Six Articles, Six Time Zones: What I Learned Writing on the Road

I’ve posted the last six Critical Intel columns from six different time zones.

That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.  My wife and I were on the road for over a month between moving out of our apartment in Austin and  into our new home in Hong Kong.  We used that time to road trip up the East Coast visiting relatives, driving nearly every day for two weeks, then flew to Hawaii for another two weeks to spend time with my family.

Through all that, I still had to write and post an article every week.  It was grueling – probably the second-most grueling writing schedule I’ve ever had – but I did it.  More than that, I turned out six articles totaling about 12,000 words.

I learned a lot – but we’ll discuss that in a second.  Right now, let’s just let my schedule speak for itself.

Six times zones.  Six articles.  Six weeks:

Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie – Posted from Austin, Texas where I wrote it without the use of a desk, sitting in the middle of our moving boxes.

D-D-D-Danger! Watch Behind You – Written partially at my sister’s house, partially in the passenger seat of a car driving through a rainstorm, finished and posted from a friend’s house in South Carolina.

Birth of the Kaiju: Nukes and Fear in the Pacific Rim – Written in a basement in Delaware, on an American Airlines flight, and on a layover in Chicago.  Edited and posted during a layover in Las Vegas.

Full Steam Ahead: How Digital Will Kill the Disc – Written and posted from the active volcano Kilauea, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

History and Legend in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Written partially in Honolulu, partially on a Korean Air Flight.  Posted at Incheon International Airport during a two-hour layover.

Adventures in Hong Kong’s Game Markets – Written and posted from a hotel room in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong.

So what have I learned from all that?

Firstly, That My Excuses Are Bullshit and Yours Probably Are Too

Guess what?  I wrote every one of the articles above when I was too busy and too tired to do so.  And when I say tired and busy, I mean falling asleep at the keyboard then jumping awake when I realize I never called the shipper, or got the car title, or alerted my credit card that I was moving.  For every one of the articles I listed above, there were things I could, legitimately, have done instead and missed my deadline with a clear conscience.  Having said that, there were times when I could’ve written but I did something else instead – and I suffered for it.  You have two choices as a writer: you can either make time or miss sleep.  And yes, sometimes sleep will be the better thing to miss.  I wrote one article this summer at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, while my wife and I were on the closest thing we’ve gotten to a honeymoon.  I wrote it while exhausted, with my legs still shaking and my clothes smelling like sulfur because I’d just hiked into a volcanic crater.  Let me emphasize that last bit:  I wrote and posted an article after hiking into an active volcano.  What’s your excuse?  You’re tired?  Oh, poor thing.

Your Writing Environment Is Important

Throughout the trip I struggled to find writing space.  A desk at my hotel in Hong Kong was the best.  Probably the worst was writing an article in the passenger seat of my Mazda tribute, hammering away while my wife drove through a rainstorm on dark country roads.  Controlling physical space is important to preserve my focus – I even buy small desks so that I’m forced to keep them clear of clutter – but on the trip I was frequently writing in situations where people walked in and out of rooms, I overheard conversations, or was in the same room as a blaring TV.  In these environments my brain felt like ice cream left too long on the counter and my words-per-minute rate dropped through the floor.  Solution: find some quiet, straighten up the area, close a door.

…But It’s Not As Important As You Think

But you know what?  A good writing environment isn’t strictly necessary.  Having a quiet space helps you maintain your focus, sure, but its a tool, and like any other tool it’s only as good as the person using it.  Repeat after me: My writing space is not my focus.  My focus is inside me.  I am always complicit in my own distraction.  Because you know what?  I wrote a lot of words in the passenger seat of that Tribute.  In fact, I wrote more there than I did in the basement of my in-law’s house.  Writing space might help you slip into your focus and and definitely helps maintain it, but the most important writing space is within.  Shut out distractions.  Batten down the hatches of your mind.  Just be a little Zen, for Chrissake.

Deadlines Keep You Honest

Truth: I wouldn’t have written as much as I did during the last month if I hadn’t had a weekly deadline.  Walking around with one of those bad boys hanging over your head is like being circled by a vulture in the desert.  You can feel your editor’s red pen twitching, waiting to mark something up.  When I was primarily writing fiction, I made a framed sign for my desk that said: “YOU SHOULD BE WRITING” to remind me not to waste time.  These days, I don’t need the guilt trip.  I know I should be writing, because I have editors that trust me to turn something in each week.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t fantastic about deadlines this summer – I had to ask for a couple of 24 hour extensions, a sad consequence of not being fully in charge of my schedule due to the move – but I still got it done.  Though I admit, the only reason I was able to cross the finish line each week was because my editors at the Escapist, Paul Goodman and Jon Bolding, allowed me to be flexible while bouncing all over creation.  Listen to me people: thank your editors every chance you get.  Send them baskets of fruit, or better, whisky.  Is the whisky basket a thing?  No?  Oh God I’m gonna be rich…

Draw Your Boundaries – It’s Best for Everyone

Remember when Obama declared “a red line” for Syria?  He said the U.S. would get involved if Assad used chemical weapons, then when evidence of chemical warfare surfaced he was like: “HA HA.  DID I SAY A RED LINE?  I MEANT A YELLOW ONE, LIKE YELLOW FOR SLOW DOWN.  ALSO THE LINE IS WAVY AND PERMEABLE  AND YOU KNOW WHAT?  JUST FORGET THE RED LINE, WE’LL DO IT ON A ‘THREE STRIKES YOU’RE OUT’ SYSTEM.”  Don’t be like that about your writing time.  If you say you’re going to write every morning between 6:00 AM and 7:00 AM, you better damn well do it, because if you don’t respect your writing time you can’t expect anyone else to either.  This is especially true if you live with other people – if you tell your wife, your roommates, or Andrew your Scottish Terrier that your writing time is sacrosanct, then reschedule it or spend that time screwing off, you’re abusing their trust.  Your roommates could’ve had friends over.  Your wife could’ve scheduled that dinner.  Your dog… okay, the dog won’t understand really, because he’s a dog.  But if you keep a regular schedule, your dog will pick up on the fact that a certain part of the day is “nap in the corner time.”  The point is that you shouldn’t let your writing time float aimlessly around the calendar like an unmoored boat, colliding into other commitments.  Pull it in.  Lash it to the dock.  You’re the goddamn captain here.

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