Tag Archives: creativity technique

4 counter-intuitive workarounds to help you keep writing (or get back on track)

I didn’t mean to go so long without posting. It feels like forever — and hardly any time at all.

I could tell you all the ways my life fell apart last year, but I’d rather do something helpful: share the lessons that 2020 taught me about writing when life has other plans for you.

Right before I got sick with covid-19, I’d made commitments that would have been ambitious for healthy me: collaborating on novels for two different pen names, as well as co-authoring a nonfiction series about making sure your story’s emotional journey is as strong as it could be. 

If I’d known what was coming, I might have postponed some projects, but I was being optimistic. I figured I’d need a few weeks of rest before I’d be ready to work again.

A month later, I was getting worse instead of better. 

And I started to feel panicky about how far behind I was falling. The way I was used to working wasn’t working. 

Out of desperation, I started doing some big experiments — here are four things that worked and four things that didn’t work:

What didn’t work: Setting SMART goals and creating a detailed plan. I never had to wonder what to do next, but I also didn’t have the energy or focus to execute on anything. My word count plummeted, but my despair skyrocketed.

What did work: I lowered the bar — so low, it was practically on the ground. I let myself write in 15-minute sprints, and when that was too stressful, I aimed for 100 words, then a break. If something felt too hard to write, I let myself put in placeholders like “describe the tower later” or “fistfight goes here.” And when I was editing, if I couldn’t see a fix, I left myself a note about what felt wrong and moved on. And I napped as much as I worked.

I couldn’t believe it when my word count went up. So I choose two more things to try.

What didn’t work: Being more disciplined about sticking to a minimum number of timed writing sessions. This works great for me when I’m healthy — or even mildly ill — but I was so sick that I would run out of creative energy before I’d done all my sessions. Spending more time at the keyboard didn’t result in more words, it just made me more tired the next day.

What did work: “Writing about the writing.” Long ago, I’d read a book by a therapist who specialized in helping writers break through writer’s block, and his primary technique was to get them journaling about the thing they weren’t ready to write. So I started each day by freewriting about the day’s work — what I thought might happen in the outline, what I wasn’t sure about yet, how I wanted the reader to feel at the end of the next scene, or even about what shouldn’t go in the scene.

My word count didn’t go up, but the words I did write started to come more easily, and I was feeling less exhausted at the end of the day. And I started to find passages in my journal that I could retype into the document as-is.

But I was heading into the worst of the illness at this point, and my energy started dropping again. Feeling panicky, I tried two more experiments:

What didn’t work: Bribing myself to get the work done in the morning, before my energy ebbed. But a bribe doesn’t motivate much when you’re too sick to enjoy it.

What did work: Giving myself more daydreaming time. Rather than forcing myself to sit at my desk after the words had dried up, I wrapped myself up in a warm, fluffy blanket on the couch and let my mind wander around the topic of my project. Ideas would come, and I jotted them down. Sometimes they turned into complete sentences or paragraphs that weren’t half bad. Other times, I woke up from an unintended nap to a half-written sentence.

My word count fluctuated wildly, and I worried that the daydreaming time might be a waste of time; I was getting a lot of ideas, but they weren’t necessarily translating into more words on the page (yet). But I was too tired to spend that time writing anyway, so I kept at it.

Once I turned the corner and entered the recovery phase, I had more energy to write — but I also had more energy to panic. And there was plenty to panic about. I was months behind on everything. I would have to write almost twice as fast as usual to catch up.

But I hadn’t even gotten back up to my pre-covid word count yet.

So I went back to the drawing board.

What didn’t work: Starting a writing streak. Scheduled writing sessions had always worked better for me than a streak in the past, but the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and I hoped that my desperation might be enough to keep the streak going. But there were still a lot of ups and downs: one day I’d write for 5-6 hours, the next day I’d be back on the couch, writing 100 words at a time. And every time I broke the streak, I felt more demoralized than before.

What did work: Immersive incubation — I’ve been a fan of keeping your project front and center for a long time, but now I took it to an extreme. I re-read the previous day’s work or reviewed my outline before I got out of bed, and again before falling asleep. If I couldn’t write, I edited what I’d written before. If I couldn’t outline, I spent my writing session re-reading my character work and daydreaming about the characters’ some more. 

Surprisingly, my word counts jumped up by more than 50% — even though I wasn’t spending more time at the computer, I was writing more words per hour, and they were coming more easily. I also started recognizing that many of my new ideas had taken root during those daydreaming sessions. 

For the rest of the year, I kept up these four practices, and as my body slowly recovered, so did my productivity. 

When I tallied my word count at the end of 2020, I was shocked to discover that I had written more than half a million words. 

But more importantly, this year of illness reminded me of two things:

First, it reminded me that no matter how long you’ve been writing, there are still things you can do to improve your creative process. (And I’ll share some of the other things I did in another email.)

Second, it reminded me how powerful creativity can be, when we’re willing to meet it halfway. Like the daisy that pushes up through a crack in the pavement to reach for the sun, your creativity is always looking for a way to express itself. Even in the worst times.

It’s easy to lose faith in your creativity when life falls apart, but your creativity will never lose faith in you.

Action Prompts:

  1. Is there some area of your creative process where it might be worth lowering the bar to take the pressure off?
  2. What journaling prompts might help you see your work-in-progress from another perspective?
  3. Can you set aside 5-10 minutes today to daydream about your one current projects?
  4. What could you do to immerse yourself more deeply in the story you’re writing?

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?