Using Trash Time

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Today's post is the product of a few concurrent experiments in saving time or enhancing productivity. For my proof-of-concept, I am using Pinboard to store the location of a post, excerpted below, about finding time to write, along with a few comments of my own:

But if you want to be a writer, then be a writer, for god's sake. It's not that hard, and it doesn't require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying "well, at least I watched a lot of TV." If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do. [minor edits]
The comments I saved after reading this ended up making up most of the first paragraph of this post and most of the next.

From here, I used a script to extract the bookmark and comments from my exported bookmarks, and save these as a markdown file for further editing before posting. I'm also testing an emacs customization to rid the post of "smartquotes". Both experiments have succeeded. I now have a good way to quickly write at least the rudiments of a blog post from any computing device. In particular, this is a much more effective way to blog from a smart phone than having to futz with inserting hyperlinks with a virtual keyboard, which is a pain even using markdown. The mobility of a smart phone would make it ideal for blogging, were its software better-suited to content creation. This is the next best thing: minimizing the obstacles said software presents.

On a related note, I found the above inspirational post among a few others gleaned from a search for time management tips for writers who have young children. (These links seem promising after a quick scan, but I won't vouch for any of them beyond that.) My kids are sleeping more reliably, thereby giving me more and better time in the morning. Nevertheless, I want to keep blogging daily even as I take on more complicated writing projects again. Taking better advantage of my phone when, say, I'm stuck in line, can only help.

-- CAV

P.S. One resource on time management for writers that I do recommend is the book  Time to Write, which -- right around when my son was born -- I briefly commented on here. I plan to go through it again in the near future.


1-22-15: Corrected a typo. 


Steve D said...

'…well, at least I watched a lot of TV.'

I agree. The only TV I watch these days is the few seconds a day I get while passing through the family room or if a football or hockey game is showing at a restaurant where I am eating. However, I would add to the above statement, movies, since they are almost as much of an intellectual wasteland as TV.

Reading is a much strong activity for the mind. If you don’t believe me, read Deliverance then see the movie and ask yourself; which stimulated your thoughts the most.

In fact I would argue that a bad novel is usually more mentally stimulating than most artsy or Academy award winning movies or TV shows because a book, whether non-fiction or fiction and even if poorly written, is a conversation between the reader and the author. The reader is literally forced into a response inside his own mind; sometimes to the point of shouting at the pages (soundlessly shouting, I hope). I often correct books or make up a different plot line in my head.

As interactive as reading is, writing is still more active because it forces the author to initiate and set the terms for the reader/author conversation. Some of the reasons I took up writing are that modern fiction is often poorly written and the subjects and themes don’t interest me. Plots tend to be riddled with too many errors to allow suspension of disbelief, annoying characters fill the pages and/or don’t act the way I think they should, authors often do not combine drama with humor well etc. and they end up cancelling each other out. The solution I came up with is to write my own stories. Then I can read what I want.

Steve D said...

‘…they’ve got jobs…’

However, I noticed a major logical problem in this article (my curse seems to be finding logic errors in most everything I read). He tells us that his general (but not specific) inspiration is to make money to pay his mortgage. Unfortunately, this inspiration does not apply so much to amateurs whom he admonishes to get off their butts and go to work. For me and probably for you as well, writing is a hobby not a job; though as a scientist I do quite a bit of it for my job. This means, I must have a whole lot more of what he calls specific inspiration to cover my lack of general inspiration. So while his advice applies very well to professionals; something additional is needed to inspire amateurs. Also, he nowhere mentions how to keep up the quality of your work.

I don’t want compare my situation with those people like you Gus who have small children but once you take away the 9-10 hours of work time plus everything else there is not much left over. I’ve squirreled away most Sunday afternoons; some of this time is taken up by editing and scientific writing; some of it by learning about writing and sometimes I get to write something original. I also spend some time editing the writing of members in my writing group.

What I’ve found is; so long as I know where the story is going – and it is going somewhere interesting, finding the inspiration and therefore the time is easy. Once I get writer’s block, it becomes difficult to motivate myself; especially since what I write under those circumstances is usually not very good. (Often, the beginning and ending of a story comes easily but I can’t figure out the middle)

However, I’ve learned that I can force myself to write a small amount of material (as little as half a page) and even if it turns out to be terrible, its existence motivates me to come back later and fix it. They key is that it gives me something to start with; something to stimulate my editing impulse. Sometimes, I even scratch out the entire thing and take off in a completely different direction. The point is that I am doing the very same thing to myself that I said I do to other authors; shout at the pages; no don’t do that! In fact, this technique may even work better if your original half page was bad because that increases your motivation to change it. One watch out is once you break with your outline, you will need to go back and take care of those plot errors which you have surely introduced.

So my motivational technique (which I think applies equally well to non-fiction as fiction) in a nutshell is; write that half page or whatever you can force yourself to write; keep it and go back to it later. Rewrite or edit it; rinse, repeat and add to it as necessary.

