Thursday, August 30, 2012

Erica O'Rourke: My Five Writing Essentials

One of the author-type questions I am most often asked is, “What’s your daily writing routine like?” I suspect people are envisioning me meditating. Perhaps taking a nature walk or performing an invocation to the muse of kissing scenes. A strong cup of coffee. And then…a sudden wellspring of inspiration that transforms my ideas, through writerly alchemy, into luminous and heartbreaking prose.

Alas, that is not my routine. Except for the coffee part. That’s key.

My daily routine has very little to do with inspiration and invocations, or an iron-clad schedule. Instead, I have a series of cues that my brain recognizes as, “Time to write.”

I am embarrassed to admit that, in this regard, I am much like my cats. Their cues are pretty simple:
  • Middle kid comes home from school; wake up.
  • Youngest kid comes home from school; sprawl underfoot and look pathetic.
  • Oldest kid comes home from school; pace in front of food bowl & yowl.
  • FOOD!
Now, my cats’ brains are the size of walnuts. They can’t tell the difference between a weekday and a weekend, so any time all three girls walk in the door, they think it’s time to eat. I am not suggesting that your brain is the size of a walnut, or that you can’t differentiate between days.  But if you train your body and brain to recognize writing time, when you sit down at your chair, your attention is focused on the words, not the surroundings – or the distractions.

So when people ask me what my routine is, I preface my answer by telling them that they’re welcome to copy it – but they’d do better to figure out exactly what they need in order to write – and then make it happen.

When I stripped my routine down to the basics, I ended up with five must-haves.

A soundtrack: I don’t need silence, but I do need to have something blocking out external noise. Most often, I create a soundtrack for the book I’m working on, because it puts me in mind of specific characters or scenes, so I can return to the world of my story as quickly as possible.

Privacy: I don’t like the sensation of someone looking over my shoulder as I write, even if it’s just a passer-by. When I’m home, I shut the door to my office. When I’m in public, I sit with my back to the wall. Often, my friends and I will have a writing date, where we all go to a coffeeshop and work – but I still need to angle my screen away from everyone.

Coffee: Homemade, takeout, Panera. I don’t care. Even if it’s cold and untouched, I need to know that there is caffeine close by. (When I’m on deadline, I tend to order my coffee “black-eyed,” which means they add two shots of espresso to the cup. I would not recommend this as a long-term strategy, but in a crunch, it makes a genuine difference in my word count.)

Lack of internet: At home, I hide my iPhone and use MacFreedom, which turns off my internet access for a specified period of time. (There’s a Windows version, too.) When I go out, I don’t connect to networks. It’s easier to avoid checking your email every five minutes if you can’t get to it in the first place. Usually I let myself check email and Twitter once in the morning, over lunch, and after I’ve finished writing for the day.

My notes: I am an outliner, so I usually have a good idea of where my story is going. And when I finish writing for the day, I jot down a few sentences describing what needs to happen in the next scene, so I don’t waste time wondering what I should write.

Here’s what I DON’T need:

A specific snack. Mostly because all snacks make me happy.
A specific mug for my coffee. I don’t care how the coffee gets to my mouth, as long as it gets there.
My desk arranged “just so.” I am not that neat. This also allows me flexibility about where I work.
A specific pen: I do most of my work on the computer, but even when I’m working longhand, I try not to get attached to one writing utensil over another. What if the pen runs out? What if you leave the pencil sharpener at home? Save yourself the heartache and use whatever’s nearby.
Inspiration/A muse/A writing “mood.” When I was unpublished, I wrote when I felt like it, which allowed me to take all sorts of naps, make complicated meals from scratch, watch a lot of television and knit entire dresses for my kids. Then I got serious and wrote or revised every day, even if I didn’t feel like it. Not coincidentally, I sold my first book shortly afterwards. I’m not saying inspiration doesn’t hit, but usually I need to warm up with a few hundred words before the ideas really start to flow.

The benefit of a routine like this is that it’s infinitely more flexible. I can write anywhere, at any time of day, as long as I have my necessities. (I might have preferences, obviously. But when I’m on deadline, preferences don’t matter. Only the wordcount matters.) I can write in my basement, a coffeeshop, my mother-in-law’s house, Science Olympiad meets, the car, a train. Once I get my cues in place, my brain knows it’s time to work – no excuses or rationalizations.

Maybe you prefer silence in the background. Maybe you need Mountain Dew. Maybe you need periodic check-ins with friends. That’s okay – there are many roads to Oz, my friends – and it begs the question – what are your must-haves when writing?

Giveaway: Leave a comment telling me one of your essentials for writing, and you’ll be entered into a drawing for your choice of the Torn Trilogy – either TORN, TANGLED, or BOUND – plus swag. The giveaway is international! One entry per person, please.

***Erica's winner is Tammy Sparks!  Please email with your mailing info!***


marybelle said...

I'm not a writer, but as a reader I like peace and quiet to be able to immerse myself fully into my reading.

host said...

I am graphic designer and while working I need silence and no interruptions, it’s the only way to keep my concentration and it’s very inconvenient :)

Karen H in NC said...

I'm not a writer, but I certainly enjoy reading about the authors and how the book gets from their hand to mine! I like quiet when I read and since I live alone, I have quiet!

Lil said...

I am not an author but I sometimes need to write something meaningful like our annual Christmas letter. Have found that I need either silence or music turned down, a good supply of coffee no matter whether instant or drip, my dictionary, and comfortable room temp. I know the last one sounds odd, but it is an issue for me.

little lamb lst at yahoo dot com

Pat Cochran said...

Like the previous commenters, I am not a
writer but I do have some writing expe-
rience. I wrote a neighborhood news
column in an area newspaper for 8 years
in the 1970s/1980s. It was a different
type of writing, but still involving some
of the same principles and stylings. For
me, writing time was late in the evening
after all the children had gone to bed.
I did all my typing on my word processor
or typewriter. No computers for us then!
No other special need "dos or don'ts"
for me that I can recall.

Pat C.

Nandana said...

I am yet to publish my work. My writing time is late-night after I am done with my day-job and dinner. I sit in a quiet corner of the house with my back to the wall and plug in some soothing Piano music while I write. I usually leave keywords at the end to help me remind where the story is going.

*yadkny* said...

I am not really a writer except for when I write reviews, but one thing I find that helps my creative process is music. The right music sets the right mood for whatever kind of review I am writing.

donnas said...

While not really a writer. I need something in the background. Complete silence does not work for me.

bacchus76 at myself dot com

Lory Lee said...

Music! It may sound weird but I love listening to my favorite playlist while writing descriptions for my boss for his real estate business.

Eli Yanti said...

i hope one day i can be a writer and probably i will need paper and pen and a cup of tea for writing :). i don't know but i'm comfort to write at my computer :(

Tammy Sparks said...

My top requirement for writing is being alone. I am highly distracted by my kids, dogs, tv, etc. I could not write without peace and quiet.

Laura VanArendonk Baugh said...

As my day job is in behavior, I love your take on environmental cues. They really are influential!

I am absolutely with you about screen privacy. Nobody gets to see my work but me, even though eventually I hope everybody sees it. Not necessarily rational, but real!

Chocolate. I don't drink coffee, but dark chocolate does the same for me. :)