Know someone who could use a little inspiration? Pass it on!
I love this Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” about how changing her relationship with her creativity greatly improved her writing process. I now talk to an empty corner of my writing room every day.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, this mental shift could be the difference between giving up under the intense mental pressure or finishing your novel.
Whether you believe that there is such a thing as a Muse or not, taking your ego out of the writing process and focusing more closely on the work can increase your productivity and lower your stress levels.
Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice and Story Cartel talks about another method for separating your ego from your creative process: he tells the story of a therapist who helped a screenwriter break through writer’s block by praying every day to write the worst novel ever.
“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:
- Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
- Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
- 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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever set aside time for writing–maybe even blocked that time off on your calendar in pen–but then skipped it anyway?
How often do you sit down at your desk at the appointed time, intending to start writing as soon as you send a quick email–then realize you’ve spent your allotted writing time surfing the web?
You might think that you need to learn time management skills. But if you already know how to block off time on a calendar and you understand how to prioritize your to-do list, you’ve got time management skills. What you really need are some self-management skills: tricks to help you stay motivated and focused, so that you’ll actually write during your scheduled sessions.
The kaizen approach is perfect for self-management. “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is the strategy of improving a process by making small, gradual changes that support your desired outcome. You make a single change, and when that new way of doing things has become a habit, you make another change.
Because small changes only require small amounts of willpower, you’re less likely to give up than if you were to make a bigger change. For example, rather than forcing yourself to get up an hour earlier to write before work, you could start by setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and you go to bed 15 minutes earlier. After a week or two, your body adjusts to the new time and you do it again, until you’ve shifted your schedule back an hour and are now used to the new wake-up time. Continue reading