weekend to head over to the coffee shop and write, but I can’t always rely on that. Between soccer games, errands, my ‘day job’ and other commitments, that time just doesn’t always materialize. I try to work at night for an hour or two when I can. But usually I just am mindful of opportunities that emerge—waiting for a doctor’s appointment, riding the bus or train, having a cup of coffee, sitting in an airport (like I am as I write this)—and seize these twenty or thirty or forty minute spots when I can.

I ask myself a critical question, “Is wireless available?” This is not a flippant question; this is a real question. If I only have 20 minutes WITH wireless access, then I might research something. What’s a seventeenth-century chamber pot look like anyway? How exactly does a printing press work? I might look for a few historic images, or double-check locations on an interactive map, or check out a (relevant!) YouTube video. If I don’t have internet, then I might create a list of questions about my work-in-progress that I need to reflect on, revise a scene, or even write the next scene from scratch.  Sometimes it’s fun to work on the acknowledgements or the historical note (necessary, since I write historical fiction).

Set manageable deadlines: As I mentioned above, I don’t give myself a guilt trip if I don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule. However, if I only have 30 minutes, then I tell myself ‘I’m going to write that scene.” And I do. I write quickly, I don’t edit, and I often do this by long-hand. It may not be a great scene the first time through, but it helps me feel that I’ve gotten the big ideas down and moved the manuscript forward. I also set big goals that I know are realistic, but I have lots of little deadlines too that I’m constantly adjusting.

Daydream and tell myself stories: For this last, I’m really not writing at all. At night, when I’m lying in bed, I tell myself stories. In the morning, if I wake up before the alarm goes off, I might lie for a few minutes and think. Sometimes I actively dream through the next scene of my book; sometimes I tell myself an entirely different story altogether. I don’t know why this works, but it does. I also talk a lot to myself when I drive, literally talking through ideas. I ask myself questions—again, out loud—and I force myself to think about difficult questions. Why would that character do that? Why isn’t she more upset? By the time I’ve got that next 30 minutes available—and in this case, I would try to carve that time out as soon as I can—I’m ready to write the dreamed scene down as quickly as I can.

I do believe that writing a novel requires intense determination, perseverance, and hard work. I also believe, however, that writing should be fun. Writers who find themselves procrastinating or who otherwise are not moving forward in their manuscripts might want to reflect critically on their overall goals for this project in the first place. Is your goal to tell the best story possible, or is it to achieve the shiny veneer of a published author?

If it’s the former, perhaps it would be helpful to move forward by working on little tasks in small doses, until you have that three-hour writing block to make more substantial progress (working on dialogue tags is a good one!). Perhaps you need to set your WIP aside and read some great books in a different genre. I also do a lot of Sudoku to keep my brain engaged while taking a break from writing. Or perhaps—and this is hard—perhaps this is the learning-to-write project that should go in a drawer. It may sound funny to address the problem of being a distracted writer by offering more distractions, but these kinds of meaningful distractions may help you re-focus your energies.

If the latter, I’d say—respectfully—get your head in the game! Most of the published authors of my acquaintance I think would say that you just can not give in to that distraction. Dreaming about contracts, book signings, royalties, etc., is more than a distraction, it is a PIT that will keep you from writing well.

Ultimately, the writing process should also be guarded carefully. If there’s one thing that is common to most published authors that I know: the worst time-suck is talking about your novel instead of sitting down and writing it.

What’s your number one distraction? What do you do to combat it?

GIVEAWAY! Comment on this post by noon EST on Friday, December 13th, and you’ll be entered to win a  copy of A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. US addresses only, please. Good luck!

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

26 thoughts on “SUSANNA CALKINS on 5 Ways to Get the Writing Done as a Distracted Writer + GIVEAWAY of A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE

    • Hi Susan, maybe it just sounds worse on paper 🙂 It was a lot harder when my children were little, that’s for sure! My job can be pretty flexible too; I’m sure its much harder for people who have jobs where they can’t control their own hours. On the other hand, I’m sure I could write another post about how guilty I feel when I do take some time on the weekends when I should be playing with my kids. 🙂

  1. Susanna, my god, wow. I’m so impressed. I have a day job, that’s it. No kids, no secondary job. I can’t imagine getting a book done every year with all that you have on your plate.

    I love that you tell yourself stories before sleep. I did that while writing my first novel. I’ve tell myself the story up to where I’d last left off in the writing and continue on from there, imagining what comes next. I believe our brains work on things while we sleep.

    Thanks, for joining us today!

    • Hi Lisa, I think taking showers helps the creative process too. Sometimes on the weekends, I’ll take a later shower, and then for some reason, I’m able to just sit down at my computer and write a few paragraphs. 🙂

      • Oh, yes, taking showers relaxes the BS-I-don’t-wanna-write crap right out of my head! I should shower more often…er…well, you know what I mean. 🙂

  2. I’m the exact opposite: the only way I’m productive is to have hard deadlines (usually a weekly word count if I’m creating or a weekly hours-at-work goal is I’m revising). If I didn’t, I’d find endless reasons not to write at all. But I love hearing about what works for others, especially when it’s so different from what works for me. Thanks for the post.

