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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

GUEST BLOG: Maintaining Productivity in Trouble Times (or How I Kept Writing After My Spouse Left me and my Dog Exploded) by Robyn Bennis (Author of The Guns Above)

Visit Robyn Bennis Website Here

Robyn Bennis is making her military fantasy debut. To celebrate the release of her new book The Guns Above which comes out May 2, 2017, she has stopped by Fantasy Book Critic to guest blog and share insight into the wild and chaotic life of a writer!

Summary for The Guns Above:
The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupris can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.

She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?

Please give Robyn a warm welcome as she stops by at Fantasy Book Critic!

Maintaining Productivity in Troubled Times
Or: How I kept writing after my spouse left me and my dog exploded
Keeping your writing output up can be hard enough on a good day, as any writer knows. You wake up invigorated. Things are going great. You're feeling pumped. Then you sit down to write and it just won't come. You started the day with the goal of finishing this short, or this chapter, but at the end of the day your progress can be measured as one out-of-tone paragraph that you'll probably delete in the second draft.

And then there are the really bad times, when you only wish you could get one out-of-tone paragraph down. These are the days when you'd rather be attacked by fire ants than put pen to paper, even though writing is the thing you love most in life (formerly the thing you loved third most in life, but that was before your spouse left you and your dog exploded.)

Well, my unfortunate friend, I've been there myself, and I managed to take back my productivity in even the darkest times. Here's how.

Sleep may be the most obvious, yet still the most underappreciated factor in maintaining productivity. A good night's sleep can make the difference between a productive day of writing and a day spent staring into space, wondering if you can pass off an entire book full of blank pages as some sort of avante garde artistry. But everyone's body is different, and more sleep is not necessarily better. Being a woman of science, I've conducted extensive experiments on myself and discovered that I work best when I maintain a rigid sleep schedule for weeks on end, going to bed at the same time every night and waking at the same time every morning. One night off schedule, and my productivity can suffer for several days, so I maintain discipline with the help of melatonin, sleeping pills, and sometimes by placing the alarm (and the alluring, false promise of its wicked snooze button) out of arm's reach from the bed. Your optimal sleeping scheme is probably different, so I recommend experimenting on yourself. A few weeks' investment can yield a lifetime of improved productivity.

But what about caffeine? Can't it make up for sub-optimal sleep? I wish I could say yes, because caffeine is my second (formerly fourth) favorite thing in life. I mean, I love caffeine. If caffeine was a person, I would take it to bed on a rigid schedule. But as wonderful as caffeine is, it must be carefully regulated if you want to get the most out of it, just like any other drug. Okay, okay, you may be one of those people who can drink twenty cups of coffee per day, and an extra half-caff before bed, and still remain at the peak of productivity. Then again, maybe you only used to be that person, but in reality you haven't been that person since high school, yet you've clung to the habit through the years—turning into an irritable, jittery mess so gradually that you didn't even notice.

I have found, for example, that as I've aged, my optimal dose of caffeine has decreased, even as my addiction to that glorious little molecule has grown all the stronger. As with sleep, I recommend taking a few weeks to experiment with dosage. And, if you like to partake of caffeine in the late-afternoon and evening—even if it's just a cup of green tea that you've been drinking every evening for thirty years—it's also worth experimenting with an earlier cutoff. Sad as it may sound, we get older and our lovers don't always treat us the same as they used to.

Okay, so now you've had an efficient night's sleep and an empirically-optimized cup of coffee. You sit down to write, and you find that it's still not coming. You curse my name and call me a liar, because you read the first six paragraphs of this article in good faith and my advice hasn't helped you. Well, now that you're back here and reading the rest of the article, it's time to consider the context of your writing environment.

I was first exposed to the idea of contextual skills in Bob Harris's book, Prisoner of Trebekistan. He relates how he prepared for his appearance on the quiz show Jeopardy! by approximating the studio environment in his home—going so far as to build a replica podium and even a buzzer with which to ring in while he was quizzing himself. Thus, when he went on the show, he was already right at home, and the familiar context primed his brain to perform.

I've noticed that the same sort of contextual learning applies to writing spaces. Spaces can become unproductive over time, over months or years, due to the space being used for non-writing activities. For example, when I first moved into a certain apartment, I wrote there every night after work, for at least an hour, and had no trouble maintaining my usual writing pace. Over the years, however, as I used that same space to sleep, eat, read, binge-watch TV shows, and waste time surfing the web, the very context of the space changed until my brain no longer recognized it as a writing space. When I came home in the evening, I was primed to do anything but write. It started subtly enough, with the sort of decreased productivity and extra snack breaks that resembled any ordinary writing slum. But it was a slump that only got worse over time, and after several years I could hardly write a word in that apartment.

That is, until I tricked my brain into seeing it as an entirely different space. This was complicated by the fact that it was a cozy studio. I couldn't go into another room to write, because there was no other room. Instead, I simply rearranged the furniture whenever I wrote. It may seem absurd, but by simply shifting the terrain, the room regained its utility and became a writing space once again. Even the ritual of moving the furniture seemed to help, shifting me into writing mode in just a few minutes.

This degradation in a space's productivity can also be swift, in certain circumstances. Rooms that harbor traumatic memories may lose their utility as writing spaces overnight. Depending on your politics, the room where you watched the 2016 election returns may never be useful again. But if you haven't been able to write since one fateful day or another, try writing in a different space and see what happens.

Which brings me to coffee shops and maker spaces. For a certain type of writer, and heaven knows I'm one, there's something magical about sitting down to write in a space that is relatively quiet, yet filled with other highly caffeinated people. I wrote the bulk of my debut novel while sitting in Clocktower Coffee in Mountain View, California, and most of the sequel at Hacker Dojo in San Jose. They each have their advantages, and I recommend trying both types of space. Coffee shops offer better access to caffeine and snacks, while maker spaces tend to be quieter. Coffee shops are usually brighter, with a lot of natural light, while most maker spaces have soft, office-like lighting. It all depends on your personal preferences. And if you're visiting this space several times per week, the monthly membership at a maker space is often similar to what you'd pay for purchases at a coffee shop—unless you're that person who buys one small coffee and then camps out at the best table in the shop for eight hours, in which case get off my planet.

Whatever your space, the key to maintaining long-term productivity is maintaining its context as a writing space. Whatever your writing space may be, whether a home office, a coffee shop, a maker space, a shed in the back yard, or just your studio apartment with the desk turned toward the window, once you decide to make it your writing space, writing is the only thing you should ever do there. You do not watch television, you do not take naps, you do not check your twitter feed, or even take a quick glance at the news. In your writing space, you write, and that's it. For anything else, you leave that space. Phone call? Step outside. Absolutely have to see if I've replied to your comment complimenting me on this wonderful article? Then you absolutely must leave your writing space before you do it. In this way, you will come to instinctively associate this space with writing, and you'll be primed write as soon as you enter.

Oh, and my condolences about your dog.

About Robyn Bennis:
ROBYN BENNIS works in biotech but dreams of airships. She lives in Mountain View, CA, within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield. The Guns Above is her debut novel. You can learn more about Robyn Bennis at or follow her @according2robyn and RobynBennisWriteringPun on Facebook.


Mike Crowl said...

Good points, and my own experience tallies with much of this.


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