The Tricks we Play to Help us Write Every Day
It may come as a surprise to a writer who dreams of seeing her name in print that someone with five or six published books, someone with fifteen or twenty published books, even someone like me, with forty-nine published books (!) still has to play games with herself almost every day to make the words travel from the brain to the page. Little does that starting-out writer realize that it never goes away, that feeling (as colleague, Hadley D, puts it) of “trying to coax a squirrel to eat from your hand.” She cheerfully goes on to say, “you could hammer away for eight hours a day, five days a week, and at the end of the year not yet have a marketable product. This is not something your average plumber or dentist lives with. You’re not wrong to think that it might not work…”
This article will not mention wine or chocolate. This is not about lighting a candle, or reading aphorisms you’ve written on post-it notes and stuck to your computer. Do you really need those special socks to write a scene? Seriously? The ‘tricks’ offered here are not about coddling yourself, nor about defining writing as a soul-sucking – or, occasionally -- a transformative artistic journey. For the purpose of taking practical steps to make it slightly easier, let’s call it a job. As Henry Miller says, in his book called Henry Miller on Writing, “When you can’t create, you can work.”
What can we do every day to make our output more fruitful? What tools and daily habits might enhance our ability to maintain a level we’re satisfied with? Can we change the way we work in small ways for a more bountiful result? And how do we measure our productivity? Read on for yet another optimistic compilation of a few tips, a few tricks, a few dry words of encouragement. . .
Many of the writers I know begin a new project in longhand, following the premise that slowing down the process of pulling words from midair lets you think a beat longer about what those words should be. A strong brain-to-hand connection ignites the imagination more powerfully than interaction with a screen, and studies have shown that the memory is engaged differently when using a pen rather than a keyboard. Try writing longhand one morning a week, or twenty minutes each morning – but only if you have a pen or pencil that makes you really happy. How’s that for a segue to the important topic of writing supplies?
As in any trade, the right tools make the difference between getting along and performing brilliantly. Our manuscripts will end up on a computer, but how does the process start? Can using the ‘right’ pen change the way you write? Do you love how the tip moves on paper? The breadth and point of your pencil? Does the weight of the sharpener in your hand lift your spirits? The softness vs. graininess of your eraser? Are the pages in your notebook wide or narrow-ruled, graph or pin-dot? What size and colour are your favourite sticky notes? Even Charles Dickens had a say: “For there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery...” Could a trip to Muji or Staples make a difference to your output? Even if it’s only another act of productive procrastination, a new notebook could be step one in shaking up a routine that’s feeling stale.
Where you write is likely to call up stronger opinions. In ergonomic comfort or on a rigid stool? Overlooking a lake or facing a blank wall? Half my first novel was written in a friendly pizzeria and the other half on a bench overseeing my kids in a playground. That early training – of finding focus despite bustle or interruption – set me up for being able to work, truly, anywhere. On a train, in a cafe, at an airport, in a hospital room. Now, I’m ill at ease staying in one place for more than an hour or so. At home, one bedroom is converted into a ‘studio’ with tables, file drawers, and art supplies from floor to ceiling. Every room has a bookshelf, including the bathroom and the kitchen. Without consciously making it happen, I have an “office” beside most chairs in the house. In some cases, a paper stack at the ready and a pencil case. Elsewhere a lazy Susan with pens and markers, scissors and glue. I work in bed in the winter and outside in warmer weather. I work on the back porch unless the neighbour’s dog is feeling yappy. I work on the front porch if I want to spy on the passers-by who pause at my Little Free Library.
All this is possible because I live alone and rule my realm. What do other people do? Is location mutable for everyone? Should it be? Can varying your whereabouts shake loose a different set of words? Try it! Like looking at your own house from a neighbour’s kitchen window, the familiar view gets a new slant. One friend writes her books on the bed, but moves to the desk when working on an essay or a talk.
