Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Writers' Wednesday - Writing Through Distractions

Our columnist, Annie West, ponders on how to write through life's distractions.

When I was unpublished, before I knew anything about being an author, I had a lovely daydream about how fantastic an author's life must be. You know those authors you read about who follow their routine of getting up at a certain time, perhaps getting to the gym or starting the day with a brisk walk, then locking themselves away in a gorgeous book-lined study with an inspiring view and working solidly till lunchtime when someone else (of course) brings them a beautifully prepared meal. Alternatively perhaps they 'lunch' with writerly friends, enjoying a glass of bubbly or two and a good laugh before returning, invigorated, to the pleasant solitude of their sacrosanct study. They end the day satisfied with the knowledge they've put in a good day's work on their next masterpiece.

Cue real life. Sigh. While writing is a wonderful profession in many ways it's rarely quite so simple. For starters most romance writers are women and like women everywhere seem to bear the burden (and joys) of child care, elder care, husband care, house and pet care, community obligations etc. Not to say our men are slouches but facts are facts and the stats continue to show that working women still tend to do more of the 'work' in families.

Then of course, most of us work from home. That means we're there when the telemarketers call, or the lonely relatives with problems and before you say 'switch off the phone' there are times when I've been glad for the call because it meant I could be there in a genuine emergency.

Working from home also means you're the one who's there when the tradesmen come (or don't show up) to give a quote on work or possibly even do the work (with maximum noise and disruption), when the dog needs to go to the vet or when for some other reason someone has to be home.

Then there are the other distractions - like Christmas. Much as I love it there's no denying that in the lead up to my fave celebration of the year I know my writing output is going to plummet. Most writers I know continually juggle distractions - either time stolen from their writing or time spent brooding on how to deal with the issues in their 'other' life.

So, how do you write through the distractions? I can't pretend to have the answers. I'm still working that out myself but I do have some thoughts. Here goes:

  • Set your goals knowing you're going to be disrupted. Add extra time for birthday celebrations, Christmas, school holidays or just the unexpected. There's nothing worse than staring down the barrel of a looming missed deadline and feeling guilty that you didn't meet it. Better to be sensible when setting those deadlines in the first place than lose faith in your ability to keep working (even at a snail's pace).

  • Say NO. I'm getting far more ruthless at saying no to things people want me to do (and even to things I want to do) if it means I'm not going to be able to get words down on the page for a week or more because of other commitments. It might seem like a small commitment of time, but added to your other commitments the effect could be fatal on your output. Which leads me to:

  • Write down what you want to achieve AND plot all the major things you know you'll also have to do in what is usually your writing time (x days for Christmas shopping, y hours for writing those articles you promised for the school/library/volunteer group). Having some feel for what you've taken on can help you prioritise (if it doesn't make you run screaming for the hills).

  • Treat your writing time as precious - otherwise others won't. Shut the door to your writing room, or lock it if need be or even take off to the library or a cafe or park with a notebook and no phone.

  • Tell your family/friends/community groups that you're working (when they want you to take on more). DON'T explain. The magic word 'work' is usually all it takes. It doesn't matter if you're working in your pjs at home or in a business suit in the city. It's your job!

  • Take advantage of the times when you can write. If you're going through a rough time (family illness for instance) broken sleep patterns are common. Rather than lie in bed knowing you'll stew on problems you can't solve maybe get up and force yourself to focus on one of the problems your characters have. Even deciding where and when the next scene will take place is an achievement and may just help you relax enough to put aside your other worries and sleep.

  • Practice writing in places where you think you couldn't possibly write. We all love the comfort of familiar surroundings but sometimes the only time you get peace and relative quiet to think about your writing is surrounded by strangers. I've written in hospital waiting rooms, while waiting for children to finish after school activities and while 'minding' rambunctious children at a massive indoor play centre. I've jotted down ideas for a black moment after deliberately getting to a coffee date 15 mins early because I knew I'd have time alone. Before you tell yourself you couldn't possibly write without your scented candle, fave music or personal writing space, give it a go. Don't expect miracles, but you can achieve something.

  • Think about the story. If you can't get a block of solid writing time, try to think about it in your down time and work out the next scene or your characters' feelings. No matter how busy your life you'll usually get some time alone - in the shower, cooking a meal, driving to an appointment. Use that time and jot down the ideas that come or even use a recorder.

  • When you've only got small snippets of time and you know you won't get into your story properly use it to write blogs, articles, get your diary up to date or do any of the other writing-related tasks you have to finish so when you do get some solid time alone you can concentrate on the writing.

And now for a confession. I'm writing this because I'm facing several weeks of almost non-stop distractions, after a week where I produced almost zero pages because of a range of interruptions I couldn't say no to (sometimes you really don't have a choice). I'm thinking about the words I need to write and fighting a faint sense of panic. Five minutes ago my son walked by and asked what I was writing. On hearing my topic he grinned and asked if I was going to mention him. He even offered to interrupt regularly so I could get in the swing of things...Argh!

I'd love to hear how you deal with interruptions and distractions - either in your writing time, or if you're not a writer, in just coping with the other things you need to get done. Do you make lists? Do you get up extra early? Do you say no? Any suggestions gratefully received. I think we can all do with a few more ideas on how to keep our focus amongst all the distractions.

