Almost all of the professional writers I’ve seen advice from, foremost among them being Stephen King, says the most important aspect of writing – specifically, of finishing a project – is to get your butt in the chair and get writing, to create a routine, a schedule, because this is a job, no matter what non-writers think.
Now, I am aware this seems easier said than done for those who have dayjobs and family obligations. Note: I said seems. Carving out this routine is more like getting blood drawn or jumping off the high-dive: the anticipation makes it far more difficult than it actually is. I wrote earlier about time management in the second half of my New Year’s Resolution post, so I will leave the tips about setting alarms and making appointments with yourself there. Today I’m going to talk about setting.
When I first started this blog, I had gone from teaching middle school to working a desk job. The downtime was inconsistent from day to day, but I was always in the same chair at the same desk, and that made all the difference in the world. (When I was teaching, they discouraged us from sitting down or staying behind our desks.)
When time is difficult to manage or predict – or you really just don’t work that way – setting becomes the best reinforcement. Have somewhere where you can go just to write. If space is an issue, get a lapdesk you can decorate, or find a way you can modify your existing workspace (lighting, candle, propping up a backdrop, etc). Sitting down in this workspace should provide a visual cue that it is time to start writing, akin to Pavlov’s bell ringing.
In order to nurture the visual cue, you must sit and write. Do not sit with your materials out and stare at the blank page. Write anything. It is also important at this time not to get on the internet, unless you are doing research. I have several tips on getting started, but here are some methods you can use if you’re having trouble:
- Outline – Even if you generally consider yourself a panster, create bulletpoints of your story and where it might go. Create it knowing that it can, and most likely will, change.
- Freewrite – Just start writing about anything related to your story. Illustrate a character, follow the plot, or jot the type of response you desire from your readers. I find freewriting especially useful when I have a rough idea what I want a scene to look like, but don’t know how to start narrating it.
- Character outlines – These were my favorite exercises in school. Describe a character’s appearance, history, relationship to other characters, what makes that character tick. You may even draw the character.
- Worldbuilding – This is like a character outline, but for the setting.
- Even if your setting is a real time and place, this is important. Your setting should never be interchangeable (unless that is the point of the narrative, in an everyman man). What makes this setting important to this narrative? (I justify setting COLOSSUS in Atlanta here.)
- If your world is fictional, it is important to know more about how it works than what goes into the book. A lot of worldbuilding details are extraneous and too many could bog down the narrative, but it is important to know them inside and out.
- Experiment – If you’ve already gotten started, and you’re just stuck, now is the time to play. Remember, the goal is to write anything, whether it ends up in the draft or not.
- Change POV / narrator (first person to third, one character to another)
- Change narrative tense (past to present)
- Thrust your characters into a vastly different setting
- Explore an incident in a character’s past or future
- Lock two characters in a room together
- Have your character react to a historical event
- Choose one character and kill their dog, mother, or another loved one
Once you have sat and written for several minutes on a few consecutive days, it will be easier to get into “the zone” when you sit at your workspace, but carving out that time, even ten minutes a day for three to five days, is essential to developing the habit.
A NOTE ON EXCUSES
I’ve had a few people make comments about how they don’t have time to write. No arguments, no intervention, they just don’t. When it boils down to it, these people just don’t want to write, for whatever reason (or they concealing a darker explanation, but that aside…). They like the idea, but they’re not willing to clutch at it.
If you really want to write, put the excuses aside. Stay up an extra hour, or wake up an hour early. Keep a legal pad in the bathroom and steal a few more minutes than you normally would. These little efforts add up. No excuses.