Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Write Every Day (In Theory)

In the world of writing advice, there are certain maxims which get repeated ad nauseum: “Show, Don’t Tell”, “Be Specific, Not Generic”, “Write What You Know”, etc.  And we’ve talked about those a lot here.  But there’s one piece of advice that is more sacrosanct than all the others.  And it’s one that I haven’t talked a lot about for the unfortunate reason that I’ve never mastered it: “Write Everyday!” 

It’s not that I don’t believe in this rule—I do.  It’s not like I haven’t tried—I have.  It’s not like I don’t have several tricks to help me do it—In fact, I’ve been meaning to run a series called “How to Write Every Day” for some time, but I figured that I’d be a hypocrite if I ran such a series unless I’d written everyday for at least a month…but that month never arrived. 

It’s not that I don’t write, but my writing always tends to devolve into a vicious cycle of all or nothing.  One of my many discipline tricks has been to put that Google calendar in my sidebar…If you’ll look over there, you’ll see that it’s currently empty for the month of October, but you might recall that I was posting upwards of fourteen pages a day for the last two weeks of September. 

The crazy thing, of course, is that anyone who reads these regular blog posts knows that I obviously can write everyday.  I’m also pretty good at writing for others on deadline.  So why can’t I bring that discipline to specs that are the lifeblood of a writer’s career?  A big difference is that, with both the blog and the outside work, someone is waiting for the work.  That right there is a vote of confidence that I must know what I’m doing, and a good reason to make it “good enough,” rather than wait until I can perfect it. 

When writing on spec, however, I constantly lose steam, knowing that’s there’s no deadline and no consequences for sitting on the idea a little longer, hoping it’ll somehow hatch into something better, even through I know that doesn’t work. 

I’ve tried several tricks over the years that have greatly increased my discipline and output for several weeks at a time, though each one falters too often:
  • The Pomodoro Technique: Rather than stare at the blank page for hours on end without allowing yourself a break, this technique encourages you to break your writing day into “units” and set a timer (I recommend this one) for a series of 45 minute sessions.   Each unit should have a discrete, achievable goal, rather than just “finish my manuscript”.  The problem is that I keep expanding the definition of what a “unit” can be: I allow myself to re-read my old work, or read other screenplays, or blog, or, even worse, do internet research, until I finally admit that the units have become meaningless and give them up.
  • Internet “Freedom: One of the most frequent rules you hear from professionals is this: Write at a computer that’s not connected to the internet.  I agree that this is essential (see my weakness for so-called “internet research” above) but if you’re not rich enough to afford two computer workspaces, so what can you do?  The biggest boon my writing ever got was when I downloaded the $10 computer program called “Freedom”.  It “crashes” your internet for up to eight hours at a time.  The only way to get it back before then is to force quit Freedom and reboot your computer, which is just too onerous.  This really does force me to write, but of course it can be overcome as well.  Can’t get on the internet?  Then I’ll re-organize my hard drive!  Anything other than write!
  • Outside Discipline: This can take various forms.  I have writer friends who, on their own volition, call me up at random times and say “You should be writing!”, then ask me to return the favor at a time of my choosing. As I already mentioned, I’ve also created the Google Calendar that I keep in my toolbar.  The idea is that I’ll be ashamed for my blog readers to see that I’m not writing, which clearly doesn’t work very well. 
Obviously, one of the most poisonous ideas you can have is that writing should always be fun, (or else you’re “forcing it”, which is supposedly bad).  Instead, you have to transform writing from a hobby driven by inspiration into a discipline driven by the time of day.  Like any other job, you’ll have fun days and no-fun days, but you’ll still show up and produce on cue.

But how do you get to this state? I’ve recently been hearing about a new idea that really makes sense to me: whenever you’re dealing with anything that you know you should do but you don’t want to do, then there’s one all-important milestone: 21 days. 

This theory is that, no matter how much you don’t want to do something, if you know it’s worthwhile (flossing, sit-ups, jogging), and you force yourself to do it for 21 straight days, a switch goes off in your brain and it somehow becomes more troubling not to do it and than it is to do it.  

Why would I be more likely to succeed this time?  Looking at my calendars, I see that one big problem is my fluctuating page-a-day goals, they shoot up during bursts of inspiration, and then, since I’ve exceeded my goals for several days, I give myself a few days off, which somehow becomes several weeks, because I get out of the habit. 

So I’m also going to try out another trick: Manic depressives can’t get better until they admit that they’re just as sick when they’re up as they are when they’re down, so for the first time, I’m going to add page maximums as well as minimums.  I’m going to do at least three (because some days I do freelance writing and I don’t have a lot of time) and no more than eight, even on my free days.  The idea is to stop exhausting my creativity and try to always keep some in the tank instead. (When I’m done with the day’s pages, I can always work on upcoming treatments, so that I don’t have to take off any days inbetween projects.)

