Category Archives: Productivity

Training Yourself to Be A Prolific Author (In 5 Minutes A Day)

 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if you could program your brain to go into writing mode on command?

You can, actually, If you’re willing to spend five minutes a day for the next three months doing a simple exercise.

You’ve probably heard other writers talk about the importance of a writing habit.

You’ve might have also heard that many successful writers have a writing ritual that helps them maintain their habit.

But if you don’t already have one, you might feel overwhelmed at the idea of starting one.

Write every day?

What if I don’t feel inspired?

What if I’m having an awful day?

What if I don’t have time to write every day?

Won’t staring at a blank page (or screen) every day just train me to have more writer’s block?

I understand why you’d be worried. I used to be afraid of the same things.

Here’s how I got past those fears and developed a writing habit that feels so good, I don’t want to skip a day unless I absolutely have to.

I started with a very simple pre-writing ritual:  Take a few deep breaths, then say out loud, I am writing.

Then, I would set a timer for five minutes and do one of two things:

1. Type a scene from a book by an author I admired.

This caused me to associate my ritual with the act of typing fiction.

It had a secondary benefit of allowing me to look at the author’s work with fresh eyes as I typed.

I started to understand why the author made the storytelling choices they did.

I started to get a better grasp of how the techniques I was studying could actually be applied to my own stories.

2.  Write about something that had happened to me recently, without trying to make it entertaining.

This caused me to associate my ritual with the act of telling stories without the pressure to “get it right.”

I wouldn’t try to embellish what happened or explain anything. I’d just try to put down every detail about the mundane encounter that I could remember.

It had a secondary benefit of making me much more aware of things like body language, the way people really talk, the subtle conflicts that shape a conversation, and all the things that I normally ignored as I went through my day on autopilot.

In other words, it helped me to be more observant and to focus on those telling details that ground a story in reality.

After years of thinking that I…

  • didn’t have time to establish a writing habit
  • wouldn’t be inspired enough to write every day
  • would find the structure of a writing ritual too constrictive

…I discovered that I could train myself to write on command with this simple, 5-minute daily exercise.

My monthly word count tripled. But that wasn’t the best part.

The best part that as writing became a habit for me, I no longer had to talk myself into getting started.

And I suddenly had a ton of mental energy free for actually writing.

What untold stories would you finally write if you gave yourself the gift of a writing habit?

 

Are You Making These 6 Mistakes That Lead to Writer’s Block?

Feeling stuck?

Sometimes writer’s block happens because there’s some aspect of your story that you need to stop and think about.

But if you’re feeling blocked on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you’re making one of these 6 psychological mistakes that writers often fall prey to.

Mistake #1:  You rely too heavily on inspiration to get started.

When you were young, you had to write a variety of things for school, and that felt like drudgery.

But if you had an inclination toward writerhood, you would sometimes feel inspired to create something wonderful for yourself.

You came to think of your own writing as something that happened when you were inspired.

That’s how we all start out.

But there’s an important truth that these childhood excursions into writing didn’t teach us:

Inspiration happens more often when you’re already writing.

When you wait for inspiration to get started, you spend a lot more time waiting than you do writing.

It’s better to write about the dumb thing that happened on the bus in your journal than to not write at all.

It’s better to do a writing exercise (google “writing prompts” to find thousands of them online) than to not write at all.

It’s better to write a scene of your novel that will need revision later than to not write at all.

The more you write, the better you get.

Writing exercises aren’t a waste of time–they’re a form of training that gets you ready so that when inspiration strikes with a great idea, you have the skill to actually write it well.

Mistake #2:  You only write when it’s easy.

There’s this myth in literary circles that if you’re a talented writer, writing will come easy to you.

It’s completely untrue.

Sure, there are times when the writing comes easy. Where the words just flow and the characters seem to be writing the story for you. Those are the times when writing is fun.

Many writers make the mistake of assuming that it will always be this easy. If they sit down to write and the words don’t immediately start flowing, they give up.

They think things like:

I must not be inspired enough.

I must not be ready to write this story.

I must not be good enough to write this story.

So they quit for the day.

In doing so, they’re essentially training themselves to only write when it’s easy. And the next time a challenge comes up in their writing, they’re more likely to quit.

It can become a downward spiral into fear, where eventually they go weeks without writing. Because they’re afraid that if today is a difficult day, it means they’re not as talented as they want to be.

A variation on this is that you assume that if the writing is difficult, you must be writing badly.

Not true. When the writing is difficult, it’s often the case that you’re stretching yourself.

I’ve done extensive tracking of my own writing, and have discovered through my tracking journal that how much editing a scene needs has no correlation at all with how difficult it is to write. In fact, some of the scenes that need the most work are the ones that felt easy to write. Because I wasn’t digging deep enough.

Of course, sometimes the writing feels difficult just because you haven’t thought the scene through. In that case, a bit of brainstorming is all that’s needed to make the writing go a little easier.

