distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Finding What Works for Your Writing

I’ve been writing for years—decades; let’s not call attention to how old I am, shall we?—and after all these years of writing I’m beginning to see what works for me in order to get actual, solid work done… and what doesn’t. There are many things that don’t help me write, that, in fact, hurt my writing, such as, in no particular order:

Setting word-count goals; Googling myself; innocently overhearing the word “Goodreads”; seeing ratings of my book in any kind of capacity, bad or good; talking about my ideas before writing them down; showing my first drafts to people who are not my husband, agent, or editor (i.e., people who have a true investment in making my work better); doing public events (I need a day to recover after); scrolling through everyone’s awesome book news on Twitter and Facebook and realizing I don’t have awesome news so am I doing something wrong? am I a disappointment an embarrassment should I stop writing should I crawl under my desk and live there forever (and other stupid depressing ridiculousness); comparing my output to other writers’; comparing my anything to anything at all; writing with the TV on; writing in close proximity to a comfy bed.

But it doesn’t help to only point out the negative and wallow in what’s keeping me from getting good words on the page. What does help is keeping an eye out—and heart open—for what *will* work. And not talking myself out of it.

Here’s what’s worked for me—and what I hope to continue in 2012, the year I have some Big Goals (and bigger dreams I won’t say aloud to anyone, but they exist, yes, shh):

Writing Dates

I used to be a solitary writer—I could never write beside other writers I knew, and I refused to try—and I think this was because I spent most of my hours at some very demanding day jobs, where I was constantly being interrupted by people, and so when I had those few precious hours to write, I needed to be alone and have no one talk to me. The silence fed me and helped ignite my words. But then something changed in the fall of 2009: I stopped working my full-time day job, and the time I had for writing ballooned out into bigger shapes than I ever had before. Suddenly there was too much silence. No one was interrupting me. In fact, no one was talking to me at all—and I began to feel alone and adrift in the world (and more dramatic, as you can see by this description). Now, I’m still keeping busy as a freelancer, but I can rearrange my hours as I see fit, so I usually save all the writing for the morning into midday, and the freelance work for the late afternoons and evenings. And this past year I discovered something that really works for me: going on writing dates with other writers, especially first thing in the morning. I’ve become a bit of a serial writing-dater. I meet different writer friends at different cafés on different days and write next to them. I have a writing group where we meet at a café usually, if we’re good, once a week and talk for forty-five minutes or so and then write. I’ve even traveled off my island to Brooklyn just to write with other writers! Somehow, being with other writers while they pound their keyboards close by keeps me pounding mine. Or being inspired to do so. Or maybe feel embarrassed if I’m not, so there could be a bit of a shame factor in this. Still, it’s the strangest thing: Me, a solitary person who is well known in my family for needing “alone time” voluntarily wanting to do the most intimate thing with someone next to me. And yet it works. So I’ll keep doing it.

Artist Colonies

An artist colony is such a magical idea: a place set aside that houses and feeds and takes care of artists who come for short stays to simply do some work. That’s it. (If you want to know more about colonies, here’s an old blog post I put up with pieces from other writers about colonies they’ve been to.) You must apply to get into a colony—and if you get in, most are free—so it’s not something you can plan for… it’s more something that you dream for. You apply and cross your fingers and hope. I’ve been lucky to be able to be a resident at a few colonies lately: I went to Yaddo in the spring of 2010, to MacDowell in the winter of 2011, and I’ll be headed to Djerassi this spring. I’m very lucky. I keep applying to these places, because I’ve seen how wildly amazing being at a colony is for my writing. I come away with work that stuns me, work I don’t think I could have done in my own distracting real life. There’s a definite, distinctive difference in my writing, so I think the sacrifice to go is worth it. (Sacrifice because it’s hard to be away from home, hard on E, and hard on me missing him, not to mention how it can be difficult to arrange four weeks away from my responsibilities.) I say four weeks because I’ve discovered this is the ideal amount time for me to spend at a colony: not too much, not too little, and very possible to get a massive amount of work done. Now that I know how well these colonies work for me and while I stare my deadlines in the face, I wish I could flit off to a colony when I most need it. (You have no idea how much I wish I could be at MacDowell or Yaddo right now while I face this revision deadline.) But all I can do is keep on applying, and hope to be able to arrange a colony stay every year or two or ten. I’ll keep crossing my fingers.

