The Making of a Novel: When to Write in Coffee Shops

I have been writing in a coffee shop this week -- Catalina Coffee Company in Redondo Beach. It's a great neighborhood cafe, with good food and drinks, books against the walls, and comfortable, old chairs. There are always a lot of cyclists in Catalina Coffee -- it's only a block from the beach -- and lots of moms and their kids, and serious-looking folks with laptops. I suppose I have to count myself among those.

I don't normally write in coffee shops. I find the noise distracting, and whenever a new group walks in the door, I look up and try to decide why they're here -- a meeting, a job search, coffee with friends? That takes me instantly out of my story. But my youngest daughter has been going to a cross country practice down by the beach every morning at 8:30, and I have to pick her up two hours later, and that time frame is too tempting to pass up. Two hours is just the right amount of time to get a chunk of work done. I say I don't like to write in coffee shops, but I have 21 pages of my new book down on paper -- and they are pages I think are holding water. So maybe the thing is that there are times in the life of a project when it's works to write in coffee shops, and times when it's not such a great idea. Here's how I break it down:

When to Go:

  • When a parade of interesting characters might be inspiring -- i.e. at the start of a book.
  • At the moment when you think you might throw in the towel. The sight of other people hammering away at their keyboards might spur you on.
  • If you've just thrown out a bunch of pages. The chatter of other people can be soothing compared to the chatter in your head.
  • When you've been stuck on something in the story and a change of scenery might break the logjam.

When to Stay Home:

  • When you're trying to capture the tone or voice of a story. I think it's hard to hear the nuances in a coffee shop.
  • When you're trying to really get some pages under your belt -- you're on deadline, for example, or you're working towards a big page milestone. Stay home, turn off the phone, tell all your friends that you're "head down" and will let them know when you come up for air.
  • When you're solving problems whose answers might be on the Internet. If I have a lot of windows open and I'm whipping back and forth between websites and my text, I don't want to imagine that someone could be looking over my shoulder at the strange sites I'm visiting.
  • When you're editing for continuity and can't afford to make a mistake.
  • When you're doing a final polish and need to hear every detail in your mind.