Now, where was I? Oh yeah, that’s it, writing a blog post. Believe it or not, between my title and opening sentence, a whole week has slipped by. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, distraction muttered in my ear almost the instant I finished typing the title. I can’t quite remember what lured me away from the computer – probably the phone rang or perhaps the washing machine beeped to let me know it was finished or maybe I just felt like a coffee. Truth be told, it was most likely the coffee – it really doesn’t take much to whisk me away from the work at hand.
I know some distractions are necessary. Someone needs to put the washing out. But I don’t really need to pull out weeds on the way back to the house. Nor do I need to sweep all the leaves off the back veranda before I go inside. In fact I hate doing those sorts of things. But once procrastination sets in, it’s so easy to let the writing slip for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the next.
Of course, some distractions are valid. I’ll put my writing aside any day for time spent with family and earning an income is a necessary diversion.
But I have to confess a lot of distractions are just a matter of weak self-discipline. When I get a writing day, I have to set down some rules. I have a ban on emails, blogs or social networking between 9am and 7pm. Those sorts of things are helpful to a writer’s career but it’s not sensible to let them suck up more than 25% of my writing commitment. After all, if online networking gives rise to a golden opportunity one day, I really need to have a decent body of finished writing behind me. No point in promoting yourself if you’ve got no goods to sell at the end of it all.
Then, once external distractions are out of the way, I often need to use the carrot-on-a-stick technique to make myself stay on task. I don’t allow myself a coffee break before I’ve written for at least two hours. No lunch until I’ve written for at least four hours, and so on. Or else, I might tell myself I can’t watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones unless I’ve finished a complete short story, a novel chapter or a blog post. I have to be my own taskmaster and set the rules before I start, otherwise it’s too easy to fudge it.
But distraction is not always a bad thing. For a writer, there’s an upside of being easily distracted because it can lead to inspiration from unexpected sources.
Every writer should have an easily distracted eye that sees things others don’t notice. Fine details, oddities and quirky observations often give rise to a new story. I enjoy a bit of a stare once in a while, as long as the subject is unaware of course. A particular hand movement, an unusual facial expression or a jiggling foot under the table will make me wonder what’s going on inside that person’s head and all of sudden an idea for a character starts to build. I rarely write about people I know, so it’s usually something I observe in a stranger that kicks off a new character for me.
Places, however mundane, are also goldmines for the distracted eye. Wherever I find myself, I make a conscious check of all the small details to store away for future scene building. Readers know how enjoyable it is to become immersed in the carefully selected details of a scene, so having an easily distracted eye is a big asset to a writer.
Writers also need an easily distracted ear. Writing dialogue requires a large storehouse of different ways of speaking. I collect interesting pieces of slang, colloquial phrases or punchy words, as well as taking note of the pace of conversations or the balance of silence to speech or the sentence started and left unfinished. When I eavesdrop, I’m training myself to write better dialogue and when I overhear someone telling a story I’m learning how to write better narrative.
Another thing writers need is an easily distracted curiosity. Often, I’ll start researching one topic and end up with lots of little side notes on other things that have sparked my interest along the way. I once Googled Arthurian legends for a children’s play I was writing and ended up delving into the ancient techniques of forging Damascus steel. I know that might sound boring but the topic consumed me for hours and two years later it became crucial to a novel I was writing. It also gave rise to some interesting symbolism in another short story. Of course, not all my little side excursions give rise to something I can use in my writing. But if I allow my curiosity a little distraction occasionally, I uncover the occasional gem to lend colour or even inspire a whole story.
So, distraction is not all bad. If you’ve got an easily distracted eye, ear or curiosity, it can be a real asset to writing. When my fingers are not actually on the keyboard, I actively encourage my eyes, ears and curiosity to be distracted and I find the more I do, the better I write.
Like all writers, I often struggle to finish the work at hand, in the face of all the distractions. Let’s face it, life is busy and writing is hard slog sometimes. It’s too easy to sneak away from the work if I don’t lay down some rules. And it’s always good if I can find the right carrot-on-a-stick to hold me to the task. On that score, I’ve done well today. I finished this blog post without getting distracted even once, which means I get to watch Game of Thrones tonight. Yay!
PS Apologies to those of you not aware of or even remotely interested in Game of Thrones. For the rest of you, winter is coming…