In a previous blog post about the Muse, I explored capturing the moment and riding the wave of inspiration to its bitter, soul-crushing end. The reality is, of course, that you cannot always count on the Muse to guide your path and keep the words flowing. This is true for many more things than just the process of writing fiction, that sometimes it just isn’t working.
But if you only ever write when you feel the Muse upon you, you’ll find you hardly ever write anything. I certainly found that out the hard way, when I was in my early 20s and I had this very romantic, juvenile picture of the Author in my mind. This Author would write for sixteen days straight, hardly taking time to do anything else but eat, sleep, and maybe take a shower. This Author would put down his pen, stare lovingly at his Creation, and call it a day.
I will never be that Author. I’ve experienced a writer’s mania, and the result is my first book, Something More. It’s pretty rough, I’ll admit that right now. But there’s definitely something there. I’ve gotten reviews from anonymous and known sources both good and bad, so I know I have a market even at that level of writing.
But I wrote that novel in 2007, edited it in 2008 and 2009. Several years have passed now and I only have one more published novel to my credit. And it’s self-published, so I can’t even claim that people just don’t want it. I don’t try to get my work published, I don’t have that kind of time or energy.
What I do know is that you’ll never be successful or happy as an Author (even Amateur Author as I am) if you only ever let your inspired moments guide you to the next big story or the next vignette. You have to chase it. You have to tear into it and play with its innards. You have to want. You have to take.
You have to figure out how to keep yourself writing.
Maintaining Your Momentous Momentum
Today I explore the tactics that help me maintain the all-too-important motivation and just keep writing.
The first thing I will talk about is:
Getting Into The Mood
I’ve discussed what helps me Tease the Muse, and this is in several ways very similar to that. When I block out time to write, I’m mentally preparing myself for the act of writing. I have tricks I use that get my brain thinking about creative or logical things, whether it’s reading a book, writing some throwaway stream-of-consciousness junk, watching a favorite YouTube video, or listening to a particular song or artist.
These tricks, whether I achieve the “Muse” or not, are helpful in that they establish a very real connection in my mind with my writing time, and put me in that mode to get pen to paper and start moving.
If you’re anything like me and thousands of other would-be writers out there, transitioning from “anything else” to “writing” is sometimes the most challenging bit. Establish a precedent in your routine that says “I’m going to begin writing when I do this” and your body will naturally acclimate to this. Ritual is very powerful, even when it’s something as simple as listening to Eye of the Tiger before you get started.
You can’t Maintain Momentum if you never get started properly.
Establish that routine.
What writing rituals do you like?
Warm Up (It’s Cold in that Brain)
This can even be part of your startup routine. Don’t immediately jump back into the middle of the scene you ended on, where your main character is having a mental battle of wit and will with her arch nemesis. You’ll invariably end up with a disjointed scene where it’s very obvious you lost track of the thread you had going prior to quitting last time.
Perform some Warm-Up exercises. Sit down and begin writing, but write useless little nothings. Putting your mind to work before you begin your “real” work is something from which anyone in any field of mental labor will benefit. Just as jogging in place and stretching will help prepare your body for a marathon, so will jotting down some random ideas and notes help condition your mind for writing.
Warm Up Exercises I Like:
- Write Some Haiku – Even if you’re not poetically-inclined, writing a Haiku or two is a great way to enforce a strict meter and limit on what you write, and that can instantly get your brain working in the way you need it when you start writing your grand epic again.
- Find a microfiction writing prompt generator, and write a hundred or so words about the prompt you receive. Don’t focus on the prompt, focus on the act of getting the prompt fleshed out. This, like writing a Haiku, is a shortform, mostly-throwaway means to get yourself warmed up. And who knows, you may find some new ideas that you can possibly turn into something later.
- Stream-of-Consciousness Writing – Stare at something in your writing space and just start writing about it, never stopping to think about it long enough to form coherent thoughts. Just write, and follow the writing, don’t follow the origin. Stream-of-consciousness is a perfect tool for warming up because it begins to access your subconscious thoughts and feelings without even realizing you’re trying to do that.The candle on the nightstand becomes a meditation on smoking in bed becomes a diatribe about how smoking causes cancer becomes metaphors for what cancer is in relation to other things becomes the downfall of society becomes- You get the idea.
A note about warm-up exercises: Save everything. You never know when random notes will spark a new story or idea for future endeavors. Your subconscious loves you, so give it attention.
What are some of your writing warm-up exercises?
Don’t Stop To Edit
I’ve mentioned this one before, and anyone who knows me knows I hold this one in high regard.
Don’t stop to edit. I’m damned serious. Editing has a time and place, and it’s after you’ve written everything. Not during. Not before you write the next sentence. AFTER.
This is probably one of the few bits of writing advice about which I 100% agree with most editors / writers who have actually made a career out of editing or writing.
If you write a sentence and you immediately know, as soon as the words leave your fingertips, that you can fix the sentence and make it better – you may even know how to make it better already – don’t. Resist the urge no matter how strong to go back and start making small changes as you write. You are halting forward progress, you are losing momentum, and every second you spend not writing something new is time you’re wasting in your block of scheduled writing time.
Now, on the other hand, you will probably counter with “But if I don’t change it I’ll forget and maybe I won’t realize later that it needs to be fixed!”
Valid concern. The brain is a mystery and it can’t remember everything for you.
So take notes. If you’re a digital writer (and my-my who isn’t these days?) just keep a second file handy, copy or transcribe something relevant as quickly as you can, and dash down a note about how you want to fix it, but don’t actually fix it yet. You will fill pages of a “notes” file this way, but it’s better than second-guessing yourself during the writing process, stopping to question what you’re writing instead of just writing.
