How to Trick Yourself into Writing
I will admit, I’m relatively new to publishing. I began writing seriously when I was about 43, and published my first book at age 48. So I’m not as familiar with the natural ebbs and flows of creativity in the same way as someone who’s been writing professionally for decades.
But at the same time, I’ve struggled like everyone else with creativity that just won’t flow. (Notice how I didn’t call it Writer’s Block).
There are days (many!) when I dread picking up whatever project I’m working on and getting started, even though I know, once I start, it’ll be fine. It’s the starting that can paralyze me. The chunk of pages that need to be revised. The marked-up sections that need to be rewritten. The brand new chapter that needs to be drafted. All of it — or any of it — can feel overwhelming.
As a single mother and a full time teacher, I usually only have about two hours per day to devote to my writing, so I need to make the most of them. If I don’t write every day, I’ll lose my momentum and pretty soon the manuscript I think I’m close to finishing is just a project tucked into my dropbox where it will languish after my latest system update.
Luckily, I’ve developed some strategies that can trick me into working everyday.
I’m Not Actually Drafting, I’m Just Writing About Drafting
When I have a new chapter to draft, it can feel terrifying. Who are these people? I don’t even care about them myself, so why should anyone else? When this happens, I start with a spiral notebook and a really nice Sharpie pen (ultra fine point). I open to a blank page and start writing to myself, as if I were on the phone with a very patient friend. Here is an excerpt of what it might sound like:
Okay. First chapter. Good god, what the hell am I going to write? I’ve got a wine-soaked mother who is waiting for her daughter to get home. Brenda? Maybe. Revisit. And she gets an email from the class mom who is insufferable. Overused exclamation marks. Age inappropriate terms: “Send me your deets!” What if Brenda thinks she’s replying-all to a group email among friends, but instead she replies-all to this class email (see: wine soaked) and goes off on Brenda…
I’m not writing the chapter. I’m not even typing into my computer. What I’m doing is having a conversation with myself on paper about what I’m imagining. Bits of dialogue will show up. Funny, clever things that might otherwise get stuck behind my fear if I were to try typing into my document. By making it feel like journaling rather than writing, I’m able to get a framework for what can happen. The slow pace of pen-on-paper helps my mind imagine the marble countertops that are cluttered with unopened bills, an empty yogurt carton, and a stale bag of cheese puffs. When I feel like I’ve given myself enough time to imagine, I’ll hop over to my computer and draft from the notes. It’s total crap, but it’s words in a doc, and if you’re anything like me, I get pretty jazzed when I see that number go up.
If you don’t have time to sit and journal, a modification: Put your headphones on, hit record on your voice recording app and have a one-sided conversation with yourself. Do the dishes while you talk. Take the dog for a walk. Water the garden. The beautiful thing is that everyone will think you’re on a phone call and won’t look twice at you. And now that we all have to wear masks, if you’re outside, no one will even see your lips move! Later, you can transcribe your recording into notes.
You’ll be surprised how many stupid things you said. BUT! You’ll also have a few really great nuggets you can work from.
Oh My God I Have to Revise 25 Pages?
We’ve all been there. We have our to-do list for what needs to get done, and revise chapters 7-10 is significantly less appealing than clean the toilet. But if you break the tasks down into tiny little chunks, it’s hard to get too upset or overwhelmed. It might look something like this:
Day 1: Read the pages. That’s so easy! All you have to do is read! Who doesn’t like reading? During the read you will pretend that these are someone else’s pages and whatever problems you find are someone else’s problems (this can be tricky, so it takes practice). You will underline all the parts that sound awful. You will put large circles around things that need to be drawn out or slowed down. You can even write insulting things in the margins such as wtf are you trying to say here? Cross off whatever you can! When you’re done, put it away. Congratulations! Your writing work is done for the day. Treat yourself with that glass of wine.
Day 2: Deal with just the underlined parts. Chances are, you underlined at least 10 places that needed to be clarified, or that sounded clunky. You’re not writing anything new (shudder), you’re just fixing up what’s already there. Fresh eyes! Ignore everything else (see how good that feels?) and just handle the underlined parts.
Day 3: Deal with the places that need to be drawn out. You put a big box around them, which might limit your space, so feel free to jump over to your notebook for this. Take your time, journal out your ideas to keep the commitment low, and if you find yourself writing more by hand than into the computer, just label them A, B, C etc. so you can insert later.
By breaking up the revision process into these small, manageable steps, you can still average about one chapter per day and push forward on whatever project or deadline you’ve got.
Remember! Lying to yourself is a gift. Use it well and keep writing! What lies do you tell yourself? Let’s discuss it on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Julie Clark grew up reading books on the beach while everyone else surfed. After attending college at University of the Pacific, and a brief stint working in the athletic department at University of California, Berkeley, she returned home to Santa Monica to teach. She now lives there with her two young sons and a golden doodle with poor impulse control. The Ones We Choose is her first novel. her current novel, the thriller THE LAST FLIGHT, was an instant New York Times bestseller.