Monday, February 19, 2007

Time Zone

by Nancy Martin

The thing I hated most about teaching was the bells. My whole day was regimented by clanging bells, and I'm not sure which was worse--the infernal noise or the frustrating knowledge that every minute of my day was ruled by someone else.

So when I took my maternity leave, I was highly motivated to find another career--one that didn't make such rigid demands on my time.

Turns out, though, a successful career as a writer depended upon honing my language skills and managing my time just as carefully as it had been done for me by the school district.

When I first started writing, I snatched moments whenever I could. I scribbled on a notepad while my husband bathed the baby. I crafted sentences while I nursed our daughter. I treasured the long drives to visit Grandpa and Grandma because I could let my imagination run free and jot notes in the car. I wrote everything in longhand--a laborious, yet detail-oriented method--then re-wrote as I typed up the finished pages. (Yes, these were the days before computers, if you can imagine!) The process made me focus on making my language very clear. Every word counted.

But it took a while to learn how to get myself in The Zone--that mental state I find ideal for writing long fiction.

I happened into The Zone by accident at first. As a young mother, I put my daughter down for a daily afternoon nap and rushed to the desk to start composing the three pages I hoped to finish every day. With my writing time limited to the duration of her nap, I used every minute to immerse myself in the story and pound the typewriter. I came to dread the first sounds of my daughter waking from her snooze. Her crib was located in the room just over my head, and I could hear her kick her toys when she first stirred. I forced myself to focus on my work as she began to sing to herself. Eventually, though, she got bored or wet and called for me, but until she did, I kept my head in the story. After a few months, I gained another precious hour of work time when she learned how to climb out of that crib and manipulate her record player. (I can still hear Mr. Rogers singing to both of us!) For me, the key to writing my quota of pages every day was not allowing anything to break the spell.

Oddly enough, I did the most writing when my children were pre-schoolers. I took them to a neighborhood daycare center at 9am and returned for them at 1pm, after they'd eaten lunch (healthy food, prepared by somebody else!) During those four precious hours alone, I wrote more pages than I had before (or since!) I relished those regular hours. I didn't waste a minute. Even the drive home from the daycare gave me valuable minutes to plan what I was going to write. One year, I wrote six romance novels using every second of those four-hour writing sessions. That era was a good lesson for me: Keeping a regular schedule, I realized, kept me in The Zone.

But when my kids started attending school and my work day lengthened, I didn't necessarily use my time as wisely as before. Suddenly I had time to read! To talk to friends on the phone. To study the market. To have a hobby. To have a life, with all the demands that come with it. Sure, I continued to write and sell a lot of books, but the fire wasn't in my belly anymore. For one thing, I didn't care for the genre I felt stuck in, and I wanted to break out, but it seemed to hard. So I wrote in fits and starts--often drafting whole books in as little as a week and then going back to flesh out the pages later. Sure, that binge-like method of writing worked, too, but it was more stressful. Gradually, I slipped into a depression. I slept for hours every afternoon, had mood swings and eventually went on Prozac.

It took a real upheaval in my family life to make the change I needed most. We moved--not once, but twice in the same year so my husband could change jobs. Our daughters went off to college. My father died. And suddenly writing books that I didn't enjoy seemed like a huge waste of precious time. I started writing mysteries.

So I'm back to the lesson I learned in the beginning. I make the time and keep it holy. I stick to a schedule. I give myself long stretches of work time so I keep myself in The Zone. My head hardly ever leaves the story. If you see me wandering around the grocery store in a daze, you'll know I'm thinking about imaginary people in imaginary places.

If I stop writing---even for a day--I can fall out of The Zone. I try to figure out why I've stalled and strategize ways to start again. (Often, it means making a date with my ruthless critique partner. I'll clean up the pages I have and send them to her as quickly as possible to avoid killing more precious time by "polishing" pages that may get chucked anyway. Her response often kick-starts me.) But sometimes the reasons for stopping are more complex. In those situations, I sometimes pay a therapist to help me find the answers. (That's the quick way!) Or I take a class. Or I give a class. Sometimes I'll take two weeks and read a book a day and journal about the experience to see what I can learn.

But it usually comes back to one thing: Making the time to write and sticking to it.

Strange, but after all those years of having my day structured by someone else, I find myself the most structured person I know. Except I can't use bells. For a long time, I couldn't even use the timer on my stove. Sure, it made for a few burned meals, but I'm a lot more aware of the passage of time without a noise to tell me. My career depends on it.

My new book comes out March 6. Look for A CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED DEATH in bookstores near you.


Anonymous said...

I love your blog today, Nancy! Really gets us into the mind of a writer.

I think depression can often be a disconnect between what your heart wants to be doing and what you're actually doing in your life. Congrats on taking the plunge and getting out of a path that no longer fit you.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nancy!

It's a great feeling when you're in the zone and pounding out those pages. What I hate the most are the interruptions. I'll just get a scene all figured out and be right in the middle of it, when someone interrupts. I lose my train of thought and that witty conversation I had in my head is gone.

Working Stiffs said...

Great post, Nancy, and thanks for sharing your writer's journey. To those of us who are unpublished, there is always the rather jealous fantasy that the published writer is basking away on Success Island, nary a concern or worry, confidently tapping away as the rest of us founder in the surf. Why does it hearten me that others struggle? I guess it's reassuring to know that struggle precedes success. Or, is this just more evidence of my bad character?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the last post was me.

Annette said...

In a post about time, your timing is perfect. I'm finally setting back into a schedule, thank heavens. Of course, as I'm saying this, I'm also running an hour behind. I confess, I slept in this morning. Rest is good for colds, so I've heard.

Anonymous said...

Nancy, your post resonated with me a lot. In my case, the more time I have, the more time I tend to waste.

When I quit my job to work as a freelance writer at home, I had delusions about how much work I could get done on my book and how quickly my manuscript would be done since I had no distractions and could write as long as I wanted in between freelance editing assignments. I was wrong, and it's been a real struggle for me.

I wouldn't go back to the life I led before, but I'm finding that I was more productive when I had limited chunks of time to write. I know all about the depression, too.

Cathy said...

It takes me so long these days to get in the writing mode when I consistently work and stay with the story. Thanks for sharing, Nancy.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to know we're all in the same boat, huh? Maybe we should share prescriptions? Whoops, sorry, Tory, that could probably get your disbarred or something, right?

Anonymous said...

Great post Nancy. I lurk here but never post, but today, you really hit a homerun for me. I think I was more organized and got more things done when I had every burner going and five pots waiting to be put on. Now that I don't have a "day job" and can write to my heart's content, I don't know where my day goes.

And depression...say no more. I don't think it more common today that ever. I think people are more open to discuss it and get treatment.

The thing that just kills me is that I have these WONDERFUL, and CLEVER dialogs between my characters in my head, usually when I'm in bed or driving, and by the time I get to the computer or even a scrap of paper to jot it down, they've quit talking to each other. ARGH!! I'm sure I'm not the only one that happens to.

And I'm afraid I'm like Pat Hart..Why do I always find comfort in the fact my favorite authors struggle as hard as I do to get five fabulous words strung together for a sentence?

Oh well, as long as you keep writing, we'll keep reading.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, as a licensed professional counselor I can not prescribe any medications. Psychiatrists do that.

But I am willing to go out on a limb and prescribe creative expression for my clients. :-)