As it's the festive season (almost) and because Annie's celebrating some lovely news she's giving away signed books to 2 people chosen at random from those who comment.

Her good news? PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE has recently been nominated for the prestigious Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Awards and her current release THE SAVAKIS MERGER has been gathering a slew of fantastic reviews and reader feedback including 5 blue ribbons from Romance Junkies and 4 stars from Romantic Times. If you want to find out more visit Annie's website.

One commenter will received a copy of PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE and the other a copy of THE SAVAKIS MISTRESS.


  1. I'm not a writer but I can see where all these things would be problems. Since my husband retired I really haven't had much life of my own. I'll have to try some of your ideas in my ordinary life.
    Got to love your son.

  2. LOL, at that son of yours, Annie -- anything to lend a helping hand, huh? :-)

    I find this time of year terribly distracting too, so I try to make sure I don't have a writing deadline smack bang in the middle of the holiday season. In the past, however, getting up an hour earlier (ugh, am so not a morning person) and dragging myself to my desk has worked wonders (something about starting writing before one is fully awake just seems to work).

    I also find that taking 10 mins out in the afternoon to lie on the sofa and listen to some music wonderfully soothing and reinvigorating too -- helps to quieten all those voices.

    And a million congratulations on your Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award nomination for Protected By The Prince -- it's a wonderful story and the nomination richly deserved!

  3. Hi Kaelee,

    Ah, I've heard that about retiring husbands. They're always 'there'. Perhaps he needs a shed to retreat to?

  4. Actually, Michelle, that son is currently on a major pre-Christmas errand for me (saving me about 5 hours) so I can't complain. Love his sense of humour though.

    Oh, good on you avoiding deadlines that collide with Christmas. Mine's not till January but (duh) that means I can't quite relax as much over the festive season.

    I love the idea of 10 mins in the afternoon lying the the sofa and relaxing. I must try it.

    Thanks very much for the congratulations on the RT Reviewers' Choice award. It's a real thrill!

  5. Right there with you Annie. I had the same illusions of grandeur about the life of a writer and I'm learning quickly!
    My trouble is I get really ratty about the distractions - maybe in the hope they won't distract me again!

  6. Hi Scarlet,

    I still think it's a grand life, but not quite as I'd imagined. Real life has a way of bringing us down a peg or two, don't you think?

    Well, let me know if your approach works. I find I can't get rid of the distractions, but I can minimise them. Fingers crossed it works in the next little while!

  7. Oh I know how the time slips away. Sometimes it's necessary to stay up late just to get work done.

  8. I hear you loud and clear, Annie! Distractions? I've got a truck full of them and the "no" thing just doesn't work. But then again I haven't made it to full-time writing yet and with two little girls I'm always glad and grateful when I get a paragraph written in a week or sometimes a months. But slow and easy gets you to the finish as well.

    Have a wonderful Christmas season everyone!

  9. Annie, this is a marvellous post... I'm in exactly the same boat this christmas, but am planning to relocate to our local library next week while husband is at work and kids are planning to make a home movie.

    And your son sounds like mine.. In fact, I've got two of those! Arghhh indeed.

  10. Annie, this post is *so* scarily timely! Thank you so much for the advice -- I'm going to heed every bit of it. I particularly like what you said about treating your writing time as precious.

    Have a beautiful Christmas! I love that gorgeous tree, by the way.

  11. Thank you for such a great post! I am almost embarrassed to share my 'trick' because it's so simple, but here it is: every Sunday evening I make a really basic chart for the week with the word count I hope to accomplish on each day & a running total for the week. I print it out & stick it above my desk so that it's there Monday morning to remind me & I fill it in by hand at the end of each day, giving myself a smiley face on days I meet my goal. That's all - I'm now addicted to seeing goals in black and white, the running total to remind myself that it is going up and the smiley faces to remind myself that I can do it. Cheers, Amy

  12. Hi Annie, I found myself nodding in agreement right throughout your post.
    I think the hardest thing of all--particularly for women--is to say "no". It's amazing the feeling of empowerment when I actually do say it (and mean it!)
    I think a very difficult thing for a writer is to call on "the muse" when you are feeling stressed and strung out, but have grabbed some writing time. Yes, I know all the tricks--the particular music track, the scented candle-- designed to return you to the mood, but they don't always engage the right part of my brain!
    One thing that has helped me in the past is to turn off the phone. If I simply have to answer the phone, I have an egg-timer nearby and end the conversation before the grains all fall through. I can generally get or give all the information required in that time.
    My best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and lots of writing time in the new year!

  13. Annie, your son is a wicked, wicked boy! LOL!

    Actually, I am the poster-child for distraction at the moment! It's kind of unnerving because I always to have the gift of absolute concentration. Now my mind is a grasshopper always ready to pounce on the next piece of grass. So your tips here might be just what I need!

    Merry Christmas, Annie!


  14. Hi Suzanne,

    You're a night owl worker? I find I just run out of puff late at night. Early mornings though...

