I was talking with a few writers the other day about ‘pencil sharpening,’ that is, all the stuff writers do when they sit down to work, before they actually write. Of course, these days, why sharpen a boring pencil when you can surf the internet, peruse a favorite forum, read a blog, or check your email? Before I had kids, I had four morning hours blocked off every weekday for writing (I can’t even fathom this anymore). I was religious about keeping my ‘office hours.’ But, to be honest, the first hour was spent making a perfect latte on my insanely expensive and complicated espresso machine, carrying it up to my writing room (I actually had one of those back then!), and leisurely reading and writing email. In this way I eased into the actual writing like working my way into the pool, one tippy-toe at a time.
It’s called stalling.
Why do writers stall? I think partly, it’s just how the mind works. Writing is a certain gear, and I have to shift into it. My pre-kid routine was a way to gently warm up the car, shifting through the gears, until I got into Writing Mode. Zero to Sixty in, oh, an hour.
I also think writing is loaded with Anxieties to be negotiated. What if it sucks? What if nothing happens today? What if I never sell anything? What if I’m no good? What if I reveal too much about myself? Anxieties and oh yeah, the oddly conflicting Guilt Trips of “I’m not trying hard enough” vs. “I shouldn’t be doing this, I should be with my family, I’m so selfish.” Sheesh. It’s a wonder I ever write anything at all.
Nowadays, of course, I have kids. And no writing room. I get an hour, maaaybe, to actually sit down and write. I have absolutely no time for anxiety, guilt, or gently easing into gear. I have to hit the ground running.
And I do, most days. Gradually I have figured out some tricks that let me sit down and start racking up the wordcount the second my butt hits the chair. No email, no internet, no doodling, and no (sigh) ritualistic latte. I have HAD to do this, or give up writing. I’m serious! If I sit down and fiddle faddle for half an hour or more, there is no time left. Sharpening pencils is simply not an option.
Want to hear my three tricks? Lean closer, and I’ll tell you…
(1) Clear the decks, or Writing Time is not Thinking Time #1
Get your thoughts out of the way.
All day long we think, about our lives, about people, about random stuff, about our books, about the show we watched last night, about our jobs, everything. But we also go, go, go, and these thoughts run along under the surface, waiting their turn to break through to a more conscious brain space. They want the lime light! Just a little attention, it’s all they ask for, that’s not too much, is it?
If your days are like mine, they are crammed with jobs and people and doing and talk radio and meetings and serving others yada yada yada. Which can make sitting down, alone, to write, the first time each day I really get to think, too. And these thoughts CLAMOR for the attention they need. Not good. Instead of thinking about my novel, I’m thinking about all that other stuff, like a flood bursting the dam, or simply seeping in until there is eight inches of water in my kitchen and I realize my writing hour is over and I haven’t gotten any work done. Again.
So the first trick to hitting the writing ground running is to not let writing time be the first time in my day—or the only time—my thought stream gets attention.
The good news is that it takes an amazingly small amount of time to get these thoughts out of the way. And the key is to get them out of the way at some OTHER time of the day, NOT writing time. I find the best way to give these thoughts the attention they crave—thus meeting their needs so they will leave me alone later, when I want to write—is to write them down. Writing down some stream of consciousness for a few pages goes far in clearing the decks. It doesn’t seem to matter that writing time is so much later in the day. As long as the thought stream is getting it’s due, it won’t clog up my writing time with non-novel-related thought bleed-through.
I do this thought-clearing brain-dump at some point during the day, and I work on my fiction in the evenings. I do it long hand and doodling is allowed. Just whatever is in my head. I often find myself working on my novel, not adding words, but free writes, or noodling around a problem, because that happens to be what is on my mind when I start. But writing about my writing isn’t the goal. It’s whatever is in my head, worries, plans, dream memories, thoughts about the kids, complaints, hopes, whatever. Blah blah blah. Just get it down and move on. Ten or fifteen minutes is all it takes. Even five minutes will make a big difference in clearing my head. And luckily, this blathering can be interrupted a bunch of times and still serve its function, so it works to do it while the kids are around. I can fit it in here and there, its fine. I don’t really know why this works, but I do know that it really, really does.
Julia Cameron has the same idea in The Artist’s Way with her ‘Morning Pages.’ I like her description, though I’m much more casual about it. I can’t afford to add some formal thing to the chaos I call life. There are days when I don’t have even one discretionary moment to give to jotting down a few sentences, and on those days I try to do my ‘morning pages’ in my head. I just, on purpose, pay extra attention to what I’m thinking about, as if I were journaling. Sounds stupid, I know. But whatever works. And it does.
(2) Keep the Stew Simmering, or Writing time is not Thinking Time #2
Think about your story before you sit down to write.
Writing a story, especially a novel because it is so long, is like cooking a pot of perfect stew. When actually writing, it’s best when I’m hot for my story, hot, bubbling, boiling over! But it takes a while to get there if I’m starting with a cold, congealed stew. Instead, if I keep the stew simmering on the stove, even when I’m doing other things, it takes only a small flick of the flame and I’m boiling again.
What I mean is, think about your story, the next scene, the next problem to be solved, the characters, BEFORE writing time. Think about it while driving, washing dishes, in the elevator, in a spare minute here or there. Sometimes I write a little of this stuff down on a legal tablet, if I have a spare minute. Sometimes I make a few notes to myself in my voice recorder (this is usually in the car). Most often I just think while I’m doing the laundry or milking the goats. I do NOT think about my story (for the most part) when I’m hanging with the kids, because then they get spaced-out, distant, distracted Mama, and that isn’t who I want to be for them. But the thread of this kind of thinking can be picked up and put back down throughout the day, and it still does the job of keeping the novel-stew cooking. If I’m stirring and poking the material at various points during the day, I get excited about it, I figure things out. And by night time and Writing Time, I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m even stoked to do it. When I’m really hot, I can’t wait to sit down and write. That’s the feeling I’m going for.
(3) Write every day. Yes, I’m serious.
Thinking about your novel before writing time is all about keeping the stew pot cooking. But the other part of of keeping the stew pot hot is to write every day, or very near. If I don’t write every day, the stew gets cold. If a few days go by, I can’t even remember what was interesting about the story I was working on. The colder the stew gets, the more substantial the energy I have to put in to get hot and excited about the material again. When I write every day, even if I only hit twenty minutes or a couple hundred words, I keep the stew pot cooking, making it much, much easier to slide right back into the work.
And there is another benefit to keeping the stew warm. The excitement, or just engagement, that is generated by working the material daily, pushes the Anxiety and Guilt out of the way. It keeps me in touch with how much I love writing, and leaves less brain space for all that other crap. If I have to indulge in some anxiety or guilt (or when one or the other takes me by the throat and won’t let go) then I do it in my thought stream writing. Blah blah blah, get it out, let it go. Move on and don’t let it clog my precious hour to myself. Because the bottom line is that I love writing. The Anxiety and Guilt trips are separate from that, or can be.
Will someone please remind me of this the next time I’m having a panic attack?
Okay, that’s it. Those are my three tricks. I plan for my writing window, I get my thoughts cleared out, I get my thinking done before hand, I keep the material hot, and the minute I open the file, I’m working.
No pencil sharpening required.