(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net)
In my last post, I described ways I’ve freed up time for myself to write. Great- I should be churning out novels by the hundred!
Well, no. Two years later, I finished a handful of short stories, and kept treading water on my novel manuscript.
Something still wasn’t clicking. Then, I joined a writer’s group for a few months, looking for feedback on said manuscript. While attending those meetings, I finished and brought in a new chapter almost every week. Then I stopped going… and one chapter a week became one a month, if that.
There’s something about applying a little pressure to yourself that’s very helpful. At my full-time job, when I need to get something done, I get it done- even if I have almost no time to do it, even if I don’t feel like it. Why not apply the same discipline toward something I really care about?
Finding time to write is important, but just the beginning. Let’s break down ways to transform opportunity into words on paper.
1. Establish the Habit
I love getting into “the zone” and melting several hours in creativity binges, but getting there always requires me to push past feelings of fatigue, reluctance, and procrastination. I had a long day at work and my brain’s fried. I want to watch this kitten video. Oh wait, there’s this article… oh no, I didn’t study my Spanish for the day!
I mentioned creating a ritual before- a consistent thing you do to signal to your brain, “Put that other crap aside. We’re writing now whether you like it or not, you stubborn son of a bitch.” It should contain a positive element, something you’d miss if you wussed out and didn’t sit down to write. You’re training your brain to respond to this stimulus with writing, and also rewarding yourself for your discipline and dedication.
My ritual: I make a single cup of coffee- something I love and need on weeknights to prevent myself from passing out on the couch- sit down in my writing place, throw on music (I like soundtracks and instrumentals, anything without lyrics) and sometimes light a candle. Then, assuming I’m drafting, I open Scrivener and read a few prior paragraphs to remind myself where I left off. I make myself enter at least a few new sentences, no matter how constipated my brain feels. If I can’t form sentences, I put down fragments- something I can go back and turn into real sentences later.
It’s like pushing a boulder down a hill. That momentum will usually carry me into my zone.
2. Eliminate Distractions
If you’re pulled out of your zone, it takes a long time to get back there (I can attest to this as a writer and programmer). Do whatever you can to reduce the chance of something disrupting you.
Some ideas: write in a room with a door you can close (and keep out cats who gnaw on cables to get your attention- ahem). Let your family know you won’t be available during that time. Leave phones, TV, and computers outside if possible. If you can’t write on anything but your computer (me), but are easily distracted by IMs and tempted to Google this or that (also me), try a few things: first, close out all applications except your word processor and music player. Second, kill any notifications or sounds that might pop up. Third, maximize your word processor window so you can’t see stuff behind it. If it has a “full screen” or “composition mode,” that’s even better.
3. Set Goals and Deadlines. Yes, Seriously
Nooo! What’s the deal with this? Creativity doesn’t work on a schedule!
Doesn’t it? I’m not about to diss the revelatory brainstorms we’re all struck with at random points in the day (for me it’s right before falling asleep), and I won’t deny there are days I feel more inspired than others. However, plenty of good creative work happens as a result of pressure, or a preferred solution falling out. Coming up with workarounds is a perfect creative exercise, and sometimes those workarounds are better than the original solution.
One example is the famous “duel” scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was originally supposed to be an elaborate melee, Indy’s whip versus the thug’s sword. As it turned out, Harrison Ford was ill during filming, and couldn’t make it happen. He asked Steven Spielberg if he could just shoot the guy instead. Fin. (Read up on the stuff Ford has changed and ad-libbed in various films- he’s really good at enhancing his roles.)
When you treat writing as a nebulous activity that gets done when it gets done, you risk falling victim to Parkinson’s Law, meaning your work in progress might never get done. Deadlines are a way to create urgency, measure progress, and feel good about how far you’ve come. You might not always meet them, but striving for them is better than not challenging yourself at all. As mentioned before, I somehow managed to polish a chapter a week around my full-time schedule when I really wanted the feedback.
Daily/weekly/monthly goals feed into this as well. They can be for whatever is most important to you. Here are mine for example (I keep track of them in a spreadsheet for maximum geekiness):
5,000 new words/week between the following:
- 1 or 2 chapters first-drafted in my manuscript
- 1 week turnaround time for The Daily WTF from submission to first draft
- 1 blog post (about 1,000 words)
Don’t worry about other people’s output capacity, just strive to improve your own over time. So far, I’ve been exceeding my goal by a few hundred words every week, even with a day or two each week completely off. I might try increasing this to 6,000 next month as a challenge.
Should your goals be SMART? Up to you. I think stretch goals and are-you-f#@king-kidding-me goals can be rewarding too, if used properly.
4. Work Smarter, Not Harder (Barf)
My biggest weakness with writing is that my inner editor is never satisfied. I’ll go back and tweak things endlessly before I’ve even got a full finished draft. I’ve spent hours making scenes PAINFULLY AWESOME… only to have to cut them later.
When writing your first draft, stick to putting words on paper. Resist the urge to go back until that part’s done, and you’ve got a good idea what scenes are staying, what scenes are going, and what needs extra work. Otherwise, you risk churning over the same crap for years.
If you’re like me, questions pop into your head all the time while writing. “Did he already provide this info? Was she carrying this item in a prior scene? Can people actually drown in quicksand?” (The answer is no.) Instead of stopping to look up this information, I insert TODO comments into my document to remind me to check during a non-writing time. If it means I can’t work any further on this scene, so be it- I go to a different scene. Knowing my tendency to get sucked into mesmerizing hours-long info grabs, I don’t let myself start.
And that’s another point: especially while first-drafting, you don’t have to write from A to Z. Skip around to whatever excites you most. The scenes you don’t want to write? Hold off on those and give them some thought. After all, if you don’t want to write them, no one will want to read them. Figure out how you can make those more interesting to yourself and your readers.
Applying disciplined effort toward goals sounds an awful lot like work- but, this is work we define for ourselves. We’re in it for us, our readers, and everyone who believes in us. Seeing tangible results faster may be the motivation you need to keep from abandoning a work in progress during one of those “dark times.” More on that later…
In the meantime, feel free to comment and share any other tricks you may have!