Sunday, 18 August 2013

The quest for distraction-free writing: 1997 to the present day


Beginnings

I have been writing since about 1997. In those days my only point of interaction with the Web was at school, and the computer I used at home was a rickety old Macintosh SE/30 with a black and white screen (nine inches across!) and a 20MB hard disk. Its processor ticked along at 16MHz.

How did you manage? I hear you cry. Actually, it was one of the most intensely productive periods of my writing career. The answer? Focus.

That computer was the most efficient writing tool I have ever used. The screen was big enough for first draft work (although too small for editing and composing), the simplistic, monochrome interface of System 7 supremely focused and streamlined. It was equipped with a beautiful Apple Extended Keyboard with crisp mechanical switches. Best of all, it had no access to the Web and no distractions.

After the SE/30 died I moved on to a PowerBook 190 - a monochrome laptop, also sans Web connection. Mac OS 8 wasn't as minimal as the earlier version I had used at the start but the overall experience was very similar and, as before, my level of productivity was high.

Then the relentless march of the Web finally came knocking on our door, and shortly after the turn of the century we got dialup at home. From 2001 we had an iMac desktop computer which I shared with my younger brother, and this new, shiny machine was packed with games and a Web connection that worked after a few moments of Ping-ping-beepdy-beepdy-crunchcrunchcrinkle-beepdy-ping.

The iMac still going strong after its tenth birthday
My productivity is never at its best in summer, but that year I really struggled to get the words down. I tried enforcing set times of day to write (2-4pm), but distractions encroached with depressing inevitability and all too often I would give into the temptation of a "quick surf of the Net" or one of the many games we had installed. That year I finally gave up trying to finish the increasingly long-winded magnum opus I had begun five years before.

The writing den years

In 2003 I tried a new approach. I purchased a new Apple laptop (my old PowerBook no longer held a charge) and, with the help of my parents, transformed the old summerhouse at the bottom of the garden into a writing den. It contained a desk with lamp, a chair, some shelves, a power outlet, and an electric heater. We were still on dialup at the time so there was strictly no Web access.

I spent two or three hours in my writing den most evenings. With no games installed on my laptop (at first!) and nothing but my iTunes library and the blank page to occupy my thoughts, my productivity increased and soon I found myself writing more than ever before. I preferred the dark evenings later in the year. Cocooned in my den, writing by the light of a single lamp and wedging myself against the electric heater to take the edge off the chill, I produced material at a rate that seems almost unbelievable now.

The numbers speak for themselves. Between the end of October 2003 and the first week of January 2004 I wrote two complete novels with a total wordcount of 250,000 words. Neither of them got as far as the desk of a literary agent, but the learning process was vital.

My writing shed was a system that made me hugely productive. However, it isn't always easy to see what a good thing you have going without the benefit of hindsight.

The Web encroaches further

By 2005 I had installed a few games on my laptop. I was still getting work done in my shed, but my setup no longer forced me to be productive; I now had a procrastination option, and sometimes I ended up taking it. The days of writing 4-6,000 words a night were over.

That year I began an undergraduate course in computer science at UEA Norwich and I virtually stopped writing for three years. Occasionally I picked at projects, but most of my creative energy was in use elsewhere. My newfound passion for hillwalking also served as a major distraction and it wasn't until 2007 that I stumbled across a topic I thought worth writing about.

By this point I was living in rented accommodation in Norwich with an unlimited Wifi connection. I had installed a large amount of software on my laptop - games, programming tools, plus of course a web browser - and no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to recreate the focus I had once enjoyed. Even when I had to write essays for my course I would have to go to extreme lengths to really focus; on one occasion I actually ripped the Wifi card out of my laptop and locked myself in a library carrel for a few hours.

The Web offers a vast realm of possibilities - limitlessly empowering, and yet I was starting to realise that it was also a major source of distraction. I simply didn't have the discipline to sit down and do nothing but write for a block of several hours when so many other things to do were only a click or two away. Modern computers are multitasking systems and aren't set up for focusing on a single task for long periods of time.

