How this pantser became a plotter

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.

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But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.

Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.

Cool story:  After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.

So I guess that makes me…a plantser.

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The plantser: the pantser-plotter hybrid

When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.

Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.

My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.

That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).

The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.

I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.

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I knew what I had to write each day. And I actually sat down and did it!

I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.

Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.

Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.

Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.

Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!

Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?

Running: my new writing buddy

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Sit as little as possible. – Friedrich Nietzsche

I started running again recently, after a long stretch of being sedentary.

I’m not saying it was an easy thing. I went through a few weeks of pushing my reluctant body out the door in the early morning, making sure I wasn’t awake enough to resist.

Then it began to feel amazing. 

Four years ago, I tore my meniscus and was hobbling around, at work and at home, my knee swollen and feeling pretty awful. Since I’d torn it running a race, I thought maybe my time was up. I’m too old. My body can’t take the impact any more.

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The infamous 5K in which I injured my knee. The beer was good, though.

I had knee surgery, did the physical therapy to get back on my feet and resigned myself to remaining safe. To prevent it from happening again, I would stick to gym equipment and the occasional hike.

Except that I didn’t do those things.

I sat.

I wrote, sitting or curled up on the couch with my coffee, before my family got up in the morning, or as my husband played video games in the evening. Most of my day, with the exception of going to work and teaching or getting groceries, I sat.

Writing and running are similar in some ways. There is that way-famous quote by Dorothy Parker or George R.R. Martin, whichever you choose:  I hate writing but I love having written.

I love having run.

In return for the energy I’m expending, I get energy back for the rest of the day.

When you start out, running feels like a job. You have to get yourself psyched up—or guilted—to get out there and move. But once you hit your stride, you’re good. It’s like your body thanks you for using muscles that were aching to get back to work.

A few months ago, I got nostalgic for that feeling of motion. For how good it felt in the cool morning to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm. The flood of endorphins. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and ventured out to find dirt, grass and padded areas to try running again.

I ran in the park behind our house, then I moved to the padded track at the local high school.

And….no problems with my knees.

When I’m running, my thoughts fly giddy and free, like kids on a road trip hanging their heads out the car window. They’re having fun, along for the ride. New ideas pop into my head. Several times after running, I’ve gotten new insights into my characters. Yesterday I thought up a plot twist for a story I’d about given up on.

This is not a new idea. Author Laura Lippman has talked on Twitter about the value of working out before writing. Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about how exercise helps his creativity:  https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/12/importance-of-exercise-for-writers

So I encourage you. If you want to jumpstart your writing creativity or just get more energy, give running or some form of vigorous exercise a try.

To make sure you stick with it, look for a system to keep you accountable, like a running app or a local running club.

If I can do this, you can!

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I use Action’s Couch to 5K app. A little perky for early in the morning, but the interval training works.

 

Sneak attacked by joy

When I was growing up in Iowa, May Day was the best.

You made up little baskets filled with candy and goodies, then sneaked them over to your friends’ houses. You left them on the porch or hung them on the door knob. Back then, in the Midwest, everyone did it. Judging by what I see on Pinterest and parenting blogs, I’m excited to see this tradition is coming back.

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I thought it was the coolest thing in the world: surprising someone with a goodie. I practically giggled to myself as I imagined my friends finding the treats.

I loved the element of stealth. So did my mom.

This holiday was absolutely my mom’s thing. She loved surprising people with something fun, just because it would make them happy. To imagine the look on a friend’s face. One day, before my mom’s dementia got really bad, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a mysterious look on her face. I asked her what she was thinking about. She told me she wanted to sew a toaster cover for Lori, her neighbor, because “she really needed one.”  She was figuring out how she’d make it and how she’d get it to fit without Lori knowing.

Today I celebrate May Day. And my mom, and her love of sneak attacking people with fun little things.

Let’s keep bringing it back.

MargaretSUEVierk

Margaret “Sue” Vierk 
April 8, 1935 – April 22, 2019

What the Faux, Hemingway?

img_20190308_093930.jpgThere is a famous quote about writing:  Write drunk, edit sober.

Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.

The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.

The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.

They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.

You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.

Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.

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Sometimes great inspiration looks less-than-great the next day. Sometimes chemistry and creative writing don’t mix.

After you’ve had your coffee:  Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?

In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.

If you want to read the funny story of a writer who took the quote literally for a week:  https://www.bustle.com/articles/88879-i-wrote-drunk-and-edited-sober-for-a-week-and-heres-what-happened-to-my-work

Happy writing (and reading), my friends!

Writing like an animator

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Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.

I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.

When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.

This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.

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Teen rebellion: Little dumpling would rather eat Cheetos and talk to his friends.

You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.

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“Late Afternoon”

“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.

At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.

Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?

You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.

I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.

2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).

The storyteller’s storyteller

What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love

My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.

I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.

At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.

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My mom back in her English teacher days.

I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.

This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.

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William Faulkner

Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.

This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.  A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.

To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)

I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.

My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story. Absalom is told in an unconventional way:  by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.

373755The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.

