We all have days when, no matter what we do, we just can’t make ourselves sit down and write. For some of us, these dry spells can stretch on for days, weeks or even months. There are so many tempting distractions luring us away from the blank page!
So today I want to do a deep dive into this topic, and share strategies that work for some of the writers in our Pick Up Your Pen community.
How do we make ourselves sit down and write, even when we’re not in the mood?
Billy got in touch to say that routine really helps him, as does treating writing like a job, even if you’re not being paid.
Billy says: ‘I’m a morning person so need no motivation at that time, but come afternoon, I’m done’. So Billy has an energy drink after lunch. ‘I’ve taught myself that when I have an energy drink that is me getting brain energy for writing,’
In a similar vein, I often talk about the importance of habit. If we can turn our writing into a daily habit, we’re far more likely to get it done, than if we leave it up to willpower. Our willpower wears out over the course of the day, and our clever brains are very good at talking us out of things that are hard work.
To help you develop a habit, try ‘habit stacking’ – this means, tacking our new desired behaviour onto something else that we always do. For example, you could write straight after breakfast or immediately after work or after brushing your teeth etc.
When I used to have a ‘day job’ I would write every day in my lunch hour and also immediately after I finished work. Once it became a habit, I did it automatically without thinking.
Another way to help build a habit is to reward yourself with a treat each time you do your writing. For example, only watch your favourite TV show if you’ve put in an hour’s writing that day.
A further strategy that helps to develop habits is to put it in your diary. Rather than vaguely saying to yourself – I’ll write tomorrow. Instead, put it in your calendar, both the date and the time. We’re far more likely to do something, if we’ve scheduled it and we know how it fits into our day.
Frank, on the other hand, says: ‘Timetables don’t work for me. I used to work shift work.’
Make it easy
Instead, he says: ‘What works for me is to make it easy. I use my iPad downstairs which is already on or if not, it’s easy to power up. My laptop is upstairs in the study, which requires slightly more effort.’
Convenience is a classic strategy for changing or improving habits. So if you find you regularly struggle to sit down and write, what could you do to make it more convenient? Could you also use an iPad? Or Leave your laptop plugged in and switched on somewhere where you’ll see it. Is there anything else you can do to make it convenient?
Consider using an app on your phone so that you can write wherever you happen to be and make use of every small chunk of time. OneNote or Evernote are good apps as you can log into them from either a phone, tablet or a computer – wherever you are.
The opposite of convenience – inconvenience – is also worth thinking about. Make your distractions inconvenient. Turn off your router, cover your TV with a big bed sheet, turn the notifications off on your phone, put your phone on silent; leave your phone in another room. What else could you do to make your own personal distractions inconvenient?
A small step in the right direction
Dominique is another fan of making writing easy. She sets herself the goal to write the first sentence.
She says: ‘No matter how much I don’t want to write, I focus on just doing the first sentence. Once that’s done I usually find I’m on a roll. If this does not happen then, for me, it means I have not thought enough about the plotting, whether that be as a whole act, scene by scene, or within a scene.
Therefore I stop and go back through what is happening, and what I want to happen and how can I get to that point. It is at this point I talk to myself a great deal! Seeing where ideas go, the upsides the downsides, and if possible I will try to come up with several ideas to solve one problem to try and avoid clichés.’
I have a similar strategy. If I don’t want to write, I challenge myself to write for just 10 minutes. I set a timer and sit down to write. This is usually enough to get me into a flow.
Make a grand gesture
If trying something so small doesn’t appeal to you, how about making a grand gesture – set aside a whole weekend, or book some off time off work.
Set up your space and tools in advance, make sure your fridge and cupboards are stocked with easy-to-eat food, maybe even treat yourself to a take-away, so that you don’t have to waste precious time cooking. Set yourself a big, exciting goal, and let yourself get fully immersed into your idea, so that you want to keep working on it day after day.
Frank has another recommendation. He says: ‘I read writing technique books, as points made in these books often inspire me to write. For instance, I’m reading ‘The Emotional Craft of Fiction’ and this has changed the reason for the climactic ending of my novel, thus causing an interesting rewrite of some of the chapters…
I would also recommend ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ as a masterclass in how to write powerful characters that are human, but don’t necessarily evoke our sympathy.’
I too find that writing books help me reconnect to my writing, especially if I’m feeling stuck. And I’m a big fan of taking classes for both inspiration and motivation.
Following this theme, Dia got in touch to say: ‘I have a supportive group of writer friends to meet and share work with. I also find deadlines help me get on and write.’
Deadlines are very powerful. If you don’t have a publisher or producer giving you a deadline, you could get one from a course, a competition, a writing group or a Writing Coach (like me!)
Frances finds Meetup groups where writers meet and write together helpful. A small group of writers will log onto zoom at a set time, and sit together in silence and write for a period of several hours. This provides a certain amount of accountability.
It’s comforting to know that you’re not writing alone. And if you see other people working, it encourages you to work; you’re also less likely to get up and wander off when you get bored.
If you don’t fancy that, how about arranging to write with a friend in a cafe (or during lockdown, via zoom). You’ll turn up because you won’t want to let them down and you have someone to chat to when you finish your allotted writing stint.
Billy finds listening to music helpful. He says: ‘When I need to focus I put on some music that fits the theme of the story I am trying to write. A love story needs love songs, action might need rock. This allows me to find a subtle inspiration and motivation in the melody of the music.’
Another strategy is to always stop while the going is good. This comes from Hemmingway, who said: ‘The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.’
Similarly, author and screenwriter Roald Dahl swore by this advice: ‘I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through.’
Dominique even goes so far as to stop mid-sentence.
Choose the right idea
For Debra, it’s all about the power of the idea. Here’s Debra talking about her process:
‘The starting point (for me) is working out if the original idea is a ‘keeper’. My brain seems to generate ideas all the time – and it seems to me that the trick is filtering which ideas are ‘good’ and which are mere fancy.
One of the ways I do this is to wait for a while… I wait to see if it ‘blossoms’, if it attracts other thoughts and develops into something more. If I can then find myself intrigued or interested in it and what happens next, then I begin to write it down, whether that is in one of my numerous notebooks, or directly onto my computer.
Once I begin the writing process on my computer, that is because I feel the story has developed and I think I can see ‘the ending’ and what it will do, the people who are in the story and what they want and what they will do.
If the story has got that far, it means I am now enthused about it and that is what drives me to sit down (daily if possible) and my usual aim is to add at least 1000 words per day until I feel the story conclude. The only ‘rule’ I have is that I never edit until I have typed ‘the end’ because I find that a considerable distraction.’
Get in touch!
I hope you find some strategies here worth trying. What strategies work for you? I’d love to know!
In the meantime, is there’s anything in your writing that you’re struggling with? If so, get in touch as I might be able to address your issue in a future email.
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