Creating Writing Space

I know a few writers who have entire offices in their homes where they go to write. I’m not that lucky. My house has around 900 square feet. Recently, I got rid of my very nice but very large desk and downsized to a series of five shelves on the wall in a corner of the living room.

I ended up with this “office” after we had to completely empty our living room to replace damaged flooring (this is also why the spare room is so filled with stuff that I can’t use it). The truth is that I love my office. It’s fairly comfortable, and though it doesn’t have a few things I would like, it does have the things I need. I even have a window.

Right after I created this office, I started to be much more productive. Sitting in a desk chair with my computer on a desk is much more comfortable than sitting on the couch with my laptop. It’s also ergonomically correct, which is mandatory for me because I am currently recovering from an injury to my L5-S1 disk. I have the things I absolutely need in order to write within easy reach – pens, paper, highlighters, note cards, and a full cup of coffee.

If you have limited space, like I do, it takes some thought to decide where your office should be located. In my case, this was the ONLY place in my house that made sense. I refer to my desk as the “corner office” because I love the irony. I wish I had a couple dozen more square feet because I would love to have a bookshelf and a file cabinet within reach instead of on the other side of the room. I would also like to have a nice piece of corkboard so I could pin up all my notes and lists instead of having to scrounge through the debris on my desk to find the paper I’m looking for. I’m a very private person about my writing so I won’t have that until we move to a house where I have a semiprivate office. Or we can start storing our junk in the living room and I can move my office into the spare room.

My biggest struggle is what to do with my papers. Because I don’t have my corkboard and my file cabinet is too far away to be practical, I end up with stacks of it on my desk. The one thing I did not plan when I designed my office was a place to store papers. Don’t make my mistake. No matter what anyone says about a paperless society, writers will have paper. Period. Keeping it organized will make your writing life a lot easier.

What about you? Are you one of the lucky ones with an office? Are you a couch writer, a kitchen table writer or a Starbucks writer? Leave your answer for me in the comments.

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Digging Through A Block

I don’t like the phrase writer’s block. It takes the responsibility off me as the writer and indicates that there is some external force that’s stopping me from writing. What really happens is one of two things: I’m being lazy, or I’m going in the wrong direction with my story. (As I write this, I can hear my character Lauren screaming from the open Word document “You moron! I don’t want to do that. I should ___________.” It’s quite shocking that she’s yelling at me this way as she’s normally quite calm and composed.)

After a dismal 400-word writing day yesterday (my typical day is about 1500 words), I was watching a really boring documentary about Mesopotamia at 1AM while writing in my journal and I wrote “I think I’m off on the wrong track. I need to write the scene instead of summarizing with Lauren thinking about it after the fact. Show, don’t tell.” Which proves that sometimes I need to take a step back from work, get really bored, write in a journal, and then I find the answer. It also proves that “show don’t tell” has been beaten into my head so much from writing classes and books about writing and beta readers that I’m even resorting to telling that to myself.

The very next sentence in my journal is “well, at least I figured out what’s wrong.”

If you’re blocked, ask yourself “am I being lazy?” And be honest. If you are, be kind to yourself. Maybe you’ve been crushing your word count goal daily for the past few weeks and you need the downtime. Take the day off. On the other hand, if you’re just putting off writing, get off the Internet, right now, and write 100 words. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back.

For me, it’s harder when the block is because my story has wandered away from where I had planned for it to go. I have a couple techniques for this. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was about 13. I like the leather covered ones, and I’m particular about my pens. I have three questions that I work with. Do my characters want to do something else? What other choices are there? And when should this change take place? Usually this process take a half an hour or so. Write freely, without stopping, for as long as you need to.

Now that I have found the problem, I have to trash the last few days’ work and fix it. I don’t like having to do this, but I have learned to be ruthless with my work. No one can kill my lousy work like me. So I do it. If I think it might have merit, I have a folder in my documents called “trash” where I put things that I have deleted but may be useful later. That generally doesn’t happen. Usually I look it over and wonder what I was thinking, clogging up my hard drive with that much junk. But it’s less traumatic than deleting it outright, so I work with it.

Anyway, now that my characters and I are in agreement about where the story is going, I think I can get some work done.

