By PJ Parrish
Every year about this time I start thinking about Lee Child. Dontcha just hate the guy? Here’s why:
- He’s an international mega-bestseller.
- He’s put out a book a year for 21 years and they are good.
- He’s got that good Brit thing going. David Beckham not Boris Johnson.
- He’s the first guy to pick up the bar tab, even if it’s for a hundred people.
- He’s tall. (ask him where he came up with the name Jack Reacher)
- He’s charming. (see reason 3)
- He writes 2,000 words a day. Every day.
That last one is the reason I really hate the guy. Okay, I don’t hate him. But I do envy him for his work ethic, consistency, and productivity. He is always on my mind as we edge up toward January 1 and begin to make resolution lists. He’s a role model for any of us, wherever we are on the publishing food chain. Write often, write well. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Lee was among the contributors to Fastcompany.com’s “Secrets of the Most Productive People” series. His routine is simple: He starts each new book on September 1. It’s sentimental, he says, but also forces structure. He gets up between 7 and 8 a.m., has the first of his thirty cups of daily coffee. He writes before he eats. “If I’m hungry, then I’m on the ball,” he says. He has two computers at different ends of his room. One is connected to the internet and one is not. Guess which one he writes on? “When I want to go online, I have to walk across the room, which usually disincentivizes me,” he says. He goes to bed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The last thing he does at night is smoke a joint.
So, take what lessons you will from that. The lesson I get is that he has a forced structure. He is focused. He approaches his writing like a job. Which is pretty basic, but something that eludes many of us who are blown away by the first distracting breeze. The laundry needs folding. The kids sound like they’re killing each other. That thing in the Tupperware has now grown a coat of fur. Speaking of fur, I need to send my sister that video of dancing pugs I saw on Facebook…
Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.
1. Turn off the internet. It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time. There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.
2. Figure out your peak writing hours. In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about 3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent. You have to make your family understand this.
3. Show up. Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it. I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”
4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
5. Be accountable to someone. This is easy if you are under contract. You’ll know how much trouble you’re in by the intensity of your editor’s emails. But if you’re flying on Spec Air, the sky is, unfortunately, limitless. If you’re on your first book with no contract, set a deadline and appoint someone as your “editor.” You need a nag, someone to hold your nose to the grindstone. Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert (oxymoron?) says, “You’re not going to want to share with a friend, co-worker or career coach that you did not reach your goal this week, month, etc. So recruit a friend or family member or hire someone to help improve your productivity.” Critique groups work wonders if the group is well-structured. So can a nagging spouse. Mine is yelling at me right now telling me to finish this blog and get back to the book.
6. Let the house or yard (or whatever you obsess over) go to hell. The average American spends about 30 minutes per day on household chores (not counting food prep and cleanup). I have trouble with this because I am a neat freak. But I grit my teeth and try to ignore it or I set one afternoon aside and do my dervish-dirt routine. Set a 15-minute timer for tidying up. If it doesn’t happen during this time, it wasn’t important. Except that moldy thing in fridge.
7. Turn off the TV: Americans with full-time jobs still manage to watch more than two hours of TV per day. Even if you trim that to 90 minutes that leaves 30 minutes to write. I was never more productive than the week up in Michigan this summer when our cable went out. You can only watch so many Gunsmoke reruns before the WIP starts to look really interesting.
8. Find time for down time. We talk about this one a lot here, but it’s important. Get out and take a walk. It’s scientifically proven to increase productivity. Maybe it’s just around the block, but it’s better than logging onto Facebook. Run or do yoga. Just move. Your book will thank you for it.
9. Reward yourself. This one is nothing more than a blatant excuse to show you a picture of my new dog Archie. He’s a rescue and he’s got some issues, like peeing in the laundry room and barking at everyone he meets. The peeing thing is because he’s got a tiny bladder and eventually he’ll get that under control. The barking, well, that’s a bad habit. And like all bad habits, it can be changed. I researched how to retrain him and found out dogs can be incentivized by — wait for it — food! When someone approaches, I say a key word (ours is “focus!”) and hold out a kibble. It gets his attention away from the person and onto the reward. It is working. Strange, isn’t it, that I chose “focus!” as the trigger word. So, whatever turns you on — Gummi Bears, a deep-muscle massage, an hour of uninterrupted Gunsmoke reruns — set that as your reward but only after you have banged out 2,000 words. Be like Archie — focus then eat a kibble.
10. Stay positive. Being negative is counterproductive. Whether the negativity comes from the outside (relatives who tell you your wasting your time on that book) or inside (I will never get published). It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for your book. Yeah, your book sucks at times (we all feel like that), but you have power over it. And remember that even Lee Child has doubts:
When I start a book, I have no idea what the plot is going to be. I try to come up with a good opening sentence, and then I think, “Great,” and go from there. I write about 2,000 words a day. I don’t revise, because I have this mental oddity where I think once the story is written, changing it would feel dishonest. You can’t do that in real life. I get clarity from doing hypnotic tasks. Many writers get ideas in the shower. You don’t have to concentrate, so you can let your mind wander. I feel the same way when I drive. It clears my mind.
We are nearing January 1 resolution time. Go forth, my children, and be productive…