Chaos Fueled by Caffeine

How a bestselling author mixes writing with life

There is a theme trending in these Military Writers Guild interviews — life. Not everyone has the luxury of sequestering ourselves away to make writing happen. At this point, I’m not so sure that would be a luxury at all. The precious time that we steal away to write make those words even more valuable. Perhaps that explains why we have to choke down our ego when we ask others to review our writing.

Jessica Scott’s own writing life is a refreshing recognition of this theme. She is an accomplished writer — a bestseller no less — an Army officer, a Veteran of the Iraq War, a graduate student, a mother, and a wife. As most can attest, each of those titles comes with many subtitles of their own — blogger (PBS Point of View and New York Times At War), commander, and softball coach among others. Twelve books later, she tries to find time to write if there is energy left over at the end of the day.

If you are writing on the go, an expeditionary guerilla writer, or writing under a headlamp, you will be encouraged to keep those non-traditional writing routines by this interview.

Jessica, my wife is enjoying her autographed copy of Homefront!

[John DeRosa] What time do you typically wake up? What does the first hour of your day look like?

[Jessica Scott] The first hour of my day is pure chaos fueled by caffeine. I’ve actually discovered butter coffee, which is the not organic, overpriced version of Bulletproof coffee. I swear it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. But in all seriousness, my day begins by getting the kids off to school with a minimum of yelling and spilled milk. We manage to varying levels of success depending on how much sleep I managed to get the night prior.

[JD] What are some of your daily routines?

[JS] I don’t have routines for the most part. I check into Twitter to make sure there’s nothing drastic going on in the world, make sure there are no pressing emails. I’ve recently given up on the whole inbox zero thing and honestly, the little number of unread emails does something to my anxiety levels. I hate it, but I’ve had to leave things undone simply because I don’t have time to deal with everything right now. Then I tackle whatever needs tackling for the day regarding grad school or the course I was teaching at ROTC. If there’s energy left over, I try to work on my fiction once everyone’s in bed and asleep. Some days I succeed, some days I don’t. I wish I wrote every day, but I simply can’t.

[JD] How does your routine change on the weekend to decompress?

[JS] The weekend isn’t a decompression time for me, honestly. It’s when I get the majority of my fiction work done. I have to use all of the time available to get everything done. I do coach my kids softball teams, though, and I find that tremendously rewarding. The girls are just great kids and a lot of fun to watch them grow.

[JD] Describe your creative (writing) space.

[JS] My most creative work gets done at Barnes and Noble. It makes me sad that some of their stores are actively discouraging people like me from hanging out and writing. I understand why they do it — it costs money to run the place but when I’m there for an all-day writing bender, I buy a ton of coffee and I always buy food, too. Honestly, there’s just something about being around books and coffee that pushes my creative process into high gear.

[JD] Describe your creative (writing) routine.

[JS] I honestly don’t have one at the micro level. Every book is a little bit different for me. I tend to start writing once I have an idea about the characters but then have to write a bunch of stuff that’s eventually going to get thrown out because I haven’t found the core story yet. Once I find that core story, though, I’m able to really put serious words on the page every day. I’m no longer afraid of deleting whole chunks of a book and starting over. It’s part of my process and I’m okay with that. I wish it were more streamlined but after 12 books, I’ve accepted that’s just the way I work through a book.

[JD] How do you determine what you are writing about?

[JS] I write until I get stuck. Writer’s block for me — being unable to move a story forward — is my sign that something isn’t working and I need to go backward to fix it before I can go forward. I’ve been stuck on my latest book for about six months. I’m actually just starting to feel like I might have figured out what’s wrong with it. I add to it little by little, but I know I won’t be able actually to finish it until I figure out what’s wrong with it. It’s just the way my brain works on these things. It sounds flighty, but I have to let my subconscious tool around with things before I figure them out.

[JD] What does your note taking system look like? How do you gather information for your writing?

[JS] I don’t take a lot of notes for my fiction. I’ll save articles in Evernote if something strikes me as particularly powerful or I’ll leave it on my desktop so I can remember that it’s there. For my nonfiction and academic work, I use Zotero religiously.

I read all my journal articles on my iPad in iAnnotate then email the notes to myself in a special notes mailbox. I also send them to Evernote to be able to search them better. I like iAnnotate because I can highlight and write myself notes as I’m reading. When I extract the notes, it tells me what’s a note versus what’s a highlight so it keeps me general straight from accidentally plagiarizing.

I also use notes on my iPad/iPhone just because they sync really well between devices. I’ve found the search to be pretty solid as far as finding what I actually wrote as opposed to bringing back a bunch of irrelevant searches.

[JD] What are you reading lately?

[JS] Pitirim Sorokin. He was the chair of Harvard’s sociology department when the department was really getting its feet underneath it. He was a quite controversial scholar in American sociology and I’ve been studying with a professor who studied with him at Harvard. The historical perspective is neat, but I’ve found Sorokin has some truly insightful and meaningful contributions to our understanding of how society functions that have been forgotten or willingly ignored by modern sociology to our detriment.

I also recently read Black Hearts by Jim Frederick and it is by far one of the most powerful books I’ve read coming out of the Iraq War. If we really want to talk about toxic leadership, we have to talk about that system that creates and rewards it. That book should be required reading for every military leader.

[JD] How do you find what to read?

[JS] I watch Twitter for recommendations from people I find interesting or influential. I also like just browsing the bookstore and just seeing what grabs my attention. As an author and publisher, that’s actually a key skill: understanding why something grabbed me when something else didn’t. But there’s something great about picking up a book and reading the jacket then being able to flip through the pages. It makes me sad to think of bookstores dying off.

[JD] Is there a genre of reading you prefer?

[JS] I like a book that makes me care. I love a good space opera. Anne McCaffrey was my gateway into sci-fi and I still love her books to this day. I really enjoy a good dystopian that makes me think. The world isn’t black and white. Books that explore where humanity is heading really need to explore the shades of good and evil that make up society.

[JD] What is the book you’re most likely to give as a gift or one you’ve given as a gift the most?

[JS] The book I’ve given most as a gift is Baby 411. It’s a great book of advice for new moms and I really think it’s got really sound advice for what is a truly terrifying experience, especially when it’s your first baby.

[JD] What’s your drink of choice?

[JS] Water, tea and, of course, coffee.

[JD] Where’s the most adventurous place(s) you have been?

[JS] Counting or not counting Iraq? If we’re not counting Iraq, I’d have to say living in Europe was a massive adventure. I was 19, straight out of AIT and from small town central Maine and here I was living across the ocean all by myself. It was a huge adventure and one that actually started me on the path I’m on today.

[JD] What bold steps would you like to see the Military Writers Guild take?

[JS] I’d like to see Guild engage with each other with differing opinions. I’d love to see discussions that offer opposing viewpoints in a way that’s both respectful and challenging. We have an opportunity to really engage with diverse ideas with our group and I think we have an obligation as veterans and citizens to engage both with each other but also in demonstrating that people can disagree without demonizing the other side. It’s like when we sit around the TOC on night shift and solve the world’s problems. We can argue fiercely, but we’re still on the same team. I think we could really get some great dialogue started if we engage in opposing viewpoints in a respectful manner. Course, we’d have to turn the comments off.

Follow Jessica, John, and the Military Writers Guild on twitter. Cheers!

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