Setting Goals, Taking Steps

I’ve been reading a lot about setting goals lately. I think we’ve all heard about setting SMART goals (the ones that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely, in case you forgot).

I know what my long term goals are: to publish a novel (more than one, but one is a good starting point), and to work as a freelance writer. Now, how do I get those two goals broken down into a small enough step that I’ll actually remove the cat from my desk chair and sit down to work? Removing the cat can be hazardous to my health (she bites like a hyena), so I need a powerful incentive to brave the jaws of Angel Kitty to get my chair back. I have to know I will accomplish something.

Having so much to do sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out. So I’ve started making a list of five things I need to accomplish each day towards my various writing goals. Each goal has to be something that I can accomplish in no more than a few hours. That’s the SMART part of my goals. My goal is not “work on freelance articles” but “find submission guidelines for ___ magazine” or “write query for xyz article”. Since I’m in the Anne Lamott mentality of shitty first drafts, I have to allow time to read and revise everything, including my queries. But that’s tomorrow’s project, and I like to think the downtime and extra attention to detail are only helping me.

So far, my day has gone something like this: sleep late (I was up writing until 2 AM – fortunately I don’t have to go to work), drink coffee, 3 journal pages, a donut while reading a couple chapters of A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (second time reading it), and then I finally signed up on Facebook. After that, I had to call my mother to tell her she better friend me. That brings me to early afternoon.

What remains on my to-do list? Writing this blog post, looking up submission guidelines for a couple magazines I want to query with freelance articles, and finishing my writer’s resume for a residency I want to attend next summer. After that, I get to spend part of the evening working on my other love – designing crochet patterns.

If I complete all of that, it’s going to be a very productive day.

What about you? What’s your goal? How can you take a tiny step toward that goal? For the record, I do consider writing a to-do list to be a step. Mine are five steps I can take today towards a goal. For bonus points, check one item off your list.

And if today is not the day to accomplish much, there’s always procrastination. See last week’s post (Procrastination: A Refresher Course) for more details.

Procrastination: A Refresher Course

My favorite form of procrastination is cultivating hobbies. Lately I’ve started sewing. Not with a sewing machine, like a normal person. No, I’ve decided I want to learn how to quilt by hand. This is probably not one of my better ideas.

I don’t really know how to sew. In the last year, I’ve borrowed two different sewing machines from two different people and have been utterly baffled by how to use either one of them. I seem to be unable to make a straight seam with a machine. My seams always wander. So, armed with a needle and thread and a bunch of fat quarters of predominantly pink fabrics, I’m teaching myself how to sew. And I don’t even really like pink.

Because I’m me, that means I had to buy a book. Actually, I already owned two books about quilting, one of which inspired in me the desire to make a quilt. After this happened, I bought all the fabric and borrowed the first sewing machine. Then I returned it to its owner and borrowed the second, the learning curve for which I determined to be well above the length of my attention span. So, on one of my biweekly trips to Barnes and Noble, I discovered “Handsewn: the essential techniques for tailoring and embellishment” by Margaret Rowan. This book promptly came home with me and has been hanging out on my footstool with the quilting books.

Proving that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, I immediately tried to decide on a project that wouldn’t test my limited sewing abilities too much. But what to make? Finally, I decided on the one thing an obsessive reader can never have too many of: bookmarks. I picked the perfect size – 2 by 6 inches, chose my fabrics – one for the front, one for the back, making the bookmark reversible. That’s when the swearing started.

The bottom line is that a week later I have completed exactly one bookmark, but I have procrastinated on writing projects for seven days. So, if there’s a writing project you’re trying to put off, I suggest you try out a new hobby. One thing I learned from this experience is that writing is easy by comparison. Now that I am sick of sewing (For the moment. I know I’ll come back to it soon), I’m reading that first draft of my novel manuscript and I have edited and polished a couple short stories that I am hoping to enter in writing competitions.

Since July, I have been a “full time” writer. By that I mean I am not working due to a severe injury to my lower back. I decided then to put forth the effort to do something I have always wanted to do – complete a novel. With the first draft finished after a lot of days in a row of concentrated effort, I believe my brain needed a nice break, hence the sewing-procrastination week. Now I’m back to writing, feeling refreshed and open-minded. Time to start the next novel, I think.