Other reasons the writing could feel difficult? You’re sick, you’ve exhausted your creative energies for the day on other things, or you’re just in a terrible mood. What you’re writing could be just fine, but your perception of it might be colored by what’s happening in the rest of your life.

Mistake #3:  You rely too heavily on your talent.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard new writers say proudly that they’ve never taken a writing course, because they don’t want to risk constraining (or diluting, or squashing) their talent.

Deep down, I think they’re afraid that if they learn the techniques of their craft, it will somehow mean they’re not artists.

This is so, so sad.

Because every time I read the work of someone who says this, I see them struggling to execute on a story that would be a thousand times better if the writer had more skill with dialogue, with exposition, with all the other techniques that they’re afraid to learn.

Art and technique are not opposites.

Techniques are tools that you use to create a piece of art.

The real art is in how you use those techniques to tell your story.

Mistake #4:  You won’t commit to a project unless you’re sure it will be successful.

Do you have a story you’ve been dying to write but have been stalling on starting?

I did, for years. I worked on stories that felt safer while my favorite story idea languished on the shelf. I told myself that I needed to do more research. I told myself that I needed to become more skilled to pull it off. I told myself that it was the kind of novel that required a more mature writer.

But the real reason I was procrastinating?

I didn’t see a clear path to success. And I loved that story idea so much, I couldn’t bear to see it fail.

It took me five years to get up the nerve to start it. I regret every second of that delay.

Everything worth doing brings not only the hope of success, but the possibility of failure.

If we hold ourselves back because we’re afraid to fail, we’ll never get where we want to go.

If there’s something you’ve been wanting to write, but have been stalling because you can’t bear to see it fail…guess what?

By not writing it, YOU ARE FAILING.

Mistake #5:  You won’t write unless conditions are perfect.

We all dream of a perfect place to write…a shabby apartment in Paris, or a cabin on a tropical island, or even a shed in our own backyard.

Maybe yours is a desk in a corner of a room where the kids aren’t allowed to leave their toys.

Or the window seat at Starbucks that’s next to the electrical outlet and the fake wall that muffles chatter to a non-distracting level.

We long for a place where no one ever bothers us.

Where the chair is so perfectly adjusted, our backs don’t ache even if we write all day.

Where someone brings us exactly what we want to eat or drink without talking to us and interrupting our thought processes.

Where our colored pens never run out of ink and the wifi zooms so fast that it only takes seconds to find out what kind of shoes children wore in the 16th century.

Yes. That would be awesome. If you can arrange for this, do so.

But if you can’t, WRITE ANYWAY.

Write even though you’re tired.

Write even though your spouse is watching CSI reruns in the next room. (Ear plugs are awesome, by the way.)

Write even though you’re on the bus and you only have time to scribble a quick page of dialogue.

Write standing up at the kitchen counter while you’re waiting for the ramen water to boil.

If you push yourself to write when things aren’t perfect, you are training yourself to be able to write when things aren’t perfect.

Which is a great skill to have when you live in a world where things are almost never perfect.

Mistake #6:  You want to be entertained by the writing process.

Our early experiences of inspired writing are often our happiest memories. The ideas come to us in an ecstatic rush. We’re eager to get the story down on paper (or disk). We laugh or cry as we live the story through our characters.

And we look forward to the next rush of inspiration, because inspired writing is fun.

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained by your own creative process. It’s wonderful, and you should enjoy it when it happens.

But if you insist that every day of writing be entertaining–that your Muse entertain you in addition to inspiring you–you’re putting an extra (unnecessary) constraint on your creative process.

Instead of just figuring out how to write the story that your readers will love, you now have to find an interesting way to write the story that your readers will love.

And as we all know from studying our craft–conflict is interesting.

So you’ll start finding ways to generate drama around your writing that actually impede your progress. Like writer’s block.

What’s the fix?

If you’re feeling blocked, and you suspect you might be unconsciously making any of these psychological mistakes, there’s one thing you can do that will cure all six of them simultaneously.

Start a writing habit.

It doesn’t have to be every day, it can be the three afternoons a week when your kids have after-school sports practice. Or your lunch break at work.

Whatever kind of writing schedule you can set up, do it.

Writing at regularly-scheduled times trains you to write when things aren’t perfect.

It trains you to start writing and trust that sooner or later, inspiration will hit.

It trains you to get into a writing mindset at will.

It teaches that you can write when you’re in a terrible mood, or when you’re sick, or when you’re not even sure you want to be a writer any more.

And most important, it’s how you master the techniques of your craft so you can use them to make art.

My #1 Productivity Tool for Getting More Done

There was a period in my life where I had a lot of things I wanted to do, but I never seemed to get anything done.

I would wake up in the morning, telling myself that today would be different. Today, I would be super-efficient. I would cross dozens of things off my to-do list.

I experimented with all sorts of productivity systems. Restructured my to-do list dozens of different ways, based on which self-help book I was reading at the time.

