Saturday, October 2, 2010

Writing Tips: Minimizing Distractions and Getting Organized

I've got a gazillion ideas for stories. A gazillion. And, if you're writing mind works at all like mine, you do, too. You've got a noggin full of ideas that you can't wait to write.

And you want to write them all. Who doesn't? They're all great ideas! But let's face facts: you're simply not going to be able to write all the ideas you've come up with in your lifetime. It's just simple mathematics.

However, there are a few simple things you, as a writer, can do to ensure you get to the important ones and I've got a few suggestions to help you get there.

Three key strategies will help you be more productive:

  1. Minimizing Distractions

  2. Organizing Priorities

  3. Embracing New Technologies so you can be more productive

Let's look at these strategies:

1. Minimizing Distractions


OK – If you have kids, you're completely on your own here. (I'm kidding, I'm kidding). Trying to find free time where kids are involved is like trying to performing a leeching on yourself-even if you're successful, it's going to end up bloody.

However, in my house, we have a fairly standard bed time and, for the most part, the children are in bed by 8pm. I know not everyone believes in that kind of rigidity, but the routine works for us. So, basically, after doing chores around the house, my free time starts around 8:30 or 9. But therein lies the problem: most of my free time was taken up with distractions.

So, I sat down one day and went through my daily routine and sought out the distractions that sucked up my time. Then I did the same for my weekly routine.

I found that my biggest distractions so far were work from my day job, the Internet, Television shows I wanted to watch and books I wanted to read. In order for me to set aside writing time (and make the most use of it), I needed to minimize these distractions.


Distraction 1: As I've pointed out before, I've disconnected myself from the Internet when I'm writing.

I have a removable wireless card I can remove. You, if you have more modern technology, should be able to turn your wireless card off or simply stop your network from connecting (consult your local nerd). This will guarantee you start to be more productive. When eliminate the constant droning sound of the Information Super Highway out your window, you will find you hear your inner voice a lot better.

Distraction 2: When it comes to work from my day job spilling over to my free time—I've drawn a line in the sand and I try very hard to make other people's problems just that: their problems and not mine. I work on emergency items that directly affect me or my team and that's it. If there's some other emergency that affects some other department, so be it. I try very hard not to let it become my issue.

Distraction 3: As for the television shows, I've embraced technology (and coughed up an extra 10 bucks a month) for a DVR. I record shows all week long when they're on and watch them when I deem it TV time, rather than have TV suck up all my free time (after 8pm each night).

I've designated a specific night for catching up when I can. If I can't, then I tell myself “oh well” - after all, who's words are more important to me? Mine that I'm creating? Or another writer's that got himself a career writing for a network television? If you answered anything other than “mine”, you need to rethink your status as a writer. I'm sorry, it sounds selfish. I know. But it's true. Your work has GOT to be the most important thing to you.

Distraction 4: I've set aside time in my schedule to read. That time is maybe a half hour or so before I go to sleep. If I don't have any writing pressing on a given day, I might take designated writing time to read. But for the most part, again, you need to determine where the line is and think about what's more important to you: your words or someone else's. This is why I try to keep a separate time for reading, so I don't have that problem.

Once I minimized the impact of my distractions, I was then able to start to organize my schedule and take command of my writing time.

2. Organizing Priorities

First, I took a look through all my notebooks to find the story ideas that were most important to me. And guess what, folks? Not every idea I wrote down was awesome. Not every plot or story that blew through my mind and I wrote down was a winner. I'm sure if you were to honestly review a lot of your ideas, you'd find a lot more of them should be tossed over your shoulder into the pickle barrel, rather than ever see the light of day on paper.

I took all the stories and ideas that were important to me and listed them out. I did this for two reasons: 1) I wanted to make sure that, during a second review (wherein I write them down) they were still as good as I thought. It turns out, I still dropped some.

2) I wanted to write them down because I wanted to take a close look at how much effort it would take to bring the effort to completion.

After writing the best ideas down, I went ahead and prioritized them, factoring in how complete they were and also how appropriate they were to what I wanted to accomplish as a writer.

What do I mean by that? Well, There are some writers out there who want to write anything. Some writers want to be science fiction writers. Some want to be only known as “dark fantasy” writers.

I'm a horror author. It's what I dig on. It's what I know best.

So, I prioritized my projects, based on what fit into my being a horror author. Sure enough, two projects that I still think about heavily moved to the lower part of the list. Why? Because their sci-fi stories. I'm not saying I won't write them. I'm just saying I won't write them right now.

So, I left myself with 3 projects and a timeframe for completion on each.

I had successfully organized my projects schedule. I knew what I was going to write. Now what?