Downing the Internet

Oh, how obvious is this one. Yet I must put it on the list! Sometimes I get crafty, and bad, and I tell myself that I am a fully functioning adult who is perfectly capable of writing while the internet is on and available in the next window. Some days—days I’m crazily inspired and can’t keep my words from spilling out—this works out fine. But other days, most days, this is not the best of ways to go about writing. So, for the longest time, other writers were telling me about MacFreedom. I should try it, they told me. It will work! Why in the world would I need that ridiculous plugin? I thought to myself. Besides, you could just restart your computer and be back on the internet in no time, ha! I thought, already planning my demise. I made excuses, I rolled my eyes, I did not download the stupid thing. And then came the day when I secretly skulked off and downloaded MacFreedom. Guess what I’m going to say next? IT IS AMAZING. It’s like a firewall between me and the distracting rest of the universe, a physical barrier from me and my worst self. I put it on for 60-minute-long blocks and, often, once the hour is up, I find myself still writing, forgetting I even have the internet to go and goof off on in the other window. So yeah (writer friends, you were right). Other ways I sometimes down the internet to write is to walk far out of my way to a specific café that does not have wifi. I write there in the mornings, thankful that there’s no way to get online. This year I’d like to try to down the internet for whole weekends, but I may need superhero strength to accomplish this feat (also, if I down it for everyone, I could get arrested). We shall see.


Wait, what? Is this a typo? Didn’t I just include Twitter on my list of things that are bad for my writing? Well, yeah. Using Twitter to compare myself to other authors and belittle my accomplishments and lack of new book deal / foreign sales / movie deals / teaching gigs / conference panels and book events / accolades and kittens / etc. / etc. / etc. is absolutely ridiculous. Stupid. Immature. Utterly unhelpful. It’s also not helpful to use other writers’ word counts to make me feel worse about mine. But Twitter can actually make my writing go better… because it helps me feel connected to other writers. And when I see that they, too, are struggling, I feel less alone with my struggles. When I see that they are able to produce work when they’re up against the same wall I keep smacking my face against, a Wall of Doubt, a Wall of Fear, when I see them smash through these walls, I feel like I can force my way through mine. Maybe this goes back to how I feel so solitary now that I’m freelancing and writing instead of working full-time, but with Twitter I remember there is a whole world of other writers out there. And we’re all trying to write the best books we can and then, occasionally, we goof off a little together. Is that so wrong?

Walking Around the Block

I get my best ideas when I’m walking through the neighborhood. Washington Square Park has seen more of my lightbulb epiphanies than I can count, and the rhythmic noise of an express train on the subway tracks gets my imagination running to the point that I’ve occasionally considered riding the 2 train back and forth, up and down, with a notebook, to see what comes. It’s funny that doing something physical where I am actually not sitting in front of my laptop begging words to come will bring those words more often than not, but it’s true. So when things are bad, when things are rotten, when my words make me cringe, I’ve learned that the absolute best thing I can do for myself and for my words is to get actual physical distance from them. Not so much time apart but space between us. Like leave the laptop in the locker at my writing space and walk around the block. Just walk and think and not-write. I forget to do this sometimes. I sit and seethe and I forget that the one thing that can help is always out there: the city where I live, with its beautiful buildings and its cracked sidewalks and its gorgeous dark alleys and its layers of history (who has been kissed or killed in that alley—I don’t know!) and its hidden messages to me in the graffiti of strangers, and so I must remember how well this works for my writing. I should walk through my world more often and then return to my page.

