My writing routine
A lot of people have been asking me about my writing routine – when I write, where I write, how much I write, whether I rub the belly of a resting Buddha before I start, etc. etc.
A lot of people are deeply into word count. I think you can blame Stephen King for this. I’m pretty certain that in On Writing, he talks about writing 2000 words a day, minimum – and getting started with just 1000 a day. When I first read that, I was struck by an awful feeling, half terror, half shame. I felt like an appalling underachiever. And then I met a writer that I admire greatly, who told me she often cranks 4000 word a day. FOUR THOUSAND! I almost had to go and lie down.
And then I remembered Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a writer who writes 500 words every day, and produces a novel a year. I’m told that Bendrix was loosely based on Greene himself, so that made me feel a lot better.
Because I don’t write 4000 words a day. Or 2000. Or 1000. Sometimes I don’t even crack 500. But I always write something. My friend Charlie Hauck told me his secret many years ago: five minutes a day. That’s all you need to do. Because sometimes five minutes is just five minutes, and you maybe get fifty words down. If that. But sometimes five minutes turns into five hours, and you push 5000. Or more. So that’s all I do. Five minutes. Every day.
This is another hangup. I’ve been jealous of Lee Child … well, I’ve been jealous of Lee Child forever, but I’ve been particularly jealous of Lee Child since I read a New York Times article about him that had pictures of the office in his flat in New York. It has gobsmacking views of the city, a wall of books, a guitar, a couch, an espresso machine (natch), pristine white walls, etc. etc. I’ve always fantasized about having the perfect writing space. I’ve toyed with the idea of converting a van into a mobile office, so that I could drive down to the beach in the morning, surf and write, surf and write. I’ve considered building a tiny house in my back yard. I’ve thought about leasing space in a co-working facility, or renting an office, so I can actually go to work every day.
But I’ve learned something about myself in the last couple of years: I have to write in a neutral space. I have a wonderful house, and a great office. It has lots of light, a nice view of the garden and even a standing desk. It’s perfect. But I can’t write there. Because it’s in my house. And if I’m in my house, it doesn’t take long before I start getting distracted by all the things that need to be done. The laundry. The dishes. Pulling weeds. Caulking baseboards.
So when I need to get work done, I leave the house. I go to a library – the LAPL branch in Silver Lake is a favorite, as is the central Glendale Library. And if the library is closed, I go to a cafe. Starbucks are always good. The Capital One cafes are great. Even the cafe in Whole Foods 365. Silver Lake Coffee. Cafe Tropical. Woodcat in Echo Park. I pay rent in Americanos and the occasional cookie, and I can sit there for hours, or at least until the AC freezes me out.
These places work for me because they are neutral spaces. I have no control over anything in them, apart from what’s in front of me. The screaming kids in the library, the shouty customers in the coffee shop, the squeal of espresso machines and the awful music – I can’t control any of it. It’s brilliant. All I can do is tune it out, and get on with the writing.
I’d like to say ‘whenever I can.’ But that would be a lie. If I was left to my own devices, I’d slouch in an armchair and read the latest by Bernard Cornwell. Or binge The Handmaid’s Tale. So I have to schedule myself. When I’m working on another project, like filling in at NPR or editing a podcast, the scheduling is taken care of for me, and I’m left with obvious slots that I can write in. I’m always looking for a minimum two-hour slug to get something meaningful done. And on the days when it’s super busy? I only need to do five minutes, remember.
But on the days that I’m doing nothing but writing, I’ve learned that if I’m to get anything done, I need to get it done early. If I wake up, have breakfast, meditate, write my list and start getting things done, I’m screwed. Because before I know it, it’s lunchtime. And then I’ll loll about a bit, do the washing up, maybe think about going for a run, and then the day is over. And I’ve got nothing to show for it. So I’ve learned that what I have to do is wake up, meditate, have breakfast, write my list of things to do…and then LEAVE THE HOUSE. If I do this, and get out of the house by eight, I can get five hours done, easily. Then I can crack the damn to-do list.
Laptop, chair, coffee. That’s pretty much it. Although sometimes I do bring a laptop stand and a wireless keyboard and mouse, to keep from turning into the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And I often bring a cushion, because those library chairs are HARD. No talismans (talismen?), no lucky charms. I break when I feel like it, which is usually about once an hour for five minutes or so. And a fifteen minute break for coffee, if I feel the need. But only one. Oh yeah…and NO SOCIAL MEDIA. That stuff, like research, should be scheduled, or it can torpedo the entire day.
There are a few writing programs out there, but I haven’t found any of them to be very good. I used to use the Scrivener writing program, until I learned that it doesn’t format well into Word (and you need it to do that when you submit). So now I use a combination of Google Docs and Word. Sometimes I’ll use Writeroom, which is a great program, but I’ll usually just cut everything I’ve written out of it, and paste into a Google Doc so I can keep it in the cloud.
Ad that’s pretty much it. Simple right? If only it were easy, too.