The mental lightbulb

Zoë Sharp

Well, the disruption of Christmas is just about all over. I say that without any edge to the words. But for the past three days I’ve had the house filled with strangers—strangers I just happen to know well.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love my family, but I’ve been living away from them now for far longer than I ever lived with them. As an individual I have grown to fill the expanded corners of my own existence in such a way that we somehow no longer quite fit together as the close family unit we once were. I daresay they feel much the same way about me.

And yet, this Christmas, I have appreciated my family more than ever.

But I know that Thursday—the day after St Stephen’s Day, or Boxing Day—marks a return to normality. And that brings with it more questions than answers.

Because I’m not sure I know what classifies as normality any longer.

It was only when I flicked through a favourite book before loaning it to a friend that I realised what probably lay behind this recent feeling of malaise.

The book is THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE by Don Winslow, one of the writers I admire most and a master of present-tense narrative. The passage in question comes at the start of chapter four:

All Frank’s days are busy, what with four businesses, and ex-wife and a girlfriend to manage. The key to pulling it off is to stick to a routine, or at least try to.

He has tried—without conspicuous success—to explain this simple management technique to the kid Abe. “If you have a routine,” he has lectured, “you can always deviate from it if something comes up. But if you don’t have a routine, then everything is stuff that comes up. Get it?”

“Got it.”

But he doesn’t get it, Frank knows, because he doesn’t do it.

And I realised—doh—that I don’t actually have a proper routine.

For years I wrote fiction in the cracks of the day-job, but my day-job also did not involve any kind of set routine. As an example, few years ago I did two particular photoshoots on consecutive days. The first took place on a bitterly cold disused airforce base just outside Warrington in the northwest of the UK where the temperature was minus ten degrees. The next was on the sands of Daytona Beach in Florida in baking hundred-degrees-plus heat.

The unexpected nature of the job was one of the things I loved most about it. Through my photography work I met millionaires and criminals, the titled, the notorious, the hilarious, and the downright insane. But I never quite knew, from one day to the next, what it would bring. I suspect that was one of the reasons I clung to the day-job long after I could probably have let it go.

Now I am free to put all my effort into writing. And it’s tougher than I thought it would be.

Which brings me back to having a routine.

I need to create some more defined structure to my day. After all, I love writing. It’s all I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I have more ideas and plots and stories than I know what to do with, but if I don’t develop some organised method of working I’m going to burn myself to a frazzle inside a year.

Not only that, but I suspect I would soon start to resent the demands of the very job I always dreamed of.

So, taking the advice of Don Winslow’s retired hitman, Frank ‘Machine’ Machianno, I need to get myself a workable routine. One that fits in all the essential daily elements, including some time for simple domestic tasks—like doing laundry, keeping my accounts updated, and going to the supermarket—with all the other Stuff that’s an inevitable part of a modern writer’s life, like social media and marketing.

Oh, and a bit of time for writing, too.

And quite honestly, ‘Rati, I’m open to suggestions.

Do you have a daily routine or is it more loosely based than that? What are essentials for you—what do you try to do every day without fail, even if all other good intentions fall apart?

A couple of other points I’d like to mention today. The first is an appeal by Mary Andrea Clarke who is in charge of the CWA Debut Dagger competition. If you’ve never heard of the Debut Dagger and you are an as-yet unpublished author, it’s a brilliant way to get the start of your crime in front of top editors and agents. Past winners and shortlisted authors have gone on to great success.

Mary has asked for writers to provide for the next bulletin, one writing tip, and one criminal thought for the Holiday season. Suggestions welcome!

As well, I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that both the trade paperback edition and the US hardcover edition of DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten are now available to order. Thank you to everyone who’s said such wonderful things about this latest outing for Charlie—fighting it out with the bad guys in New Orleans.

This is my last Murderati post of 2012, so I wish you all health, luck and happiness for the coming New Year, and I’ll be back on Jan 1st with a Wildcard round-up.

18 thoughts on “The mental lightbulb

  1. Dana King

    I have a routine, and I depend more on it as I get older, as the world around me seems to move faster. I don;t really have a choice. I work a regular 8:30 – 5:00 job–from home, fortunately, so commuting is not an issue. I cook supper three nights a week, am responsible for the weekend lunches, and do the grocery shopping and bill paying. Weekends are when most of the functions that require more than an hour or so have to get done. Without a routine, I'd always feel as though I'm behind, and no writing would get done.

