Friday, January 27, 2017

7 How to Keep a Productive Writing Routine During These Dark Times

Today's guest craft post is more about how to keep up with your craft when it's hard to concentrate than it is about any one particular aspect of writing,  but all the technique in the world doesn't mater if  we don't (or can't) put in the time in front of our computers actually plunking down words. Lance Rubin, the author of Denton Little’s Deathdate (winner of the ILA Young Adult Book Award) and the upcoming Denton's Little Still Not Dead, shares his survival tips for trying times.


How to Keep a Productive Writing Routine During These Dark Times

By Lance Rubin


Here’s a scenario you might relate to:

You sit down to write. But first, a quick Twitter check of the news.

OHMIGOD A NEW DISTURBING THING HAS HAPPENED IN OUR NATION.

You are absorbing everything you can about this new disturbing thing, trying to understand what happened, what its implications are, and what you can do to combat it. You are retweeting useful information and biting remarks and taking note of what you’re going to say to your senators and your rep when you call later in the day.

You notice the time.

It’s been forty minutes since you sat down to write and you’ve written approximately….nothing.

End scene.

Since November 9th, and, let’s be honest, even somewhat in the months before that, I have found my ability to be disciplined in my writing routine severely compromised. Never before in my life can I remember a time when so much surprising, horrifying, unbelievable news was flying off the proverbial presses. The sheer volume of it is enough to make your head spin, and if, like most YA authors I know, you’re on Twitter, you’ve got a perpetual front-row seat to this Great American Car Crash happening in real time all the time just a few clicks away on your devices.

(In the event that you feel differently about this and have been celebratory and productive since Election Night, this piece won’t be very useful. My advice to you instead is to start reading more books written by authors from the many marginalized groups that are going to suffer because of this administration.)

Speaking as someone who hadn’t mastered best life practices for interacting with social media even before all this---when the fate of our democracy wasn’t lying in the balance---I’m not sure how to proceed during this scary and uncertain time, when I often feel like it’s my civic duty to be engaging with this information.

So what do we do? We must fight, we must resist, but this will be a marathon, not a sprint, and as artists, we still need to create (especially if it’s part of how we’re making a living). I’ve been grappling with this daily, and though I’m definitely not there yet (I had a nice work rhythm going in early January, but post-Inauguration, it’s all gone to shit), here are some thoughts on what’s been most successful for me thus far. (And, goes without saying: no two writing processes are alike, so take what works for you and discard the rest.)


1. Write in 50-Minute Chunks

When presented these days with an open chunk of hours and my computer and phone, it is inevitable that I will take near-constant breaks from writing---often without even being fully aware that I’m doing it---to check email or texts or Twitter or Instagram. Work can get done this way, but the efficiency optics are pretty dismal. On an intellectual level I know that, but it’s hard to argue in those moments with the rationalizing of my brain: Your work is important, but, uh, the fate of the planet and your fellow human beings is slightly more important, don’t you think? Just do a quick check to make sure the world’s not ending in fifteen minutes.

So how to address this problem? The 50-minute writing block. Studies have shown (read: I Googled and found some random articles like this one) that, for maximum productivity, fifty minutes is the ideal chunk of time to work before taking a break. After that, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. So, on an ideal day, I’ll work through three internet-free 50-minute blocks, separated by 10-minute breaks. Before each block starts, I turn off my computer’s wi-fi. I put my phone in my bag. I check what time it is. (Some people set a timer so they don’t need to keep looking at the clock. Not me.) I take a deep breath. And I begin.

Usually.

In the spirit of full candor, I should mention that I sometimes delay a few more minutes. Because nine times out of ten, I hate that moment of starting. Especially at the beginning of the day. Writing---creating of any kind---is always such a daunting leap into the unknown, no matter how many thousands of times one has sat down at a computer and gotten started. And so, apart from luring me in to check the news, my mind’s got a million other tricks to justify not starting. (For example: oh wait you should look up that information on WebMD so you can write about that illness more confidently or you forgot to respond to that person who tweeted about your book!) YOU NEED TO RESIST THAT VOICE. Because, again, even if you just left the interwebs three minutes ago, some new disturbing national thing may have just happened and now it’s going to suck you in for another forty minutes.

Eventually, I begin. The first ten minutes of the writing day are usually pretty brutal. There’s no rhythm, I feel like a bad writer, and impulses to do anything else but write are firing in all directions. But since I’ve set out this deliberate plan for myself, it wins out over any bullshit excuses my brain is coming up with. Just push through the fifty minutes. During that time, I’m allowed to sit and stare, either at my computer or around the room, but other than that, I have to be writing. (If I have to pee, that’s allowed, too, but hopefully I already did that during one of my breaks.)

By the fifteen or twenty-minute mark, I usually start thinking less about bad news and that desperate itch to check my phone. I get more deeply focused on making the thing I’m trying to make. It feels good.

And then the block ends: Hooray! Break time! I can do whatever the hell I want for ten minutes! That said, a word to the wise (and to myself): be wary of diving into the internet during your break. As we’ve already established, time moves really quickly when you’re in there; that ten-minute break will quickly balloon into a forty-minute one. That’s fine, as long as you’re mindful that it’s happening. Being caught off-guard by the Black Hole of Internet Time always feels kinda dirty.