In 2008 I moved to Scotland and, although my Web connection admittedly took a step back towards the stone age, in many ways the writing situation actually got worse. I was working a physically tiring full time job and every spare minute of my waking life was either spent in the pub or up a mountain.

It took me almost two years to realise it, but these are not the optimum conditions for writing fiction. I had an idea for a novel that inspired me but getting the words down was a painfully slow process and often I would write nothing at all for several months.

I become aware of the need to focus

By late 2009 I had started work on The Only Genuine Jones, and in 2010 I started to take my writing seriously again.

I examined my options. Living in shared accommodation, I no longer had the luxury of a dedicated writing den, or even a desktop PC: the best I could hope for was a quiet table in the Residents' Lounge during my break. I identified this is an opportunity I could exploit. Since 2008 my split shift breaks, three hours long, had usually been spent watching TV or running up the local hill if the weather permitted. Now I started using them for writing.

The Web was still a problem - that particular distraction never seems to go away - but I purchased an iPad and I found that the smaller screen and more focused experience helped my productivity. The iPad is an echo of the Macintosh SE/30: small screen, one application at a time.

The iPad in action at the Clachaig
It took discipline, but it worked. The words flowed, and I finished the book.

A return to the desktop

Since 2011 I have once again had a desktop computer: a general-purpose, Swiss army knife computing tool, jack of all trades but certainly not optimised for creative writing.

A PC can surf the Web fluidly, edit photos and video, play games, store vast amounts of data. Any one of its many functions can be summoned with a click or two of the mouse - or, increasingly in the new era of computing, a tap of the screen or a spoken command. A PC is designed to allow efficient multitasking, but the long, hard lesson my writing career up until that point had taught me was that multitasking kills the productivity of the creative writer. As computers have grown in complexity so have their interfaces and the minimal simplicity of System 7 is long gone.

WriteRoom, a "distraction-free" text editing platform. Unfortunately the
Web is only a click away...
Don't mistake me: a PC is essential to the modern writer. We need an efficient multitasking machine to keep in touch with our fans, edit our books, compile them and publish them. Many of the jobs a writer needs to do can only be comfortably accomplished by a general purpose PC.

But the actual everyday process of sitting down and generating first draft material? I no longer think a standard modern computer is the best tool for the job.

I've tried every trick imaginable: anti-procrastination software, distraction-free text editors, physically disconnecting my router. I often write on my old Palm PDA when out and about but the screen is too small for everyday work. The problem is that nothing is quite good enough; I can't find a solution that works as well as the ancient, primitive machines that helped me be so productive years ago. It's all too easy to jump online "to check something" and find yourself still browsing Wikipedia an hour later. Notifications break the train of thought.

I'm susceptible to distraction and I need a minimal, focused, offline device for writing my fiction. Not every writer will be the same - some will thrive on multitasking - but I'm willing to bet that many writers could benefit from a simpler and less distracting system when they're trying to get words down.

The nuclear option

I am currently in the process of planning a setup I hope will solve this problem. I plan to acquire an ancient Mac computer similar to the one I used in 1997, restore it to full working order, and use it purely as a writing terminal. It will run Mac OS 7 in black and white: a minimal interface, yet powerful enough to get the job done, and with absolutely zero distractions. All other author tasks will be dealt with by my main PC with its humongous widescreen monitor and fast connection to the Web.

Will the experiment work? I don't know ... after all, I don't have my writing shed any more, and I may find the limitations of the old technology too annoying to live with. I may also discover that I'm unable to recapture my old level of productivity for other reasons unconnected to the technology I'm using. However, if there's a chance I can get back up to the level of 2,000 or more words a day, I believe the experiment is worth a go!

Authors ... what steps have you taken to beat procrastination? Have you taken the step of setting up a dedicated offline computer for writing?
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