    My wife makes me a calendar every year for Christmas, and I use it to keep track of what needs to be done, and when. Work days usually have three tasks; weekends, five. For example, today I have to cook, write, and post to my blog. Since I'm still working on the first draft of the writing, I have to write one single spaced page before I can stop. I can write more, but not less. I am rigid enough to check which line I start on (Page 83, Line 15) and cannot quit for the evening until I get to Page 84, Line 15. Once my tasks are complete, I can do what I want.

    Most things are written in pencil. If something needs to be done but is not urgent, I look for the next available window. if I'm feeling overwhelmed, I'll add a spot for relaxation or recreation. We even scope out our menus for supper a week in advance, so neither of us is ever wandering around the house after work, wondering what we can put together. I shopped to suit the menu, so we're all queued up.

    This seems rigid to a lot of people, but it's my way of resting comfortably, as I am OCD about not letting things fall through the crack. This way I can keep an eye on every spinning plate, and, as The Beloved Spouse says, eat the elephant one bite at a time.

  2. Sarah W

    I'm with you, Zoë–I need a routine. My job provides structure, of a sort, but the rest . . . not so much.

    I've already made one step toward a routine—I've set a mandatory bedtime. It seems odd, but that extra hour of sleep seems to have freed up more time during the day. Next, I'll add a daily morning walk. Baby steps (literally) . . .

    I've set up a general plan for the new year: on weekdays (knock wood), social media and blog stuff is for early mornings, after walk and shower but before the kids wake up. work is work. 6pm to 8 is family time (some of it spent in a car), 9-10:30 is writing time. Rinse, repeat.

    Weekends and days off are another story, but the flip-side of Frank's wisdom is that without chaos, how will we recognize order?

    Speaking of disorder, did you encounter any Marmite chocolate? I was stunned to see that it's actually available–I'd secretly hoped you'd made it up as a belated Halloween scare. 😉

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    No routine. Zippo. Nada. And that's probably why I haven't completed a book in two years. As Winslow says, EVERYTHING is stuff that comes up. I'm about to write my New Years resolution blog, and I'll have to include an attempt to establish this mystery you speak of, this "routine."

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    That sounds like an incredibly organized method to me. I tend to make wildly over-ambitious To Do lists with far too much stuff on them, then get demoralized when I’ve barely made a dent in the designated tasks. Three important daily tasks and an overspill list would be a far better idea. I’ve tried menu planning, but that’s been less successful for me.

    Hmm, must try harder.

    Somebody just told me about a program that works with gmail that gives you a reminder if an email you sent hasn’t been responded to, and you can set it to bring received email to your attention after a given length of time to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks. The basic version is free and I’m seriously thinking of giving it a whirl …

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah

    “Without chaos, how will we recognize order?” Love that one, although I think I’m pretty au fait with the general appearance of chaos …

    I just can’t do the mandatory bedtime thing. I know it would be a really good idea―in theory―but in practice I tend to work until I start head-butting the keyboard with my dozing forehead. If my brain is still awake, it’s tempting to keep working it. And some of my darkest stuff (no pun intend) gets written late into the night. Something about the right atmosphere, I think.

    Yes, sorry, Marmite chocolate is NOT a hoax, although I have to say my Christmas stocking was disappointingly devoid of it this year. I shall have to go ahunting!

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Well, if you work anything out on the ‘routine’ score, please let me know! Although, I have to say that once I start a book project, I’m usually pretty fanatical about sticking to my targets, because otherwise it’s too easy for days to slide past in a bit of a blur. It’s just been a bit of an odd time over the last year, I think, a real rollercoaster. I may be hoping to establish some kind of new pattern to mark a turning point.

  7. Lil Gluckstern

    I like routines because I get things done. I hate them because they lock me in sometimes. Life is not simple-sigh. The best to you all in this new year and thank you for all the pleasure you bring.

