Wednesday 20th September 2017
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How do you get down to business?

As you know, I’ve been working on the book. And it’s slow going, in part because I think getting started on a book is a bit of a haul in the beginning, and in part because I just haven’t established the right routine yet, and—not that surprisingly—writing a book seems to call for a different routine than doing this blog. So I put it to you: how do you get yourself in the zone when there is important stuff to get done?

Posted on March 16th, 2017 47 Comments

47 Responses

  1. c.w. says:

    It just so happens I know a whole bunch lot’o’writers (I’ve been up since 4 a.m. thanks to the mourning doves outside my window––can you tell?). Every writer has their own routine, of course, but what I’ve heard most often is they have a hard-core routine they stick to––exactly as if you were going to a job outside your home. Richard Ford goes to a coffee shop, has breakfast, reads the paper then goes back to his studio and writes until 1 pm. A friend of mine with two kids writes after she puts them to bed in the evening (she’s a night owl and that’s when she’s most productive). Another friend of mine goes to a writer’s retreat (Vermont Studio Center is a great one because they have a whole building devoted to writers and there is absolutely nothing else to do there). I could go on (I really do know a lot of writers), but the most important thing is to (obviously) find what works for you even if it takes a while to find that sweet spot in your daily routine and to NOT put pressure on yourself.

    • Debra says:

      Off topic but occasionally I, too, am awakened by mourning doves at 4 a.m. I love to listen to them but 4 a.m. is a problem. Also, whatever you do, never allow them to nest in your flower pots especially if you have a tiny second floor balcony. Trust me on this.

  2. Gemma says:

    I think it was Upton Sinclair who said the first rule of writing is putting one’s seat in one’s seat. Once I manage the first rule, I have a couple of tricks for getting down to business.

    1. I set a timer for one hour, in which I must concentrate on the task at hand, no internet checking, or petting cats, or wandering around. Just complete focus.

    2. I never start fresh the next day. I always leave a little something unfinished from the day before so that I can complete something early before starting a new project or chapter. I don’t know why, but it works for me.

    • S. says:

      I always start by finishing something from the day before, too. It sort of gets things warmed up. I always leave myself a detailed to-do list the day before as well, so that if I’m feeling sluggish getting to work in the morning seems like a matter of just ticking off items without the pressure of zipping out new and fabulous ideas.

  3. y.k. says:

    reward system ! for example, after i do something horrible like medical insurance forms, i can peruse a catalogue or have a scone or something similarly indulgent.
    not that writing is horrible of course, but i would still set up small carrots to get you going.

  4. Bethany A Ball says:

    I love the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. My first book is coming out in a couple of weeks and that book has helped me from the beginning until now.

    I’m carrying it in my bag now, as a talisman!

    The idea of the shitty first draft has saved me more than once. Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. The truth is, it won’t be as bad as you think, and you (and your editor/agent) can fix whatever doesn’t work!

    Good luck! I’ll be first in line to buy it!

    • lindanyc says:

      I totally second this approach (not the book, necessarily, as I haven’t read it). Give yourself permission to vomit onto the page. Stream of consciousness – don’t second guess yourself at each word. Once you get a bunch of words out, you will approach the editing and revising as a separate process. The extraordinary perfectionist that is me used to get tripped-up by wanting to type perfect sentences and paragraphs. . . . That girl is now of a certain age, however, & knows better! Have a set time to write each day – and then just type away. Enjoy the process! xo

    • Jen says:

      The “shitty first draft” really saved me with the second novel I attempted (and the first to get published). I’m writing a shitty first draft of a new novel now! I try to remember the hours (and countless drafts) devoted to revising lines from scenes that were later cut. It’s OK for the first draft to be terrible.

      • Dana D says:

        Anne Lamott is the one behind the “shitty first draft”, no?

        Her book, Bird by Bird, is a gift for writers. Have you read it, Kim?