Maya Angelou kept a hotel room in every town in which she’d lived. In a 1990 interview in the Paris Review, she explained that she paid for it by the month, but never slept there. She showed up to work at 6:30 in the morning and went home by about two o’clock. It was her “necessary office space away from home”. She kept a Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow legal pads, a dictionary, a Bible, and a bottle of sherry – to supply her habit of drinking a glass at eleven o’clock.
Also, a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. The games allowed her to nurture what she thought of as two minds. “The Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts,” she said, “but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted
to write about.”
For some of us, the absence of comfort, silence, and a stretch of personal time is the excuse for not getting started. E.B. White, a steady, methodical perfectionist, and author of Charlotte’s Web among other masterpieces, famously said, “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” To avoid that dire fate, have a wee think about shedding ideal and going with favorable or even the best I’m likely to see today. What’s really stopping you? Maybe there’s a thorn in the story rather than a hum in the refrigerator. Do you need to walk for ten minutes? Talk out loud? Set the kitchen timer? Val McDermid, mystery writer, works for twenty-five minutes at a time, with nearly as long a break in between. Irish writer, Lucy Nugent, has a playlist of movie soundtracks. Since this sort of music is composed for the very purpose of stimulating an emotional response, she finds it the ideal companion for writing. It will come as no surprise that there is not one writer anywhere who recommends keeping a phone nearby or pausing mid-paragraph to google something.
Writing guru Annie Lamott offers two suggestions that remain touchstones for many writers nearly thirty years after her brilliant Bird by Bird was first published. The first, of course, is the recognition that we (almost) all write “shitty first drafts”, and that this is necessary – both as part of a creative process and to see ourselves in a community of creators who all endure the same messy steps. An exploration of what I call splurge-writing is for another day.
But, her second key tip is the notion of Short Assignments. To Lamott, this meant taking a few minutes to write only what could be seen through a one-inch picture frame that sat on her desk. Countless teachers and writers have expanded that definition. I am an expert on short assignments, as I am resolutely devoted to the kitchen timer to syncopate my life of self-motivation. [My To-Do list is divided under 11 minute tasks, 22 minutes, and Longer]. What if we impose a ritual at the end of the work day, a note with instructions for how to begin tomorrow’s session? Some examples might be: A description you’ve been resisting, in one paragraph. Have two characters talk about a third who isn’t there. Make up chapter titles. Turn a narrative scene into dialogue only – or the other way around. Write a list of cliff-hangers that might end chapters you haven’t written yet. And so on... And don’t restrict your Short Assignment to writing. Maybe you have a fist fight to choreograph, or the part where a horde of passengers is boarding a train. “How do I describe dancing?” you might ask. Your assignment today can be to read another author’s version of the same idea. Or watch a video moment that catches the mood you want. Is the physical geography what dominates? The characters’ chatter? The anticipation of everything going wrong any moment?
And while you’re tapping away, gazing at the letters that represent your innermost thoughts, consider which font you are using. Dan Simpson, host of a wonderful podcast called Writer’s Routine, invariably asks his guests about their notebook and font preferences. The responses are quick and firm. Choosing a font is as personal as selecting coffee beans or underwear. Could a different font inspire different words? If you made a switch for the next chapter, might you encounter a refreshing surprise? David Levithan, editor and YA writer, recently published his first middle grade novel. During the heavily-populated book launch Zoom, he made an admission that caused a blizzard of chatter: he had typed the manuscript in an oversize font used for younger readers. The audience found this a thrilling idea! Change the font!! Make your work-in-progress look as it will on the page of a finished book!
For many of you, writing and editing go hand-in-hand. Mornings are for writing, afternoons for editing. Or each day begins by editing what was written the day before. It may be part of your warm-up, a way to get back into the flow of your story. I am not one of those writers. I won’t know what to leave in or take out or push in a different direction until I have weeks and weeks of pages to look at. I wholly agree with Mary Jaksch, editor of the Write to Done website: “If you embrace bad drafts, if you separate writing from editing, you are more efficient – writing is one thing, editing takes place LATER, at another time, with another brain – like being in a car with a foot on the accelerator and brake at the same time – the creative mind wants to go, go, go. The editor one says whoa, slow down...”
