For those of you embarking on the National Novel Writing Month project, NaNoWriMo, you’ll start out with enthusiasm and excitement…hopefully enough to carry you through thirty days and the end of your opus.
Okay, I’m a prolific author. Over the next few days, I’ll be re-posting some of the tips I’ve compiled over the years. If you find yourself flagging, or looking for new ways to increase your productivity, I hope some of these help.
PRODUCTIVITY TIP #1: SHUT UP AND WRITE!
A writer’s Muse is supposed to be a delicate, ethereal woman with a gentle voice who drops hints and ideas that might eventually find their way into a story or a novel. Right? We all know the stereotype. Writers don’t do much more than sit around, mulling over esoterica, occasionally jotting down a phrase or two when the muse inspires them…
I, on the other hand, have been blessed (or cursed) with a muse who’s more like a bristle-haired, gravel-voiced drill sergeant who says, “Quit dinking around, Anderson! Sit down, shut up, and WRITE!” No puttering, no procrastinating. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, eyeballs on screen.
This means that if writing is a priority for you, then writing should take priority over reading the morning paper, sharing joke emails, talking to a friend on the phone, watching game shows on TV, going to a movie, making scrapbooks of last year’s family vacation, playing with the cats (or dogs, or fish, as your particular case may be), cleaning the kitchen, or going shopping. The other stuff can wait until you get your pages done, and if you don’t believe that, then writing isn’t your priority.
Procrastination is the writer’s deadliest enemy. Learn how to spot when you’re finding excuses when you should be writing. Or—to use a technical term—dinking around.
Writers are the only people in the world who would rather be cleaning the bathroom than doing their job. When you do get a spare moment to write, whether it be late at night, at lunch, or early in the morning, don’t find excuses and waste time for “just one little thing.” As the drill-sergeant muse says, Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, eyeballs on screen.
If this means keeping a regular writing schedule, do it—and make sure that you *write* during those times (i.e., produce words that line up into sentences that are stacked in paragraphs). Don’t stare out the window like a kid on a rainy day—get to work. Everybody else has to go to a job and put in their time. If you aim to be a professional writer, you have to do the same.
Be tough on yourself and on the people around you. Make sure that your chatty friends know that you are not to be disturbed during your writing time. “Sorry, I can’t talk right now. This is my writing time.” Turn off the ringer on the phone if you need to, or at the very least let the voicemail do what it’s supposed to.
If you don’t take your own work seriously, you can’t expect others to.
WRITING PRODUCTIVITY TIP #2: DEFY THE EMPTY PAGE
In any project, the most difficult word to type is often the first one. With a 500 page novel looming ahead of you, or even a 15-page short story, getting started can be like trying to push a semi truck with two fingers (your typing fingers). Staring at the empty page, or the blank screen, is an intimidating experience. But if you figure out how to facilitate getting the first word—and then the first sentence, and then the first paragraph—typed, you’ll start the whole story rolling.
Defy the empty page. Don’t let the blank screen psych you out.
In the movie Throw Momma from the Train—a writer’s movie if there ever was one!—the writer character played by Billy Crystal spends hours producing mounds of torn and crumpled sheets of paper in his efforts to complete his first sentence. “The night was…”
That’s as far as he gets, hour after hour. His agonizing struggle for inspiration provides great laughs as he paces the floor and stares at his typewriter. He thinks he’s got to get the first sentence absolutely perfect before he moves on to the next one. After all, didn’t Mark Twain claim that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug? However, no one will ever be struck by literary “lightning” if the author never finishes the book! And you can’t get finished until you get started.
Struggling to get your first sentence down can be a silly, but serious, hang-up. The first sentence has to be a hook, the all-important line that captures our reader—BUT worrying overmuch about getting it Just Right can cause creative paralysis to set in. You’ve GOT to start your fingers typing, or your pen writing, or your tape-recorder recording.
And the first step is to type something. Here’s an idea: If the “perfect first sentence” eludes you, then write the second sentence or the next paragraph—start going on the next step after the perfect first sentence and start telling your story. Just get the words moving. As you really get into your scene, you’ll be more in tune with what makes the best opening line. Then come back and add it.
If starting your new project still seems intimidating, try writing a memo or a short letter or two beforehand, just to get the fingers warmed up and your brain in gear. Some writers start by retyping the page they left off with the last time, or a random paragraph out of a nearby book, simply as a mechanical exercise, so long as you start writing.
Once the page isn’t empty anymore, you’re over that psychological speed bump, and before you know it, you’re off and running.