  8. Seeley James

    Routine is the life blood of old men and dogs. –Mark Twain

    one writing tip, and one criminal thought for the Holiday season. Suggestions:

    Writing tip: Most authors' best writing begins with their third book. If you've not written 3, get to work.

    Criminal Thought: Hiding on the roof behind the chimney to crack Santa over the head & steal his toys is a waste of time. He never came until after the frostbite sent me downstairs.

    Peace, Seeley

  9. Karen, NZ

    All the best for 2013.

    I read Murderati every day when I can, and I try and make time to read every day.

    I aim for balance, as routines get completely derailed depending on what is happening with my body. Your post also brought to mind a quote I appreciate by Rumer Godden

    "everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person"

    (I thought rather than paraphrasing I'd check it out properly, and Rumer's bio says that she was very organised….)

    Leverage – what can/might you let others do to free up time?

    I don’t have a job as such, though do voluntary work, and help family when needed. I used to try and do pretty much everything, and people who know me well will tell you I’m ferociously independent, though often to my detriment. The plus side (as I’m trying to see it) of me having difficulty walking at the moment is how I had to ask for help, and begin to do things differently. The other is acceptance – about needing to rest each day (which doesn’t mean reading…. sigh). My routine used to include exercise as well, though at the moment it seems to aggravate things.

    I resisted home help for years, though it now helps I can choose my own people and times …. I mention it because it gives me time to focus on the things I can do more easily, without being the completely stressed over-functioning person… hmm never mind… anyway if it frees up time for you to write, which us readers love by the way – without it becoming a drag for you – all to the good.

    Personally I hope you don't get so busy you have someone else to answer emails for you – it means so much when an author gets in touch in person 🙂 even if it takes a while.

    I reread 'Hard Knocks' the other night – on an ipad – it was almost like reading a different book.

    Thanks so much Zoë for the enjoyment and satisfaction your writing brings (even when reading it for the umpteenth time).


  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    All too often, I am given a timely reminder that I should stop whingeing and just Get On With It (which is my screensaver, by the way). This is one of those times. Thank you for your generosity of spirit and your unflagging enthusiasm, which continues to humble and awe me.

    When you mentioned ‘leverage’ my first thought was the US TV show about a group of professional con men, but I have a feeling robbing the rich to aid the poor is not quite what you had in mind! Although, come to think of it …

    And I know, I know — must write faster 🙂

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Seeley

    Last time I looked, your comment wasn't there, so sorry if it looked like I was ignoring you!

    Like the Mark Twain quote, although which does that make me? (And think very carefully before you answer…)

    I do hope the frostbite was nowhere vital, although it *does* serve you right for attempting to mug Santa. 🙂

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am very set on a routine. I get up, write my dreams and sometimes do morning pages (as in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, a mental spew to sort out my thoughts). I meditate (or if I don't, I suffer!). And I'm writing by 8:30 or 9 – though possibly I do business that needs doing first. These days I post on FB first thing, it's an experiment.

    Then I write pretty much until 4 pm, with an hour and a half off for a dance or workout class, usually around noon. I take a break and keep writing if a deadline is pressing, otherwise I read, play around online, or go out.

    And that's how I've been doing the writing thing for… well, going on twenty years now. It's a job. I treat it just like a job. Except for the getting dressed part.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sounds like a nice way of doing things, and it clearly works very well for you!

    I'm with you on the getting dressed part, although that always seems to be the day a delivery man arrives …

  14. Karen, NZ

    Hi Zoë,

    Was reading a local computer magazine yesterday and it had listings of sites for professional writers – the one about the organised writer seemed to be down/busy or something when I checked it out thinking of your post….

    Enthusiasm – thank you – though mine definitely flags if a story isn't holding my attention. I'M amazed that your stories still grab me ( I don't tend to reread), as it seems I'm reading them annually – which to me says a lot about your skills as a writer – and am not expecting you to write faster, btw; just very, very glad I found such a talented author.

    Re-reading Die Easy too – I want to know whether Sean's brain injury affected the emotional part of the brain…yes, I keep reminding myself it's a story, though it feels like more background is there on that one 🙂

    When I read your comment re Rumer Godden my response – what, she was constipated?! Or are you referring to the ahem 'myth' about the English bathing habits??

    I do my best work in pj's…..


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