I had given up TV. I gave up reading for fun. I gave up everything that I thought was a distraction outside of my day job so that I could shut myself in the spare bedroom for a couple hours after dinner and make progress on my writing.

And yet, at the end of the day, I still felt like I had wasted my time.

I don’t remember who introduced me to the tool that saved me. It might have been yet another self-help book. Or it might have been my husband.  Or a blog post that I’ve since forgotten.

But here it is:

IMG_0259

I know. It’s not a cool piece of software with flashing icons and reminders that guide me through a carefully-crafted schedule. Or an elaborate chart that gives me an up-to-date dashboard for every aspect of my life.

It’s a time log. A piece of paper and a pen, which I use to note the start and stop time for each task I do during the day.

It takes a second to notice the time, and a few more seconds to jot it down with a short note each time I switch tasks. I probably spend less than five minutes each day updating it.

There are no rules about what I do–the only rule is: whatever I do, I must record it on the time log.

But it’s been the difference between me not getting anything worthwhile done and me making significant progress on my big projects every work day.

There are a number of proven psychological reasons why a time log can skyrocket your productivity.

#1: It increases mindfulness, helping you to make better decisions.

I was in serious denial about how I was spending my time. I thought I was spending two hours writing every evening, when in reality, I was spending most of my “writing time” looking things up on the internet, sending “quick” replies to emails, and fussing with my story notes.

I was doing almost everything BUT writing during my writing time.

#2: It gives you an accurate record of how you’re using your time (and shows you exactly where you’re wasting it).

After two days of keeping a time log for my writing hours, I realized that I was never going to make any progress as long as I had email open. (For some of your, that will be Facebook or Twitter or your favorite chat program.)

I decided that I would spend 15 minutes sending emails before I started my writing session, to get that urge out of my system.

I also realized that I needed to ask my husband to only talk to me if it was an emergency. I was stopping at least once or twice in that two-hour period to have a conversation with him that would often last 15 minutes. That was 1/8th of my writing time gone.

#3: It puts a stop to multi-tasking, which is another word for “distracting myself from getting things done.”

Studies on multi-tasking have shown that every time you switch to a new task, it takes your brain time to adjust to the new task. And that people who focus on a series of tasks one-at-a-time finish those tasks much more quickly than people who try to complete multiple tasks simultaneously.

We all complain about feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, and we are doing it to ourselves by asking our brains to constantly switch from email to Facebook to television to face-to-face conversation to Twitter every few seconds.

When I stopped trying to multitask, my stress levels went down by about half almost immediately.

Because I had stopped asking my brain to the unnecessary extra work of shifting focus repeatedly in a short period of time.

Once I realized that I was wasting most of my mental energy just on adapting to the constant switching, I embraced pomodoros (timed intervals where you only work on one task at a time). And my productivity went through the roof.

#4: It helps me get a better handle on how long things really take, which has allowed me to be more realistic about what I can really do.

I spent a lot of my life feeling overwhelmed because I used to be incredibly optimistic about how quickly I could get things done. And as I said “yes” to more and more things, I found myself pulling all-nighters to keep all the commitments I’d made. Or worse, asking people for multiple extensions to allow me to catch up on deadlines I missed.

Now, as I continue to track my time, I can look back through my log notebook and see how long different types of projects really take. How many words I can really write in an hour. How many pages I can really edit in a day.

I’m not perfect. I still sometimes I bite off more than I can chew, and I fall behind on one project or another–especially if it’s a new challenge, something I’ve never attempted before. (I had a little bit of that with the plotting webinars last month, and am working extra hours to catch up there.)

But I’m getting better as I continue to log my time.

#5: It increases my sense of satisfaction with my day.

Psychological studies have shown that crossing things off a list doesn’t make you feel happier about what you’ve done–the opposite, in fact. It makes you feel like you’re behind and you’ve got to work through your list just to get back to ground zero (i.e. a blank to-do list).

Those same studies have shown that making a list of the things you’ve accomplished, however, significantly boosts how happy you feel about your day.

Let me repeat that, because it’s really important. The simple act of writing down what you did each day makes you happier.

I’ve told so many people about the incredible increases of productivity I’ve gotten from this simple tool.

And everyone is excited about it until they realize it isn’t some cool piece of tech. Then they get that look on their faces that tells me they’re not going to try it.

Because it seems too simple.

You’d think they’d be delighted. Just write everything you do down and you’ll be more productive. Add a time stamp as you chronicle your daily achievements, and time management becomes a piece of cake.

But instead, their reaction is often somewhere between disdain and disbelief.

There’s a psychological reason for that too–we tend to want the complexity of our solutions to match the perceived complexity of the problem.

In other words, if I live with a problem for years, and then I discover that something incredibly simple fixes it…I feel like an idiot for not seeing that solution when the problem first started.

So instead, we rationalize. We come up with all sorts of reasons why that simple solution won’t work before we try it, and that saves us from having to feel dumb for not having seen the solution sooner.

