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Meet Johann Thorsson.
Johann spends his early mornings writing and his days as Head of Marketing for Heimkaup, Iceland’s version of Amazon. He currently lives with his wife and two kids in Iceland and is a self-described “writer of strangeness.” We sat down with him this week to learn more about how he finds the time to do two jobs at once and what it’s like to write for an English audience from Iceland.
How did you know that you wanted to be a writer/in marketing and what were your first steps in making this your career – essentially, how did you get to where you are today?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I held a copy of the graphic novel form of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in second grade. Seeing Gandalf and Gollum and Frodo is forever seared into my brain. Later, when I realized that someone actually writes the stories I loved, this being in like fifth grade, I knew that one day I’d like to do that. Iceland has a very strong tradition of writing, poetry, and novels, so it doesn’t sound absurd to anyone here. It’s like wanting to be a plumber or a graphic designer; it’s just one of many jobs that people have and isn’t all that remarkable.
I took a short story writing course, got encouraging feedback and placed in Iceland’s premier literary magazine. After that initial taste of success, there was no turning back.
Marketing, on the other hand, is something I say I accidentally ended up doing. I worked as a programmer for Dohop.com but realized that we needed to tell people about it. I started talking to the guy in charge of marketing more and more and in the end, the CEO just said, “Why don’t you guys form a team and figure this all out?” So I joined my first marketing team. That is the true story of how I started in marketing, as trivial as it sounds. Now, I’m head of marketing for Iceland’s version of Amazon.com.
As a writer, how do you stay productive, motivated, and focused?
Those are three very different things, and one of my problems is that I’ve only ever been able to be two of those things at once, not three. I’ll go through periods where I’m productive and motivated for about a week, but then I’ll shift to working on a new thing.
It has taken me a long time to be able to say that I am all three things at once, and I owe it to a group of people I managed to join me in a “writing hack” group. I use methods from James Clear, Tim Ferriss, and Cal Newport to trick myself into focused productivity. And yes, “trick” is the right word there, because we are our own worst enemies.
The main things are to write in the same place and the same time every day, but set yourself really small daily goals (my daily goal is 200 words, but I’d really recommend people to even go down to just 50.). Turn the internet off, turn it off, turn it off.
I set myself up for a right start each morning by getting up before anyone else, using Freedom Premium to schedule an internet-off session that starts before I even sit down to write. I start each session by listening to the same song. Together, this tells my brain that it is now writing time. (The song, for the curious, is Ben Howard’s Oats in the Water.)
When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?
I am most productive in the very early morning. On the days I manage to get up at 5:00 I am supercharged. Well, not supercharged at first, but after about 25 minutes I manage to be awake enough to write. I get in about an hour and a half of writing before my family gets up and I need to get my kids dressed and fed and out the door to school and kindergarten and myself off to work.
A good man on Twitter, Jon Paradise, introduced me to the hashtag #5amWritersClub. At first, I thought it was an approximation, I mean no one really gets up at 5:00 am to write, do they? Turns out, there’s a whole club, and they are fantastic and encouraging and it has kicked my writing into a place where I actually, finally, can see the end of projects.
At what point did you realize that digital distractions were taking a toll on your productivity and time? Or, when did you know that you had to do something about it?
Well, I’d sit down to write on a Monday morning and just take a peek at Facebook or Twitter and then BAM! It’s Wednesday evening and I haven’t written a single word all week. I’d try to make it up in the evening but by then all resolve and willpower are depleted so I’d take another quick peek and BAM! It’s Friday afternoon and I’d have a total of like 300 words written that whole week.
I knew that this was not a great way to write a book, and it was basically an honest look at my priorities (I’m lucky enough to not play video games or watch a lot of TV,) so I started looking at what worked, what didn’t and how I could “outthink” the procrastinator within myself. The biggest single thing was wasted time online, reading news and scrolling through Facebook. This is not a priority in my life, so I needed to turn it off.
The biggest single thing was wasted time online, reading news and scrolling through Facebook. This is not a priority in my life, so I needed to turn it off.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your productivity and/or writing/working process?
Well, not to sound all “pluggy”, but Freedom Premium has really, really helped. I schedule sessions to begin before I sit down in the morning so the internet isn’t even available until as a reward after I finish a round of writing.
The same playlist (starting with the same song) for each project gets me in the zone and helps with writing.
I use to use Offtime for my phone, but I find that just leaving it in another room on airplane mode is even better.
Scrivener’s composition mode (just the page, no menus or distractions) is excellent for focus, and of course, Scrivener itself is just a great novel-writing tool.
What project are you currently most excited about?
I am currently trying to wrap up two projects. The one closest to completion is a novella-length story about a girl who lives in a village of tents in the desert, raised up against a giant walled enclosure, the inside of which no one has seen. In fact, as far as they know, they are the last humans in the world and their only source of water is from a pipe that juts out from the wall.
She rebels against the notion that curiosity and exploration and blasphemous. It all comes to a head when hordes of twisted beasts from the desert attack the village, the water stops flowing and she leaves the village with her friend in a hot air balloon and they fly to the other side of the walled enclosure to get help. But what really awaits on the other side?
The other is a novel about a man with schizophrenia who sees ghosts, as he attempts to help a very skeptical detective solve a series of murders that seem open-and-shut. Of course, the police don’t believe him, but the murders are oddly connected. It’s about grief and the things we should say to people before we, or they, die and it becomes too late to say them.
What are your biggest distractors?
Like so many other people, social media is just an amazing thief of time and attention. Facebook is huge in Iceland, and is not just the way people stay in touch and voice their opinion, but it is the way people organize meetups and parties, parent groups for schools are on Facebook, my critique circle, everything. In Iceland, Facebook is the internet.
The many news sites, especially in the morning, seem important and are constantly demanding my attention.
Twitter, for some reason, is easier to turn off but nonetheless takes both time and attention. Twitter, on the other hand, has more to give back. I’ve made plenty of friends on Twitter, none on Facebook.
How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?
As long as I manage to get in the unconnected hours in the morning, I don’t much have a problem with being overwhelmed. My job demands that I be online constantly and very responsive to email during the workday.
The balance lies in countering the full online immersion of work with total unconnectedness in my writing life. Again, not to sound too much like I’m just a Freedom shill, but a scheduled Freedom session seriously is key to this. It’s not even a decision I have to make.
The balance lies in countering the full online immersion of work with total unconnectedness in my writing life.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive and focused on the things that matter most to you?
Oddly enough, I don’t have any sort of routine along those lines. The only thing I can think is a relatively early bedtime and an aim to get writing by around 5:30.
Are there challenges/advantages to being an English writer living in Iceland?
The advantages far outweigh the challenges. I write in English mostly, so there’s an argument to be made that I don’t reside in my own market. However, the internet is now the market, and I can reach peers very easily on Twitter. Being from Iceland also makes me memorable within the field, and is a big part of why a story of mine was included in The Apex Book of World SF 4, for instance.
There are no critique circles here that write in English but my own crew doesn’t mind me handing in stuff in English, even though they write in Icelandic.