I’ve felt that switch flip with both blogging and exercise. If I can make it to 21 days with this, I think it’ll happen here too. I was going to try it and then write it up once it succeeded, but on second thought, for it to work, I’d better announce it now beforehand, which is what I’m doing now. 

So wish me luck, and I encourage any of you who have similar problems to play along.  Let’s try to flip that switch.  (And feel free to let me know in the comments any clever techniques I may not have heard of.)


j.s. said...

"Being a professional means doing what you love to do, even on days when you don't feel like doing it."
-- Kareem Abdul Jabbar via David Halberstam

You could also set a rule about maximum hours spent before an Internetless computer to go along with those page limits, just in case you're really blocked some day. Eight pages is just the right amount for a maximum. More than that and you can definitely burn yourself out if you keep if up for more than a few days. If you do stop in the middle knowing where you are going, all the better, as it's what Hemingway recommended.

Good luck!

Sean said...

Even better than an Internetless computer: an Alphasmart Neo. Really little more than a digital typewriter. But it's comfortable enough, rugged as hell, cheap secondhand, future-proof, and energy efficient - it will go upwards of a year on two AA batteries.

And it doesn't do a blessed thing but write.

Jill Rasmussen said...

A couple things have helped me become more productive:

1) 20 min rule. I read your 45 min rule but that's too long I find. I set my watch for 20 min. Write non-stop then take a 10 min break (also timed). Then do it all over again. I find 20 min to be the perfect amount of time before I feel like doing something else.

2) I came across this quote in a magazine not too long ago: "Perfection is the enemy of getting things done." I realized that I cared too much about every single word, every sentence, that it took forever to get pages written. Now I just write knowing full well it'll get edited down the road. But I get a lot more work done.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, the first hit I get on Google is "Stop trying to change your habit in 21 days."

I have a side-question for you on this. I am currently knee deep in outlining -- does that count? I tend not to count it, which drives my wife crazy, but then it can seem like I go for months without writing.

I'm trying to figure out a way to alway have something to write, but I can never seem to get that organized.

Matt Bird said...

The "can I count outlining as pages" debate is one that consumes me.

For instance, I wrote a three-page outline for a new pilot today (one I'm very excited about!), but I haven't written three pages of my screenplay yet. Do I count it? I'm inclined to say no.

For me, writing outlines is fun, because it's all about potential (how good it's going to be when I write it), and writing actual script pages is all about disappointment (this isn't anywhere near as good as it seemed like in the outline!)

As a result, I love to outline, and would do that all the time, if given the chance, which would obviously get me nowhere. Worse, since I enjoy it, it can't count to the 21 days, which is all about making myself get used to doing things I don't want to do.

So it sounds like I've got to sit down and write three pages.

j.s. said...

IMHO: Not only should you not count outlines or cards or treatments as "pages," but you shouldn't even do them at the same time of day if possible. I know somebody who's really hardcore and does his prep work, his research and his homework at night, but writes in the morning. Real pages only. Not a single word outside of the Final Draft document.

The best way to avoid procrastinating is to work on several things at once that are at several different stages or readiness. Real pages in the morning or at night, research, outlines, treatments for the next thing at some other time, or on weekends.

I know someone else who plays this nasty trick on himself -- permitting himself no other fiction and films while drafting! Nothing. Not even to reference a scene for tone or mechanics (which is what I try to limit myself to because I can't go cold turkey). This isn't about the Anxiety of Influence so much as it is the will to overcome his own boredom. If there's no story left to entertain him but his own, his thinking goes, his will be that much more exciting by necessity. And it works!

Jeff Moskowitz said...

This is a problem that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I've noticed the ~21 days thing as well and am desperate to get back to that point. However I find that working more than full-time right now at my regular job, I have both a deficit of time and energy left for writing.

So here are tricks I've used, like you, with varying degrees of success and never on a permanent basis ...

1. The Hemingway thing mentioned above -- always stop in a place where you know what's about to happen next. In the middle of an obvious scene. Never at the end of a chapter or a dead stop. Can't recommend this one enough.

2. Rewards. I do half an hour of writing earns me half an hour of television. If I want to see the next episode I have to write (and I should add here that staring at a white page for 30 minutes is perfectly acceptable, largely because it never actually happens when I force myself into that position).

3. Deadline. If a friend is coming by to pick me up in fifteen minutes, I'll think "hey I've got fifteen minutes -- I should see if I can write anything really quick before the friend arrives." This works really well because you know it's ending soon so it doesn't seem like so much work and, in reality, the friend is always 15-30 minutes late so you get much more done than you thought. Finally because you have to stop suddenly, the Hemingway thing usually applies.

4. Exercise. For some reason doing a lot of push-ups or something similar seems to wake my mind up. I occasionally give myself the choice -- writing or push-ups -- then I keep doing push-ups until it hurts so much that writing is actually preferable!

Any other ideas you come across, let me know. Still desperately seeking the right solution.