But here’s the thing. We’re not dumb. We’re just overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, and we don’t often have the luxury of sitting down and really thinking about our lives. Or we get so much advice that we don’t have time to evaluate, so we ignore it all and keep on doing things the way we always have. We miss the simple fixes as we run from one task to the other, constantly trying to catch our deadlines.

I’m not saying that you should be anal-retentive and chronicle every last minute of each day for the rest of your life.

It’s a great exercise to do for a week, though, to get a clearer picture of how you manage your time.

It’s also a fantastic tool for keeping yourself focused during your scheduled work time or writing time.

Just knowing that you’re going to be writing down the next thing you do makes it easier to choose a worthwhile task over a waste-of-time activity.

I only log the hours that I’ve set aside for working–the rest of my time is my time, to spend with loved ones, to do fun things.

So if you’re wondering why you seem to work for hours and get nothing done, or if you feel like your schedule is completely out of your control, please consider logging your time for a few days. It’s an eye-opening experience.

And once you’ve done it, I’d love to hear what you learned!

The 30 Day Novel: NaNoWriMo Series, Day 2

Welcome to Day 2 of NaNoWriMo! Here are some thoughts on escalating the conflict you introduced in Day 1, revealing a little bit more about your protagonist, possibly introducing your contagonist and/or antagonist, bringing in setting elements, and more.

Regards,
Lynn

Neil Gaimain: On Writing Under Pressure, Inspiration, and Other Writerly Topics

This is a wonderful talk by Neil Gaiman on The Nerdist, especially apropos for National Novel Writing Month.

Here are a few quotes that struck home with me:

“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.”

“Nobody’s ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. …Whatever you’re doing can be fixed. You can fix it tomorrow. You can fix it next week. For now, just get the words out, get the story down however you can get it down…”

“The weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote because you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written next.”

Bookmark this one to watch when you hit those mid-month doldrums where it’s tempting to give up!

New Writing Resources Available on the Downloads Page

For everyone doing JulNoWriMo, if you’d like an easy way to track your word count, I’ve created a Progress Tracker chart (PDF download) that you can use to record your daily word count and total word count.

Progress Tracker for Writing a Novel in 30 Days

For readers of The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, I’ve created worksheets for all the brainstorming questions in PDF.  So if you’re reading the kindle version or listening to the audiobook (or even reading the paperback, but would rather write on a worksheet than in the book)–you can download everything through these links:

Pre-writing Worksheets and Resources (zipped file)

30 Days of Worksheets and Productivity Questions (zipped file)

The pre-writing worksheets contain all the brainstorming questions to help you figure out your plot, setting, and characters.

The resource PDF lists all the writing books and other resources I recommended in the book, in one handy shopping list file.

The 30 days of worksheets are the daily writing prompts that guide you through the story blueprint, to prod your muse into revealing possible directions your story could take next.

If you follow the story prompts, you’ll write a story that fits into three-act structure, follows the hero’s journey, and contains a character growth arc for your protagonist.

The actual blueprint is contained in the book, so if you haven’t read it, you can still use the daily prompts, although it might not be entirely clear why the questions fall in the order that they do. But they will still work.

The productivity questions are intended to be answered each day after your writing session, to give you greater insight into your creative process and help you eliminate the blocks that are slowing you down or stopping you from writing altogether.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you may still find the worksheets useful, and did I mention, it costs you nothing to try them because they’re free?  🙂

(If you want to read The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, you can get it in Paperback, Kindle, or Audiobook.)

Happy writing!

Lynn

The Relationship Between Creativity and Willpower

Have you ever started the day determined to stick to your diet…and blown it by lunchtime?

There’s a reason that as the day went on, it got harder for you to live up to those good intentions. Psychological studies on willpower and self-control have revealed that we actually have a limited amount of willpower available to us each day–and once we’ve used it up, it’s gone.

Yes, gone. Self-control–the ability to make yourself do the right thing instead of the easy thing or the fun thing–is an exhaustible resource. Or, to quote Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

How We Burn Willpower

  • Making choices
  • Editing or otherwise controlling our behavior (usually as a way of managing other people’s impressions of us)
  • Controlling our emotions, especially negative ones
  • Focusing on instructions given to us by someone else
  • Being careful or deliberate in performing a task
  • Forcing ourselves to push on with a task even though we’re frustrated
  • Engaging in creative thinking

In other words, any time you’re not on autopilot, you are burning up self-control. How many times per day do you bite your tongue, force yourself to choose carrot sticks over cookies, or come up with a creative solution for a problem on the job?

The energy that fuels your creative process is the same energy that fuels getting chores done and resisting the ice cream in the back of the freezer. That makes it even more important for us creative types to be good about managing the mundane aspects of our lives–so we’ll have more energy left over for writing that novel!

 How to Get More Willpower

The good news is that, while self-control and willpower are exhaustible, they’re also renewable, and there are things you can do to increase the amount you start the day with.

