We’ve been writing together for over fourteen years now. In that time we’ve produced twenty-six novels that have seen (or will see) the murky light of the bookstore. We’ve won awards and become friends with readers and other writers and given talks at chapters and conferences. We’ve also seen our two boys grow into fine teenagers. Somehow.
And we also have neighbors who think we must constantly be away, because they never see us. Jetsetters that they think we are, we are asked if we’ve been away on some research trip to an exotic place or on some worldwide book tour or even, “Were you guys just on Regis and Kelly?”
The truth is that-like all of you who also labor in the trenches of commercial fiction-we are usually at our computers. Day in, day out, we scratch for every minute we can get to meet our deadlines and to produce the story proposal that will throw our editors into such fits of delirium that we will be vaulted into the ethereal realms of literary stardom. In short, we are working our butts off to pay the mortgage.
And yet, how do we do that-keep our word count up-while the world around us seems to be having a party?
To begin, we need to remember that we are not alone in this struggle. Writers have dealt with this problem for ages, and some were more successful at dealing with it than others. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, was not very good at it. If there was even a chance of a party in any given tri-state area, he was there. The only time he seemed to be able to write was when he and Zelda were miserable. There was a point, however, when it occurred to him that he might be able to live more cheaply abroad (where he knew fewer people to party with) and he could work with less interruption (because he knew fewer people to party with). Unfortunately, Paris and the Riviera turned out to BE parties.
Others had mixed success. John Steinbeck, it’s rumored, believed that the author should not have sex while writing. We don’t think he meant no sex while typing, but rather no sex during a period of literary creativity. In any event, this monastic approach cost him a marriage, by all accounts.
Virginia Woolf, in writing about the difficulty of being a woman and a writer, concluded that those who wish to write need to have a “room of one’s own.” The “isolation=production” theory. Hemingway-who by the way thought Steinbeck’s position sheer madness and had at least twenty-five or thirty successful marriages-bought into Woolf’s idea. At his Key West home, he had a study that could only be accessed by way of a catwalk from the second floor of his house. Charles Dickens was another. On his estate, he had a little Swiss chalet built with a entry ladder that he could pull up while he was working. There is also the story of a contemporary American writer (who will remain nameless for fear of lawsuits) who stayed home to write and care for his toddler while his wife went off to earn their living. He pushed the child’s playpen in front of the TV, put a piece of plywood over the top, and went to his study to work. He said he knew he would feel guilty about it in later life, but he simply had to write. Incidentally, Hemingway also sent his kids to boarding school.
As for us, we are constantly struggling with this problem. We are certainly not advocates of the Steinbeck method. We were also unwilling to lock our kids away so that we could write. As a result, we’ve had to work on our scheduling.
Yes, scheduling is the key. For us, summer has always been a horrible time for writing. School vacation, family visits, grass needs cutting, the garden needs weeding, the body (ours and the dog’s) needs walking, the beach (less than an hour away) needs visiting, strawberries (and raspberries and blueberries) need picking. And canning. You get the picture. Summers are bad for writing. So we try, usually without success, to schedule our personal deadlines before the summer starts, even if the editor says September 1st is really the due date.
When we’re forced to work in the summer (which is really always), we try to take advantage of rainy days (when Playstation 3 for the boys has seen some use), we try to get a 6 AM start (while the boys, often including Jim, are still asleep), or we simply work the 8-midnight shift…a lot.
As we all know, working while raising kids is tough. We’ve all heard the line about, “Unless there’s smoke, blood, or bone showing, don’t interrupt me while I’m writing.” Being essentially nervous parents, that’s never worked for us. One thing we’ve found sometimes works is the “reciprocation=isolation” technique. This means that if you have twenty kids over to your house for a play day, then you should get at least ten invitations from responsible fellow moms for play days. That means ten days when your kids will be out of the house and somewhere reasonably safe. Lose a workday, but gain ten. Actually, this works more in theory than in practice, but it’s always worth a shot. We think it’s far better than dropping them off at the mall. (“Bye, kids. Be sure to check out the wooden trains in the hobby store. Pick you up at ten!”)
To get our writing time in while the world continues to spin, however, a number of things have had to be sacrificed. Our children have never been on the casualty list, but TV was first to take the hit. As a result, we never saw Seinfeld…or Friends…or Frasier. We might know Oprah if we saw her in the grocery store, but we wouldn’t know Kelly Ripa if she showed up at our door with her entire camera crew. We occasionally watch movies, but we’ve found that getting our movies from NetFlix works better for us than Blockbuster because we can keep a movie for months if we’re pressed to write and we can’t find the time to watch it.
Sleep is another thing that has suffered for our craft. Sometimes, nighttime is the only time to get it done.
Other than that, we find that we’ve developed an odd (sort of masochistic) reward system for ourselves. We set up achievable daily word count goals that will get our manuscript done before the due date, then we “reward” ourselves for making the day’s goal. For example, if we make the word count by 4 PM, Jim gets to mow the lawn. If we make it by 8 PM, Nikoo gets to weed the garden. Ironing. Garage cleaning. Going to the post office. Answering email. And on and on. Really fun things!
Our life is dull so that our fiction is not. Well, we hope that’s true.
Finally, we use Advanced Visualization Techniques to help us write while the world is partying around us. We’ve heard Nora Roberts say that she visualizes her fifth grade nun, Sister Mary, standing over her with her metal ruler in hand saying, “Work, Nora. Idle hands, you know…”
What works best for us is closing our eyes and visualizing our lives without writing. There we are, with plenty of time on our hands to do all kinds of fun, leisure activities. Yes, we can see ourselves. We’re fit and carefree. The sun is warm on our faces.
‘This is the life!’ we tell each other…as we push our possessions along in our battered grocery cart.
Jim & Nikoo McGoldrick are authors of twenty six novels under various pseudonyms . Their latest Jan Coffey release is THE DEADLIEST STRAIN.