Monday, April 20, 2009

Secret Worlds in Starbucks

by Marcus Sakey

I recently got a new laptop, as my old one started making this sound like ball bearings dropped down a garbage disposal, or a grandfather endlessly gargling. Not the best for the concentration.

The new one is slick, lightweight, and has three features that make my geeky day. The first is a back-lit keyboard, handy when you do a lot of writing in the late afternoon on the front porch. Somehow my best streaks always seem to come just when it’s getting damn hard to see the keys. The second is a battery with mad life, about six hours of word processing time. And the third is a ‘roided-up WiFi card which lets me connect pretty much anywhere (e.g., the front porch.)

Besides making me happy because I’m a big nerd, the new laptop makes me happy because it expands the way I can work. Or more precisely, where I can work.

Most every time I do a speaking gig, someone asks what my routine is: How many words a day, how many days a week, what kind of computer, where I work. The answers are 5000 a week, five days a week, a PC, and…well, that last is trickier.

One of the unexpected challenges in taking your writing seriously is learning how you work best. It took me twenty short stories and two novels before I had a reasonable idea. It’s the little things. For example, for two years, I spent mornings pacing, banging my head against the wall, trying to will myself to work. I’d break for lunch, then come back around two, sit down and nail my word count. It took me two years to realize that maybe I ought to just not try to write in the morning—that I should take care of other things, and assume that I didn’t have fuck-all to say until two in the afternoon.

Another thing I learned was that I need to change locations. I write probably 50% of a novel sitting at my desk in the second bedroom we’ve converted to a den. But the other 50% is split up into a bunch of little shavings. 8% sitting in front of the open window. 6% on the front porch. 3% standing at the kitchen counter. 4% in the coffee shop. 4% in the bar. And so forth.

For me, the simple change of physical locations seems to unlock something. Maybe it’s new stimuli, or a clarity that comes with novelty, or maybe it’s just a trick I play on my head—there’s a lot of that to writing as well, tricking yourself. But whatever the reason, I find it makes a big difference to move around.

Which got me thinking. The last time I was working in a coffee shop, I took a break between paragraphs and looked around, and I noticed that pretty much everyone there had a laptop. A lot of them were obviously emailing or Facebooking or Twittering or browsing porn (okay, probably not), but some of them were clearly writing.

And maybe they were writing fiction.

I like that idea. It makes me happy to think that people are creating worlds all around us; that the guy on the subway looks a million miles away because he’s planning the next chapter in an ongoing fantasy, or that the shy girl in the library is actually banging out a crime novel. I wonder if any of them are books I’ve read, or if any of them have read my books. An almost-connection.

Anyway, what about you? Do you find that you work best in one particular place, or do you need to nomad it? If you go out, where do you go? After all, I’m always looking for ideas…


Dana King said...

I have an extra bedroom I've converted into an office, and I write there. Period. I can write other places--tonight I'm staying with ym daughter and will write on her dining room table--but my office is the official writing place.

Guyot said...

I have always needed a change of scenes during writing time. This proved troublesome when I had to go into an office every day. The other writers wondered where I was headed when I'd walk out in the middle of the day with my laptop under my arm.

I have a home office I like very much. But like you, I can only work there a certain amount.

I have a Starbucks Gold card, which is odd because the card is actually black. I also have gift cards for three other coffee houses and/or restaurants I frequent.

I will even change locations based on what I'm writing. I have a very fancy place (where the owner lets me sit for hours) I go when I'm writing about high end places or people. I have a grungy diner I go that is perfect when I'm working on down & dirty type stuff.

Oh, and I absolutely cannot write a word without music... but that's for another post. Sean?

By the way, enjoy that extra work to combat all those viruses and spyware, PC guy.


Bethany K. Warner said...

Thanks to graduate school with it's grueling full-time, illinois-politics covering internship plus classes, I forced myself to be able to write just about anywhere, anytime because the stuff for my short fiction class was still due, not matter what foolishness Blagojevich was up to in his first 100 days in office. That said, evenings from about 6-8 or 8:30 are my peak time, at my very old beat up desk which takes up a corner of my living room.

jnantz said...

As long as I have a computer that I don't have to hunch over terribly, and my iPod, I'm good. I just need some help to stay in my own head sometimes.

Adam said...

Having just started writing my first novel, I haven't really found a specific niche yet. Most of the writing has been done in my living room on the couch late at night. Some of it though has been done on Saturday afternoons on my back deck overlooking the canal. For some reason, the serenity gets my brain juices flowing with ideas on how to describe a gruesome beating. I haven't yet gone to a coffee shop but that is an idea I may use soon.

Nancy Hightower said...

So good to know that other people are place shifters while writing! I like to do my social networking in a coffee shop--where there's lots of people, caffeine, sugar, and loud music.

When creating the world and mythos for my novels (I write fantasy), I usually stay in my jammies, hunched over my computer like a little spider monkey with a specific soundtrack playing. But breaks are always important (less I develop a permanent, Quasimodo-like hump).

It's all a balancing act of sorts...

Steerpike said...

Very good post, Marcus... I also generally have little of great value to say before lunch.

I am not a wanderer when I write. I need to be alone and comfortable with the keyboard, ideally in a secure location like my den. It's important that I feel safe and ensconced when I'm writing, otherwise I'm always looking over my shoulder.

How do you guys who write with music on manage it? I can't at all. I do graphic design to music, but I can't concentrate on two things with words at the same time. Or do you listen to instrumental stuff? That I can do.

Mark Henderson said...

Interesting blog, interesting comments. I only write in one place - my office at home - because my PC and attachments aren't very portable. Boring.

The challenge for me is finding time to write in between work and domestic commitments. It tends to be between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Unhealthy.

However, the crime novelist who figures as the protagonist in a new novel, "Perilaus" (, is even more polylocational than you and your correspondents. In the first two chapters he's writing his latest book in the Botanic Gardens and then in his flat, and after that he moves on to writing in fictional locations - a feat accomplished only by a select few of us!