I love tricks. Teach me a way to peel garlic in 10 seconds, and I’m hooked. This is partially because doing things the easy and interesting way is better, but for me it goes deeper than that.
Habit-forming does not come naturally to me. When I was 8 years old I got glasses for the first time. In the first year I had them, I spent more time looking for my glasses than I did wearing the stupid things. This plagues me still. Every time I move into a new place I spend six months searching for my keys before I leave the house every single morning before I figure out that I need to put them in the same place, without fail, every time I get home. Even now, if I don’t put my keys on the small bookshelf next to the yellow chair as soon as I walk in the door, they could end up anywhere. I have found them on the washing machine in the basement, in the canned cat-food drawer, and in the vegetable crisper.
This habit-formation deficiency extends to every aspect of my life. I don’t instinctively walk the same path to get to a give location just because I have walked it many times before. I don’t sit in the same seat because I sat there yesterday. Just because I always shave my upper lip first doesn’t mean I won’t forget to shave the left half of it just because on that particular day, for no reason at all, I shaved that area last. In order to operate as a functional human being I need systems. I do not naturally create systems, but if I don’t my life is chaos.
I have always the writer I long to be was somewhere inside of me. I had imagination, and the beginnings of craft, and drive, and dreams. What I didn’t have was that whole ability-to-sit-down-and-write thing. It was always two feet in front of me, on the other side of a ravine. I ached to cross that ravine. It was so small. Other people made it look so easy. I knew I could do it. I just didn’t know exactly how. So I did what I always do. I created systems. Over the last decade I have tried many different writing techniques and systems. Finally, just within the last few months, I cracked it. I can now sit down and turn out prose in a way I never could before. My writing has improved immensely, and it is only going to get better. The key to improvement is practice, but now I can practice.
Here are some of the things I’ve tried, and the one that finally worked.
- Write for a short period every day.
My writing journal, now 166,000 words, started two and a half years ago like this:
“Here we are. Trying again to spur my ambition with a highly unambitious writing project. Ten minutes a day.”
That looks hilarious to me now, but at the time it was very difficult. I had work. I had video games. I had to make dinner. When I managed ten minutes a day for a week, I worked up to fifteen, then thirty. Sometimes it flowed naturally. Most days I had to force myself to do it. The whole time I did it I watched the clock. Watching the clock kills writing focus, and so I set an alarm. Either way I was just writing to finish writing. I tried this many times over the years, and I never went more than a month or so before quitting. It turns out that ten minutes or thirty isn’t enough. Just as I got into a serious groove, it was over. This was not the solution I was looking for.
- Use writing prompts or exercises.
I tried hundreds of prompts or starters intended to get me writing. They never worked. They are designed to give you ideas if you are staring at a blank page. I have never had any trouble coming up with ideas. I come up with lots of ideas. My problem was sitting down and putting words on paper. I thought there must be some prompt or exercise that would bypass my reluctance and tendency to freeze up, and catapult me half way down the page before I noticed I had already started. I didn’t even care if it used mixed metaphors to do it.
There are no such prompts. Now that I can sit down and write, I find prompts and exercises useful for getting outside of my own head and nudging my ideas into unexpected directions. But they were useless for getting me to this point.
- Write a serialized piece that is easy to write, low pressure, and keeps you writing.
I came up with a set of stories about a magician and a thief in a magical land who had crazy adventures. Normally I am an obsessive world builder, but in this case I decided not to build a world. I didn’t care about the world. I didn’t even care about these stories. I just wanted to have something I could write organically to keep me writing.
I didn’t make it through an entire story. I thought about it a lot. I plotted it, and made plans for events that could happen thirty or forty stories in. By the end, I had pages and pages of notes. I had a large cast of characters with history and complex relationships. And dammit, I had a pretty awesome world. But I didn’t have any stories. I had not done any real writing.
Over the years, I have come up with five or six plans for serialized, low-pressure writing. None of them made it past one or two stories. I am too obsessed with plot, and planning. And I couldn’t just sit down and write fiction. That was the end goal. It was not the solution.
- Keep a fictional character journal.
This is a variation on the serialized problem, but one that, I hoped, solved the intrinsic problems of the earlier technique. A journal didn’t need to have a structure. I could make up world and character and story as I went along. The only rule was that I had to write in it every day. If I didn’t like where yesterday’s entry ended I could just skip forward and talk about something else. I could not write myself into a corner, and any block had an implicit solution. It would be hard to get stuck as long as the character I was writing as remained interesting. If they didn’t, I could just start a new journal with a different character.
