Thanks to COVID-19 taking 2020 by storm, I’m willing to bet many of us have found ourselves at home, working or otherwise, and trying to remain productive. I’m working from home now and, man, the struggle is real. I’m fortunate that author of The Killing Fog, Jeff Wheeler, was able to throw some tips my way so I can share them with y’all!
Jeff’s book, The Killing Fog, was released this year and I was kindly sent a free copy in exchange for my honest review. However, if I’m honest, reading has sadly been put on the back burner while I struggle to adjust to the new routine of working from home, watch my work-life balance go down the drain, and try to control the low-to-high-key constant worry about everyone and everything.
Ahem. Pardon the real talk.
But thanks to the folks at Wunderkind, I was able to get some great advice from Jeff on how he manages writing from home (before and during this new environment we’re facing.) I think his advice translates to those of us working other jobs from home, or finding themselves home without work.
+ A lot of people are working or writing from home right now, which can mean being surrounded by family or roommates 24/7. In many ways, this is a great opportunity to spend more time together. But it can also make it challenging to carve out privacy to write. What is your advice for staying focused when privacy is hard to come by?
In my own writer’s journey, there have been many times in my life when privacy was a scarce commodity. For me, I can’t concentrate if there is a lot of background noise going on. I’ve tried to mitigate this with a white-noise machine and a good headset, but I cannot write if my teenage son is playing one of Chopin’s Etudes on the piano. So we’ve discussed this as a family and the kids know that when my den door is closed, I’m writing and they need to keep the ruckus down a few decibels. When I’m done writing and just checking e-mail or working on other things, the door is open and they’re free to bang around a little more. Sometimes if circumstances aren’t going to be ideal, I’ve also taken advantage of the quiet time in the early morning when everyone is asleep. I’ll get up before everyone else to try and write a chapter before breakfast. Sometimes sacrifices are required from everyone to accomplish a common goal.
+ When you can’t leave your residence, sensory and creative stimulation can be difficult to find. How can those in quarantine keep their minds and creative drives sharp?
I’ve read a lot of books about creative people and how creativity is fostered. While I have been inspired by the majestic waterfalls of Yosemite valley or while roaming ancient palaces in China, that’s not where most of my creativity comes from. Creativity happens when two different ideas get smashed together and create something new. That is why I am very passionate about reading outside the fantasy genre. I read a lot of business books but I especially love reading biographies. It’s also fun to grab a movie from long ago and watch something you’ve never seen before. So many ideas can come just watching a short YouTube video about a topic of interest to you. Creativity is about making connections between things that aren’t necessarily related. And that can be done just about anywhere.
+ Writers are notorious for always looking to carve out time for their craft, and for once, time is no object! But for many, this hasn’t had the desired effect—some writers are feeling blocked by internal pressure to utilize that additional time extra productively. How can creators overcome this form of writer’s block?
Isn’t that what makes us so perfectly imperfect as humans? When we get a gift of time, we worry about squandering it. I think it was Aristotle who said that “nature abhors a vacuum.” What that means is that whatever empty time we have will get filled up all by itself if we aren’t proactive about it. For decades, I had to be very self-disciplined and squeeze my writing time in between hard commitments to other things. For example, I arranged with my wife to write on Wednesday nights from 7-10pm. That was how I wrote my novel The Wretched of Muirwood. But when I left my day job at Intel to become a full-time author, I suddenly had an enormous volume of time open up…very similar to what people are experiencing today because of COVID-19.
I made the decision that I would write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8-11 in the morning. In order to hit my deadlines, I needed to write three chapters a week. I found writing more than this drained my creative energies and having a day off in between helped me retain my enthusiasm. Because nature abhors a vacuum, I dedicated more time to other interests such as learning Spanish through Duolingo, yardwork and home improvement projects, and even worshipping at the local temple more frequently than I’d done when life was so busy. I even sparked an interest in doing genealogy and learning more about my ancestors, something I’d rarely had time to do before. In his amazing book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages creative writers to get your “work of the day” done first and then set it aside. Beating yourself up with a psychological baseball bat doesn’t really help you improve. Filling your time with worthwhile things you care about is a far better motivator.
((Millie: This is great advice and similar to what I read in Lawrence Block’s book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which I recommend. I think it’s something to remember regardless of what hobby or task you’re trying to achieve when you find yourself with more time than you’re used to.))
+ What does your personal daily writing routine look like? What little things, like a favorite playlist or type of coffee, keep you motivated throughout the day? Have you adapted this at all since the onset of the pandemic?