Take care of your body. One of the biggest factors in how much willpower you have is your health. Physical vitality translates into mental energy that’s available for making choices. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and other things that drain your body don’t just affect how you feel, they also affect how much self-control you have available. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking a fifteen-minute walk, a few minutes of deep breathing, eating a healthy meal: these are just a few of the small steps you can take to increase your physical vitality, and at the same time, your willpower.

Nourish your mind. Mental stress–sensory overstimulation, an environment that’s full of distractions, having too much on your mind–also reduce your available willpower. There are many small steps you can take to reduce mental stress too: meditation, journaling, talking with a good friend, losing yourself in a good book for a few minutes, listening to relaxing music.

Use Your Willpower Wisely. Here are some strategies for making the most of the willpower you’ve got.

  • Do the important things first. There’s a reason so many successful writers recommend getting up early in the morning and writing first thing.  At the end of the day, you’ve got much juice available to channel into your novel.  If your reserve is exhausted, you’re likely to skip your scheduled writing session altogether.
  • Make starting easier. Taking the first step on a project often involves overcoming many mental hurdles, and each of those hurdles requires a bit of willpower to get past. What’s the simplest first step you could take? A phone call? A google search? A quick-and-dirty list that breaks the project down into simple steps? Gathering all the materials you’ll need in one place? Anything that makes you feel like you’ve gotten a grip on the project today can make it easier to do the next step tomorrow.
  • Eliminate unnecessary choices. It’s hard to choose carrot sticks over cookies as a snack — but what if it wasn’t a choice? Bring healthy snacks to work with you. If you need help keeping portions in check, put an appropriate amount of your snack into a ziploc baggie, so you don’t have to think about how much you’ve eaten.
  • Simplify your routines and habits. For example, how many choices do you make every morning while you’re getting dressed? Laying your clothes out the night before or having your closet arranged by outfit could make getting dressed a
  • Plan ahead. Do you have to wrack your brains every night to come up with something you can make for dinner using what’s in the fridge? How many decisions and how much mental stress could you eliminate from you day by planning the week’s meals ahead of time and buying the necessary ingredients each weekend?
  • Arrange your environment to make the right choices easy. If you have to clean off your desk before you can start writing your novel, how likely are you to work on the novel? Would you channel surf less if your television was hidden away in an entertainment center with doors? Could you hide the junk food in the back of a cabinet and put the healthy food right up front? The more your environment supports the habits you’re trying to cultivate, the easier it is to stick to those habits.
  • Make a checklist. If you have to look around a messy room and decide what to do first, you’re squandering precious willpower. But if you have a cleaning checklist for each room, all you have to do is follow the list.
  • Set rules. This one sounds like a drag, but when you discover how much mental stress the rules can save you, you’ll be glad you did. One of my new rules is that every time I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I do a small kitchen chore while the water is heating, like loading or unloading the dishwasher. Stress eaters often reduce snacking by following the rule that every time they get stressed and want to eat, instead they take a minute to do a breathing exercise. Thinking about situations where your willpower often fails and coming up with a rule that guides you to the better choice can significantly reduce the amount of stress you feel when that choice comes up.

The better you get at using your willpower wisely, the more effective you will be in your daily life. And here’s how the kaizen approach can help: if you break your goals down into small steps, you only have to use a little bit of willpower each day until that small step becomes a habit (i.e. an action that does NOT drain your willpower).

And once that small step is a habit, you take the next one, and the next one…until you’ve got a whole repertoire of good habits that keep your life under control, so that you can focus all your willpower on achieving the big things.

Can you think of one or more ways you might reduce the daily drains on your willpower?

What’s one thing you could do to increase the amount of willpower available to you?

Keep the Ideas Flowing: Cultivate Inspiration with Active Incubation

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”
– Peter DeVries

Great quote, right? But what if you sit down at the keyboard every morning at 9 a.m. and nothing happens?

How can you make sure that you’re inspired on a regular basis?

You’re probably already familiar with the technique of incubation, where you set a project aside and give your subconscious time to transform your ideas and experiences into something new. Sooner or later, your subconscious makes connections that your conscious mind didn’t, and voila, you’re inspired.

But waiting for inspiration–known as “passive incubation” to psychologists–wastes a lot of time. While you’re waiting, it’s easy to get frustrated and start worrying that the muse has abandoned you. Frustration and worry can block your creativity, delaying inspiration. The longer it takes to get inspired, the more frustrated and worried you get. Next thing you know, you’re in a downward spiral and haven’t written for weeks. Or longer.

Active incubation to the rescue!

Thomas Edison was a master of active incubation. He discovered early in his career that inspiration struck much sooner if he:

  1. Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
  2. Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
  3. Once he was sure he’d considered all the angles, he deliberately set the problem aside, ignoring it while he slept or worked on other things.

By pre-loading his mind with a clearly-defined objective and a mass of data, he was often able to incubate with a twenty-minute nap and wake up with the solution he was looking for. I can’t promise it’ll be that quick for you every time, but active incubation significantly shortens that frustrating waiting period.

