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
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 andreboot 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.)