Blogging and Not-Blogging

Over the years, I’ve found that keeping this blog has been a great way for me to warm up my typing fingers, as I know I’ve said before, and get my mind in shape for writing for the day. Sometimes I like to write a blog post about writing and while I’m in the midst of that I discover that talking about my writing process in this forum somehow cements a piece of the actual writing itself. I publish a post and then I’m off! On fire on the page. And just as much as blogging sometimes helps me get in gear for actual writing, sometimes it’s also the absolute last thing I should be doing. Because there are some things I can’t say so publicly here. For one, I’m superstitious and don’t want to talk too much about a novel-in-progress before it’s edited and complete. And for two, because I don’t want to put some of the negative things in my head out in the world, since in truth they’re fleeting. If I blog them here, they become more memorable, more permanent. So lately I’ve been “not-blogging”—I’ve been writing blog posts to the world that absolutely no one in the world ever sees. It’s like I have a phantom version of this blog on my laptop and its only reader is me. Sometimes it’s not important to publish these words and let you read them; sometimes it is enough just to have written them down. It’s cleansing. And I love stepping into my novel when I’m squeaky clean and brushed free of worries and angst and self-loathing and petty jealousies. I’m an open door then. And that’s when the most exciting and surprising parts of my novel will come through. So I blog to keep the door open. I blog to find my way in.

I’d love to know what works for your writing. What do you do that makes your writing better? What would you like to do more of? Let me know in the comments. Maybe some of us will want to try a hand at them, too!

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31 responses to “Finding What Works for Your Writing”

  1. This is such a great list! I’m going to add one thing that works for me: free writing. I don’t let myself reread what I just wrote, I don’t let myself edit as I go, I just write to get words on the page. I discovered this while doing NaNoWriMo one year. I didn’t win, but it was so helpful just to have those pages of writing to play with and edit at the end of the day.

  2. I love this! One of the best parts about Twitter is connecting to other writers in various stages of their careers – and learning that all the feelings you described -walls, blocks, fears, doubts – are universal. That’s what helps us crash through them. I learn so much for you and other writers I follow; enough to inspire me to finish.

  3. “scrolling through everyone’s awesome book news on Twitter and Facebook and realizing I don’t have awesome news so am I doing something wrong? am I a disappointment an embarrassment should I stop writing should I crawl under my desk and live there forever (and other stupid depressing ridiculousness); ”

    UM hi, are you me today? 😀

    Seriously though, the single best thing for my writing is reading an amazing book that makes me sit up all night to read and leaves me with that breathless whoa omg how how how did they write that? feeling. Because books like that remind me why I write. One day I want to be able to do that magic and make a reader feel that way.

  4. Yes, Danielle, writing without editing! Same with me and NaNo. I’m getting close to the end of the first draft of the book I’m working on now and I was starting to think so many terrible things that I almost decidied to go ahead and revise it, just for practice basically, and then trunk it without ever showing it to anyone. I became so obsessed with self-editing as I wrote, towards the end, that my writing suffered terribly. Now that I’m reading back through it for the first time, I’m happy to discover that it is actually not that bad! Yay! And, at least for me, the best writing came when I was just letting the words flow and not obsessing over making it perfect the first time.
    I would love to at least do a writer’s weekend somewhere. I’ll look into that. Great post, Nova. Love to hear what works for other writers.

  5. I found that I was becoming a professional marketer, working on things for book #2. My plan was to write later in the day. Really? What was I thinking? Now, I MAKE myself write 1,000 words or more before doing any of the online stuff. Typically, I end up with more than 1,000 words and when I get to online stuff, I’m more efficient having written. I love the internet, but it can be a tad evil if you have a long to-do list!

  6. I agree about the importance of the writing group and writing dates. They are critical to the writing process – and it’s just nice to commiserate with others who are going through the same things. 🙂 And I need to change my scenery – Starbucks or a cafe, it’s nice to leave my home (or my office), even for an hour or two. Makes a big difference! And I agree with Danielle Rollins – hi, Danielle! – it’s so, so important to just get words down – and then edit later.