So how can you apply active incubation to fiction writing?

Here’s the two phase process:

PHASE ONE

Start with whatever you know about the story. Maybe all you know is that you want to write a novel set in that castle you visited on your trip to Scotland. Or maybe you’re sure your heroine is a demon-slayer, but you’ve got no idea why or how she came into her unusual career.

Dig deeper. What captivates you about this idea? Is it the possibility of discovering secret passageways and finding ancient treasure sealed up in a castle wall? Are you fascinated Scottish history?

Do you have a yearning to write a kick-ass heroine who believes that she’s damned? Does your demon-slayer have a magic sword you’d give your left arm to own?

Are you dying to write about something that happened to you, exploring how you might have handled it if you were a different person? What emotions do you feel when you think about this idea? How does this character or setting relate to you and your life?

Now broaden your thinking. What other story elements might be appropriate for this setting/character/etc? Does your initial idea suggest a certain type of plot or theme? Have you read books with similar story elements, and if so, how would you like yours to be different?

Identify what you know and what you don’t know, but don’t worry that you don’t have a complete picture yet. When you feel as if you’ve explored the story idea as completely as you can right now, set it aside for the rest of the day.

Sleep on it. Your brain uses sleep time to process everything you were exposed to during the day, and this is when your subconscious gets busy.

PHASE TWO (repeat daily until inspiration arrives)

Keep your subconscious on track. Take a few minutes to review whatever notes you made, and if a new idea pops up, jot it down. As soon as you feel ready, pull out your usual story development tools—conflict grid, GMC charts, ten-scene plot diagram, whatever works for you—and fill in what you can without forcing it.

Reserve a few minutes each day for quiet time, to listen for inspiration. If your mind is filled to overflowing with the mundane details of your life, your thoughts can drown out the voice of inspiration. Schedule five minutes of “muse time.” Meditation, daydreaming, a contemplative walk, and freewriting are all ways to clear your head and bring messages from your subconscious up to the surface, where your conscious mind can access them.

Seek out new information related to what you already know about your story while you incubate. If your heroine’s major trauma is that she was molested as a child, read a book or article about the psychological effects of childhood molestation on adults. If your hero is a kendo master, watch videos of kendo tournaments on YouTube. Research how castles are built or take a class on life in medieval times. The more relevant information you can give your subconscious to work with, the richer your story will be.

Give yourself some encouragement. Before you go to sleep, thank your subconscious for working on your story overnight, and let it know that you’re looking forward to seeing what it comes up with. Don’t forget to keep a notebook and pen by the bed, so you’ll be ready if inspiration hits in the middle of the night or when you wake up in the morning.

Be patient with the process. Trust that inspiration will come, and don’t let yourself fall back into the old habit of passively waiting. The more consistently you practice the phase two techniques, the sooner your subconscious will have all the pieces it needs to construct that killer idea you’re looking for.

Make it a habit. Don’t wait until you get stuck. Incorporate active incubation into your routine now to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid future blocks to your writing success.

Is there any aspect of your work-in-progress that you’re stuck on or unsure about right now?  

How might you apply the process of active incubation to get clearer on that aspect of your story?

How a Tracking Journal Can Make You a More Prolific Author

More than a year ago, I joined a different kind of writing group than I usually participate in: instead of emphasizing craft and critiques, this group focuses on building a writing habit.

I joined because I was hoping that peer pressure would motivate me to write more.

It worked even better than I expected.  I had to check in daily to report my progress, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.

As I got into the rhythm of daily writing sessions, I started to experience an odd sense of relief when I sat down to write each day.  In the past I’d always felt conflicted about writing–as soon as my butt hit the chair, I’d be slammed with a wave of guilt about all the other things I should be doing.

But knowing that other people expected me to write made the writing feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a priority.

Not too surprising, right?

That isn’t the best part.

In addition to reporting my progress, I was also required to answer a series of questions about each day’s writing session, including:

How creative did I feel that day?

What negative thoughts did I experience as I was writing?

What obstacles did I have to overcome to write?

At first, I thought these questions were a waste of time.  But it was part of the group’s process, so I answered them anyway.

When I started seeing the patterns in my answers, I was shocked.

I thought I knew what factors were influencing how much I wrote:  what mood I was in, how healthy I was, and whether or not I was feeling inspired.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mood

It turns out that my mood didn’t correlate with how much I wrote on a given day.  I didn’t write more on days where I was happy, and I didn’t write less on days when I was annoyed or had the blahs.

Health

I discovered that if I wrote at my scheduled time, I wrote about the same amount whether I felt great or had a cold.  Hayfever and other everyday physical complaints didn’t decrease my output at all.

Inspiration

While I’m not the type to wait for inspiration–I know that it often strikes when you’re already working–I did assume that I need inspiration to have a really productive day.

Not so, it turns out.  In fact, I often wrote more on the days that I felt less inspired.  It’s possible that I was pushing myself in the hopes that inspiration would come.  Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction I felt on the days when my muse was generous made it easier to quit early.