        I like Gemma’s rituals. I also like writing in the wee hours of morning, before light, and then taking a break when non-morning people are waking up.

        This is a lovely thread…

        • Mamavalveeta03 says:

          I’m stuck right now. Wearing the cement shoes, as one might say. Other than seeing my therapist on a regular basis and taking my antidepressant, I think I need to walk and jog some thoughts loose. (Tough to do when you’re wearing cement shoes.)

          And I’m going to refer to Anne LaMott. Love her!

  5. Pia says:

    I trick myself…I say “just do it for 15 minutes.” After 15 minutes I’m almost always up for sticking with the task.

  6. MarlaD says:

    I recently started working from home and it’s been a rough transition…so many temptations to do anything but work, and in the first few months I’d waste days fiddling around and then be like the kid who didn’t start his homework until 9 on Sunday night. At first this left me stressed at the last minute, then it left me stressed even if I was fiddling around doing something fun, because I knew I’d pay later. Through trial and error, I found what works for me, and that is to get right with it directly out of bed in the morning, and work through until I accomplish what I’ve set for myself that day. If I do this, I find that I can usually knock off early most days feeling good about progress and have actual days off since I’m not pressured to catch up. I still have off days where I’ll get up and watch a tv show or go to the market in the morning and I end up not getting a lot done, but those are not the norm. It took awhile and a lot of discipline, but now I love working at home, and have much more free time than I have ever had! Plus, knocking things out and looking at the clock and seeing I’ve got the rest of the day for me feels so good!

  7. Caroline says:

    Routine and time!
    I have to feel like I’ve sort of got thing under control.
    Make bed, do dishes, essentiallly give an hour to getting myself together.
    Then tea, paper, catch up with you all:) briefly and sit my ass down for a good chunk of time. Every day.
    When I can’t take anymore I walk the dog😂

  8. Mimi says:

    Over the years I learned to accept the pencil sharpening stage, meaning that I realized that when I wasn’t exactly getting to the writing I was processing, thinking about what I wanted to say and/or what the structure would be. I’d often ease into an article or an essay with what I called outlines out of order – a disorganized list of what I wanted to include in a piece – everything from major themes to minor details. Then I’d either start writing and order the list as I went along or construct a proper outline that I would or wouldn’t stick to. A home office is ideal, or any designated space where work gets done. And there’s nothing like getting down to it in the morning when you’re rested and your mind is fresh. For me, putting it off just leads to guilt and a whole cycle of feeling bad. A little pressure is a good thing; nothing would ever get done if deadlines didn’t exist. Good luck!

    • Femme50 says:

      Agreed thinking & doing nothing is processing & part of it. But then routine & acceptance of vomit draft (since it’s going to happen anyway, might as well get it out of the way, already).
      One tip I got from a novelist is also to set aside one day a week for the crap–in my case, it was endless image reproduction permissions, but it could also be other kinds of related but distracting tasks–checking other permissions, historical research inquiries, email: If I tried to get them out of the way each day, they’d consume all available time. His idea to just give over a fixed day each week to do them was a life-saver.
      As for my routine, first thing w coffee, before email, news, anything else. It’ll still be there a couple hours later.

  9. Debra says:

    When I get to work, I make the coffee. Once I have a cup o’ joe in hand, I peruse a couple of blogs (GOCA is one), a couple of news sites and my personal email. When I’m finished, I start working. This has become a ritual. I put no time limit on it. Sometimes I go fast; sometimes I fall down the rabbit hole. If I fall down the rabbit hole I do not scold myself. I just get down to work a little later that’s all. I think ritual – whatever ritual works for you – is key.