  7. Great post, and it’s funny how something that works for one person, won’t work at all for another. I still tend to do most of my writing at night because its quieter and there are less distractions, but this was a habit I picked up when it was the only time I had for writing. Now, I have more time, but I still stick to the nightly schedule. Well, except for all the writing I do in my head while writing the dog.

  8. This is an amazing list! I’m struggling with writers block at the moment. Might just have to get out there and go for a run to try and clear my head!

  9. I like to use Twitter as my virtual “writing date,” though of course that means I’m posting word counts every few minutes and possibly being quite annoying. For me, it helps to declare my intentions to the Whole World that I’m going to write X amount of words today or bust, because then it feels like a public dare to do it. ;P

  10. Nova, how refreshing to read a post that says, “here’s what works for me” instead of “here’s what works.” Word counts work against me, too, and I also “not-blog” – journal entries about writing on my computer. I’m also better if I DON’T write every day, but instead let the next scene simmer-until-boiling, and then, then put it on paper. I also switch between writing long-hand and typing if I get stuck. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Nova! Happy writing!

  11. I second you on walking. Or running — but only outdoors. Treadmill running just makes me cranky. But being outdoors for a walk or run is so wonderful for when I’m stuck, either on a plot point or in a mental funk.

    Another thing that works for me is music. Having songs that are tied to characters or parts of the plot. I can turn on my playlist and it transports me back into the mental place of my project.

    And a fan club 😉 Those writer friends that are emailing and saying “When can I read more?” THOSE are best motivation ever.

  12. I think I’m still enough of a youg’un that I can say I’m still experimenting and figuring out what works for me, but I did start making some major changes this fall when I actually got serious about finishing my draft.

    #1: I stopped writing where I usually do (on my laptop in the living room, with the TV on, which is also basically also how I eat and blog and read and do everything else…) and moved to either the desk in my room with the door shut and music on (when my room was clean enough…) or, even more productively, I’d take my laptop out to Starbucks and sit and write. There was wifi but I wasn’t nearly as tempted by it outside my apartment, and being somewhere else just made me feel more focused. Probably because I was constantly surrounded by college students writing papers and studying for finals. Some of it must have rubbed off on me. *g*

    #2: I found a specific thing I want to apply for — way more specific than “want to finish this, revise it, query agents.” So I made a deal with myself, that if I finished by the end of the year, I’d apply — not just let myself, but MAKE myself. And I wanted it (still do, application in progress, yikes!) but if I didn’t have something complete I didn’t meet the requirements. So I kicked my own butt to get it done so I can go for that other thing I want.

  13. I have to run away from the distractions. When I’m home, even if I have the internet off, there’s still so much there to distract me: the antics of three uniquely-crazy cats, many many many books up on the shelves, craft projects, tv, games, sometimes roommates, the possibility of the internet…my writing goes best when rather than fight them, I just run away. I pack up my writing computer (which I don’t connect to the internet at all), my ipod, and my research and I head to Chick-fil-A. With the earbuds in I can zone out the entire world and get a crazy amount of work done.
    And there’s free Cherry Coke refills, so there’s that, too. 🙂

  14. I enjoyed your post once again, and agree that comparisons with other creative people are not helpful.
    One thing that has been a curious help to me is to cut out chatter for about an hour before I’m about to sit down to the first draft of anything, even a blog post. That means the car radio is OFF, no phone conversation or in person this ‘n that. The words of the outside must recede so the words inside can rise to the surface.

  15. I spent a lot of time creating a world and making sure everything was perfect (stuff still changes), but then found myself dawdling with my writing and I didn’t get anywhere. So I counted that as a practice, learnt from what I hated about it and during this summer wrote the prologue but editted it so much (with the criticisms of friends and family) that it was the correct way to start. I felt I need a good start if I wanted a good book.

