from September 8, 2009

“Two years ago, I disconnected my work computer from the Internet and established a set of rules to minimize the time I spent online. My annual page count has tripled, despite the fact that I maintain a blog, teach online classes, and do a lot of socializing and promotion. That was a shock.”

~ Taming the Internet Monster: Five Simple Rules, by Barbara Samuel, RWR, 04/08

I’ve had that magazine opened to that page and sitting near my desk for over a year. (If you’re a member of RWA, you can login at the Web site and read it here.) That tripling her writing output floors me every time. Tripling. Amazing. And accomplished by doing nothing but taming the Internet monster.

As I mentioned in my blog at Sia McKye’s Thoughts … OVER COFFEE, it was after leaving the day job and relying on the Internet for my social interaction that I found things getting out of control. I would get up and have coffee with my “friends” just as I’d once done at the office, where we’d chat over breakfast tacos or kolaches or muffins before getting busy with our work. And then we’d talk off and on throughout the day while doing our work. Conversations about work would more often than not veer off tangent until we were talking about our families, our kids and their schools, television, politics. And, of course, there was the office gossip, the water cooler chat. If you work in an office, you know of what I speak.

I found myself using blogs the same way. The gossipy water cooler blogs. The family blogs. The industry blogs. The entertainment blogs. All of my social needs were met without ever leaving my desk. The difference was that I wasn’t punching a company clock. I’d often look up, realize the morning was gone, it was lunch time, and I was still nursing a cup of cold coffee. I hadn’t done a lick of work. Not good. SO not good. I was more interested in what was happening with everyone else than with what I had going on. Let’s face it. Sitting and writing and struggling with words and scenes, well, it’s not that it’s boring, but there’s not a lot of excitement in an author’s day to day.

Conquering a dialogue exchange so that it rings true? Yet still manages to deliver the information it needs to? Without sounding forced? Now that’s exciting, but it’s hard to share that sort of thrill with others who don’t write for a living. Author blogs and chat loops made that sort of sharing possible. It was the same fun, chatty, workaday environment I loved about the day job and missed – except that it wasn’t. At work, the chatter would come to an end, we’d all go back to work. At home, I had the email notifier dinging, the blog feed update ringing, the instant messenger open and zinging. ALL. DAY. LONG. And I wondered WHY I couldn’t concentrate on what I was writing?

Creation demands concentration. Creation demands focus. Being taken away from a manuscript every five minutes by an email check pulls that concentration and focus away from the manuscript and puts it on the response I feel compelled to give. Why do I do that? Why do any of us think that sort of splintered work habit is going to 1) be productive in the first place, or 2) produce our best work? Or, please say it isn’t so, am I the only one with this problem, this need for constant input, instant gratification?

In the comments at Sia’s blog, she says:

I think the thing we have to balance is the reason we’re online. Yes, some of it is for *association* and the need for adult conversation or even entertainment. But the brunt of it is to promote our writing. If that’s the case, what good comes from letting our stories suffer–which is our product we’re promoting–by having to be online every minute?

I totally get the Need To Know what’s going on in the publishing industry. We work from home, alone, in our heads. We have control over absolutely NOTHING but the words we put on the page (words which are often stripped away by editors, other words substituted for the ones we slaved to get right). It’s human nature, no, it’s professionalism to want to know the business of one’s business, to understand what’s going on out there, the potential impact on our careers. I’m not saying we should avoid hearing news. I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace. I follow conversations on Twitter. I belong to three active author email loops where much industry information is shared. As much as I’d enjoy the isolation, I’m not a total hermit. I can’t be. I’m a professional. I need to be informed. What I don’t need is to be informed RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Especially when THIS MINUTE is when I need to be focused on the manuscript page in front of me.

