Writing habits

A recent post by shunn got me thinking about my own writing habits and I thought I would discuss them here along with some of the problems I come across in trying to form these habits.

Let me start out by saying that for the first time in my life, I have four stories underway at once. In case you are wondering, the working titles are (in chronological order):

  • “If By Reason Of Strength”
  • “Stairway to Heaven”
  • “The Time Machine”
  • “4005 B.C.”

The last story in the list is likely the first one to be finished. I started it tonight based off an idea I got from a sentence within Isaac Asimov’s short story “Ideas Die Hard” and I wrote about 500 words this afternoon. I don’t expect the story to be much longer then 1,500 words total.

I used to think that I could only work on one story at a time, but I have found that if I have more than one story going at the same time, I can switch stories at will. This means that if I get stuck in “If By Reason Of Strength” I can take a break from that and work on “The Time Machine”. Or if I get tired of “The Time Machine” then I can work on “Stairway to Heaven”. The fact is that there is now always something that I could be working on if I only had (or made) the time to do it. And therein lies the rub.

Where does one find the time? In his post, shunn explains how he gets up at 5 AM every morning and begins writing at once, and for as long as he can, until he absolutely has to stop in order to go into work. I have tried this. In fact, back as far as April 1996, I have diary entries in which I talk about getting up early so that I have uninterrupted quiet time in which to write. It would never last long however, and I could never make a habit out of it.

What about now? Getting up earlier than I do is not practical at this point. I am already getting up at 4:30 AM during the week in order to go to the gym. With the exception of my lunch hour, usually from noon-1 PM, my days are pretty packed until I get home from work at about 5 PM. That means that during the week, I have between 5 – 8:30 PM in which to write. The fact is that I don’t have all of that time either. I need time to eat my dinner and I need time to pack my lunch for the following day, not to mention do the various errands and chores that won’t fit into other parts of my day. So between 5 – 8:30 PM, I have probably have 1 hour which I can spend writing.

But I don’t. At least not regularly. I have never, in the 14 years that I have been writing, been able to get myself into a writing routine long enough for it to become a habit. In the past I told myself this was because I didn’t have any good ideas about which to write. With four stories going at the same time, this is not longer a valid excuse. I have plenty to write. I have a desire to write. What I lack at this point is the commitment.

A few months ago, when I started working out regularly, I made a kind of internal commitment to myself. I don’t know exactly how this works, but after a while, it sticks. It did so with the workouts. I need to figure out how to get it to work with the writing as well. It is much easier said than done. For one thing, if I did my workouts in the afternoon, I don’t think I’d be as successful. By the time work is over for me (at 4 PM), I am already twelve hours into my day. I am naturally tired. Workouts do don’t sound as fun when you are physically tired, especially after a long days work. Writing doesn’t require as much physical energy, but any writer will tell you that it requires and equal or greater amount of mental energy or alertness than a workout does. So I already face one obstacle for evening writing and that is fatigue.

I have found that I can work around fatigue if I have something interesting to write. For instance, of the four stories I have going right now, two of them really have me “hooked” as far as the writing goes. When I say “hooked”, I mean I get to thinking about the stories in the middle of the day, and can hear the next sentences rolling through my head. All I need to do is get in front of a keyboard and type them out. I try to finish up my writing sessions so as to leave myself at an interesting point in the story (a cliff-hanger moment, for instance) so that I am equally as excited to work on it the next day. Even so, the fatigue of the day can be tough to overcome.

I have told myself to block out time every weekday evening between 7-8 PM and that’s when I should write. This gives me a few advantages. I get home at 5 PM. I can veg for a little while. I can eat my dinner and pack my lunch. I can do a few chores or errands. Come 7 PM, I should be all done and ready to sit down and write. And yet, I don’t always feel like doing it. One difference between writing and workouts is the creative element. Writing is a creative activity and sometimes I just don’t feel creative. If I try and write in those moods, what I usually turn out is bad and a waste of time. I suppose one thing to do is to figure out how to turn those none creative moods into more creative ones. Again, easier said than done.

There are other challenges to forming the writing habit. What if I want to go out with friends after work? Or on a date? It’s already tough when you get up as early as I do to even consider staying out later than 8 or 9 PM on a “school” night. I have said to friends in the past that I can’t go out because I want to go home and write. Sometimes, this disappoints them and other times it doesn’t. For some reason, I don’t think dates would be as understanding. (“Yeah, I really would like to go out again tomorrow, but I have to stay home and write.”) In a way, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. When I was married, I would sometimes come home from work and write, knowing that I was safe from that whole social scene. But I must admit that being at work all day and then coming home and spending the evening writing did not do much for my domestic situation. All I can take from this is that I need to date someone with the same “problem” as me; e.g., date a writer.

It all comes down to choices and what’s important. I choose to get up at 4:30 AM every weekday to go to the gym. I could instead choose to get up at that hour and write. I choose to slack off on my evening writing in favor of watching episodes of The Office or reruns of NYPD Blue. In a way, I experience cognitive dissonance (no jokes, jen_ashlock and jkashlock): writing is important to me and I love to do it, but I don’t treat it as important as it should be. I am trying to change this, especially now that I have sold my first story. But it is not an easy change for me to make.

The fact is that I can’t pack much more into a day than I already do–at least not without giving up other stuff that is important to me. I limit my work hours as much as possible (7 AM – 4 PM). I go to bed early in order to get a good night’s sleep and be mentally prepared for the next day. My weekdays are 16 hours long and with the exception of a few hours in the evening, are all filled up. It’s those few hours in the evening that I need to learn to take better advantage of, and it is there that I am going to look to improve my writing habits.

I don’t have a plan yet, so I can’t say exactly how I am going to do this, but keeping a number of stories going at once certainly helps. Now I just need to figure a way to work on them regularly.

I would certainly be interested in other people’s approaches to building writing habits, or even suggestions people have for how I can better build these habits into my day. Ultimately, though, as with anything, it comes down to choices and what I will be willing to give up in order to make the writing work.