    • HI Debbie, I agree! I find it interesting to hear how other people work. If anything, I write by the scene, rather than by word count. But that’s more to try to be internally consistent within the scene. Glad your self-imposed deadlines work–that takes discipline! I’m impressed!

  3. You ARE a busy woman! I’m not sure how you do it all. I liked that you mentioned the daydreaming phase to figure out your next scene. That happens to me a lot and it seems to really work. Thanks for talking with us here at The Ball!

    • Heather, Ever since I figured out that daydreaming counts as writing, it took a lot of pressure off 🙂 Of course, if you only daydream and not pen to paper, it can be a problem! 😉

  4. What a delightful and captivating post today. Your writing is fabulous and creative. It was so interesting to learn about your daydreaming which is always helpful. yes, you are right about having the discipline, and perseverance which has always been necessary in order to succeed.

  5. What an honest – and helpful – post. You’ve listed so many great ideas on ways to keep moving the WIP forward, even if you’re not devoting huge chunks of time to it. I loved the honesty of this comment: ” if I don’t feel like writing, then I cast about until I settle on something that I do feel like doing.” A lot of authors won’t admit that, sometimes, they just don’t feel like writing — that they’re driven 24/7 to write, write, write. I’m not sure that’s entirely honest because we are, after all, human! I’m bookmarking this post for future reference. And the historical mystery sounds wonderful! Thanks, ladies (and I already follow on twitter).

    • Thanks Melissa! I remember feeling like I would never be a writer because so many books on writing seemed to insist on the “sit down and write every day at the same time rule.” I really do admire people who can do that, but I knew I never had that kind of consistent schedule. And I didn’t want to make myself feel bad over something I couldn’t control. So purely self-preservationist thinking here! 🙂

  6. Thanks for this, it was very helpful – I’m going to have a good think over Christmas and make a lot of New Year’s resolutions to help me get into the groove of daily writing now that I’m working full time.

    • Jane…Good luck! Sometimes I think about the importance of developing healthy writing habits, just like we might think about healthy eating/dieting habits. So its great to have writing goals, but don’t feel bad if you ‘fall off the wagon’ and don’t make a given goal. From reading the NaNowrite forums, it was pretty clear that some people just gave up once they missed their first writing goal, and I thought that was really unfortunate that the pressure to produce had diminished the joy in creating. (In my mind this is the equivalent: Just like we might say to sample treats in moderation but not to be upset if you didn’t stick to a strict diet, maybe its okay to sometimes skip a word count deadline). Does that make sense? Good luck on your writing!

  7. You are one smart – and realistic – woman, Ms. Calkins! 🙂 I have four index cards in my office with the beginning of my mystery novel written on them. I can’t bear to throw them out, but I also get bogged down in the “I don’t have time for this” mindset and end up leaving them for the day I can find a chunk of time to work. You’ve given me some inspiration to consider writing again…once college visits and auditions are done and graduation is over. I’m thrilled to see YOUR work out there!

  8. SUCH a great post, Susanna. I’m so happy you’re our guest this week!

    Like Melissa, I love your honesty. Too often we’re plagued with guilt over not having enough time to write or not meeting word count goals, but the writing process shouldn’t be one that completely tears us up inside. Daydreaming and small edits and making the most out of small chunks of time are all much more realistic expectations for us to set.

    • Natalia, Thank you! I look forward to reading all of the new novels by you and the other deb authors! But I have to laugh though…I just read some of the other posts by recent guest authors and I don’t think they would agree that day-dreaming counts as writing! 😉

  9. LOVED this post. I write very similarly, concocting scenes or hashing dialog in the van on the way to take three of my four children to school.
    For me, hang up is the house. I used to work and write, but two years ago my husband took a job out of state that allows me to stay home. And I feel it must be in tip top shape everyday to account for this. I wiggle in my writing chair if I see left over cheerios crushed on the floor, then end up cleaning the whole kitchen.
    To *help* combat, I try to clean in the evening, when the kids are noisy anyway, so I can wake and get right to business.

    • Holly, Holly, Holly! say cheerio to the cheerios! (Boy, I’d be in bad shape if I did much writing at home. You’ll notice that ‘keeping house clean’ is not at the top of my priorities). I like working at a coffee shop when I can.) No, I kid–it sounds like you have a great system and best of continued luck in your writing!

  10. I’m from Philadelphia and also live in Chicagoland. But, I write women’s fiction, not historical mysteries, so I guess we’re not twins. 😉 Also, my kids are in college. I miss those elementary school days. Don’t be too busy to enjoy them!!!

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