  10. DCmom says:

    I agree with everyone that says “routine.” For me, that means getting up workout and shower, get dressed, doing hair and makeup. The kids head out the door to school and I settle into work for a good four hours. I give myself a lunch break, usually to take a walk and/or run an errand. Back to the desk to work, stopping a bit before the kids get home so I can clear my desk and head. The getting dressed each day is key for me. I tried initially to PJ my way through the day and it lead to lots of goofing off.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I do the same as Gemma and set a timer for one hour at a time, turn off email, texts, internet and just work. It really just gets me over the mental hump and forces me not to procrastinate. Most of the time I end up working for more than and hour but it’s the kickstart I need.

    Also, as someone who works from home, oddly enough i find i can be more productive and focused if i go somewhere else – like a coffee shop or co-working space. Maybe it’s the the change in scenery (ironically it seems there are fewer distractions when i’m not at home) or the deliberate choice to go somewhere to work.

    But i’m with you there’s nothing like a big, new project to suddenly fill me with procrastination!

  12. Amanda says:

    When I’m working on writing up research for parts of my dissertation (feels as long as a book), it really helps me to listen to wordless, ear-filling music- something instrumental, classical, or electronica.

    Also, making sure I have everything on hand that I need so I don’t keep getting up (water, cuppa coffee, pens, scrap paper, etc)

    And although it often feels like a waste of time to me (especially if I’m not leaving the house for anything other than dog-walking), I am much more productive at writing if I take a shower and put on real clothes.

    Finally–I keep a great big outline of the overall project, written up on poster size sticky chart paper, visible at a glance from my desk.

    Sometimes it also helps to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE and work somewhere else. I can’t do my laundry at the local library, and it makes me feel more human 🙂

  13. Sally says:

    I procrastinate forever and then just before completely freaking out with the pressure I get to work. I do not recommend this practice.

  14. Ellie says:

    For me, the keys to book writing are a) getting dressed and leaving the house to “go to work” daily, as several people above already suggest; b) breaking down “write the book” into tiny pieces—chapters, sections, paragraphs—and then putting those small pieces into the daily “to do” list.

    I’ve found Pomodoro really effective for the “ABC” (Apply Butt to Chair) part of the job.

    Highly recommend “The Clockwork Muse” or “How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day” as general guides to this sort of big project.

  15. Cora says:

    I’ve been freelancing for 17 years and I agree with everybody: routine is everything. If I didn’t have my fixed schedule I’d never get anything done. I start working after breakfast, shower, lunch, walk the dogs for 1 or two hours, get back to work, fix dinner, walk the dogs, yay, more work, walk the dogs, sleep, get up, repeat.
    I used to work really long hours (until 2 or 3 am) but getting older I’ve noticed that this habit actually caused more work, since I’d spent the next day correcting everything and not getting anything else done.
    Have fun! And who was it who said “I don’t like to write but I like to have written” …

  16. Christiana says:

    If I have to write, I segue myself into it by reading either a) something I admire, which inspires me to try to write something as impactful; or b) something written by a smart peer, which inspires the competitor in me. Typically the a)-texts motivate me to start something and the b-texts motivate me to finish it. 🙂

  17. lc says:

    Agreed on making space/time for the new project and the rituals that tell you “I’m at work now”.

    When I have to write about something, I start by jotting down notes, lists of what I want to include, phrases that come to mind and random drifting brainstorms. Collecting support materials, objects, images can also help; it’s all about keeping your brain on the topic but at the same time letting it wander. Before long, these fragments start to clump and form something that can be shaped and organized.

    As a visual artist, curator and organizer I seem to approach those projects the same way. Not everyone is a process type, but this sort of cumulative approach can take one much further, to conclusions you could not have imagined when starting. And I think it’s something women are particularly good at.

    Perhaps this sounds like an approach more suited for creative work than a straightforward memoir, but isn’t it better to undertake anything in the spirit of wanting to go further, to learn more?

  18. Suburbohemian says:

    I need suggestions for a routine to get work done during my natural “down time” during the day. I have an amne 8 to 1. I come home, garb some lunch and my natural inclination is to nap. Need to cook in the early evenings and the only time I see the hubster is at night. I need to make those afternoon hours county, but I’m fighting nature. All suggestions appreciated.

