Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 14: Writing Habits
Key points: Routines are what you make them. Howard likes shoes. Brandon likes four-hour blocks. Dan works at a friend’s house. Dan and Brandon write music, Howard only draws to music. Games? It depends.
[Brandon] All right. A lot of people ask me out of curiosity what my writing schedule is. I figured we’d do a podcast just talking about what our schedules are, these sorts of things. I know a lot of people are curious about it. Let’s start with routine. Howard, what’s your daily routine? Step us through it.
[Howard] Daily routine. I start with breakfast because…
[Brandon] What time?
[Howard] 7:30. I am up at 7:30.
[Uncertain] Okay — what’s wrong with you?
[Howard] I have children.
[Howard] I have children who get up for school and we all have…
[Dan] So do I but I still don’t crawl out of bed till eight.
[Howard] We have a little family time right about seven.
[Brandon] I get up at nine and feel like I’m getting up early.
[Howard] Well, that’s nice for you.
[Brandon] Okay, go on. Routine, routine, routine.
[Howard] Breakfast. I get dressed out in my I-am-going-to-work clothes…
[Brandon] So you get dressed up in your…
[Howard] I get dressed up to go to work.
[Brandon] Which is around the corner in the office?
[Howard] Yeah, down the hall. And I sit down and write.
[Brandon] Why do you do that?
[Howard] I do that because the writing space for me is also a head space. If I’m still wearing my pajamas, I don’t feel like I’m really ready to get started with the day. The other part of it is that I need shoes. If I’m not wearing shoes, I’m cold or my feet start to hurt or something. I’m just a shoe person. And I’m not going to put on shoes if I’m not wearing pants. That would be silly. I’d have to put on shoes twice.
[Brandon] Thanks for that image, Howard. I’m just [garbled]
[Dan] I don’t know what else we can say after that.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Everyone leave with the image of Howard wearing shoes with no pants.
[Dan] In a tub full of diet Pepsi.
[Howard] The point is that I don’t do that. Because it would be as absurd as the mental image you’ve conjured up.
And then I sit down and I start writing. For me, if I need to write a week’s worth of comics so that I can be drawing in the afternoon, if I haven’t really started writing by 10 AM, I… the day is a wash, the day is a disaster. I really have to be writing in the morning. Now once I start writing, I can write way past 10 AM.
[Brandon] So why is that? Why?
[Howard] I’m not sure why that is.
[Brandon] It can happen to me, too. I guess we’re talking about the psychology of being goofy writer people in this episode because sometimes… if I’ll look at… if an hour… if I’m really going, an hour’s worth of time can get a lot of work done. But if I sit down and say I only have an hour, nothing happens.
[Howard] Nothing happens.
[Brandon] Nothing at all… gets done at all. And it’s completely just this mental head space thing.
[Howard] There’s a book years ago… written years ago, called Peopleware which talked about knowledge workers in the information age — which is essentially what we are. We’re creative professionals, but we’re knowledge workers. And one of the points that they made is that the average knowledge worker really only gets about three hours of work done a day…
[Dan] That’s what I’ve been telling my bosses for years. They never believed me.
[Howard] But that three hours of work, if it’s all in one block with no interruptions, it’s an extremely productive block of time. And then most of the rest of the day is spent in activities called refilling the well, going back to the well, recharging, watercooler conversation, research, whatever. But that three hours of writing, of output, of programming or whatever is really critical and it has to have some momentum. If you’ve only got an hour to write, then, well, 45 minutes of that might be just warmup, and then you get moving, and you really only get 15 minutes of good writing, and say, “Eh, now I’ve got to get done.” Whereas if you’ve got three hours to write, you spend that 45 minute warm-up and then there’s that hour in the middle where it’s just fantastic.
[Brandon] Does this happen to you, Dan? Do you work this way or is it different for you?
[Brandon] Okay, moving…
[Dan] What was I going to say?
[Brandon] I’ll say it works this way for me. I have to have a block of four hours. There’s got to be people out there that do this differently. I don’t know. But me, if I don’t look down at my clock and at least see that I have got a four hour chunk, it’s going to be hard for me to put up the motivation to get into it, because I know just as soon as I get started working on something and really getting into it, I’m going to get interrupted and stopped. If I’ve only got a two hour block, I’ll do something else. I’ll answer e-mails, maybe do some brainstorming…
[Howard] There are people for whom that is just not an option. We’ve talked in conjunction with the nanowrimo thing, there are people who write entire novels on their lunch breaks for a month. But in order to do that, that 45 minute warm-up that I described which a lot of knowledge workers need or think they need is actually spent… they multitask before their lunch break and spend that 45 minutes thinking, “Man, when lunch hits, I’ve got an hour to write and I’m psyching myself up for it,” and then they hit it and they go fast.
