Welcome to the first in our weekly series of My Writing Routine articles. Each week, we’ll be bringing you the writing routine of a different author, delving deep into their processes, tips, thoughts, and techniques for getting their words onto the page.
Can you give us a bit of a background about yourself as a writer?
I’ve written all kinds of things since I was a kid, and majored in journalism at Northwestern University. I’ve been working in reality TV (which is not writing exactly, but storytelling) for over 20 years. Recently I’ve entered the children’s book world by writing a middle grade novel (ages 8-12) called Twist My Charm: The Popularity Spell. It’s published by Random House and will be followed in 2016 by a sequel, Twist My Charm: Love Potion #11. And of course I’m hoping Random House will want a third book!
To find out more about me, check out my website: tonigallagherink.com. It has a link to purchase my book, but a lot of other fun stuff, like the “books” I wrote in elementary school, newspaper articles I wrote in high school and college, letters I received from Steven Spielberg and John Irving, and photos of my travels around the world.
When you’re in the midst of writing a book, what does your routine typically look like?
Usually when I’m writing, I also have a full time job, as I’m guessing most people do. I’m not a morning writer, because I like to exercise (spin, yoga or taking a walk) before work. I’m not a big fan of working out (I didn’t start until I was around 30!), but it really helps me keep my energy up for a long day ahead.
So I work a full day (currently I’m an Executive Producer on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on Bravo) and eat dinner (usually a frozen dinner!) at my desk before wrapping up around 7 pm. Then I head to a coffeehouse. Writing at home, I face too many distractions. I attempt to write two hours before calling it a night.
On the weekends, I try to carve out two or three hours at a time – and go to a different coffeehouse to keep things interesting. (By the way, I don’t even drink coffee. I drink iced tea!)
How does your routine change when you stop writing and start editing? What happens when you complete a book?
Because I’ve worked in television so long, I’m a writer who likes editing more than writing. I’m totally open to changes and even enjoy making them. Because of this, I can sometimes work at home when I’m editing…though I still like trying different coffeehouses.
I prefer to have a short breather in between books, though I was on a deadline for my Twist My Charm sequel. As I recall, I took a three-week vacation to Cambodia then started again. When I finished Love Potion #11, I took another break, but spent a lot of time creating my website and getting ready to promote The Popularity Spell. Now, after a little bit of downtime, I’m eager to work on a potential book #3.
Do you have any quirky rituals or specific writing goals to help you to focus?
I don’t really have any rituals, aside from ordering my iced tea! As for my goals, they change each day. Am I starting a chapter? Finishing a chapter? I’m thrilled if I can write four or five pages in a two hour window. Even if it’s terrible, it gives me something to work with later. Writing something terrible is way better than writing nothing.
Can you describe the space in which you usually write?
I write in coffeehouses all over Los Angeles, from the beach to downtown. I even use writing as an excuse to explore neighborhoods I’ve never been to before, which is great. However, if it’s a weeknight when I’m working, I have one “go-to” place, called Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake (which is in the Valley in LA).
It’s open until 11, plays enjoyable but non-distracting music, and there’s usually a lively mix of people there. The staff are friendly too.
Which software and apps help you to write? Which tools do you use?
I don’t use any tools at all, aside from a computer and Microsoft Word. In addition to the main document, which is the book itself, I usually have a scene breakdown (which I sometimes call a “beat sheet”) to keep me on track. I tend to write in order, unless I’m particularly inspired on a particular day to take on another section.
At home I have a big bulletin board with an index card for each scene. Television shows do this as well. For me, it’s a great help in planning my book, moreso than the actual writing. Looking at the cards on the wall, I immediately can see what scenes I’m missing. I can ask myself how to get from one part of the story to another one, then just add a card.
It’s also helpful to color code the cards in whatever system works best for you.
For me, I like to make sure I don’t have too many scenes in the same location, so I might change the color for basic locations like ‘home’ or ‘school.’ Or I’ll sometimes put a B- or C-plot in a different color. It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it works for you.
What music or sounds help you to better focus?
I like having music on, but I’m not super particular about it, as long as it isn’t too distracting. I don’t use headphones when I’m writing.
What kind of things completely take your focus away? Once your focus has been interrupted, how do you get back into a flow state?
Unfortunately the biggest time suck is right there on the same instrument we’re using to write – the computer! It’s so hard to not peruse the internet. Going to a place without WiFi helps. I’ve also heard about a program called “Freedom,” which allows you to turn off your access to the internet. I haven’t used it; I just try to use my own willpower.
If I’m at home, I can be distracted by anything. In addition to the internet, there’s dishes, a cat, my checkbook, what to wear tomorrow, whatever! Unfortunately I don’t have anything specific that gets me back into the groove. The one thing I would recommend, though, is forcing yourself to sit there and work for a specific amount of time. Whether you’re focused or not, whether you think it’s good or not, just write. Often I think I’m done for the night and I’m about to give up, but when I stick to it, something good often arises.
How do you get back on track when your writing routine bas broken down for a few days or more? Are there any activities that reliably bring back your motivation?
I find that being active can help. A walk, a hike, even a spin on the spin bike – where you’re alone with your thoughts – can get the ideas flowing again. You don’t have to necessarily make yourself think about your writing; just do something active and see what crosses your mind.
Also, though I don’t generally do writing exercises when I’m alone, I love them when I’m taking classes and workshops. You can find prompts online or in books, then write for 10 minutes, even if it’s not a particular scene for your story. Maybe it’s something else about a character, or some dialogue that you’ll never use in your final product, but will inspire you to keep going.
If you could change anything about your routine, what would it be? Why?
If I could, I’d probably like to write from home more. After all, I’m spending a lot of money on iced tea!
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