Earnest Hemmingway has been quoted as saying that before he could write anything, he first needed to organize his sock drawer.  Douglas Adams, the late author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once commented that he loved deadlines: “they make such a nice whooshing noise as they rush by.”



            The sad reality of the writing life is that you’re on your own when you’re a writer. You do not have someone peering over your shoulder to make sure that you’re working.  No program in your computer logs your keystrokes to make sure that your productivity is high.  Your editor is on the other side of the country, or in some cases, the other side of the planet.  She has no way of knowing that when she talks to you on the phone you’re really just working another game of solitaire instead of proofreading those galleys she just sent.  Besides, they aren’t due for another three weeks, so what’s the rush?

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            The other problem is that most writers are somewhat creative: we have great imaginations that are quick to take us on flights of fancy that unhappily have nothing to do with the current plot we’re trying to outline.



Worse, many writers are also given to bouts of depression, which plays havoc with our ability to concentrate. And writers, like everyone else, have the normal things in life that get in the way of productivity.  But unlike most people, we don’t have an office somewhere to escape from our day to day problems.  And given that we work alone, we have no one to get in the way of our thoughts, which pull us every which way.

While I’m sure factory workers, engineers and office workers face endless distractions, whether they be interminable meetings or noisy co-workers, I know for a fact that they are not going to have the doorbell ringing, dryer buzzing, dishwasher beeping, or toilet gurgling to worry about.  If you’re in your house and you know you have a broken light switch needing your attention, it’s a whole lot harder to ignore it when it’s just down the hall from you, instead of a thirty minute commute.

When you’re struggling to get the dialogue just right in chapter ten, the need to prune your rose bushes may suddenly intrude and seem far more important.  When you’re staring at a blank screen, no words coming to your mind, the realization that you’re low on milk may prompt a sudden trek to the grocery.

And when you hear the rustle of the mail arriving in your mailbox outside, how can you resist going to see what’s there?  After all, aren’t you expecting another check from your publisher?

Then there’s the coffee to brew, the lunch to make, and after lunch, one suddenly realizes just how tired one is.  After all, we had to get up at 5:30 to start getting the family off to school and I know I didn’t get eight hours last night on my bed, so my bed is now calling to me, complaining that I haven’t been showing it enough attention.

So how is it that a writer ever gets anything done?  Given that there are something on the order of a hundred thousand books published in the United States in any given year, writers must find a way to overcome all their distractions. 

What do I do?

Deadlines help, whether imposed by one’s editor, or self-imposed.  Despite what Douglas Adams so humorously wrote, the reality is that deadlines are like the due dates on your bills.  If you fail to get what’s demanded on time, there are often unpleasant circumstances to face.  Given that writers, no less than most people, thrive on pain-avoidance, we try to meet our deadlines.  If you don’t yet have a contract, and you’re simply freelancing on a book, then you need to set deadlines for yourself, and you need to take them just as seriously.  I try to set both long range and daily goals. For instance, I have as a daily objective that I write ten pages of new fiction every day.  On top of that, I attempt to rewrite at least an equal number of pages every day of previously written material.  I also limit myself to doing this but five days a week.

Long tern goals include deciding that I will have a given novel finished, including all rewrites, by a certain date in the future.  For instance, my current long term goal is to finish my historical novel, Spring of Goliath, by June 26; it is a deadline imposed by my middle daughter.  She wants to read it.

The upside of having such clearly defined goals is that I then know when I’ve finished my work for each day and so I can resist the temptation of just sitting at my computer and continuing to flail away at stuff:  It is very easy, when working from home as an author, to fail to make a clean distinction between your workday and the rest of your day.  Not having a long commute makes it hard to separate work from time off.

Which, I think, is part of the reason for writers becoming so easily distracted.  Without goals and clearly defined boundaries, you’re never quite sure where you are or what you’re doing.  With goals, I find that I can focus much more easily.  I can see where I’m going, and I know how to get there.  Distractions then are not the barriers they otherwise might be.


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