My best breaks are the ones where I have a few simple goals to achieve: bathroom, respond to that one email, fill up my water, stretch and walk around the room, that sort of thing. Those happen less than I’d like---I’m guiltier than anyone of taking the too-long break---but it’s what I strive for, anyway.


2. Make a detailed schedule of your workday. Every day.


Along with the fifty-minute blocks, I’ve found it’s very helpful to map out a schedule for my entire workday. As writers, we have editors and agents, but on a day-to-day basis, we’re really our own boss. I spend too much time being the chill boss when I usually benefit more from being the rigid asshole boss. If your days are pretty consistent schedule-wise, you can map out the writing part and stick to it every week. As a freelancer, though---juggling my own writing, other creative collaborations, and voiceover work---every one of my weeks is a little different. If I can go into a day with a battle plan, I am not only much more productive, but I end the day with a clearer sense of having accomplished what I set out to do.

I try to be specific and realistic when I’m making this schedule. “Okay, after I drop my son off at daycare, I won’t get to the coffee shop until 9:05, so I’ll start my first block at 9:20 am, which should give me time to order food and get settled.”

The cool part is you can schedule time for your social activism, too. I’ve found that setting aside a half hour or forty-five minutes, usually overlapping at least partially with lunch, gives me time to call my reps, post some actions on Facebook, read up on Twitter, and get a sense of what’s happening. Then there are days like this past Tuesday when I went to a noon rally outside my senators’ offices. It helped to schedule the rest of my day, so I could be as productive as possible even though I was devoting a larger-than-usual chunk of time to resisting.

I know this approach might sound over-the-top and obsessive, but I’ve found it effective. It’s easy as a freelancer to get lost in a sea of time, to have hours pass where you’ve been productive but can’t remember what exactly you’ve done. Scheduling allows you to tackle each part of your day with intention and to give both writing and social action the focus they need instead of combining both into a furious, easily-distracted blur.

3. Build in a spiritual component to your day.

Once you’re mindfully scheduling your day, I would also highly encourage you to set aside time for a spiritual component. The news is an unsettling shitstorm; it’s easy to find yourself in that horrendous mental space all day, which isn’t beneficial to anyone. If you want to be your most productive self on a weekly basis, you should try to take at least a little time to connect directly to the present moment, to your heart, to your loved ones, to what’s in front of and around you right now.

In December, I returned to meditating after not doing it for three years. It’s been grounding. You could also: Take a walk. Go for a run. Sit outside somewhere. Listen to a spiritual-minded podcast. Read a book that will open your heart and mind. Re-read a book that has opened your heart and mind in the past. Hang out with your dog. Your cat. Your hamster. Spend quality phone-free time with your partner. Your kids. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a couple months. Call your parents.

Even in these atrocious times, there is still so much beauty. Don’t deprive yourself of that. It’s going to make you that much better equipped to write and to resist.

And in sticking to a daily routine that allows you to access the best of yourself, you won’t deprive us of all the awesome art you’re going to make. 

About the Author

Lance Rubin is the author of Denton Little’s Deathdate and the sequel coming out February of 2017.

He’s worked as an actor and written sketch comedy, including successful runs of The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. He’s also co-written a new musical called Broadway Bounty Hunter. Lance lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. He is very glad he doesn’t know his deathdate. You can follow him online at LanceRubin.com and on Twitter @LanceRubinParty.

About the Book

Denton Little's Still Not Dead
by Lance Rubin
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Hardcover, February 7, 2017 


You only live once—unless you’re Denton Little!
The good news: Denton Little has lived through his deathdate. Yay! The bad news: He’s being chased by the DIA (Death Investigation Agency), he can never see his family again, and he may now die any time. Huh. Cheating death isn’t quite as awesome as Denton would have thought…

Lance Rubin’s debut novel, Denton Little’s Deathdate, showed readers just how funny and poignant imminent death could be. Now in this sequel, he takes on the big questions about life. How do we cope, knowing we could die at any time? Would you save someone from dying even if they were a horrible person? Is it wrong to kiss the girl your best friend is crushing on if she’s really into you instead? What if she’s wearing bacon lip gloss?

7 comments:

  1. What a great post. I've managed to get back to writing but it was a good month and half before I could. LOVE the premise of your books and am off to check them out!

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    2. Thank you! I applaud your successful return to work. It's not easy. Thanks for checking the books out!

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  2. Best article I've read all year. I've been on a self-imposed hiatus from the internet for a week, and it's timely that I've come back to this. I agree completely with your approach, Lance, and am now going to follow you on Twitter!

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    1. Thanks, Michael! Glad it's helpful. Hiatuses are helpful, too.

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  3. Lance, this is very supportive. I'm encouraged that it isn't just my imagination, that many of us are more distracted than we've ever been, but there are things we can do and focus on that can and will help. Thanks for the post.

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    1. It's DEFINITELY not your imagination, Linda. Even since writing this post, I'm still struggling anew with all this fresh national mayhem unleashed as of the weekend. But we need to keep creating! Thanks for the comment.

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