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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Writing Hacks: The 48 Minute Rule

One of the biggest problems I've been having lately is my internal (or infernal) editor sitting on my back looking over my shoulder like a highly literate monkey. This monkey is hungry for words but it is very selective about which words. That's often the problem with writers, something inside them gives them immense guilt if they do not produce anything but the same force seems to be employed in rejecting what few words they do manage to crank out.  I've been plagued with this and I've hardly written anything this year because of it. So instead of lamenting this fact in private, I've opted to share it with all of you along with a few solutions for combatting the evil editor monkey. This is the first in a series of newsletters dealing with the topic of motivation and productivity in writing. If you have any ideas you'd like to share on this topic, please feel free to drop me an email, I'd love to hear your solutions.

The 48 minute rule

Often times the problem with getting things done is the simple tendency towards distraction. As creative people, we simply cannot be trusted to remain on task. It is no easy thing to sit still and do the same thing for a set period of time each day. Let's say you've managed to snatch from the jaws of your busy life 2 hours in which you plan to work on writing. I'm sure you've had this happen, the 2 hours seem so vast and full of potential but before you know it you've wasted an hour and a half simply distracting yourself. Either you're folding socks or reading the news or God forbid you turn on the TV and your time is gone.

Those 2 hours loom too huge in your mind, I personally cannot imagine myself typing for 2 hours straight, as much as I'd love to be that productive I simply cannot work with that large of a chunk of time. On the other hand, when I've worked on NaNoWriMo I've been very productive in much less time because it's all the time I have and I can easily work all the way through a shorter period of time.
The answer, therefore, is to break the time down into smaller chunks, and the magic amount of time is 48 minutes. Get a countdown timer or egg timer, either software or hardware. I recommend ChimooTimer for Mac or EggTimer for Windows. Or just use the timer on Write or Die.

Break each hour into 48 minutes of productivity and 12 minutes of break time. You'll find that it's much easier to write this way rather than trying to force yourself to write constantly for several hours, or even one whole hour.

Your brain likes structure and digestible amounts of time. This is why it's easy for people to get sucked into watching hours and hours of television, because it's broken down into small chunks. The 12 minutes of break time also helps you put off anything else that might interrupt your writing because you can say to yourself "I'll do that on my break in x minutes" instead of "I might as well do that now, it's not like I'm going to get anything done." So all of the sudden your writing gains a greater importance in your mind. You can put off checking your mail and twittering till you're done with your current bout of writing.

Think of it as breaking your work time into mental chapters. When you read a book there are logical stopping points where you can put the book down and do something else. If you plan these logical stopping points within your writing time, you'll find yourself being more productive by far.
Next week I'll give you another tip on motivation and productivity, and it most definitely will be next week because I'm going to write and schedule the darn thing right now because I'm on a roll. Thanks everyone for joining and I look forward to being more frequent with my newsletters.
Godspeed and good writing.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Writing and Technology: Finding Your Place

As writers, we have more available technology than is probably good for us. Technology can be useful or distracting. Technology can help you or hinder your creativity. Given the wide spectrum of options, it is the job of the creative person to carve out their own space in the continuum of technology. Artists must choose if they work best in charcoal, clay, sharpie, pen and ink, or on the computer with tablet and vector drawing program. Often times the writer will ignore the concept of different media that might be more conducive to his or her creativity. In this article I'd like to consider some options available to the writer.

Pen and Paper
This is the bottom of the spectrum, the way that people have been writing for thousands of years. Before 1873 when the typewriter was invented this was your only option for drafting prose. Current novelists like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman still write their first drafts longhand. Personally, I can type a lot faster than I can write, not to mention a lot more legibly. My hand also cramps up a great deal when I write for any length of time so this is not an option for me. In favor of the pen and paper option, besides the fact that some great writers swear by it, is that it's a great deal more tactile, there is a sensory joy to writing on paper that you don't get from keys on a keyboard. Another benefit is that you must keep writing forward, you can't go back and effortlessly delete words or sentences, your only option is to throw away the entire page, which would certainly make me think twice. Write or Die wouldn't be necessary in a world where everyone who wanted to write was writing in such a permanent medium. You also have the bother and benefit of needing to type up your written manuscript. This is time consuming but also allows you to catch mistakes and trouble spots
that are harder to spot on the screen. You're also forced to re-read your entire manuscript, which, judging by many modern novels, most authors do not do.

