Thursday, July 30, 2009

Want to be a writer? Treat yourself like a toddler.

By Laura Caldwell


I have always been in awe of the hyper-productivity of certain authors. Alexandre Dumas comes to mind (277 books). So does Joyce Carol Oates (roughly 48 books and 34 short story collections), along with others like Sandra Brown (57 books), Heather Graham (more than 100) and Debbie Macomber (150). So I was a little stumped when I first agreed to finish 3 novels and write a non-fiction book in one year. I mean, it was nothing like accomplishing what those authors had. Still, would I be able to do it? How had they done it?

Marcus Sakey (who thought I was nuts) recommended reaching out to Allison Brenan, who had also done something similar, releasing her excellent books, The Prey, The Hunt and The Kill, in a very short amount of time (and therefore having to write them in a very short amount of time). After Marcus introduced us, I got an email from Allison, stating that it was technically possible to write all three books at once. But she advised me to stay focused and (paraphrasing here) to be careful about the stress level.

I actually didn't believe I would have that much stress. I had been a trial lawyer after all. Trying a case for weeks (after years and years of prep) and then waiting for a verdict are some of the toughest times in a lawyer’s life, requiring climbing over mountains of stress in order to get out of your own way. But this was just writing, I told myself. I didn’t have to put on a cute suit and convince twelve people that a surgeon had correctly diagnosed adenomyoepithelioma. I didn't think writing the books would be easy by any stretch, but I figured I could handle it well.

I was wrong. I was a mess. Mostly because writing is so very different from the legal world. The law involves lots of little deadlines. The judge tells you to answer interrogatories by this date, disclose your experts by that date, pick a jury on this date, etc. But with writing a book, there’s just one looming deadline out there.

And so I mixed it up. In short, I began treating myself like a toddler. I don't mean that I babied myself, doling out massages and therapy sessions and meditative retreats. On the contrary, I literally studied the way my sister and friends handle their toddlers these days. They watch their kids intently. They analyze them. And then they change the kids’ environments in order to make them happier, more well-behaved and better able to deal with life.

For example, I once went to visit my sister. Her youngest daughter asked for apple juice. As an obliging aunt, I went to the refrigerator and began to pour her a cup. "Whoa, whoa,” my sister said. “Only half juice. The other half has to be water.”

I went to the water faucet. "Why?"

"Because she was getting cranky in the afternoon,” my sister said. “We figure it’s the sugar in the juice, and so now we're giving her half and half.”

I saw other examples of the toddler analysis thing while I visited. Too much TV at night seemed to make my niece unable to sleep, so the TV was weeded down to a half an hour. A certain book got her hyped up, and so even though she wanted it read to her over and over, the book had to be limited to once a day.

After watching this, I decided to treat myself exactly the same way. Maybe it would help get the books done faster. I thought about how I was working every morning, all morning, but I noticed that I kept stopping to take phone calls from students, answer emails, and get on Twitter and read tweets from Rob Thomas about his latest video shoot. Meanwhile, I wasn't getting much done on the novels, and so I analyzed myself the way my sister did with her kid. She just can't handle all the stimulus, I pronounced in my mind. I came up with a new rule—no emails, no phone calls and no Rob Thomas in the mornings. Only writing.

The new rule worked well for a while. But then my publisher needed to plan for the marketing and the covers of the books. My attention was required, and rightfully so my publisher didn’t want to wait until the afternoons when I'd finished my pages. So I changed it up. I would take care of the business stuff in the morning, I decided. I would take a lunch break and then get back to writing.

This worked for a while too until I noticed that I severely mentally challenged in the afternoons. I needed a change of pace, I decided, a change of scenery. I tracked down my friend, Theresa Schwegel, who was also on a tough deadline and in need of a jump start. I suggested we go to the Loyola library since we were both graduates of the school. We tried that for a couple of days and being in an academic setting seemed to make a difference. At least to me. I started getting productive again. But then Theresa couldn’t make it as often. She’s since told me that my productivity and my overly loud typing (she’s right about that—I’m a noisy typer) was making her crazy and unable to get anything done. Without my friend there, I started to lose interest in the library thing. And so I changed it up again. And again. And again.

I’m quite sure Alexandre Dumas (and Joyce, Heather, Sandra, Debbie and Allison) didn’t have to write their books that way. I’m certain they have a much higher intellectual ability. But inevitably, it worked for me. Somehow, sixty or so ever-changing toddler tactics later, the books were done.

I’m on vacation now, but I’ve decided to stick with the toddler theme for a while. I’m getting on a plane today to visit my sister, and for the flight I’m packing a bag full of snacks and treats and a juice (with half water).

22 comments:

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Laura,

as a grandma and a writer, I think there is a lot of merit in the toddler system. And I think the adaptation as circumstances change is an absolute requirement.

Good luck to you.

Terrie

Darwyn Jones said...

Laura - Good post!
As you know, writers are often asked, "What is your process?" Well, mine is to figure out, each day, how to get x number of words on the page. Then do that, knowing that the same answer may not apply tomorrow.

Sounds very much like toddler treatment.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Since Marcus called it "insane," and Marcus writes four books in the time it takes me to write one, I won't tell you what I'd call it. Okay, totally insane.

Another thing to be learned from toddlers is that if you're trying to write books really fast they should live in somebody else's house.

Laura Caldwell said...

Good point, Terrie! Adaptation is essential no matter what the situation. People seem to be pretty damn good at it these days--the world changes so whip fast. What are you writing?

Sara Paretsky said...

I'm in awe that you could work out story lines and bring characters to believable life on that kind of schedule, toddler or not. My books run about 135000 words complete, with about another 50 or 60000 in sections that don't work out and have to be pitched. 800,000 words a year, plus plot and character--I couldn't do it unless I was Dumas. He had a stable of writers, in the manner of James Patterson, who filled in the blanks for him. And then, I'd hate the books because what I want is my words on my page. So just to do it physically, Laura, you clearly are superwoman.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Laura,

I write short mystery stories and occasionally one is published in an anthology.

I am very pleased that one of my stories will be published in the MWA anthology due out next spring.

Thank you for asking.

Terrie

Christopher said...

I did something close to what you did. My day job seemed to be getting in the way of following my bliss, writing novels.

I decided that I wasn't getting any younger and it was time to get off my butt. I made a writing schedule that I slowly adapted until I found something that worked. 80,000 (& 80 days) I finished my first book.

I am in awe of your ability to produce a large output of work in a year.

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