Andromeda Romano-Lax | “Portable Process” and “Scatterfocus”: How to write when you’re not writing

If you don’t have enough time to write—who does?—read this.

“dishes” by indy138 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Do you have a “portable process?” That’s what prolific author Julianna Baggott — twenty books published under three names — calls it. Her advice resonates with something I’ve done on and off for years but underutilized until I made the process more deliberate.

“Portable process” doesn’t mean learning to work in cafes instead of at home, although that helps, too. It means learning how to keep your mind creating and revising even when you don’t have time to sit in front of a keyboard, at all.

Have kids, family, or other demands on your time? A day job or two, plus a million household chores and some enticing hobbies? Don’t let that erode the world of the novel you’re desperately trying to build. Find ways to continue planning, imagining, pondering, musing, and most importantly, actively “seeing” the scenes unfold in your head, so that when you finally find the next chunk of time—two hours or twenty minutes—you’re not starting where you left off or worse, back at square one.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself doing this unintentionally. You were doing the dishes and your mind turned to a moment in your story, novel or even memoir, and you began to hear dialogue or envisioned the next event that should follow. Perfect: that’s how creativity works. A problem worked upon, then stepped away from, invites new solutions, especially when you have that daydreamy “three B” time that creativity experts have talked about (bed, bathroom, riding on the bus, or any environment that is relaxing and even somewhat dull).

Good but not good enough. Baggott’s advice—and mine, too—is to make this, like any other meditation-type process, intentional.

How to Write When You’re Not Writing

Part of the intentionality is realizing how powerful this tool really is. It’s not just a crutch or sad side-effect of not getting enough focused time at the desk. It’s an engine, one you can build and claim and power up at will. Baggott claims that by spending lots of associative time pre-imagining her scenes, she is already “on draft four” by the time she sits down to write a scene the first time. It’s made her a more visual and efficient writer who is—added benefit—less afraid of facing the blank page.

Here’s one caveat I’ll add. For me, the physical act of writing itself helps generates words, ideas, the next beats of action. As Annie Dillard put it, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.”

In other words, a “portable process” that doesn’t involve committing one humble word at a time to paper isn’t everything, at least for me. I wouldn’t insist on mentally rehearsing every scene before I sit down. But I have been using it for working out thorny problems or to re-play and re-draft scenes.

Revisit the world you’ve created. Keep it fresh in your mind.

I start the movie playing in my head and think, “how else could this go?” When my mind wanders away to solve a non-book-related problem — whether it’s planning tonight’s dinner or rehashing a real-life conversation—I gently pull it back and start the movie playing again. That’s the part that’s similar to meditation. The key in meditation isn’t the ability to have an empty mind without trying, as many of us think when we first dabble with meditation or mindfulness. It’s developing the non-judgmental ability—a sort of mental muscle that needs trainin —to gently pull your mind back.

In the case of this pre-drafting or plot-problem-solving “portable process,” you’re not tying your mind to a stake in the ground, to keep it from wandering at all. You’re only pulling it back when it wanders in the wrong direction (away from the book you’re trying to write) and then nudging it, with love and optimism, down the correct mind-wandering path.

If my daydreaming mode feels unproductive, it probably means I need to read some pages from my manuscript, whether that’s the last place I left off or some other part of the novel where voice, setting or character seemed to be working. Revisit the world you’ve created. Keep it fresh in your mind. Even if you’re not writing for days or weeks at a time, even if you only have a few minutes, there’s no reason not to skim over recent pages; in fact, it may be essential to keeping the world of the story alive. Long ago, physicians realized that bedrest was terrible for the body. Within a single sedentary day, our systems start failing. Likewise, don’t give your novel unnecessary bedrest. At least make sure it’s gotten to roll over, sit up, stretch for a few minutes and have a sip of water before it gets tucked into again, returned to its cozy incubating place in your head and on your computer.

Here’s one more key. Don’t be too quick to think this process isn’t working if your conscious attempt to daydream/muse/brainstorm while driving or taking a shower doesn’t generate genius. Similarly, don’t think you’re doing it wrong if, at bedtime, you gently guide your mind to your plot problem and promptly fall asleep—or even when that happens three nights in a row.

The problem with other forms of seductive, high-quality, story-rich content is it fills all the times and place—car, grocery store line, bathroom time—we used to fill with silence, mind-wandering and that fertile state called boredom.

One more thing. In my own life one year ago, I realized that I had unintentionally and cumulatively eroded my own powers of daydreaming in response to the incredible abundance of wonderful content available in the world. I don’t mean email or Facebook or Twitter—years ago, we all figured out those time-sucks threaten our productivity. Instead I mean the really good stuff, like language apps and quality news-streaming and podcasts with fantastic, addictive storytelling. Serial, Heavyweight, Radioambulante, anyone?

The goal is not to produce immediate results, or not every time. The goal is to stoke the fires of creativity just beneath the threshold of attention, to spur the process of divergent thinking, by which associations are made and less-obvious solutions found. The new idea or fragment of dialogue or essential plot turn may come to you suddenly or only later, while you’re walking the dog or even when you’re reading someone else’s book. When it does, revel in that musing but also … take some notes! (Even if you can’t write out a scene, at least jot down snippets or bullet points. Don’t count on the beautiful mind that just gave you new great stuff to also remember the details!)

How to Avoid Sabotaging Your Ability to Write When You’re Not Writing

The problem with cheap-dopamine-hit social media is that it impedes our attempt to focus. The problem with other forms of seductive, high-quality, story-rich content is it fills all the times and places— car, grocery store line, bathroom time — we used to fill with silence, mind-wandering and that fertile state called boredom.

In other words, we haven’t only lost some of our ability to “hyperfocus,” i.e. forgo all distractions. Thanks to excess available entertainment, we’ve also jeopardized our ability to choose and make use of those times when our minds are deliberately and productively unfocused, i.e. open to the right kinds of meaningful, internally generated distractions and the links between those surprising flashes of memory, imagination, insight, and so on.

Productivity blogger Chris Bailey calls this creative mode “scatterfocus,” the time we connect ideas we’ve gathered in a deeper, new way. The idea that we must learn to better control our attention in both modes—hyperfocus and scatterfocus—is the piece that Bailey adds to our ongoing conversation about the problems of digital distraction. (His book, Hyperfocus—now in paperback—is worth a read, especially if you’re ready to give your writing routines and attention budgets a complete makeover.)

To Round Up

Worry less about the times you really, truly can’t write. They happen. Just make sure you fill the in-between times with purposeful incubation, both deliberate mental problem-solving and looser, scatterfocused daydreaming. Frequently revisit the pages you last wrote. Jot notes as new ideas come to you. Think of your novel as a movie and re-watch parts mentally—a Jedi mind trick—when you can’t add to your word count. Instead of lamenting, embrace the incredible power of your mind to do amazing work even when you’re not typing.

Andromeda Romano-Lax reading from Plum Rains at The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Café in Anchorage. Photo by Jeremy Pataky.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of over a dozen books including, most recently, Plum Rains, a novel set in Japan and Taiwan, shortlisted for the Neukom Prize for Speculative Fiction and Canada’s Sunburst Prize. She works as a book coach, mentoring writers in need of ongoing coaching or one-time manuscript assistance. Learn more here or email her at

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