The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)

The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?

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Something’s hidden in the house Thomas Sutpen built. It’s scary as hell, but what is it?

Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”

I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.

And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.

Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).

Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.

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As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥

The music that will never, ever go away

This year, with political firestorms and the tragic, actual firestorms throughout my state, I’m craving the comfort of Christmas songs.

I want to hear the familiar carols, the goofy songs (“I’m Mr. Heat Miser”) and the smooth retro feel of classics from the 1950s and ’60s, that golden age of Christmas songs. Don’t get me started with the Christmas movies featuring those songs.

whitechristmas__spanWhite Christmas isn’t a great movie. It’s the music that makes it. I watch it to sing along with Rosemary Clooney on “Sisters.” And hear Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing the melancholy “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, who was actually Jewish.

I’m dreaming of a white christmas/Just like the ones I used to know…

The song captures so well the longing for a time that never really happened. Christmas is invested with all that we dream of and realistically know the new year won’t bring us. But in the bleak days of winter, it makes us so happy to sing about it.

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The highlight of my Christmas song memories has to be when I attended a multicultural church in San Francisco. I was in a 150-person choir, an incredibly diverse group of people. We did a funky version of “Winter Wonderland,” which I couldn’t get out of my head for years afterwards. After we sang the Hallelujah Chorus at practice, the choir director said, “Hey, guys, look around you. This is what heaven will look like.”

Last year, my sisters and I watched the movie musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, with my mom, who is bedridden, nonverbal and in the last stages of dementia. When the songs started up, she smiled and sang along, carrying the tune pretty closely but garbling the words. It was mind boggling. It made us cry.

A dementia expert once told me that a small part of the brain remains unaffected by mental deterioration. Things like songs and often repeated prayers live there. That’s where these Christmas songs will stay, locked deep within the lead-lined safes in our minds. We won’t be able to get away from them.

What are your Christmas and holiday favorites?  What songs do you love? And love to hate?

 

Here’s my list. Feel free to dispute my choices.

My Seven Best Christmas Songs Ever 

  • O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • Hark the Herald Angels Sing
  • Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah
  • Silent Night
  • O Holy Night
  • Winter Wonderland
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? (fondly remembering the movie Gremlins)

My Seven Worst Christmas Songs Ever

  • Wonderful Christmastime  (Paul McCartney)
  • Little Drummer Boy*
  • Last Christmas
  • Santa Baby 
  • Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Secretly resent it because it took me years to nail the chord changes)
  • Deck the Halls (Fa la la la la…It’s like they ran out of words)

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*Exception:  1982 David Bowie and Bing Crosby duet. This is sweet and cheesy, and I love David Bowie so much, I could watch it again and again.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends!

Back from the UK (with pictures)

The jet lag has worn off, but two weeks ago I got back from a wonderful trip to England.

I walked through London in the footsteps of my favorite writers. I ate lunch at the pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met on Tuesdays. I got to see the hangouts and graves of the classic writers who gave me my love for the English language. The weather and the people could not have been more congenial.

London was busy and energetic, full of so many people under 30 that I felt pretty damn ancient. As Harry Potter fans, our first stop in the city had to be Platform 9-3/4 in King’s Cross Station. 

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Hedwig’s missing!

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We saw Westminster Abbey, on a tour led by a bossy, hilarious verger who rolled his eyes at the new, abstract David Hockey stained glass window. I got to see Poets Corner, and the grave of my literary crush, Samuel Johnson. As a Californian, the history awed me. The site has been a religious gathering place since 960 AD.

It was a relief to get away from US politics, but we did catch a brief glimpse of British Brexit drama, when streets were shut down for the Wooferendum, a protest in which dogs and their owners marched against the travel quarantine that their dogs will have to endure when they vacation in the EU after Brexit.

In Oxford we ate at The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and friends) met. Our friend Ruth then took us over to the Bodleiean Library where we saw an exhibit of Tolkein’s drawings and heard recordings of him speaking the languages he invented for Middle Earth. 

Ruth drove us (very fast, on incredibly narrow, twisting country roads) up to the Cotswolds for a roadside picnic.

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Our picnic spot in the Cotswolds
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The punts at Magdalen College, Oxford. Imagining Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane heading out on the river.
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Lunch at the Inklings’ hangout!

After leaving our gracious hostess, we headed for Stratford-upon-Avon, a tourist town but in a good way. Shakespeare’s birthplace and the associated sites are well kept up and the tour guides are knowledgeable. The town had even more meaning for me since I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and watching the hilarious BBC show, “The Upstart Crow,” a comedic version of Shakespeare’s life as a struggling playwright.

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The Avon part of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown

We finished off our trip in Bath. I love this city! A beautiful abbey, the Roman Baths, the site where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the Jane Austen Centre. We ate Sally Lunns, Bath Buns and many, many scones with clotted cream. I drank Samuel Johnson’s favorite tea.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

 

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The Roman Baths, built around 400 AD. Coincidentally the site on which Mary Shelley wrote one of my favorites, Frankenstein, 1400 years later.

