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Why writers shouldn’t be connected to the internet while writing …

The Outcast Chronicle covers just because they are gorgeous.

I found this article by Sam Leith on books, the internet and kindle and one paragraph in particular struck me. He was talking about what people do at work.

‘ In some ways, though, the question of whether we do our reading off paper or plastic is the least interesting one. More interesting is what we’re reading, and the manner in which we do so. A large number of literate westerners spend most of their waking hours at computers, and those computers are connected to the web. The characteristic activity on such a computer has been given the pleasing name “wilfing”, adapted from the acronym WWILF, or “What was I looking for?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Facebook Scrabble. You get an email. You answer it. You get a text. You answer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play Angry Birds for five minutes. You work a bit. You go online to check something, get distracted by a link, forget what you were looking for, stumble on a picture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twitter, rinse and repeat. ‘

As I writer I have a much more legitimate excuse for searching on the internet. I’m not WILFing. I am LFSSing. Looking for Something Specific. I’ll be writing away, all virtuous, powering through a scene and a character will say something, or do something and I’ll stop and think – Would they really be able to do that?

This is Cheops' royal ship

Did Cleopatra’s royal barge have an enclosed cabin on the deck?

This will entail going off and googling royal barges. There have been some pretty amazing royal ships of all shapes and sizes over the years. You think Paris Hilton lives an excessive life? These people lived like gods.

From this I realise I can basically design (in this case) a royal barge to suit my plot as long as it is consistent with the world.

But an hour could pass while I gather images. Did I mention how much I LOVE google images?

Whatever I need to know… Oh, so that character plays a dulcimer? how big is it? How many strings? Would it be cumbersome to carry around?

Let’s just ‘google image’ dulcimers and see. Wow, so there there’s a range of dulcimers. Which one will my character play? That one. Great. Now I have a visual in my head. I won’t bore the reader with an in-depth description. But I might just pause on a web site dedicated to dulcimers and listen to one being played, so I know how it will sound.

A while ago I was writing a story set in a nineteenth century alternate history Australia (almost qualifies as steam punk as there was a steam paddleship in it). I needed a character to shoot a pistol. It had to be heavy so that a small woman would struggle with it. I googled it. I came up with the right pistol. I even got to watch how to load it and fire it. I heard the sound it made and saw how much of a flash there was. All golden details from a writers point of view.

What, he’s fallen in the sea and in danger of hypothermia? How long before it sets in? What’s the best way to survive? What’s the best way to warm someone with hypothermia? Did you know that people on land who die of hypothermia have been found burrowed into small spaces? It seems to be an instinct. Make’s sense – with a small air pocket, there’s a better chance of conserving heat. Am I going to use this in my current book? No, but it’s there in my head now and it could come bubbling up at some point.

Once I would have had to go find a antique pistol enthusiast or dulcimer player and visit them in person. Now everything, the world, any time period, academic papers … everything is at my finger tips.

The King Rolen's Kin covers because they are gorgeous, too.

When I think of the desert that my childhood was, one book shelf that contained a dozen books and a black and white TV that ran endless reruns of Gilligan’s Island and how desperate I was for stimulus …

I find the world and people endlessly fascinating. And this is the danger for writers. We have a legitimate excuse to go LFSSing.  After all, it’s research to create verisimilitude for our books.

Just as I can’t sit still unless I’m writing, I can’t sit still mentally. The web has opened the world in all its amazing variation to me.  The more I see the more I want to see. Which reminds me of a quote, so I googled it.

‘”Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dodgson.

As writers we create worlds and people them from our imagination, so we need to ‘discover six amazing things’ every day to fuel the creative crucible.

And that’s where the temptation to go adventuring on the web is so dangerous for writers. To paraphrase Bilbo:  It’s a dangerous business Frodo, clicking on your search engine. You step onto the web, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might end up!

The Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien

Have you been swept away while researching? How do you keep your LFSSing under control?


  1. The last time I had a compute go belly up with giving any warning, I pulled out the old dinosaur, pluged it in and voila! I had computer, I had a backup disk.

    No internet connection.

    It was an incredibly productive three weeks before the new computer came back with it’s new mother board, and retired the dinosaur again.

    Mind you, what I was writing wasn’t specifically researched for, right then. In the long run it just wouldn’t do. But I’m so good at wilfing (thank you, I needed a term for it) it impacts my writing. Attempts to instill discipline are still failing, but I now know what to do when I am not making much progress.

    August 16, 2011
    • I had something similar happen. I was writing to meet a deadline and I had to travel so I tookmy little baby-bug (tiny laptop). No internet connection. Got so much work done!

      August 16, 2011
  2. Be glad you’re not a grad student Rowena. I am now, as a result of my education, an “information snob.” I only trust things if they come from scholarly sources because that’s what my professors have drilled into my head. Not only is it easier to get lost that way, it also takes longer weeding out the non-scholarly stuff.

    I think I may need to get over myself here, but it definitely has a negative effect on the time I spend writing on occasion.

    August 16, 2011
    • Jim, one of the subjects I teach is academic writing, so I know all the ins and outs of referencing. I could spend ages hunting down the author to verify their crednetials.
      But you get a sense of who is legit (as ew say here in Oz).

      August 16, 2011
  3. When I’m really pushing, I disconnect mail and web, keeping only skype and g-talk up for the kids. Because I start one topic, just to check, and yes… elsewhere.

    August 16, 2011
    • It’s all about discipline, isn’t it Dave. And I find it much easier to be strong, if there’s no chocolate in the house.

      August 16, 2011
  4. Mike Barker #

    Yak shaving. That’s what we used to call it at MIT, when you start out to do one thing, but then there’s this other thing, and then… six hours later, you look up and say, “What did I want to do in the first place?”

    Of course, remembering that, and digging up the term on the interwobbly to check that I remembered it right, and so forth… what was your question again? 🙂

    Oh, yeah. Focus. First things first. All that stuff.

    All I can say is that OCD is not a disease, it’s a way of life. I wish I knew where my T-shirt with that saying on it went…

    August 16, 2011

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