Writing Full Time: Harry Connolly

This past weekend, I had a plan. I was going to sit down and finish Revisionary. Nothing was going to get in my way!

Then the internet happened.

I still finished and turned in the book, but it took much longer than I’d planned for. How do you deal with the siren song of social media, especially as a full-time writer? A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark - CoverEnter Harry Connolly, with his supernaturally well-timed advice.

Does his advice work? Judge for yourself. His latest novel is A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, a pacifist urban fantasy with a protagonist who is a mix of Auntie Mame and Gandalf. Locus Magazine says it has “… a strangely satisfying conclusion. Then there’s the starred review Publishers Weekly. gave his epic fantasy/apocalyptic thriller The Way into Chaos.

You can find Harry on Twitter at @byharryconnolly or at his website.


I used to joke with my friends that the internet is a temporal gas: it expands to fill whatever time we have. Then I left my day job, had access to it at all hours, and suddenly it wasn’t so funny any more. Twitter, political causes, movie news… all of these felt like things I ought to be doing.

But it fills your day, crowding out important stuff, including the writing.

When I had a day job, I could get up early and write for an hour before my shift started. I had a daily deadline, one I couldn’t extend without getting fired. My goals were small. Even better, the coffee shop expected patrons to pay for wifi. In the war between stinginess and laziness, stinginess usually wins. Productivity!

Then I walked away from that job and switched from the cafe to home. Every day, I had oceans of time and a thousand oceans worth of internet to fill it with. Impose my own daily deadline? As a deeply unserious person, I never took them seriously. Without an external daily deadline to keep me focused, I wasn’t.

If you’re Jonathan Franzen, you pull your wireless card and squirt a dab of glue into your ethernet port. (I don’t know if that story is true, but it’s useful. Useful is better than true.) If you’re Colson Whitehead, Mr. “It’s called willpower” himself, you just do it. No hostage pit required.

Of course, Whitehead doesn’t have my treacherous, distractible brain. His perfectly sensible suggestions–stop fooling around and write–simply don’t work for me. I’ve tried. The urge to check email or catch up to Twitter when the writing gets difficult is irresistible. Willpower? That’s just a stat on a character sheet, with as much meaning to the way I live my life as “Mana.” I can turn down pizza. I can wake early in the morning. I can resist bright and shiny new tech. But interesting stuff online when I should be working? Nope.

Which is where apps come in.

As with most people, it’s much easier to plan self-control for the future than it is to exert it now. It’s easier to eat a healthy lunch if you pack it the night before than if you run out of the office hungry with twenty dollars in your wallet. Virtue does not like to be summoned in the moment. It has to be scheduled.

Mac Freedom was the name of the app I used. I loved it. Before bed, I’d set a length of time for my laptop to block all internet access, then close it. The timer only ran while the clamshell was open, so the six-hour countdown wouldn’t begin until the next day, when I was actually working. I could go online if I really, really needed to, but that involved force-quitting Freedom and rebooting. That was enough of a bother that I could resist the temptation (although I know of other writers who couldn’t).

Sadly, once I updated to Yosemite, Freedom stopped working. I had to pay again for a new version and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to discover that it had a bunch of new features I didn’t like. Now the timer continued to count down even when the clamshell was shut.

Worse, there was an actual timer telling me how much work time I had left. I love clocks, maps, and calendars; I check them constantly. Having a big-ass countdown clock was a massive distraction.

They’d also added a scheduler. For each day of the week, you could select blocks of time when the app would shut out the web. On Wed night I could ban the internet for a set “shift” on Thursday. Better: having a set writing schedule meant I could arrange a weekly schedule and forget about it

Or I would have done, if the new version of the app had worked.

It had been a year since I tested the new version of Freedom, so before writing this post for Jim I reinstalled it. The company might have updated it in the past year, right? They might have fixed it?

Well, yes, they had updated it, but no, it wasn’t fixed.

I needed something new, and it needed three things:

1) It had to block access to the internet, not just minimize it or remove it from the screen.
2) I needed to be able to set my work time in advance.

It turns out there are a lot of options. Sadly, many of them do little more than “hide” other windows. Others are dedicated word processing programs (“includes spellcheck!”); I’m already using Scrivener. Browser extension? Those are great, except that they don’t protect me from my Twitter client. And the Pomodoro Method–25 minutes of work followed by a five minute break–is a fine idea. Getting out of your chair every half hour is a good thing. But I can’t limit my breaks to five minutes if the internet is involved.

What I settled on was Focus. There’s a timer (which I don’t use) and a scheduler (which I do). The downside of the scheduler is that I can only set one time for weekdays and one for weekends. I’m a writer. I don’t have weekends. What I have instead is a weird schedule of homeschool requirements and… Let’s just say it’s a weird schedule.

The plus side covers two things: First, it closes apps for me, so I can shut off my Twitter client and any browsers I like, while leaving Dropbox open. This means that my Very Admirable Backup System functions as the day’s work progresses, not just at the end of the day. Second, when it says it’s blocking my internet, it is. End result: work is accomplished.

Obviously, I’m not offering specific advice for Jim as he embarks on his new path as a Writer Without A Day Job. It’s not specific advice for anyone. What everyone needs is a broad Franzen-to-Whitehead spectrum. If you’re someone who needs just a little help cutting out the distracting clutter, a program that takes up the entire screen might do the trick. If you’re someone who can’t resist the temptation of rebooting your computer to check Facebook, you might prefer Self-Control, which has a timer you can’t shut off until it finishes.

Speaking for myself, I had the utterly typical experience of More Time To Write -> Less Writing Done. Productivity apps are one of the ways I turned that around. Maybe they’ll help others, too.