  15. Hi Iris,

    Writing with little children has its own challenges, hasn't it? No wonder you feel pleased when you get some words on the page.

  16. Heidi,

    It sounds like you've got a great plan. Relocating while the kids are fully occupied is a terrific idea. As of tomorrow I'll be the only one not relaxing on holidays. Wonder how I'm going to concentrate.

  17. Vanessa - I'm so glad the post was helpful. In truth it was written as a bit of a reminder to myself to help me through the distractions. Good luck with the writing and best wishes for Christmas.

    Isn't the tree lovely? I saw it in a lovely old hotel in Bavaria and couldn't resist using it.

  18. Amy, that's brilliant! I don't see why you're embarrassed about sharing that. I do something a little similar - I have an idea of how many pages I need to write in a week and I write down at the end of each day how many I've managed plus a total at the end of each week. Guilt plays a role in helping me keep on target. I love your idea of the wallchart on display and the smiley faces. Or gold stars. Do you treat yourself in some way if you get a certain number of smiley faces or is it just the satisfaction of seeing the wordcount rise?

  19. Hi Kandy,

    I've used the timer for a number of things (even writing when I'm trying to juggle too many things) but never for the phone. Thanks for the tip. I'm going to try that.

    Thanks too for the good wishes. I hope you have a productive year in 2012 too!

  20. Sharon, I like that grasshopper analogy. Scary though, isn't it? It's awful when you can't concentrate. I do sympathise with the distractions. I hope you manage to harness your energies a little more soon.

    Merry Christmas to you too.

  21. Any other year and I'd go on about being a list person ... prioritize by doing the stuff that needs to get done before the "it can wait" things ... checking your call display before answering the phone ... etc., but this year? I am NOT the person to ask.
    I played in a badminton tournament all day Saturday, then came home and slept 11 hours, interrupted by leg cramps galore. I finally finished writing my Christmas poem and worked on Christmas cards all day Sunday. Played badminton Sunday night (which was a stupid thing to do) and had company back to the house afterward, only to learn that my daughter was in a car accident (everyone's fine; and the other woman's insurance is covering it since it was not my daughter's fault) on her way home - so I have been fielding phone calls from the adjuster, insurance company, and body shop since then. Worked all day Monday and drove half an hour away to play badminton again that night; socialized at friend's place afterward, getting home at 12:45 am and working until 3 am. Worked Tuesday till 5 pm, then made peanut butter cookies and brownies (since the oven was on already for supper), before playing badminton at 7:45. Hurt my back at badminton and slept terribly last night (because I shouldn't have played badminton!). And today? Decorate the Christmas tree finally! I might check the gifts bought throughout the year to see if I need to buy any more (fingers are crossed). I need to work this afternoon and I am NOT playing badminton tonight (re sore back and no time). So what am I doing now? Blogging. I enjoy blogging in the morning hours while I write down my to-do list for the day. Helps me wake up....

  22. My tip - just don't even think about hoovering until the carpet goes crunchy.

  23. Annie, huge congratulations on the RT nom and on the fab reviews. I'm not at all surprised. Both those books are fantastic! Oh, I hear you - and I really DO have trouble writing around distractions. I can get a surprising amount done once I focus but the focusing takes a lot of effort and concentration. I'm in awe of people who write around the demands of small children, for example. I find a list really helps. When I start thinking about all the things ahead of me, it seems overwhelming. But if I write them down, it becomes more manageable. And it's always satisfying to cross something off as DONE!

    Happy Christmas, Pink Hearters! I've really enjoyed the posts this year. More, please!

  24. Hi Laney,

    What a busy life you lead. You must sleep well with so much activity during your waking hours. Great news that your daughter is OK despite the crash - what a relief that must be. As for lists - yep, they're another great way to go. It can be so helpful to see exactly what it is you've got on your plate so it's easy to prioritise.

  25. Annie - great tip! Somehow regular housework seems less important when you've got a book to finish.

  26. Hi Anna and thanks for the hearty congratulations. Oh, yes, I had that feeling I'm going under, drowning in all the things that need doing. Imposing some order and crossing of tasks helps that sense of control, doesn't it?

    Merry Christmas to you too! It's been a great year for PHS posts.

  27. Get a carpet sweeper - one of those little boxes on a stick you just walk around and push. Those days when getting out the vacuum sounds like too much work, just whizz the carpet sweeper round instead and it'll look clean enough for a day or so!


  28. Alison, I've got one of those and never use it! Must pull it out of the back of the cupboard and make the most of it. Thank you.

  29. I'm ashamed to say I've given in to the distractions. I've given up writing until after Christmas. Managing to do critiquing for students.

  30. Was a winner ever picked for this giveaway? Happy New Year to all!

  31. Argh. Google has been playing up and I've lost my last post.

    Huge apologies for the delay in announcing this, everyone. The winners of my two books were drawn but when something big came up just before Chirstmas I'd thought I'd already posted the names when I clearly hadn't.

    Congratulations to ALISON and AMY! Amy, if you could contact me at with your postal address that would be a big help. I'm having trouble reaching you.

    I've thoroughly enjoyed the chat on this subject. Thank you all for commenting.

    Happy new year everyone!