This technique almost worked. The longest journal I wrote was for a character named Teleran, and I got to nearly 20,000 words before I stopped. The problem was that I got too invested. I wanted to tell Teleran’s story, and build his world and his relationship with the other major character in the journal. As soon as I hit a snag in the story I got good old-fashioned writer’s block. I didn’t want to jump ahead because I cared what happened. It stopped being a journal and turned into a messy novel. Once I realized that I had to move on. None of the other journals I stared –a psychiatrist interviewing supernatural killers, a girl whose town was going mad, a guy who got sucked 50,000 years into the future–lasted it more than two or three pages.
- Map out scenes and write treatments
I like coming up with story ideas and plots far better than actually writing them. Or at least, I used to before I figured out how to sit down and write. The problem is that my ideas were too big, or too abstract. I could come up with a story about a girl who keeps dying and going into various different afterlives and bringing things back, but writing the actual scenes stymied me. So I decided to come up with story ideas and outline the scenes in sufficient detail that I could actually write them. I figured if I could write enough scenes to teach myself how to just do it, then maybe that would help me cross the ravine.
Writing the scene outlines was a lot of fun. It had the forward momentum of organic writing. I came up with the story as I wrote it, and that is always exciting. Plus, it was much faster than actually writing the stories in full, and there was no pressure to get it right. It was only an outline, after all. I wrote five or six of them, and I was pretty happy with all but the first. There’s one here, if you are interested.
The problem is that once I wrote the outline, I didn’t want to go back to the story. I already had my fun. Why bother writing it when I could move on to the next idea? In short it didn’t work.
- The idea that actually worked
When I quit my job and decided to go for broke and try to become a freelance writer, I knew that I had to cross to the other side of the ravine. If I could not sit down and write, and on a topic that didn’t interest me no less, I could never be a professional writer. I needed something drastic. I had one resource: time. It took me a few weeks of dithering, and a few more failed writing-experiments of the type listed above, to find the solution that, for the first time in decades of trying, actually worked.
I decided I was going to start writing at 1PM, and write until 4PM with no breaks except to go to the bathroom. It didn’t matter what I wrote. It did not have to be productive or interesting or even grammatical. As long as I kept typing for three solid hours it was all good. I got up the next morning at 11, and ate breakfast and had coffee. I watched an episode of Once Upon a Time. I made myself a sandwich. I sat down at 12:59—a minute early!–and started to write.
The first fifteen minutes dragged. The next fifteen minutes nearly drove me quit five or six times. In fifteen minutes. I forced myself to keep writing. I knew I might give up tomorrow and never do this again, but dammit I was going to make it through one day of writing for three hours.
An hour later the words were pouring from my fingertips. I smiled the whole time. In the next hour I wrote the most effortless blog post I had ever written. This was easy. This was fun! It was liking writing back when I was little and the only reason to write was for the pure joy of it all. By the end of the day I knew this technique was worth repeating.
By the end of the first week I was a writer.
Before I knew it I could pump out blog posts and produce fiction with nothing but an image in my head and an hour in front of the computer. I sat down at 9PM one day knowing I only had three hours to write a blog post I was ccontractually obligated to complete that day. An hour later, I had a story that was proud of. One single hour.
You might notice that this technique, the one that actually worked, is by far the hardest. In fact, it doesn’t even sound like a trick at all. It sounds like I just worked really hard and that is what did it. I hate to admit it, but you are probably right. I can’t slip anything past you.
It turns out that there really isn’t any short and easy way to overcome the writer’s freeze up. You need to put in the time, intensively and without stopping. You might not have that time. I am lucky enough to have an amazing wife that is willing to support me for a while until I start making actual spendable money with this crazy freelancing thing. I know it can’t last forever. But the fact that it is difficult is not what you should take away from this. What you should take away is this:
It is possible. There are only a few weeks of intensive writing between you and the person who can just sit down and write and write and write. In the last few weeks I have not been religious about keeping up my three-hour a day schedule. I don’t have to be. I did it for a solid month, and it blasted through a barrier that has stood between me and the writer I knew was inside of me for my entire life. I don’t need it anymore. Now I can sit down and write a story, or an article about writing techniques, or a bunch of micro fiction. I know that if I feel that ability slipping away it will only take me a few hours to get it back.
It is fantastic.