    In college I was in a creative writing class, I think his helped because we were focussed and we didn’t distract each other. It was also a place where I got construcive criticism both from my tutor and a friend I found there, the tutor was good because he shared his life experinces about how he trashed a whole but because he read over it too early :/

    I also find it useful to talk my ideas over with my boyfriend (who has to know it inside out to stop me making a stupid mistake :’) ) because i helps me focus on actually writing to entertain instead of just figuring whats happening to beef up later.

    Something else I figure out in college is that I enjoy writing down in a notepad first, so I can write whenever I get inspiration. Don’t look at what your writing (leave it for a few days atleast) because we are all really critical of ourselves and i can make us strip writing bear. So write in the notepad and then once you have quite a few pages type some up, edit after awhile. (still writting in the notepad) So it lets you breath and take a step bake from your work.

    I think maybe your a kinetic learner/thinker from what you said about liking to move around and go for walks. If so maybe just changing rooms or doing some exercise could keep your creaive juices going without taking you too far away if you know you have something to write 🙂

    I’m nowhere near as expereinced as you but hopefully this might help 🙂

  16. I second you on blogging, walking, and writing dates! And I raise you pajamas. 😉 Thank you for inspiring me to put up my own list of what works for my writing.

  17. I have a 3-4 hour period in the evening when I’m most productive. If I don’t write then, I probably won’t.

    I also have to be sitting at a table or desk. I’f I’m on a couch or bed, my brain thinks it’s relaxing and I will play stupid FB games the whole time.

    Also, soundtracks that I create for my WIP that set the mood are wonderfully helpful.


  18. Writing dates! My writing friends and I have a standing date once a week, and it’s huge in keeping me going when the writing gets tough. I’ve also found having a variety of physical triggers that I associate with writing – a selection of regular cafes, hot chocolate, a favorite chair at home, etc. – helps me to get going and be productive rather than dawdling online.

    Setting a minimum word count helps me, but only if I’ve already got 30k words in the MS. I know that probably makes me weird, but it works for me. 🙂

  19. Writing dates are certainly helpful. I have a standing date with my Sunday Writing Group ( a writing exercise not feedback group), and I often get together with one of the members after work in the evenings and we work on our own projects together. It does feel like being part of a study group where the members study together not so much as to discuss the work, but just to harness communal energy to stay focused and complete work.

  20. This post and the comments are really helping me think about my own situation, so thanks! I’m just getting back to my manuscript after a few years of life craziness so I’m trying to figure out what works for me now. I really need to sit at a desk rather than on the sofa or bed. It’s weird, but I have to take a shower, get dressed and sit at my desk like I’m going to work. I’ve also learned when listening to music is helpful and when it’s too distracting. Right now I let myself have some time in the morning to catch up with everything online and read for a while, then in the afternoon it’s time to write. I give myself breaks to get up and stretch or grab a snack. Once the semester begins and I begin freelancing I may have to rethink this but for now it’s been helpful and I’ve accomplished a lot. Good luck everyone!

  21. Love the ideas…found you through Lena’s blog. Right now I’m supposed to be finishing a short story I’m submitting to some lit mags, so shame on me. I have about an hour to myself before kids are home and/or I start to doze… My biggest challenge is writing at work all day in a high pressure PR environment then sitting in front of another computer screen to work on “my” writing. Something that helps–more so when drafting an essay or story–is for me to hand write in a notebook. No glaring screen, no worries about typos. Just that pen (hopefully) flowing across the page. Second, taking a hint from my day job, I made up an assignment check list or list of writing goals. I was pretty specific for this month. It’s great to type DONE next to my goal and a shot in the arm when I type MISSED next to another. Ouch. Whatever you are doing is obviously working. Thanks for the inspiration…time to log of the Internet and finish that short story. I have deadlines approaching.

  22. Writing for decades?? Are you counting madlibs you did in first grade? (How about we call attention to how young you look?)

    I am totally a word count girl, but like Danielle any first-drafty words will work. I think people who need to cross items off lists to feel productive can benefit from word count goals, whereas some need a less rigid structure.

