Sunday, April 18, 2010

Handling Derailments

Today my guy is flying back from an overseas job, and while I have faith in the airline he picked, I know I won't be able to write from the time his plane takes off until it lands. I'll be too busy pacing the floors. Because I know his itinerary and my capacity for air-travel anxiety, I planned for this and wrote a little extra yesterday.

I couldn't take the laptop with me during my most recent unplanned road trip, so that completely wrecked two working days. Which I also anticipated, and took along a manuscript I wrote on-spec so I could do the final read-through during any quiet moments. Got about two-thirds of it read, edited and ready for the final buff and polish, plus I made notes for a shorter version of the synopsis. That came in handy this week when I decided to finish the submission package and send it to my agent, who thought it rocked and is now shopping it around.

Sometimes I can't predict when my writing time will be knocked off schedule, like this morning, when the dog decided to be sick and, of course, choose to do so on the carpet versus the tile floor. I lost an hour to clean up and comforting the pup, which combined with worry over my guy's flight back will probably keep me from catching up on my writing for the day. So I'm composing this blog post and my afternoon chores this morning and will try again to write after I make the school pickups. If I don't, I have a couple of hours to add to my writing time for the next three days.

I hate being derailed from my writing routine, because along with the regret over lost productivity comes a nice big fat dose of guilt. I belong to my manuscripts for a certain portion of every single day, and when I can't show up for work, I feel like I've just called the boss and lied about having the flu. I've had to learn how to set aside those feelings and accept that real life often has to come before the job, and that I simply can't juggle it all without dropping something now and then.

One way I compensate for missing writing time is by lining up simple work-related tasks that I can do. There's always a box of filing waiting in the office for me to put away, as well as a stack of books to add to my book inventory over on LibraryThing. The ledger can be updated any time, not just on Friday, my usual deal-with-the-accounting day. I now print out e-mails before I answer them and make notes on them for whatever I need to do in response (send an ARC, pass along referrals, recommend another writer for whatever I can't do, etc.)

Market research and reference books sit in a TBR pile in the book room in the order I need to read them. Shorter tasks include dusting the computer station, running a disk cleanup and defrag, updating my backups or vacuuming the office rug. I also update my new monthly reminder program, Chaos Manager, with new appointments, deadlines, and anything else I need to add from a notepad I keep with dates and things as they come in.

People laugh when writers say that while they're sitting and doing nothing while staring off into the distance they're actually working, but when the writing is derailed I do my fair share of that, too. I think about the stories I'm working on, the characters, and how I can make them more interesting, more realistic, better written, etc. I run through ideas for future books, and reconsider old ideas that I never had time to develop. Sometimes my most effective story epiphanies have come to me while I've been sitting in a waiting room or in traffic. Which is why I always carry a note pad and a voice recorder with me wherever I go, to nail down the best of those fleeting, idle thoughts.

I'll never be able to know when the next derailment is due, but since I'm never completely caught up on anything peripheral to the writing, I always have something to do or read or consider. The trick is to see the derailment as an opportunity instead of letting it wreck me.

What do you guys do when your writing time is derailed? Let us know in comments.

Photo Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


  1. I've really come to appreciate when already-published writers blog about facing the same setbacks as the rest of us. I think on at least a subconscious level, we (the unpublished) know that all writers face writer's block, real life getting in the way, etc., and that books don't just appear out of imagination and thin air. But it's still nice to see it acknowledged sometimes. I actually blogged last week about a speech one of our keynote speakers (Karen Joy Fowler) gave at a literary event I helped organized, where she talked about email, political news, and her dogs derailing her writing time. She was really funny!

    When my writing time is derailed, I tend to try to organize things. Sometimes those things aren't writing-related, like my room or my library, but often times I reorganize my digital writing files, moving old documents into new subfolders, etc., so I can more easily find my backup documents when I need to. Otherwise, I revise or outline, or reread old stories I liked after they were finished to try to fire up my creative juices again. It's funny you mentioned a voice recorder. In a few months, I am going to be moving to a location where it will probably be a lot harder for me to take the bus to work, and I'll have to revert back to driving at least part of the way, which will cut my brainstorming time down by a lot. I plan to start carrying a voice recorder with me in the car so I can dictate my thoughts that way. Since I often feel my hands can't keep up with my brain, I bet I'll lose a lot fewer of those fleeting ideas.

  2. Heh. My guy's boarding a plane and my disk is defragging as I type. Derailment happens, often due to kids, and beating myself up about it just leads to more lost time. Thinking through ideas, research, housekeeping, all are ways I keep busy when I can't focus on writing. So's reading somebody else's book to see how they did something effectively.

  3. "Weak against strong, strong against weak."

    So, yes, if life wipes out my writing time, or my flow, then I sort out the things that would otherwise get in the way.

  4. I do pretty much the same things when life throws a wrench into my schedule. I've been trying not to get so crazy about things going off on to an unanticipated tangent, that just makes getting back on track that much harder. Some days I'm better at that than other. I've found just taking a few minutes to make a list of the things I can do makes me feel better and lets the inner control freak feel she's still in charge.

  5. Anonymous7:49 PM

    Stress. And then I stay up late writing extra.

    Which I've been doing a lot lately since life decided to bite me on the butt.

  6. I've had real life get in the way of my writing this past week. On top of the usual distractions, there was first of all the retirement party for one of my old teachers who also acted as a sort of writing mentor to me. Of course I wanted to attend, but I had forgotten all about the party because of other derailments a few weeks ago. So I had to run out and get a present in a rush (and since it was in a rush, I had to go with a more generic present than I would have otherwise) and make time for the party which was scheduled for what is my prime writing time. On the other hand, even though the party ate up my writing time, it also gave me the chance to reconnect with people, including other aspiring writers, I hadn't seen in a long time.

    I planned to catch up on my writing on the weekend, but today my family wanted to go on a long planned roadtrip. Again no writing time, but instead I got to see some lovely scenery and visit a town with beautiful medieval architecture and an interesting history. Plus, something that happened during lunch provided inspiration for my work in progress.

    Then, when I got home I received a phone call which infuriated me and may possibly force me to spend money I cannot really afford on something that I cannot ignore in good conscience, though those that could afford the money better than me seem to be willing to do just that. Nothing positive to get out of that, alas.

    So yes, even derailments can be helpful as inspiration or opportunities to connect. I also carry around a notebook wherever I go to jot down ideas, snatches of text, etc... On the day of the retirement party, I scribbled some 200 words of WIP while stopping to get a coffee. I also have a netbook which I carry around whenever feasible and which allows me to write on the road.

    What is more, I always make sure to write at least 100 words of the current WIP every day. My usual target is much higher, but 100 words is low enough that I can manage it every day, no matter which distractions happen and how badly I feel.

  7. My biggest struggle is to keep from beating myself up when life conspires to derail the writing. The past 6 months have hit me with home repair hell (major plumbing leak/damage), family medical crises, a flooded basement, and an emergency appendectomy.

    While my stress level was through the roof, I wasn't able to do much new writing and spent a lot of time agonizing over it. But then I found that editing was something I could do. Moreover, it was soothing--something that I felt gave me some sense of control over the chaos. I also spent some of my typical writing time journalling, free writing, and working on poetry.

    I know that things are more stable now, because I'm back working on a new WIP.


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