Friday, January 09, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Distractable People

Happy New Year!

I was all set to write a go-get-'em pep talk type post to kick off 2009, when as usual someone else did it better than I possibly could have.

This time, it's author Cory Doctorow, on Writing in the Age of Distraction, a post full of useful tips on getting things done when every minute you're tempted with multi-tasking.

The point about not using Word or other word-processing programs isn't particularly relevant to screenwriters -- writing a script in TextEdit or TextPad is a sure path to madness -- but I agree with and use most of his strategies.

I give myself a little bit more leeway than Doctorow does on researching in-line, because I hate leaving details like this undone when a quick search would take care of it and give me less to fix later, but I'm careful not to let the research lollop away into lost hours. And I do drop in a marker and move on if the research proves to be something that'll derail me for a while. Instead of TK as a marker for something unfinished, I use a caret (^), but the idea's the same.* I do this not just for missing research but also for a line or section that I plan to come back to; that way I don't forget it.

In addition to these markers, I also keep a txt file open as I write with a running to-do list. This is where I note the bigger stuff that needs fixing, or to remind myself to add or change something. Also on this list are housekeeping items that I do for every script, final-pass things like "Make sure Days and Nights track."

One of Cory's tips is a favorite of mine, and I love the additional examples from other arts:
Leave yourself a rough edge.

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.
Again, I don't leave things as messy as he does. I have WAY too many control issues to stop in the middle of a sentence, a trick Hemingway also used. I do, however, stop only when things are going well, at a point where I know exactly what has to happen next. That way I'm excited to get back to the story and have a built-in kickstart to the next day's writing, without all that ramp-up time of "Where was I? What do I do now?"

Oh, and RSS readers, IM clients, Twitter, Facebook? I shut those damn things down. I do give myself a little time in the morning before writing to check email and teh blogz0rz and whatnot, and a little more at lunch and then at the end of the day.

I'll add a seventh suggestion to Cory's six: deadlines. Jane Espenson wrote on her blog once that she never had a problem with writer's block, because assignment deadlines from people who are waiting for your pages -- people who are paying you -- don't give you the luxury.

If you're writing on spec, it's harder, of course, since you're only answerable to yourself or maybe an antsy agent. Writing groups, classes, and contests can provide this structure and motivation, but it's essential, particularly for TV writers, to learn the discipline to set and meet your own deadlines.

I'm always interested to hear other writers' productivity tips and tricks. What are yours?

* Fun fact I just found out about the caret: it means "it lacks" and was originally a proofreading mark where something needed to be added, such as a punctuation mark or phrase. I chose it at random, after seeing that the asterisk triggers the track changes flag in some screenwriting programs.


Max said...

I don't have what it takes to stop writing mid-sentence either... at least not yet.

Lately what has been keeping me writing is talking to people. Not necessarily about what I'm writing, but everyday fears, dreams, and anxieties. That clears my head, and I can sit down and write, having vented a little, or gotten excited by something.

I write about entering a sort of lucid state while writing on my blog a lot. I agree with Cory when he advises other writers to put aside research until afterwards. Nothing stops a good flow of thought pouring onto the page like stopping to look up something. When I do that, I find I have the temptation to judge it when I return. It's better to get it all out at once.

Thanks for the added insights!

Dan H. said...

I'm totally looking forward to finishing this article somed

Kira said...

LOL Dan!