3. Embracing New Technologies So You Can Be More Productive

Maybe you're not like me, but, since I'm a writer, a lover of words, a collector of books, I don't like change.

I like things as they are – I like them to stay the same. I distrust technology and changes to technology. I dislike change in tried and true things. A good friend of mine got a Kindle one day and, as he showed it to me, I heard words coming out of my mouth that sounded simply stupid. I scoffed at the device as one of the most useless things I'd ever seen. Now, truth be told, I'm still biased against a one-trick pony such as the Kindle. I like devices I buy to be able to do more than one thing.

But here's where I heard myself being absolutely stupid: I bristled against the technology before I even gave it a chance.

So, I recently stopped bristling against new technologies (and we all do it, too, admit it, we all feel the hackles on the back of our neck raise up when someone shows us something with which we are unfamiliar). I took a step back and realized that no matter what, smarter people than I invented some of the tools I'm going to tell you about and they did it to make their lives better. My life could probably benefit from it, too. I'm betting, so can yours.

Technology 1: DVR - Ok – so I embraced DVR technology to free up my night time and turn it into writing time. Easy enough. No need to delve any further. Record stuff like a VCR and watch it when you like. Easy Peasy.

Technology 2: Evernote/SmartPhone – If you're a writer, you have ideas. Those ideas come and those ideas go. You could be sitting at your job, have the best idea on the planet for a successful series of fantasy novels about a dragonfly who battles field mice and then your boss comes along and tells you that there's a big meeting where you're being blamed for some customer's oversight. Guess what? I doubt you're thinking about the dragonfly anymore. Chances are, you've forgotten most of the dragonfly story and you'll never get it back.

This is where Evernote comes in. Evernote is a notebook-type application for the PC, Mac and Linkmost smartphones. This last option is key for myself. I have a Blackberry Storm and I constantly use the app to enter ideas about dragonflies and field mice into it before some other distraction comes along. It allows me to basically perform a brain dump to the Internet. I then take 15 minutes at the beginning of my free time each night to review the notes and organize them a bit.

Technology 3: Google Calendar Seriously, if you're not using Google Calendar to organize your schedule, you really need to think hard as to why. Like I said above, I used to bristle at new technologies. This was one of them. “Why would I need to organize my time and enter appointments?”

Why? Two words: Free Time.

I didn't have it before. I used to fritter away my time. Now, I have organized all my chores in my Google Calendar and synced it to my phone. Everything I have to do in a week has an appointment. If a scheduled appointment comes up, I take care of it right away. This way, I get in the good habit of sticking to my schedule FOR EVERYTHING.

What comprises a scheduled appointment? ANYTHING AT ALL.

Gotta pick up your kids from school? Make an appointment.

Want to set aside free time during lunch? Make an appointment.

Have to go to DMV? Make an appointment.

Want to outline some book idea but want to squeeze it in while watching kids at the park? Make an appointment.

Let me show you a typical day on my Google Calendar:

8:30am – 5:00pm – Work

3:30pm – Pick up rugrat from school

(I usually leave dinnertime and playtime with the kids open)

7:00pm-10:00pm – New York Rangers at Ottawa

8:30pm – 8:45 – Check email, twitter, Evernote

8:45pm – 10:00pm - Write Insert to Takeover #4

10:00pm – 11:00pm - Brainstorm

I know this sounds like an extreme way of organizing your day but, trust me. It helps a lot. You firm up your routine and you'll see your creative output grow greatly.

Technology 4: Dropbox – I used to struggle with keeping versions of drafts of files. There were days I didn't know which version of a story was where. On my laptop? Did I stick it in a Gmail to myself? I could never remember.

Now, with Dropbox, you don't have to.

Dropbox is a web-based service that allows you to keep files “in the cloud” (read: on the Internet) but they appear on your PC as files on your hard drive. Edit them, copy them, do with them what you will, but they are versioned and stored off-line, on

This service is great because I can use it on the laptop or, if I had an iPhone, I can use it on the phone. I had a catastrophic blowout the other day and lost an entire file. What could have been a blood-pressure-rising event, actually turned out to be a quick login at and, using their services, I was able to restore the previous version of a file in the blink of an eye. No ulcer. No pain. Just a quick restore and I was back in business.

Now, I use it as the primary storage for my writing. Dropbox is like a safe deposit box for important files. They give you 2gb of free storage to start with and, for Word or OpenOffice files, that's more than enough for most people's lifetimes.

Conclusion: If you're a writer who needs to find free time to write, don't bristle at new technologies that are out there. Use them to your benefit and you'll see that you will definitely start to produce more when it comes to manuscripts.

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