In other words, how I feel–physically, emotionally, creatively–is not an accurate predictor of how much I’ll be able to write.

Seeing the cold, hard data made it impossible to ignore the patterns.  For years, I’ve been allowing myself to skip writing sessions when my mood was bad or when hayfever had my sinuses in an uproar.  And I’d been blaming my uninspired days for my slow progress.

My faulty assumptions about how my creative process works were keeping me from reaching my full potential as a writer.

So what factors did affect how much I wrote each day?

Only two:  sleep and how active my inner critic was.

Days where I got eight hours of sleep or more were days where I exceeded my word count goal.

Days where I got less than eight hours of sleep were days with lower word/page counts.

Days where I got less than seven hours of sleep were days where I struggled to write anything.

And as for my inner critic–recording the negative thoughts I experienced as I sat down to write was enlightening.  There was an almost perfect correlation between how many negative thoughts I experienced and how little I wrote.

And the thing that really stinks:  my inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about!

When I went back to look at the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was throwing a tantrum, I discovered that they weren’t any worse than the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was silent. They both required about the same amount of editing.

That’s right.  My inner critic wasn’t helping me improve the quality of my writing.  At all.

Lessons Learned

Now that I’ve seen the real factors that affect my productivity as a writer, I’m doing things a little differently.

1.  I don’t let how I feel on a given day determine whether or not I write.

2.  I go to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that I’m increasing my capacity to write tomorrow.

3.  I’m exploring ways of taming my inner critic.

Just knowing that my inner critic isn’t giving good advice makes it easier for me let those negative comments go.  When the voice in my head tells me I’m writing crap, I now shrug and reply, “That’s your opinion.”

The group has also taught me that positively reframing my inner critic’s negative comments helps take the sting out of them.

When I find myself thinking that I’ll never finish this novel, for example, I remind myself that I don’t have to finish it today.  I just have to write the next scene.

Challenging my assumptions about what factors affect my creative process has allowed me to more than double my writing productivity in a mere two months.  I encourage you to do same.

Make a list of the things you think are affecting your productivity.  Time of day you’re writing, noise levels, diet, sleep, inspiration, mood, exercise. If you’re not sure what to track, start with your usual excuses.  What are the things you usually blame on the days you decide not to write?

For the next month, commit to writing for at least five minutes each day, and track each productivity factor at the end of your writing session.  You might track hours of sleep, or rate your energy levels on a scale of 1-10, or simply note your mood at the time you started your writing session.  You might start a list of negative thoughts and put a checklist by the ones that show up as you write each day.  Whatever you think is important, track it.

At the end of the month, look for patterns.  Did you write more on days when you felt blah and less on days when you felt angry?  Did your output go down on the days when all you ate was pizza and milk duds?  Did you discover that you write best after a brief nap or a snuggle session with your cat?

Once you see the patterns, you’ll know exactly what you need to change to become a more prolific author.

Interview: Jenna Avery on Procrastination and the Writing Habit

Please welcome Jenna Avery, screenwriter and founder of the process-oriented Writer’s Circle. Jenna’s here to share her insights about establishing a daily writing habit, overcoming procrastination, dealing with your inner critic, and more.

Jenna, what is the Writer’s Circle? How does it work?

The Writer’s Circle is an unconventional online site for writers based on simple principles of setting small, attainable goals, taking regular daily actions, dealing with procrastination and resistance, and being in community. We help writers build and stay on track with a regular habit of daily writing and get their writing projects finished.

The way it works is that every day our participants log on to our online site and their small group and answer questions about how many minutes they wrote that day, what went well, and what was challenging. We also have them clear out the crud of negative self-thoughts and reframe them into positive thoughts on a daily basis. In conjunction with every other week live group telephone conference calls, this work teaches writers that they are not alone in their doubts, fears, and concerns, which frees up a tremendous amount of energy that can then be used for writing and creating. Writing together teaches us that we have the support we need to show up and do the work, every single day.

What are the benefits of the Writer’s Circle approach to writing?

So many writers struggle with writing consistently and showing up every day to do the work. We procrastinate, we get afraid, and we invent reasons not to write (toilet scrubbing, anyone?). As Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

The Writer’s Circle provides a kind of motivation to show up and do the hard work of sitting down to write, because you know that if you don’t check in at the end of the day on the site, the other writers in your small group and your coach will notice and miss you. You’ll get encouragement from them on the days when it’s hard and they’ll cheer you on when it’s easy. Having that kind of support reduces isolation, which is a huge issue for so many writers, and just seeing all the little green check marks for every day you write is so satisfying too.

We also teach the idea of writing for very small increments of time — with an inverse correlation between how stuck you feel and the number of minutes you spend writing. In other words, the more blocked you feel, the less you’ll want to aim for each day, at least to start.

This pattern of brief writing sessions sets you up to: 1) prevent binge-writing and burn out, 2) feel a daily sense of accomplishment, and 3) build a stronger sense of self-confidence, trust, and belief in yourself that you can and will do the work. All of these help you keep going in the long term.