  19. Heather says:

    I’m also about making a routine. I prefer mornings for writing, as my brain is more alert, and also I get it done and can enjoy the rest of the day but feel I’ve been productive. Of course, there are days I have been productive and days I’ve just moved words around. But the point is to do something every day.

    Jack London used to write 1,000 words a day. Of course he did it while swilling booze, but you can leave that part out.

    I just had to do corrections to 2 articles, so I got a little cabin for 4 days and cranked it out. Am glad to be re-entering the world of the living, but sometimes you gotta just lock yourself away.

  20. Mae says:

    I do all my writing before I get out of bed in the morning. I have a husband who brings me coffee.

  21. Ruth Harris says:

    I’ve tried almost every one of these suggestions! They all work—but you must match the technique with your current mental state. 😉

    Have you tried Scrivener? The writer’s best friend. Free 30 day trial. Flexible, powerful, helps organize the mess that will become a book. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

  22. S. says:

    This last month from a writer named Matt Haig, because I think we’ve all been there:

    WRITING TIPS:
    1) Stare out of window
    2) Worry about facism
    3) Open a Word doc.
    4) Stare at its Arctic blankness
    5) Sigh
    6) Go on Twitter

  23. Karin says:

    Start small–break a big ugly project into the most tiny tasks. Literally, like step 1 could be “Look up the phone number.” Next day, make the call. Etc.

    Another thing that works for me is to do a “mindless” element of the project first. Like, if I’m researching for a white paper, I spend one day researching and pasting all my notes into a file. I don’t even try to edit or write that day, just get down the notes.

    I am most productive from 9-2 so I try to get all my work done by then and if so, I can do something fun like take a nap, read magazines, etc. I also build small “carrots” into every hour or so.

    when desperate, I use the “Freedom” app to block myself from social media and other websites, since those are my big distractions.

    I’ve also learned that variety is important. You can’t crank on writing or have a super productive day every day. It’s’ OK to alternate, and usuallly one amazingly productive day is followed by a day where I spend 3 hours on Facebook.

    Take advantage of your naturally energetic times of day. I’ve accepted that I need a nap at 3:00, and now that I work at home, I can take one!

    If you are a talker, you might try using dictation software (I use one by Nuance) to dictate your work. For some reason I’m way easier on myself when dictating than typing – it makes me less a “perfectionist.” I babble away, then come back the next day and start editing it into shape.

    Finally – it almost inevitably turns out that the big, horrible projects I procrastinate on for weeks turn out to be the most interesting and engrossing once I actually start. This is where taking that “one little step” can help.

    Good luck, because I can’t wait to read your book!

  24. Sara says:

    Well, I am a lunatic and never really get into a routine (maybe someday, but I’m 40 and this hasn’t happened yet). Right now I’m working completely freelance and finding it SO HARD to be productive without having tight deadlines. I recently finished the first draft of a manuscript and had approximately nine months to complete it, but did all the work in the last 30 days. *shrug*

    Anyway, what I wanted to say is that while writing at home seems to work well for a lot of people, I find it hard to do both work writing and personal writing in the same space. For whatever reason I need a little separation of church and state. I’m seriously considering getting a co-working space so that I can go somewhere and more easily put myself into the mindset of my paid gig (like hey I’m at work now, it’s time for work). Coffeeshops can do the trick but are so often distracting for one reason or another, and at home I always find a reason to break concentration. (It’s gotten even worse since I got a dog.)

    Great thread, Kim. Excited for your book. Let us know what ends up working for you.

  25. Annie says:

    I think the most important thing is, as others have said, Apply Butt to Chair, combined with shitty first draft. When I am writing, I write 1000 words a day– I can keep going or stop once I hit that magic number. I treat it like a 9-5 job (really more like 8-3 since I write from home and have kids.

