Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

[Week 20: Writer’s Block]
Photo Courtesy of clocksforseeing via Creative Commons

I thought that title would get your attention. Look, this isn’t going to be some stupid rant about how we need to return to simpler times when people walked instead of drove cars, washed their own clothes in the river and churned their own butter. Technology can be beneficial when used wisely. But whoever the genius was who decided to cram an incredibly powerful computer that fits in your palm was clearly not thinking about the welfare of writers.

I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a demographic that will use any excuse not to write. Hypochondriacs who insist they are suffering from a painful medical condition known in most English-speaking countries as writer’s block (or bloqueo de escritor to our Spanish-speaking friends). Lollygaggers who have zero problem binge-watching every television show ever created because they are “doing research.” Yeah, let’s give those guys one more thing to distract them.

The Good Old Days
Back in the day when cell phones didn’t exist, writers were more observational. How do I know this? Well, because I used to be that way. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a public place for hours, watching people. And when in conversation, I used to give the other person my undivided attention. This was normal, people! It’s how we used to conduct ourselves in a civilized society. Later when I sat down to write, I recalled character traits and dialogue I had observed. It’s what, I feel, gave my work authenticity.

Of course, this is not to say there weren’t distractions. Television, for example. But you couldn’t very well schlep around a set around with you. Sure, portable TVs did exist, but they were used mostly by smiling seniors traveling the country in high-mileage campers.

Now
Things really are different today. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It’s as if we are more distracted than ever. I blame technology. Think about it. We can spend hours consuming content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. And, yes, we can also get lost in Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon GO. (Speaking of Netflix, check out my earlier post, “Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer.”)

Let me ask you something. When was the last time you went to a public place and watched real people interacting, rather than staring down at your phone every five seconds? I thought so. And I’m not claiming I’m any better. In fact, the main reason I decided to post this was to warn myself about the dangers of personal electronics.

So what happens when you don’t spend enough time thinking and observing? Well, you tend to rip off characters and dialogue from movies and television. Sure, you’re probably still reading but, come on. How many minutes a day do you spend looking at your phone instead of reading a book? Yeah …

Everything in Moderation
Things are only going to get worse. Cats and dogs living together. I am confident there will come a day when devices that can connect to the Internet will be embedded in our brains. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from 2013. It’s only a matter of time. What then? Do we, as writers, just give up? Oh, and haven’t you heard? Researchers have been programming AI machines to write novels without any need for human intervention. Take a look at this. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that this infernal machine will land a literary agent before I do.

Okay, this is starting to go sideways. Back to my original point. The key to the whole thing, in my view, is discipline. As I stated earlier, cell phones can offer a great advantage when used properly. if I’m in a conversation with someone and one of us happens to mention a fact the other feels is inaccurate, either of us can quickly Google the topic and correct the error right there and then—though I would advise you against trying that with your spouse. Trust me.

There is a time to use your cell phone and a time to put it the hell away. I suggest you remember that during meals, at parties and when attending church. Our brains are wired to observe, and it would be a shame if we let that higher function atrophy to the point where we evolve into a bunch of dumb, drooling spectators. Kind of like those clueless characters in ‘Idiocracy.’ Consider yourself warned.

What I Learned Finishing My Latest Book

Photo Courtesy of kr3st0 via Creative Commons
[Bilbao Cyberpunk]So where have I been the past few months? Off-world? In a way, yes. I’ve been holed up in my basement finishing the sequel to my zombie novel, Tell Me When I’m Dead. And let me tell you, there is no better feeling than typing that final word and calling it done. Much better than the funk I found myself in last November after NaNoWriMo when I only managed to bang out 25,000 words. Whew! So yesterday I sent a draft to my beta readers—whoo-hoo! After one more revision, I will send the book to my editor. By the time the cover, the editing and the formatting are complete, the book will be published in late summer—just like the last one. Cannot wait, my friends. I think I’ll celebrate by tearing into that Milky Way I’ve been saving.

So here’s the thing. Not only did I finish but I learned some lessons along the way. And I wanted to share those with you. Take them or leave them. I hope they help other writers out there.

Lesson 1—The Book Doesn’t Write Itself
Believe me, I’ve tested that theory. I have gone days without writing. When I get back to my computer, I am still at the same spot. No Microsoft Word fairy is clickety-clacking away while I watch old ‘Fringe’ episodes. This lesson is obvious to most people, but it wasn’t to me. Often, I think I fool myself. “Plenty of time,” I say. Well, guess what, there isn’t plenty of time. Time is finite, and we need to write. Also, I find that when I haven’t been writing for a while, I become irritable. Not good when you have a family.

So here’s a confession. I’ve been writing a long time and, for me, cranking out the words is hard. It’s not writer’s block, mind you. I have more ideas for books than I could ever execute on. No, it’s the actual sitting down and getting the words on paper. It takes me a long time to work things out. In reality, I am writing in my brain. I’ve covered this before—I don’t really outline. I have a general idea of where I need to go. I typically have a beginning, a middle and an end. But the twists and turns that make the story fun are what take me the longest to work out. And that takes time.

Lesson 2—Burst of Creativity Is a Myth
At least for me. It’s not the sprint to the finish line that gets the book written. It’s the slow and steady thing. Sitting down every day and writing something. Even if I haven’t worked it all out, I’ve found that if I just get on with it, sooner or later it comes together. Now, I can hear some of you chortling out there. “Well, if you had written an outline, you wouldn’t have this problem.” Guess what. I tried outlining years ago and here is what I found—I don’t stick to it. The thing seems so rote to me. When I get to actually writing scenes based on it, I find I hate it and I veer off in completely different directions. So, I might as well do that to begin with. Why waste weeks—or months—writing an outline when I could just write the damned novel?

There is a downside. Sometimes when I write forward to get to the next part of the story, I find that things have indeed taken a different turn—or have become more clear in my mind, necessitating a visit to earlier chapters where I must revise in order to match what happens later. But that’s okay. I’ll take that small inconvenience any day. Unless I’ve gone completely off the rails later in the book, I’ve found that the revisions are usually very minor and only require rewriting a paragraph or two, or adding a scene.

Lesson 3—Social Media Is a Sinkhole
There, I said it. If I had kept up with my normal schedule of blog posts and tweets, I would still be sitting here staring at my unfinished book, instead of writing this happy post. And I really felt guilty about it—at first. But somewhere along the way I came to the conclusion that I must finish the book. Nothing stood in my way. Okay, let me amend that. For me, there is nothing more important than family. There are lots of stories about famous writers who had horrible home lives because of their devotion to “the craft.” I don’t roll that way. Yes, I need to write but not at the expense of my family. My girls are growing up fast, and I don’t want to be lying in some retirement home someday with a bagful of regrets.

So, there you go. I’ll leave you with one small data point. Although I was virtually absent from the social media scene, the number of people following me has grown. Go figure. This makes me wonder if people even noticed I was gone! Actually, I don’t want to think too much about that, or I will start getting self-conscious. Then I’ll bring on a monster case of writer’s block for reals.

Now, check out Jerry Seinfeld. This, folks, is the writing process.

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