Gus Van Horn said...

"He tells us that his general (but not specific) inspiration is to make money to pay his mortgage. Unfortunately, this inspiration does not apply so much to amateurs whom he admonishes to get off their butts and go to work."

That's true. For those of us who don't make a living from writing, there has to be a combination of sheer love for writing and existential horror. I think that the former keeps writers going most of the time while the latter gets us through those parts of the task we don't like, as well as the odd uninspired morning.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "For those of us who don't make a living from writing, there has to be a combination of sheer love for writing and existential horror."

Yeah. Better is this, by one of the non-leftist writers Scalzi despises and often tries to show up on Twitter (usually tripping over his own shoelaces in the process).

Gus Van Horn said...


That is an excellent post. Thanks! This in particular is striking a chord with me as I've had lots of days lately when, to make room for a non-writing project, I've had to write two blog posts a day -- one for that day and one scheduled to appear the next -- and then work during what is usually writing time:

"When I take too much time between writing sessions, I lose that momentum, and then it takes more time to get back into it."

This is brutal, but I look forward to the day that I'll be writing something else on the off-days.


Steve D said...

Thanks for the link, Snedcat. I pretty much agree with everything the author says, except the fact that he doesn’t write everyday. (Full disclosure; apart from work, I don’t either but I know I should)

‘When I take too much time between writing sessions, I lose that momentum…’

That is one reason why writing even a little, even if it is something you later scratch, even if it’s only a blog post (good work Gus), everyday is important. OTOH, if it’s a book or a long essay, I think you have to add something to that particular project in order to maintain momentum; not just any writing will do…

‘One of the ugly little secrets of writing is that it takes time and effort.’

I think that most of the people I know who are aspiring writers, like those from my writer’s group and elsewhere, do NOT understand the level of time and effort it takes; not just to write but to learn to write well. The learning curve is huge! Heck, I’m not even sure if I’ve come to terms with it yet. People who have never written before think they can just sit down and write a novel in a few weeks. For example, I once went through an editing partner’s book twice, covering it in a sea of red ink each time and then was surprised when he immediately put the result up as an e-book on Amazon. I thought it needed a lot more work (at least five or six more complete edits; perhaps even an extra subplot). Some of the people I know write movie reviews or very short stories reasonably well but I seldom read these forms of writing. I also do not like stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things regardless of how well they are written. What is their point anyway? Why should I read about what happens around me everyday?

Sometimes I agonize over a sentence, a single word or even which punctuation mark is best. Should I extract that sentence/word/chapter; or move it? Or maybe rewrite the story from scratch? A novel needs to be an integrated whole, from the level of the overall story down through the sections, chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences all the way to the choice of words and even punctuation (sometimes a question mark would simply be TMI, so a period works better) The dialogue, description, thoughts etc. have to work in the context of the characters, the plot and also, unbeknownst to many modern authors, a theme (speak a truth about the human condition). Not everything has to be visible to every reader. There are at least three levels of complexity involved; the basic plot, the theme, and the author’s world view. You have to get the level of ambiguity right (most writers put down far too much) and let the reader supply his imagination. Suspense doesn’t just happen at the end of chapters. Techniques exist to write sentences and paragraphs to motivate the reader to read the next one. Isaac Asimov once wrote a mid-sized novel which was over 95% dialogue. He did not describe any scenes to any level of detail; it was impossible to form a mental picture of the environment; the story was all words. But hardly a paragraph went by where a character didn’t say something to make the reader want to find out what would happen (or what would be said) next. Step by step for three hundred pages the characters (mostly) talked themselves toward their goal.

My motivation? There are several but mainly as I hinted above, I write because if I write a story I get to choose what happens, what the characters do etc., whereas if I read a story by another author I have to accept his version of the events. Well not always; often I think of something I would rather have happen; such as a different ending or the plot taking off in a different direction etc. If you’re doing this too much though, you might as well write the thing yourself.

Gus Van Horn said...


You noted:

"[I]f it’s a book or a long essay, I think you have to add something to that particular project in order to maintain momentum; not just any writing will do."

That's been the most difficult part of the last few years for me. Most of the time, with tiredness and the threat of loud, sudden interruptions hanging over my head, blogging has been about the best I've been able to do most days. Only now that my son is about nineteen months old do I see the light at the end of that tunnel, although other things may yet slow me down over the next year.


Steve D said...

'the threat of loud, sudden interruptions hanging over my head'

The word ‘threat’ is exactly correct here at least for me. It’s not so much the sudden interruption per se but the threat of them which can inhibit thinking. Personally, even quiet interruptions like a discussion about geography or math homework in the other room cumulating in; ‘Go ask your Dad’ makes writing difficult. This is particularly the case when I’m suffering from writer's block.

Gus Van Horn said...


I don't use the word lightly, as you plainly understand.