Actually, for me, my writing routine hasn’t changed much since I became a full-time writer. I went through an exercise to discover how I could enter a “flow state” in the most repeatable and predictable fashion. If that word is unfamiliar to you, then watch the TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow, the secret to happiness.” I learned about Mihaly’s work while I was at Intel and discovered that my best writing came when I was in a flow state. When I read Stephen King’s autobiography, I learned that he does it too. It’s very common for creatives to have a set schedule, a specific place where they exercise their craft. For me, I have a den in my home. I use the doors because I’m very sensitive to interruptions and my family knows over the years that disturbing me while I’m writing interrupts the flow state. It can be hard to get back into it again. I have a white noise machine to help drown out ambient noise, like cars driving down the road or sounds coming from the kitchen. Then I have some noise-cancelling headphones which I purchased years ago. I know it sounds a little strange to have a white-noise machine AND noise-cancelling headphones, but the combination of both helps act as a filter for my brain and produces the mental quiet I need to come up with words.
I start writing the chapter I need to write that day and try not to stop or take any breaks until I’ve written that chapter. Some days, I can stare at the screen waiting for the words to come. Other days, the words come so fast that time seems to hold still. I’ll look at the clock at the bottom right corner of the screen and blink with surprise that two hours have passed. It felt like only thirty minutes. To avoid being interrupted by distractions, I silence my phone, turn off my e-mail, and make sure I don’t look at social media or the news. This pattern has produced results for me over the last six years. The virus, COVID-19, hasn’t changed my schedule. I know some writers are inspired by listening to music while they write. I used to do this, but found having a quiet mind void of distraction helped me get into a flow state faster. The important thing, in my opinion, is to learn what your personal distractions are and eliminate them. Find what works best for you and dial it in every time.
+ How do you designate a creative and productive space in your home? How might this be different in a space like yours, in the sprawling Midwest, compared to (for example) a smaller NYC apartment?
My writing schedule got upended in January when I took a trip to Germany to teach kids at an Army base in Wiesbaden a little about the writing craft. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to write during my traditional schedule that week. But I still worked on the trip, using the long flights to Germany and back to get two of the chapters done. An airplane seat isn’t the optimal creative space, I’ve gotta admit. But I’ve written many chapters of many books in that hunch-backed position, elbows tight against my ribs, with my noise-cancelling headphone on while staring at a screen literally crowding my lap because the person in front decided to lean back. It makes me appreciate my home office a lot more after moments like that!
At home, I have a desk facing the window, but I keep the blinds closed while I write or I’ll be distracted by the bald eagles which sometimes fly by while I write. I have a lamp on my desk, my printer, a statue of a frog with a lamp (something I found at an antique store in California that reminded me of my very first published book, The Wishing Lantern). There’s also an hourglass which I turn over sometimes just to watch the grains of white sand fall. The desk isn’t what inspires me to write. The motivation to write comes from inside, from a high-school teenaged geek who wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons as a way of telling stories. I’ve learned that I can write anywhere, even on the floor of a closet, when I have to. Creating stories that connect with readers is something I intrinsically enjoy. Like many authors I know, I just can’t turn that part of my brain off.
Big thanks to Jeff for sharing his strategies. I look forward to reading his book when I’m able to focus more on reading. If you have any tips for working from home, feel free to share them!
If you’re interested, here’s some info:
The Killing Fog by Jeff Wheeler
2020 – 47North – ISBN: 9781542015011
“Survivor of a combat school, the orphaned Bingmei belongs to a band of mercenaries employed by a local ruler. Now the nobleman, and collector of rare artifacts, has entrusted Bingmei and the skilled team with a treacherous assignment: brave the wilderness’s dangers to retrieve the treasures of a lost palace buried in a glacier valley. But upsetting the tomb has a price.
Echion, emperor of the Grave Kingdom, ruler of darkness, Dragon of Night, has long been entombed. Now Bingmei has unwittingly awakened him and is answerable to a legendary prophecy. Destroying the dark lord before he reclaims the kingdom of the living is her inherited mission. Killing Bingmei before she fulfills it is Echion’s.
Thrust unprepared into the role of savior, urged on by a renegade prince, and possessing a magic that is her destiny, Bingmei knows what she must do. But what must she risk to honor her ancestors? Bingmei’s fateful choice is one that neither her friends nor her enemies can foretell, as Echion’s dark war for control unfolds.”