What inspired you to start this group?

Although I’ve been writing regularly for my life coaching business for over 10 years now, despite my best efforts, I was not doing my heart’s true writing: science fiction. I knew that I needed to make a major change in my thinking about writing and when I saw this system — which was originally designed to help academic writers complete their dissertations — I just had to have it for myself and to share it with other writers who wanted help with their own writing accountability and follow through.

How long have you been running it? Has the program changed at all over time?

I’ve been running the Writer’s Circle since September of 2011 when we ran our first beta test group. Since that time, we’ve seen novels, ebooks, screenplays, poems, songs, memoirs, and non-fiction books completed. It’s been amazing. Over the course of the last year, we’ve added a few bells and whistles to make the program stronger, like twice-weekly group writing sprints, and the option to upgrade and add private coaching support. We’ve also split from one group into two, and we expect to keep adding more groups and coaches as demand increases.

What’s the biggest adjustment writers have to make when they first try this approach to writing?

The biggest adjustment for writers is in their mindset. When we start writing or want to write, we have a lot of limiting beliefs that get in the way of our actually doing the work. For instance, many writers believe they have to have long blocks of time before they can write. Or that they have to have a laptop, the right space to work in, more money, a better job, quieter kids, or a more understanding spouse. Or that they have to be in the right mood to write. None of those things are true. In fact, they are just stories we tell ourselves because we are afraid to write and afraid to fail. The work is learning to show up and write, every day, no matter what.

Along those same lines, our writers also have to persuade themselves to give up binge-writing in mad, rushed, deadline-meeting frenzies and instead set themselves up for the long haul, like a running a marathon — we have to learn to pace ourselves for the long term. The Writer’s Circle provides evidence that helps them make these mindset shifts.

What types of problems can this approach help writers overcome?

Writer’s block, procrastination, resistance, isolation, poor planning, self-doubt, and self-sabotage are the first problems that come to mind. I’m sure there are more. The beauty of this system is that it has far-reaching positive impacts in other areas of life as well. We see our writers also making positive changes in around exercise, organization, and time management, for instance.

How has this approach changed the way you write?

I have shifted my thinking about writing. I no longer believe I have to get it right on the first try. I no longer believe I have to “warm up” before I can start writing. I am fiercely committed to writing at least 6 days a week, no matter what. I’ve been through some difficult personal experiences lately, and I have never been more proud of myself for continuing to write, day in and day out, regardless of my mood or the state of my personal life. The Writer’s Circle has shifted my approach to writing from that of an amateur to that of a pro.

What advice would you give someone who’s trying to establish a writing habit?

The best way to establish a regular writing habit is to start small and to start now. Make it SO easy that you can’t not do it. For instance, on day 1, simply open your document and type in one word or one sentence, then close it again. Be sure to acknowledge and celebrate your action immediately, even if it’s just with the smallest internal shout of, “I did it!” Then on day 2, type 2 sentences, and so on. Keep working up to a point where you know you can comfortably continue the pattern (even if it’s only a few minutes a day). Make sure you design it to be something a regular-you can accomplish, not the super-human version of you. That way you’ll set yourself up for long term sustainability.

Then, keep doing it. Don’t fall for your inner critic’s nagging about how you’ll never get anywhere. I’ve written half a screenplay in 15 minute increments and I’m on track to complete it. You can do it too.

What’s unique or distinct about this group from other writing groups?

One significant — and important — distinction from other writing groups is that we do not do critiques of each other’s work in the Writer’s Circle. We focus on helping writers work out the kinks in their writing habits, and very often those kinks are the result of difficult past critiques that have become creative wounds, which in turn have become blocks. It’s so important to us to keep a safe space where we can break down those blocks, heal those wounds, and get back to the task of regular writing, that we’ve made the decision not to exchange critiques of our work.

That said, we strongly support writers to get useful and constructive feedback from outside sources when their work reaches the appropriate stage. Critiquing is a highly useful and separate tool we all need to make our writing the best it can possibly be.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to share the Writer’s Circle with you. If you’ve got a long term writing project you’d love to see finished, we’d love to have you join us in the Writer’s Circle. I’ll be lurking around the site here today, so if you have questions, thoughts, or comments, be sure to post them and I’ll respond ASAP.


Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter who redesigned her life to support her passion for writing. Her most recently completed project is a sci-fi action script called Progeny. She is also a life coach and the founder of the Writer’s Circle — an online “Just Do The Writing” accountability system — designed to help writers get the support, accountability, and inspiration they need to finish all their writing projects and get their work into the world. Jenna blogs about writing, creativity, and life purpose at JennaAvery.com. Follow her on Twitter @JennaAvery.

You can find the Writer’s Circle at JustDoTheWriting.com.

“Start The New Year Off Write” special: save $30 when you sign up for the 12/31 session using the code NEWYEARWRITE at http://JustDoTheWriting.com.