[Brandon] When writing time has been more precious to me, I produce much more quickly. When… times in my life when I’ve had to go to school, when I’ve had all these other things bugging me, I’ve found that my writing time is more productive and now that I’m full time, yes, I get more done, but I get… oh boy [garble]
[Howard] It didn’t scale up.
[Dan] It didn’t scale up arithmetically.
[Brandon] There you go. Now I don’t have to say any numbers. Good, ’cause [garble]
[Dan] On the flip side of this, though, one thing that I have noticed about my own habits is that I will underestimate my ability to write in a short space. If I have an hour and a half left before I need to leave, and I think, well, I’m not going to be able to get anything done. And if I actually will sit myself down and force myself to do it, I’ll often find a whole chapter comes out the other end in an hour and a half, surprisingly.
[Howard] I’m sorry, Dan, the other end of what?
[Dan] I didn’t say where I was sitting down.
[Howard] Oh boy.
[Dan] Or what I was writing.
[Brandon] Uh, Dan, what’s your schedule? Let’s start your’s off.
[Dan] My schedule, like I said when we are making fun of Howard, was that I get out of bed at eight o’clock, hurriedly get the kids ready for school and send them off, and then I shower and get dressed and leave for work. I do not write at home because I’ve got a two-year-old who knows where Daddy’s office is and if I’m in there, she will be in there too. So it’s just much easier for everyone involved. I go actually to a friend’s house, he has a spare room he lets me use, and so…
[Brandon] He’s at work, and you just go to his house?
[Dan] He’s at work, and yeah… his house is empty all day. He’s a neat freak so his house is spotlessly clean.
[Brandon] And you mess it up for him?
[Dan] Actually, no, ’cause I don’t really…
[Brandon] No, you wouldn’t. I would.
[Howard] Does he let you eat out of his fridge?
[Dan] Yeah [inaudible]
[Brandon] But he doesn’t let you eat in his room?
[Dan] No, I can’t eat in his room.
[Howard] Can you use his bed if you want to take a nap?
[Dan] I don’t know if I would dare. I’m not really a napper though. I hate taking naps. It drives me crazy.
[Brandon] If people have read my books, there are jokes about this guy in the acknowledgment pages of the first three Mistborn books.
[Dan] We won’t tell you who it is.
Anyway, I have got… I did this as well, when I wrote the very first book, was in Brandon’s basement…
[Brandon] Woo hoo.
[Dan] And it was a very similar writing situation. I would leave my house and I would come here and I just had this bare-bones little writing station — a card table with a computer sitting on it in the middle of an empty room.
[Brandon] Hey, that was a nice computer. I gave that computer to you.
[Dan] It was a… nice computer.
[Brandon] It was like Windows 3.1.
[Dan] It was Windows 3.1 in 2006. The one I have now is better than that. But just very bare-bones, absolutely minimal.
[Howard] NT 3.5 [inaudible]
[Dan] I do have a little colos [sp?] miniature sitting on my desk, that’s the one and only adornment in my room.
[Brandon] Do you? Where’d you get that? Did you buy one?
[Dan] No, I got it for Christmas from the unmentioned man whose home I use as an office.
[Brandon] Oh, great. Colos is the best one.
[Dan] Yeah, it’s very cool.
[Brandon] Let’s move on. Music. Do you guys listen to music while you’re working?
[Dan] Depending on what I’m working on, yes. I will… I set soundtracks for my books depending on what I want the book to feel like. I will go into Internet radio, usually Pandora, and say this is the kind of music I want to listen to and then I will set it up and then I will go. All three books have had very different feels to them musically.
[Brandon] I do something very similar, though it’s more what am I in the mood for right now as opposed to matching the scene. Pandora’s great. I use that quite often. I use a lot of OC remixes. Howard, music?
[Howard] Music when I work, yes. Music when I’m writing, never.
[Brandon] So when you’re drawing, you use music. When you’re writing, not.
[Howard] Oh, when I’m drawing — that’s one of the reasons that I do my penciling and my inking at Dragon’s Keep, is that when I’m drawing, I can talk. I can participate in a conversation. Because that part of my brain isn’t really being used. When I’m penciling, it’s a little harder because I have to describe the picture to myself before I start working on it but inking is just tracing is anyone who’s watched Jake and Amy knows. But the writing, it has got to be quiet. In fact, sometimes I am sitting down and trying to write, and the kids are noisy, and I will step outside of my office and instruct them that the room outside my office is now off-limits and they need to go upstairs. Just yesterday, I was trying to write something and my daughter and her little friend came down and were singing Christmas songs…
[Brandon] Oh, they were caroling to you.
[Howard] They were caroling to me, and I came and I said, “This room is a no singing zone right now.” I went back into my office and I heard them singing very quietly. I said, “No singing means no singing, you can go play upstairs now.” I am a tyrant in my castle.
