Today 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.
So 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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