    I also never look back. I just write through the bad bits, and don’t start revising until I have a whole article/chapter (30+ pages). And I don’t stop to look things up– if I can’t find it in 5 minutes, I just put the issue in brackets and keep going.

  26. Mouse says:

    COFFEE.

  27. My suggestions are similar to others:
    1. Set a timer for an hour; usually once I start writing I enjoy it.
    2. I unplug the internet router. I always fall down the rabbit hole and the only way for me to avoid internet distraction is to shut it down. If I need to do research online, I’ll make a list ahead of time about what I need so I don’t veer too far off track and sometimes I’ll set a timer.
    3. Brainstorming and daydreaming are important parts of writing, so I try to sandwich a walk into my writing time. I always find that I have my best and most creative ideas when I do this, even if I’m not actively thinking about my writing project while walking.

  28. Joy says:

    Wow. These are incredibly useful tips. I’m bookmarking this for future ideas. What works best for me is to promise myself BEFOREHAND that I won’t judge the quality of the creative work I produce. Also, not watching tv at night seems to really help with productivity the next day. XO

  29. Lynne says:

    I am frequently a victim of planning paralysis… I get nothing done because I spend my valuable time planning how I will get the project done instead of actually doing the project. To break the cycle I need to acknowledge my paralysis, make a plan (ha-ha) & force myself to make a start. Any start usually gets my ball rolling.

  30. KimFrance says:

    Thanks for all of this advice, ladies. I love how many of you are writers! I am a longtime believer in the “shitty first draft” approach; it has saved my ass many times.

  31. Tammy says:

    I’m a journalist and when I have writing and deadlines, I typically have to find a spot outside my house to work. Too many distractions at home. I was amazed at how many hours I could devote to writing away from the house.

  32. Hick from Styx says:

    I think people still treat writing like we’re in the days of typewriters, when one mistake meant a total do-over. Those days are long gone. Just do the stream of consciousness, do point form, get the ideas on the page, then go back and work with it. That and some noise-cancelling headphones might help.

  33. MariaO says:

    Not too long ago I wrote a book chapter (so not quite a whole book, but a long piece of writing), and I was having some trouble getting it done.

    I assigned myself a minimum I needed to write each day (it was a small amount, 300 or 350 words), no worrying about quality, just get stuff down on the page.

    Each day, I either did something close to the minimum, or a got into the groove and wrote a lot more (1000 words, etc.).

    Eventually, it was written and ready to edit, re-write, and let others comment.

    (I’m a scientist in academia, but really, we spend a huge percentage of our time writing.)

  34. Rebecca says:

    Another writer here (maybe we need a spin-off—Girl Writers of a Certain Age?)! I do so many of these things: bribes, minimums, timers, and did I mention bribes?

  35. I’ve been a full time author since 2007 and I can attest to the fact that routine is king. I’ve written twenty books now, and I’ve become a fast writer in part because my routine is sacred. I have certain “blocks” of time that are for writing only (I won’t bother telling you how they’re scheduled, because they’re organized to suit my specific gym, teenager, and household routine). Everyone who knows me knows this – and they also know that I don’t answer emails during this time. Or phone calls. Or cries of, “Mom!” (unless someone is bleeding)

    I use a timer and work in sprints during which I don’t get up to go to the bathroom, check the Internet, nothing! I can write 1400 words in a 40 minute sprint, and 40 minutes isn’t such a long time. It’s easy to start the timer and commit to that length of time, but you can try 20 or 30 minute sprints if that gets you to the keyboard.

    Unless I’m behind on a deadline, I only write four days a week. That gives me Fri-Sun for other things (and other tasks I force myself to put off in favor of writing during the week).

    It’s a tricky kind of work requiring a lot of mental energy and discipline, but if you can develop a routine that allows for 2-3 sprints four days a week, you should make quick progress.

    Good luck!

  36. Jill says:

    if you can’t write, start by typing. just the action will get you going.