The method is the same if you’re old-school and you write it all down or typewriter it up, just keep scratch paper handy and make notes. Fill the margins.
Just do it quickly and get on with it.
I rarely ever speak in absolutes about the writing process, because it’s so flexible and changeable based on so many factors, but this one I am pretty staunch about.
Don’t Stop To Edit. Just Keep Writing.
This is a huge one. Probably the most important one. Before you begin writing in earnest, go through and weed out as many distractions as you can. This is such a big deal that I can’t stress it enough. If something distracts you, cut it out.
Here’s a Gamasutra article that talks about the detriment of interruption in measurable numbers. This is in regards to programming and coding, but like so many things in life, you can apply the lesson to other similar activities. Programming and coding is literally building something functional out of a bunch of “rules” and “elements” and that translates to the writing process really well. What else are you doing when you write fiction but crafting a narrative out of writing “rules” and story “elements”?
Basically, interruptions and distractions can completely alter your intention and keep you from making progress over long or even short periods of work-related time. And not an insignificant amount of progress, real, measurable, detrimental progress.
It can be mildly dangerous or unhealthy to cut distraction, though. Culling distraction from your writing time is a bit like becoming a hermit for short periods of time. And sometimes you can never truly get rid of distraction, if you have, oh, a spouse and kids, you know, little things like that. But you can figure out how to minimize the distraction that they cause by having this time set aside, and making up for it beforehand or later.
If your wife agrees to watch over the kids for an hour while you sit down and write, agree to cook dinner for her that evening. Or if your husband has been asking you to watch some silly science fiction show he loves, make a deal with him that every hour you sit with him and watch his silly show he gives you that hour in return to concentrate on writing uninterrupted.
A lot of people will tell you that to be a “Writer” in a serious capacity means to sacrifice other interests and social aspects of your life to concentrate on the craft. I do not agree with this in any way. Sure, if you become a complete social hermit, quit your job and live on welfare, and do nothing but write all day long every day, you will probably produce a lot of writing. If you get published in some capacity based on this writing, you may feel it was worth sacrificing everything to get there. But was it?
You can’t become a well-rounded individual with many life experiences by closing yourself off and writing for the rest of your life to the exclusion of all else. There’s obviously a balance you need to establish with your actual life and your writer life. Even if you get paid to be a writer, it’s not worth losing friends and family over it.
That said, back to cutting distractions. If you can structure your time accordingly so that you have some amount of “writing time” each week, it’s important to make the very most of that writing time.
Distractions to cut out in no particular order (except the first two):
– Turn off your Internet
– Turn off your phone
– Put in headphones to lessen ambient interruptive noises
– Turn on Music to more fully cut out ambient noise
– Be fully hydrated, well-rested, and well-nourished beforehand
– Go to the restroom beforehand
– Get rid of anything in your work space that can distract you. Newspapers, games, crosswords, etc. Anything you use to warm up or establish ritual should be stored away after use. Research materials are okay if you can keep from just reading them instead of writing.
– Don’t think about other problems. Focus on writing
– Take care of all pressing business and chores, cleaning up, etc. that need to be done before you sit down to write.
The list can go on, and can include just about anything that isn’t “sit in front of your computer and write” but these are the main ones. The first two are absolutely the most important. Anything that lets you procrastinate should be shunned. Kill the Internet connection. Reward yourself with cat videos after your writing time ends. If you absolutely have to have your phone on for other reasons (on call for work, etc.) at least try to ignore anything that isn’t that other reason on your phone.
How do you cut distraction?
Listen to Music
This is something most everyone does when they write, but I have to put my two cents in all the same. Listening to music while I write is one of my rituals that pretty much has to happen.
It is twofold in how it helps my writing:
First, in playing music, it cuts out other noises, like house settling creaks, airplanes overhead, traffic on the street, noisy neighbors, loud dogs, etc.
Second, listening to a particular type of music when I’m writing a particular type of scene often helps me get in the mode I need to be in for a certain scene. For instance: I tend to listen to fast, vibrant music when writing adventurous stuff, and I tend to listen to slow, somber music when I’m writing a sad scene. It helps put me in the emotional center of a scene.
The one thing I would suggest against when listening to music is anything with lyrics. Lyrics are words that aren’t your story that are vying for your attention. A lot of people can’t distance themselves from the lyrics, so they end up focusing on the words of the song instead of on what they’re writing. This is a distraction and should not be abided.
However, if you’re like me, you have a tendency to ignore the words in music anyway. Even when it’s a song I know and love, and that I can sing along with, I could hardly repeat the words when not accompanied by the instruments. The voices in music are just another instrument to me, so I can listen to just about anything while writing without it offering a major distraction.
But sometimes I do find myself distracted by the lyrics anyway. My solution for this is to simply listen to foreign music, with lyrics in a language I don’t know. French and Celtic (in Gaelic) music in particular are ridiculously good for writing, as are a lot of Japanese composers.
What do you listen to when you write?
So at the end of the day, maintaining your writing momentum is a balancing act: Get yourself into the writing frame of mind first and foremost by warming up and doing some sort of ritual that gets you prepared. Don’t Stop To Edit. Seriously. Cut out as much distraction as you possibly can without destroying your life, social or otherwise. Listen to music!
Again I would just like to say that these are the opinions of a single writer, who has found methods of his own that work for him, and in speaking with other writers and would-be writers, has found them relevant. If you agree with them, great; if you find them insightful or useful, even better; if you don’t agree, please share your own tactics with me. I’m always ready to learn about different approaches to writing.
Just Keep Writing, Writers of the World.