Any rote kind of activity in my life—laundry, vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen counter—it’s sort of committed to muscle memory. Sometimes, when I’m done with it, I don’t even have any memory of having done it and I have to check myself (this is what happens when you write books in your head while you do housework.)
Unfortunately, I was apparently on auto pilot a couple of days ago when I went to the grocery store.
Going to the store is another activity that sometimes doesn’t require a lot of thought. It does if I’m going for special ingredients, but there are some trips that are just to replace staples from the pantry—and I don’t even need a list for those trips. I need milk, bread, fresh fruit, sandwich meat…you know.
So yesterday, I show up at the store and I’m apparently not even really there. I load up my cart, pulling things off the shelves, then go to the checkout line—and I have no money with me.
No money. That’s right. I’d gone to the lake with my sister and had changed my pocketbook and put my money and debit card into a beach bag.
So I left my cart at the store, told the cashier I’d forgotten my money (yes, she looked a little worried about me) and drove home for the debit card and cash. And then drove back to the store, got the fully-loaded cart and checked out.
You’d have thought forgetting to bring money to the store would have been enough to shake me out of auto pilot for the rest of the day. But then when I was unloading the groceries I apparently resumed it—and left the milk in the trunk.
There are certain things that I do when I write a book that put me on auto pilot. The story is never on auto pilot (that would be a bad thing), but the way I just keep on going, plowing through to the end, staying in the writing zone is me just doing what I always do…following the usual path. If I’ve really gotten into the groove of a plot, I feel like I’m almost just the typist, putting the story on the page. The characters tell me their bits of dialogue, I watch them as they lie to my sleuth, and the story just unfolds on the screen.
If I run into a plot wrinkle, I’d rather just keep on going and iron it out during revisions. Again, I’m just plowing through to the finish line.
But there are some problems that are big enough that I stop immediately to fix. Because if I just keep to my usual auto pilot plan for quickly working through to the end of the first draft, these problems will balloon and be more of a pain to fix later.
These are problems I pay attention to as I’m writing that can pull me out of my auto pilot zone:
The protagonist seems to be coming off as unlikeable. Or flat.
The character seems to have changed—a lot. With no reasonable explanation.
The plot is unfocused…and not in an easily-fixed way.
The main characters’ behavior doesn’t seem to have any motivation.
Now I still like to keep on plowing ahead. If I shake up my routine too much then it messes me up. But what I like to do with these major problems is to immediately make the change to the rest of the manuscript from that point on. I mark the point where I straightened out the character or plot issues in the margin of the manuscript with a Track Changes comment…then I can fix the earlier part of the story during revisions.
Do you ever find yourself on auto pilot with your writing routines? What shakes you out of it?