I’m still feeling a pleasant buzz from the scenery, the history, and the friendliness and dry wit of the British people.

As I corral myself into my daily routine for NaNoWriMo, I’m dreaming of my next trip.

The impossibility of writing in an empty house

IMG_20180906_120325The door closes. There is that beautiful sound: silence.

The sound I’ve longed to hear, through years of being a mom to three children. No video game boss battles. Nobody banging away at musical instruments (which I admit I enjoy). No requests for food or money.

I am…alone.

I’ve made up my to-do list. All I will do with this time. Clean the bathroom, read that new magical realism novel I downloaded. Pay a bill. Write my book.

With the house to myself, with no interruptions, I should be able to write literally THOUSANDS of words. I should be able to sit at my desk and nail down the scene that’s been coalescing in my head.

The characters in my book—the young police detective, the unhappy wife, and the grieving family of the murdered ex-Nazi—are breathing sighs of relief and exchanging grateful glances. Finally, she’s alone! Now we get to do something.

download-1It’s our time. Our time down here, my book’s cast of characters chant as they launch into Sean Astin’s speech from The Goonies. They can get on with their investigations, conversations and illegal/sketch activities! At least they are motivated.

I have my special coffee mug and hot water in my French press. I have a healthy, Whole30 compliant snack. I turn on the MacBook, open Scrivener and I sit.

And wait.

A phone call interrupts my thoughts and now I’m out of my seat. I remember I haven’t watched the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show. And oh, my God, it’s Cakes! If I watch it, fold the clothes from the dryer and maybe think about that scene some more—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? At least I’d be getting something done.

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And so the rationalization begins. If I do sit back down and write, my time is short and full of distractions.

After a few of these frustrating sessions, I decided to work with myself and my distractible tendencies. Just as I would with students I teach or one of my kids. Let’s strike a deal here, make this work.

My thought process went something like this:

Realization #1
I don’t get much time to myself. I am alone-time deprived.

Realization #2
My self discipline fails me when I feel deprived, whether it’s a diet or schedule I’m trying to adhere to. (If you’re an enneagram person, I am a Self Preservation 4, which means I’m a creative type with a high priority for self care.)

Brilliant hypothesis!
If I indulge myself for a set period of time, I will get rid of those feelings of deprivation.

My latest tactic:  For an hour, I allow myself to relax and enjoy the quiet house. Watch that Great British Baking Show episode. Prepare myself something that tastes really good. Maybe put on a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs.

Then I sit down in front of my computer. I have fully savored my alone-ness, given in to any desire to dance around like Tom Cruise in his underwear in Risky Business. I am ready now.

And so I write.

Thankfully, this is working pretty well for me so far.

If you’re a parent or spouse who doesn’t get much time by yourself—how do you stay focused when you get your alone time?

The top 5 writing distractions. (#5 will surprise you)

If anything is a test of your will as a writer, it’s resisting the distractions that curl up a ghostly cartoon finger and lure you away from the page. They’re evil, I tell you. Evil.

And the rationalizing that goes on in a writer’s head could fill volumes.

Everyone has their own temptations. Mine are food and the internet. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. Wait–maybe I could do some research on the subject of distractions! Now that could be interesting.

Let me just pop onto Google and look this up (disappears into bottomless void).

Distraction #1
What’s for lunch?
What’s in the fridge? It’s only 10:30 am, but it wouldn’t hurt to get something started.
Rationalization: Food is necessary to sustain life. Nobody disputes this.

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Note: This distraction gets worse when you’re on a diet and all you can think about is food.

Distraction #2
I need another cup of coffee.
Making coffee will take maybe ten minutes, but it will make me write faster.
Rationalization: So I’m actually creating time if I take a break to make coffee.

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Distraction #3
What’s Trump doing right now?
He’s up to something, that’s for sure. I’ll check my news feed and find out what it is.
Rationalization: If it’s nuclear war, I want some notice so I can revise my less-than-perfect first chapter. It may be found in the Cloud someday, after the apocalypse.

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Distraction #4
Let me go online to check something. It’ll only take five minutes.
If I go online, I will head down a rabbit hole and emerge 40 minutes later, knowing a lot more about gopher traps and French property laws, but completely derailed from my story.
Rationalization: But if I don’t check, the mistake will end up in a published book because my revising self and all my beta readers will miss it. Readers will write me mean letters.

Distraction #5
Because…cute pet
Look what Fur Ball just did! This is so going on Instagram.
Rationalization: The little guy is adorable. Posting a pic of the cuteness will make people happy. After all, nuclear war could break out at any time. Don’t we all need joy?

Since I currently don’t have any pets, the members of my writing group have kindly sent me these pictures of their adorable distractions:

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Charlotte, the therapy cat. Courtesy of rcgwriter on instagram
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One of Ariel’s very literate cats, courtesy of leiraklewis on instagram
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That face! O’Neill, courtesy of onceuponrosanna on instagram

What are your big distractions, writing friends? How do you overcome them to stay focused?