Whether we’re writing forward without pausing, or fixing sentences along the way, we all want to know that we’re getting somewhere. So how to measure a good day’s work?
Art Slade, master of the treadmill desk, gives this report: “For the first draft of my latest book, which took about 4 months... I walked almost 900 kilometres - about 8 km a day.” That’s impressive enough, but Art has upped his productivity further by “gamifying” his writing. (He uses the website, 4thewords.com) “Basically”, he says, “if you write enough words, you kill a monster, get a treasure, and finish a quest.” Bonus!
“I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day... I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.” -Karen Russell
Novelist Michael Cunningham says, “So, I show up every day, and do the best I can. I've been known to write ten pages or more on a good day. On the bad days, I still force myself to write something, even if it's one limp, sad little line that will surely be deleted tomorrow. Here's the funny thing — a month or so later, I can't tell what I wrote on the ecstatic days from what I wrote on the wrenching ones. The lines that seemed so good when I wrote them turn out, later on, to be neither better nor worse than the ones I squeezed out with my fingers pinching my nose against the stink of mediocrity.”
Screenplay writer, Terry Rossio, chooses to “adopt the technique of incremental progress.” His intention is “to write one sequence a day during the work week. If I accomplish that, in the course of the year, I will have finished ten screenplays... Writing one sequence a day is simply what I do.” He no longer worries about long term goals or deadlines. By writing his one sequence he stays right on schedule.
How Many Words Do You Write in a Day? is nearly as common a question to writers as Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regularly wrote 3000. Stephen King does 2,000. Kate DeCamillo manages 600. Michael Crichton – according to the internet -- aims for a whopping 10,000. Well, yikes. Knowing celebrity statistics is helpful only to show that such measurements vary wildly. At the beginning of a project, a steadily rising word count is pretty cheering, but not helpful to everyone – especially when composing a picture book, or in the later, trimming stages of a manuscript. The only trick here is to aim low, very low, and then pass your own goal.
Last year in the New York Times, author and essayist Amitava Kunar wrote about “the oldest productivity trick around,” the checkmark. He challenged his students to write 150 words a day, a number selected so that he could be certain of doing the same. To be visibly accountable, he kept track by daily writing the date with a checkmark beside it in the back of his journal. By the end of the year, he’d written a novella. More importantly, he could hold up in class his own page with columns of checkmarks.
One tough thing about being a working writer is that few people really ‘get it’. Even unacquainted writers imagine that the task is somehow easier for you than it is for them. They see the finished magazine piece or a story accompanied by lovely pictures, without hearing the snapping pencil or the cry of anguish. Urging you to find a posse of fellow creators is my top recommendation for how to increase your output and your confidence. Tell your pals what you’re working on, what your plan is this week – and then tell them how good it feels to have that scene behind you, to have cut that character after all, to have sharpened your pencil yet again. If all you’ve done while reading this article is to note the names of a couple of unfamiliar blogs or podcasts, (as well as the monster-slaying website), that alone is a trick of the trade – turning to others to share a candle in the cellar.
I’ve developed a new routine with a friend this year, born of a wish to accept and occasionally celebrate small successes. On Monday and Friday afternoons, we select fifty or one hundred words from the current work-in-progress and send them to each other. Not, oh, I didn’t have time, I didn’t get my words done, what a shitty week. Instead, I have this tiny moment that I’m really pleased with. I present it to you, like a perfectly roasted marshmallow. A single, glowing mouthful. A twice-a-week reminder that we are doing the job we want to be doing.
No tricks necessary.
This piece was originally published in the CANSCAIP NEWS, spring 2022