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Driving Off Distractions

03/23/2011

Ask any novelist: it happens every day. We meet someone new who asks, “What do you do?” We tell them, and that person – in line at the post office, at a PTA meeting, online, wherever – will say, “I have a great idea for a book. Want to write it with me?”

It’s a generous offer, meant with nothing but goodwill, but my answer is always some variation of “No, thank you.” I try to be polite. Some authors I know aren’t.

Coming up with ideas is never the problem. The ideas are out there, everywhere, too many of them. Everything starts with “what if?” What if the barista at the Starbucks near MIT is a spy sent to pick up scientific secrets? What if those parents at the dance recital adopted their child illegally? What if that old man walking his dog is a Balkan war criminal in hiding? It’s a strange, complicated world, and real life is just as dramatic and surprising as fiction. The Boston Globe alone could give me enough material for a lifetime of thrillers.

No, the challenge writers face isn’t ideas, it’s time — and focus.

I read somewhere that the average first novel should be about 80,000 words. My books run slightly longer than that (BURIED SECRETS is roughly 95,000), and it takes time to put those words on paper. A good idea, that initial burst of inspiration, might be good for 30,000 words or so. I also write very fast as I’m finishing a book; in the last week or two of writing, I’m up before dawn and writing well into the night, as the story takes on a momentum of its own.

Between that, I get distracted. And distractions kill more novels than anything else.

Over the years I have tried to train myself to avoid distractions, but new ones just keep coming. As big a boon as the Internet is to a writer, it’s also a curse. Googling anything is dangerous: one link leads to another, and the next thing I know, two hours have passed. I can spend all morning on email. Twitter is addictive. Facebook is the break room my office doesn’t have. And don’t get me started on YouTube…

I’ve set rules for myself. I’ve made it a game; an hourglass sits on my desk, and while the sands run, I can’t go online. It’s not always enough. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post reported on writers who deliberately seek out Internet-free zones so they can write without distraction. I’d do the same, if not for Mac Freedom, a program that literally locks me out of the Internet for some period I choose. Yes, I paid (a very reasonable sum) for a program to keep me offline. That’s how important it is.

So now I’m online in the morning, before I start writing, and I’m online in the late afternoon and evening, after the writing is done. Some days, if the writing’s going well, you’ll catch me online in the middle of the day. But the battle against distraction is constant, and I’m always looking for new weapons against it.