The Typewriter
Ah that romantic machine-gun sound of the typewriter. Regardless of implement, many aspiring novelists fancy themselves toiling away in a small attic room in the city, slanted ceilings making it difficult to stand up straight,  hunched at the desk with their typewriter, a stack of clean white pages on one side of them and on the other side, a stack of paper stained with GENIUS! Typewriters share the benefits of pen and paper, once something is typed, it's rather more permanent than words in a word processor on a computer. I have tried to draft stories on typewriter to keep myself writing forward, I dragged out my parents' old electric typewriter and it whirred softly at me when I typed. The trouble with me is that I must fix things, it is a natural part of my
process to misspell words, use backspace and correct sentence structure as I go. I would very much like to achieve better accuracy but in the heat of composition I want to keep my inner proofreader silent. All that said, I recommend borrowing a typewriter to see if it helps you keep writing forward.

The Computer

This is the one we all know, the fact that you're reading this means you're fairly well-versed in your computer's capabilities. Everyone knows about typing in a word processor but I'm going to discuss a few more options.

Word processor.

This is the default tool for modern writers. At some point I will do an extensive article on some tips and tricks for Word and its ilk, such as cutting down the clutter, but for now I will just assume that you're all familiar with the function of a word processor. The drawbacks of word processors are that they are often bogged down with a great deal of unnecessary features. They are fairly good for editing but even when editing the
spelling and grammar check can give a writer a false sense of security. Spellcheck will not catch homonyms such as their/there/they're and grammar check can be downright non-sensical. That said, if you've only ever used Microsoft Word I recommend giving a try. If you're on a Mac I cannot recommend
Scrivener highly enough, it's the best software for organizing story ideas and research. If you have tons of different documents all containing different versions and bits of your stories, you can integrate all of them into one document. You can't go wrong.

AlphaSmart 2000

Now that we've covered the common
options, I'd like to introduce a new one. Consider dialing back your
place on the technology continuum to a slightly earlier era. You
don't need to buy a typewriter, you don't need to buy a fountain pen.
I am talking about the AlphaSmart series of word processors,
particularly the AlphaSmart 2000.
These little machines go for about $30-$40 on eBay and it's the best money I've spent on a writing implement. It is a simple blue word processor, it's like a keyboard with a very small brain. You get four lines of text and 8 different files in which to save your work. It requires no special software, compatible with Mac, PC and any computer into which you would plug a keyboard. When you're ready to transfer your words to a computer for editing, you simply connect the AlphaSmart to your computer just like you would a keyboard and it simply re-types everything that you've typed into any document. Word, blog window, text editor, anything at
all.AlphaSmart have released models since the 2000 but in my opinion they have just added more distracting
features, thus negating the attraction of the originals. Not to mention the AlphaSmart Neo goes for about $300. For the additional $260 you get some PDA functionality and (I think) e-mail. But we don't want those things, we want simplicity. One thing that I forgot to mention, you get upwards of 200 hours of use out of three AA batteries! That alone is reason enough to pick it up just to have on hand when your laptop dies and you're far from an outlet. I love my AlphaSmart 2000, I love that I can take it into a field and write and not worry about losing it or damaging it as I would my laptop. The only somewhat specialized piece of equipment you need is a Male to Male PS/2 keyboard cord. That sounds more complicated than it actually is. While you probably won't be able to find one at your local Best Buy, they usually ship with your AlphaSmart if you buy them on eBay, otherwise Fry's or Micro Center will carry them. The easiest way is probably to get one online, Newegg is a great resource, here's the cable you'll need.

By the way, I have nothing to gain from this, I'm not selling them nor do I work for them, I just think they're a great tool for writers. They're usually available on eBay in droves because one of their primary uses was for schools so there were a lot of these made.

If you have any questions about AlphaSmart ownership or other suggestions for additional points in
the history of technology where you carve your niche, please make a comment or send me an e-mail.

Good luck finding your creative space in the technology continuum.