As I stare at the four stacks of proofs and Georgia code supplements waiting for me to edit at my day job, I bring up my email and see that I've flagged over 40 notes from editors, reviewers, publishers, and fellow writers that need to be replied to ASAP. I'm attending and helping to run a convention next week and have a guest lecture to prepare for as well as a reading and several panels. The house needs to be vacuumed, the bathrooms scrubbed, and the floor of my library-office cleared of manuscripts, books, and magazines for the house guest arriving this weekend. My to-do list reads like a novel, which reminds me that my novel work-in-progress has been languishing because of several short story commitments I've made to editors--whose deadlines are looming. And as I start mulling over my deadlines, my calendar pops up a reminder that this column is due to my editor. And thus, the topic for this month's column is born.
Folks who regularly read my blog (http://eugie.livejournal.com) are undoubtedly familiar with my frequent "hamster" laments. These stem from an offhand comment I once made likening writing to juggling hamsters. It may look cute and fun, perhaps a bit eccentric, but in reality, it's work: awkward, delicate, precarious, stressful, hard work. So herein are some tips for how writers can get and keep their hamsters in the air without being nipped or ending up eyeball deep in indignant hamsters.
One Hamster is Still Juggling. Join "Club 100 for Writers" (http://www.bethpattillo.com/club-100). The premise is a great one for establishing long-term writing habits: Write at least 100 words a day, every day. One-hundred words is less than a half page in manuscript format; it's a handful of sentences, one or two paragraphs.
If you find after you do your 100 words that you can't stand to (or don't have the time to) write more, you stop. But even 100 a day adds up. And it's an excellent technique for getting into a daily writing habit.
Toss 'em Hard and Fast. As an alternative or a supplement to Club 100, challenge yourself to write for 15 minutes every day. Write full out for those 15 minutes straight, with the goal of getting as many words on the page or screen as you can.
A 15 minute challenge is also effective for those times when you're stuck on your current work in progress or find yourself perpetually making excuses not to write. When the time's up, you're likely to find that you've worked through your sticking point and have become engaged with the writing process again. Plus, you may astonish yourself by how much you can write in only 15 minutes. But if you're still stuck or can't stand the idea of writing for another second, you stop.
Chronicle Your Hamsters. Start a blog to post your writing progress to. Writing is solitary work, but it doesn't have to be isolating. The mere act of reporting your writing progress to someone, even if it's just yourself, can be terrific incentive to ensure that progress happens. Note: I recommend posting only your progress, not your actual writing. I don't advocate posting your writing to a public blog as some editors consider that to be tantamount to publication.
There are a slew of free blog hosting sites and communities out there like LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com) and Blogger (http://www.blogger.com). Many allow you to restrict who can see your posts, so if you're not comfortable with the public at large partaking of your writerly angst and triumphs, you can limit your blog to only those you want to see it. Also, many have writing communities to help you network with people who are interested in reading about your day-to-day writing progress.
Schedule Time to Juggle. Block out times to write in your weekly schedule. If you wait for time to free up, you may never get words on the page. Establishing dedicated writing time in your routine forces you to make the time. A good goal to start with is around three hours a week.
Don't pick times when you know you'll be exhausted and logy. If you're a morning person, write during that half hour before breakfast. If your brain doesn't engage until post-post-meridian, write after dinner instead of watching that episode of Survivor.
Don't Stop Juggling. If you get stuck, instead of abandoning your writing, go back and read over what you've written already. Are there characters or details you can flesh out? New plot points to branch into? Stale ones to kill? Really ucky prose to clean up? Sometimes going over what you've got down is enough to get you through a rough patch.
Juggle With Others. Find other writers and schedule times to write together in real life. There's something about the combined creative energy of a roomful of writers, even if they're not interacting with each other at all, that really galvanizes the writing juices.
If you can't find likeminded writers in your area, join an online writers group and schedule weekly virtual chats to discuss your writing progress. This will give you a support base to encourage you and keep you motivated, as well as other writers to bounce ideas and writing problems off of.
Juggling is Important. Establish writing as a priority with yourself and your family and friends. Don't let your writing motivation efforts get in the way of your writing. If you find yourself distracted by your blog or spending more time reading other people's blogs than writing, if your writers group socializes and watches movies together more than it writes, or if you keep getting IMed or emailed by your new writing buddies when you're trying to put words on the page, turn off your IM program, stop checking your email, quit going to your writers group (or get everyone writing again), and turn off your phone.
Likewise, don't let other distractions interfere with your writing time. When you sit down to write, get someone to entertain the kids, tell your family and friends that you are not to be disturbed, and lock the door to your office. If writing is a priority in your life, then you must treat it like one.
Juggle and Chew Gum at the Same Time. Use your downtime. Got a long commute on the train? Have to stand in line at the post office? That's writing time!
As one of my most essential writing tools, I have an ultra portable Sony VAIO laptop (weighs less than 3lbs with an 11 inch screen) that I cart around everywhere. I type out a couple pages or paragraphs during my train commute, catch up on emails, or edit an article.
For those times (and for writers who prefer the low tech approach) when it's not practical for me to open up my laptop, I also carry around a notebook and pen that I can jot ideas, dialogue, and other writerly notes into.
Juggling as a Way of life. When you can't even scribble in a notebook, much less open up a laptop--shopping for groceries, ushering a bunch of kids to soccer practice, listening to a client drone on and on at a business luncheon, etc.--that's research time.
Kick into writing mode every opportunity you get. Eavesdrop on people's conversations to improve your ear for dialogue, listen to your kids and their friends talking to better understand their interests and world view, come up with different, fresh, and interesting ways to describe the way the food smells, looks, and tastes in the restaurant.
By stretching your writing muscles even when you can't physically write, you keep them limber and yourself more disposed to being productive when you do sit down to write.
If You Drop a Hamster, Pick Him Up . Sometimes, no matter how you plan or despite your best intentions, you have to miss a day (or week or month) of writing. Don't beat yourself up about it, and don't let it derail you. It's going to happen. Life is unpredictable, and a writer's life is no exception.
Do re-establish good writing habits as soon as you can. But keep in mind that writing is like any skill. If you don't use it for a while, you will lose proficiency at it. Don't become discouraged if you have to start out flinging single hamsters all over again. The important thing is to start.
Hamsters are Your Friends. And finally, don't forget to enjoy your hamster juggling, even if the little nippers do occasionally draw blood. I'm a writer because I love it; it's who I am. If I didn't, I'd let the hamsters fall where they wanted and take up something easier, like fire eating or crocodile wrestling.
(Disclaimer: All rodents juggled were figurative critters, not literal ones. I never have and never would juggle real, live hamsters and am staunchly opposed to any and all acts of cruelty to animals. I love hamsters.)
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Copyright © 2007 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.