Six impossible things

Writing on the road

Next week, I’m leaving on a 2-1/2 week road trip with my father. It’s not really a vacation – I’m guest of honor at Conjecture  in San Diego Oct 5-7 – but Dad and I decided to take the extra time to drive out from Chicago and stop to see things and maybe visit some family along the way. (I don’t expect any interruption in the blog, but one can’t ever be completely sure. So if there’s a sudden interruption, that’s why.)

There’s rather a lot of family scattered around; my Dad’s family has been keeping track since umpty-great-grandpa James decided to quit being a British spy after the Revolutionary War and stick around the new U.S.A. instead (I’ve always thought that maybe umpty-great-grandma had something to do with that, but there’s no family lore to back it up).

Be that as it may, I’m not in a position to lose two and a half weeks of writing time right now, especially since I’m still in the development phase. If I take that much time off now, dire experience tells me that I’m likely to find the whole project not merely cold, but encased in a three-foot layer of ice when I get back to it…which is another way of saying I really, really had better not do that. So I’m going to be writing on the road.

Writing on the road means planning ahead. It’s not enough to haul the electronics along, though the laptop is essential and the iPad is convenient for reading in the car (I thank my stars that I am capable of doing that; lots of folks can’t). I know from more experience that the Internet is not always reliably available when one is driving cross-country, no matter what they claim…and anyway, roaming charges are expensive. So I also have to consider what I want to make certain is on the electronics in the way of software and reference materials, as well as what sorts of non-electronic things (hard copy books and notes, CDs) I also want to haul along.

Since there’ll be a lot of driving on this trip no matter how many stops we make, I’m planning on bringing a fair lot of reference materials. This weekend, I’ll be combing Project Gutenberg for free primary-source downloads that look interesting, as well as ripping a couple of CDs I just bought of lectures about writing and literary criticism. I already have the gadget that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket (do they even still call it that?) that you can plug your laptop or iPad into to extend the battery. And I have a number of gadgets, from the wireless mouse to the portable external hard drive, all of which fit handily into the giant laptop bag. (The bag is really for all the externals; the laptop itself is small enough to fit in my handbag. OK, it’s a big handbag, but it’s not that big…)

No matter how much preparation I do, though, writing on the road is never easy. When I drive alone, I obviously can’t read or type, and I’m no good at dictating. I do carry a recorder to grab ideas on the fly, but it’s a pain to transcribe when I’m done driving (and I know from experience that if I don’t type them onto my laptop that night at the hotel, they’ll probably never get transcribed at all…or by the time I do get around to it, they won’t make any sense to me). I can, however, listen to whatever I want (usually audiobooks or podcasts). Driving with somebody is different. I still don’t have much luck typing in a moving vehicle, though I can read if we’re not talking. On the other hand, I have to negotiate what we’re going to listen to.

Destinations are just as difficult as the driving part – there’s a reason why I’m in Texas or New England or California or Washington, and it’s not to spend my days laboring over a hot laptop. If that’s all I was going to do, I could just as well have stayed home. There are things to see, people to meet up with, dinners to have out…

What it all boils down to is that “writing on the road” nearly always ends up meaning writing in a hotel room, either early in the morning before everyone else is up and about, or late in the evening when one is exhausted and only wants to get to bed. Either way, it takes even more discipline than usual to forego that extra hour or so of sleep and put the time into writing instead. If one is setting one’s own schedule (or if one is traveling with people who have the opposite biological rhythm – they sleep in while you like getting up early, or they go to bed early while you like to stay up), one can sometimes carve the writing time out of one’s daytime schedule, rather than from one’s sleep, but it still has to be carved.

Usually I can keep a rhythm going on a trip by using the trip itself as material – writing descriptions of what I saw or did that day, or bits of ideas, or overheard conversations that work as idea-triggers can keep the habit going even if I’m not seriously working on pay copy for a few days or a week. Sometimes, though, the book is at a critical stage, or there’s a deadline, or an editor has a last-minute request, or there’s some white-hot scene or short story that has to be grabbed right now, and there’s nothing for it but to squeeze in some serious work regardless of time, place, and general convenience.

And the way you do that is…you just do it. You get up early and crack open the laptop (or stay up an extra hour or three, if it’s the white-hot thing), and you sit at it and write. Sometimes, you’re lucky and being in a different place shakes things loose in a good way; sometimes, it’s harder than ever. You do it anyway.

Really, it’s not so different from writing at home, whether you feel like it or not…

  1. Usually I can find more time to write on the road because I don’t have my usual things to distract me or take my time. Go figure.

  2. Wow. That’s a lot of stuff to bring with you just for your writing. I guess I never thought about how much besides my laptop I use when I’m writing something because the stuff is always within arm’s reach. (Literally. We live in a small apartment.)

    Hope your trip goes well and that it’s fun as well as productive.

  3. In the past month (moving, not-yet-settled-in-new-place, inbetween holidaying, I’ve discovered a few things about working-on-the-road myself. It needs even more discipline than at home, but sitting in a pretty spot and working is the next best thing to being on holiday.

  4. The bag is really for all the externals

    Isn’t that the truth… I like to joke that my laptop has its own carry-on luggage. Except that I’m not really joking….

    This makes me feel so much better about the pile of notes, mini-whiteboards, and assorted other writing detritus I was hauling along on trips when I was in the throes of the first novel. Not to mention the aging dictionary and thesaurus; despite the fact that my entire circle of acquaintance are bibliophiles, no one ever seems to have a dictionary around the place.

  5. We’re on a trip right now and I’m not getting my reading done. I finished a book I bought in July; I’m halfway through another one and the next one on the list is The Far West. Meanwile, we’ve taken all of September to get from Ontario to Salt Lake City.

    I hate to think what would be happening if I was trying to write as well as look at the scenery.

  6. My main reaction to this post was excitement that you are writing something!

  7. As someone who loves audiobooks, are any of your books (besides Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons) going to become audiobooks?

  8. The other two Enchanted Forest books are audiobooks too, but I haven’t seen any of the others.

  9. Many folks still call it a cigarette lighter socket, though some cars now have the power socket for electronics (some minivans, large SUVs, and luxury vehicles even have one for the back seat too) but don’t actually come with the cigarette lighter itself. I tend to be more annoyed that there isn’t a good way to use the ash tray for any other storage in my car. XD

    Thank you for sharing this! I’m going to send it to my girlfriend. I suspect, however, that she is already familiar with the “must carve out time” thing. She’s usually the driver because she prefers it to being a passenger. I miss being able to read in the car without getting sick. I could as a kid!

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,