    Sadly, my writing dates are only with unpublished writers who have yet to feel the crush of deadlines so when we meet up it is 75% gossip and 25% writing. Any St. Louis authors out there? Find me!

    I definitely agree on the walking (my phone is full of incoherent memos about story ideas/breakthroughs) and the staying away from reviews. I plan only to read the reviews sent to me by people who have a vested interest in my writing. I’m not afraid of HELPFUL critical reviews, but no one benefits from an animated jpeg spewing projectile vomit on their novel or being shelved as worst-shit-ever. (Seriously, what is wrong with those goodreads people?)

  23. Great post! I love walking in the woods to clear my thoughts and its a great way to escape. I would love to find someone in my area and just have a writing date. I’m more productive when someone else is around. I can not write with the TV on, sitting on the couch or bed….Its to relaxing. My writing group only meets once a month and I’m trying to talk a few groups members into writing dates. I’ve used MacFreedom and its amazing! Like you stated I forget the internet is back on. I just started my application for MacDowell colony the deadline is Jan 15, I’m hoping to be done by then. One of my goals this year is to write on my blog everyday or once a week.

  24. What works for me includes: Twitter, playlists that go along with the story, pre-writing that includes character bios, and letting ideas sit for a long, long time before writing them.

    What doesn’t work includes: (generally) outlines, “draft zero,” trying to write with other people around (non-writer people I mean… people who keep interrupting me).

    I’ve always heard that the first drafts are always horrible and the point of them is just to get through, but I love doing first drafts. I’m not big on editing (though I definitely end up doing quite a bit of it), so the better my first draft is, the better for the future of the project. I like to make my first drafts as good as possible so that I have something passable to work with in later drafts.

  25. I write best in the morning right after breakfast (and coffee, must have coffee first thing). I find that if I write from morning to lunchtime, I am productive. If I wait until later in the day, not so much. Sometimes I’ll write after dinner, it all depends on what I am doing. My biggest distraction is TV, Twitter and the Internet. I can spend hours researching something and going off on tangents until I don’t want to write anymore. One of my goals this year is to write every day, NO MATTER WHAT. I am shooting for 1K but I don’t like to set myself word goals. Right now I am editing a WIP and that’s keeping me busy. I, too fall into the “what am I doing wrong I don’t have any book news to share” camp. I also fall into the “I’m a crappy writer and that’s why no one wants to buy my books” camp. Trying to make it a living as a full-time writer is tough. Even with a part-time job I am having trouble making ends meet. But I keep on going. One of these days my agent will sell one of my books to a publisher who will give me enough of an advance to make all this pain worthwhile. *fingers crossed*

  26. […] Finding What Works for Your Writing is one of those anecdotal “this is how a published author writes stuff” stories that I find interesting, if not something necessarily to emulate. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "333333"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "772124"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "eeeeee"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "58181b"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "health"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "books"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "links-3"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "inspiration"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "links-2"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "on-writing"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "writing-strategies"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → links ← First Person Reset No comments yet […]

  27. I saw Christine’s post (80,000 Words) that was inspired by this one and now I want to do one too. One of my favorite things to talk about with other authors is what works for their writing – I love hearing how many different ways there are that writers get into the writing mode, meet deadlines, and keep slogging when the going gets tough. I have a lot of distractions in my house but I live in a small town so going to a cafe means being interrupted constantly by people so I work at home and what I do is tell everyone that I’m going to write for a specific period of time and want no interruptions. This cuts interruptions to about half what they usually are. I can’t close my door effectively because then my pets make a lot of trouble over the door. But I can’t write with lots of household noises so I have a great pair of headphones and when I really need to disappear into writing I put them on and listen to music. I’ve never had a writing date but I’m intrigued by the possibility. The only writer friend I have here in town is a recluse though so I’d have to meet new people.
    Anyway – I very much enjoyed your post, Christine’s post, and all the comments shared here.

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