Getting pulled out of a scene destroys momentum. Yes, I can go back, but whatever thought would’ve come next is now gone, replaced by the RIGHT THIS MINUTE information my five minute email check dropped into its place. (This is the same reason I edit and revise as I write, but that’s a different blog post for a different day!) And lest you think I’m calling the Internet as a whole a monster, I’m not. Recipes, world news, research, music and movies . . . I can’t imagine a life without the world wide web, even though it was only a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye when I was learning to type on a classroom Selectric II. So, no, I’m not calling the Internet EVOL. I’m talking only about how I’ve allowed my rampant use of it to have a negative impact on my work – the depth, the richness, the texture, my productivity, my focus, my concentration.

So, now that I’ve said all that, what have I done to tame this monster, you ask? Not as much as I need to, I answer truthfully, brutally honest, shame as big and blue and ferocious as the original beast. My writing pal Lynn Viehl writes on a computer with no Internet access. My house is wholly wireless and there is Internet down to my phone. I have to have discipline to keep the switch OFF once I’ve turned it. I don’t have a lot. I confess. Lynn sets a timer to limit her time online. I set a timer to write, and refuse to check email until the time has elapsed. Sometimes I make it. Others I don’t. In her RWR article, Barbara mentions completely unplugging as well, even having a second computer just for writing, one that might even be older and capable of little more than the word processing a writer would need it for. This is much how I use my Alphasmart.

When the weather allows, my favorite place to write is in the backyard. My Alphasmart does nothing but store the pages I’ve typed. I would use it indoors if I could, and I’ve tried, but I can’t get the lighting right to see the display and I need to be able to read what I’ve written for rhythm and flow. Inside, I will often write by hand, but I do less of that these days because I hate having to type up the words. Or I’ll dictate, then type. (Voice recognition, here I come …) Both work, but what I really want to do is find the strength of will to Just Say No to anything that takes me away from the work. Because in the end, that’s what’s happening. Lately, I’ve used cleaning and organizing and going through closets and boxes the same way. To take me away from the work.

The work is hard. Draining. Emotionally draining. Physically hard. Wrists, shoulders, elbows, backs. We all suffer from the strain we put on them. We give our hearts and souls to the words on the page, and once spent, have little to give to those around us. How many authors have you heard say have no words left at the end of a book? They can’t form coherent sentences to engage in conversation. The words are right there on the tip of our tongue, but we have manuscript brain, a mushy jumble of letters and punctuation that won’t come together without rest and refilling the well. When I can’t tell the husband what I’m thinking without starting and stopping and stumbling a dozen times to get it out, how in the HELL am I supposed to be able to dive into another book? (Again, a topic for another day.)

In Barbara’s article, she suggests doing nothing online until noon. No blogs, no email, no news stories. Move from our dream world into the world of our characters. We’ve slept off whatever was gnawing and nibbling the day before, and we’re fresh. You know what happens when I do this? I wake up with my book on my mind. I don’t wonder what’s out there waiting for me online. I don’t care who said what, who sold what, who has news, who made lists, whose numbers put them on Bookscan, what editors want, which publishing houses are having layoffs, what reviewers have liked or disliked what books, what authors – or bloggers – are behaving badly. None of that.

Knowing when I go to bed that I’ll be waking into my characters’ world allows for amazing dreams. I don’t feel the itch to check email or blogs or industry news while coffee brews. I feel the itch to find some tigers, send them chasing my characters up a tree. I can write my humble 750 or 1000 words, take all day if I need to, and not feel like a failure for not writing 2000 or 5000. I’ve given my all to my work, and I’ve kept the outside world from getting in, distracting me, tempting me away. Oh, it’s so easy to tempt me away. I am weak. There. I said it. Though I doubt that I needed to say it. When I would rather cook and clean than fight a scene into submission . . . Once I’ve done the day’s writing, I’m ripe for the sort of online engagements that I’ve ignored all day. And since I’ve done my writing and exhausted myself, I’m too tired to get involved, to comment and follow up and up and up. I’ve probably saved myself LOADS of grief this way. Sure, I’ve missed out on some great conversations, but really. Have I missed anything that’s going to make a difference to my career? Yeah. Thought not.

Next post, I’m going to talk about WHY temptation is so easy to give into, why fighting a scene is so hard. But for now, tell me how you tame the monsters, whether it be social networking or toilet bowl scrubbing, that get between you and your work.