[Brandon] So how do you avoid distractions?
[Howard] I yell at my children.
[Dan] I leave my children and go to a different building.
[Brandon] There are other distractions, however.
[Dan] There are. I have to restrict my Internet usage, I have to restrict my game playing. But most of that is done purely by self-discipline.
[Howard] Do you have games installed on your work machine?
[Dan] I do not. They are all installed on a different machine down the hall.
[Howard] Now, but see that forces you… if you are going to play a game, you have to get up and go play a game.
[Dan] It does. And I can’t delude myself into thinking that it’s a short thing because I’m actively standing up, leaving my workstation, and going somewhere else. So my brain knows I’m cheating.
[Brandon] For me, I’ve got to have the right sort of games and things. There are certain things I can do which refill the well. I can sit there and they will keep me thinking and going and won’t break… they will bridge…
[Howard] So, solitaire and minesweeper?
[Brandon] Kind of minesweeper type games. They have got to be things that don’t take my mental energy. Minesweeper might be too much. If it makes me curious, makes me think. It’s got to be brainless games.
[Dan] For me, it’s the opposite of that. If I’m trying to brainstorm for something, then yes I want something mindless. But if I’m just refilling the well or recharging my creativity, it has to have a story to it. If it’s a puzzle game, I’ll think too much about the puzzle and it goes somewhere else…
[Brandon] It can’t be a puzzle game for me, though. It’s got to be completely mindless. These are the things that I’ll be doing while I’m typing. I’ll type 3 pages, I hit a point where it’s like oh this is a rough patch. I’ll stop for five or 10 minutes, do something else which won’t take my attention so my brain keeps working on that rough patch and then I’m like oh okay, and then I’m back and keep going.
[Howard] The toughest distraction for me is web browsing and the reason is that I will often sit down and be writing the dialogue and realize I can’t finish this dialogue until I’ve done a spot of research and my research is often Wikipedia or googling military terminology or whatever and as long as the browser is open I might as well check the various Schlock communities and… it’s a downhill slope.
[Brandon] This is why I had to stop actually going to forums. I feel bad for my readers because my forums… I don’t do many appearances. But — they’re so time consuming and it’s interesting and you want to get in there and start talking…
[Howard] I have cut down the amount of time that I spend in my forums. We should can of worms online communities and [garble]
[Dan] Web communities usage.
[Howard] We could talk about that for a long time.
[Dan] That’s an excellent…
[Howard] That’s a distraction we need to eschew in this…
[Brandon] All right. Is your daily schedule rigid or loose?
[Dan] Mine is very loose.
[Brandon] Very loose. Howard?
[Howard] Fairly rigid.
[Brandon] I’m going to say mine has been loose in the past, and I have switched recently to a rigid schedule, and it has made me more productive, unfortunately.
[Dan] We’re sorry to hear that.
[Brandon] I used to do it kind of the Bohemian way. I got up when I felt like it, I wrote when I felt like it, I went to bed when I felt like it. I was always productive. So…
[Dan] Well, if you’re talking about those things…
[Howard] Now you’ve got two other people living with you and that [garbled]
[Brandon] It wasn’t that that changed it. It was the Wheel of Time. I have such sharp deadlines on this that I said I need to double my productivity. What I decided to do was, I’m going to get up and start working 9 to 5. I’m going to get up, start working and work an eight hour straight block instead of two four-hour blocks.
[Howard] Okay. Did it work? Did it double your productivity?
[Brandon] It hasn’t doubled it, but it worked very well because I don’t have that lead-in time to each of the four-hour blocks and lead down time. In the four-hour blocks, I was getting about two hours of productive time in the middle of each of them. And now I’m getting six hours of productivity in the middle, and so I think I’ve added 50%.
[Brandon] But I’ve had to give up my going to bed when I want, getting up when I want. I have to get up at the same time, I have to go and I have to work. No more hanging out with lunches for friends and things like that.
[Howard] Welcome to adulthood.
[Brandon] Well, yeah. Thanks.
[Dan] Now if that’s what you’re asking about, then yes, I’m fairly rigid with the times I start and stop, and the times I get up and the times I leave. I actually think it’s valuable… beyond just the writing, I think it’s very valuable for my children to see that despite the fact that Daddy doesn’t really have a real job, he still follows a schedule.
[Brandon] Don’t tell them it’s not a real job. Don’t let everyone in on the secret.
[Dan] I think it’s valuable for them to see me leaving in the morning and going to work.
[Brandon] This is very hard what we do. It’s very, very hard.
[Howard] It’s emotionally challenging.
[Brandon] We are all of our money. All of our exorbitant fees, we earn them because it’s just so grueling.
[Dan] Don’t rub your exorbitant fees in our faces, Brandon.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses.
[Howard] Menu, menu, menu settings, backlight timer…