Book writers are funny creatures. Don't we all wish we knew the secret to writing--the one thing we'd follow to make us successful every time at bat? We all MEAN to write great, engrossing, passionate books, and we certainly EXPECT to finish them--just like we truly plan to follow through with our new year's resolutions. Writers often don't finish projects (or resolutions) well, though. Why? I blame it on our brains. I've noticed in my own operating manual a few quirks, and while I don't have the secret, I have a few tips.
1. Intentions and actions. Self-help groups seem to thrive because people keep "intending" but never quite follow through. Whether it's sales seminars, teaching seminars, marriage seminars, or Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter, people go back to their groups to be reminded of what they need to do. Writers are not apart from this. Hence, you may need a group of some sort--a writers' group, a book club, or classes at your local university extension. So what if Ernest Hemmingway didn't get workshopped? Flannery O'Connor did.
2. Great abs; great writing. Writing is not unlike exercise. I've noticed that some of the best writers are good at both, which shows me if you can be disciplined at one thing, you can do so with another. Join a gym. Hire the personal trainer for a few sessions to show you the ropes. Then go home and write.
3. You've got to be kidding. Okay, so you're not about to join a gym. I haven't been the best exerciser, either. I have better advice. My first writing mentor, the late Thomas Thompson, best known for Blood and Money and Serpentine, told me to write at the same desk at the same time each day. He said it's amazing how you don't have to psych yourself up each day to write. What happens is that you sit down, and you just start writing, picking up where you left off the previous day. It works.
4. Well, it works until life intervenes. It worked especially well while I was a student under deadline. Once I received my degree, however, life happened. That is, I started a high-stress job as a senior editor at a publishing company; I married; two years later, a son was born. My desk was there, but I didn't have time for it. I still wanted to write plays, but it was so easy to put it off--for five years.
I then switched jobs and became the Institute Writer at the California Institute of the Arts. I was surrounded by fine artists, photographers, dancers, actors, filmmakers, musicians, graphic designers, and more--everyone driven to create. That made me want to start writing again. A screenwriter I knew, David Franzoni (Amistad, Gladiator), said he woke up at 5 a.m. each day before his family awoke, and he wrote when the world didn't need him. I tried that. It seemed insane at first because sleeping is so fun. I then discovered what he did. The world is quiet. My desk and the time for it were back.
5. What works for one writer may not work for another. You may not be an earlier riser-no how, no way. Then maybe you're a night owl. Figure out how your own brain works best. What is the best time of your day? I knew a pediatric E.R. doctor whose work schedule was intense, but she wanted to write. She found she wrote best on her breaks during the day, fifteen minutes at a time. An editor at Penguin Books I know writes on the train to and from work and finishes a book a year. If they can find their best time, so can you.
6. The Dream State. One other thing about being an early riser I noticed is that while I was still a bit foggy from sleep, that kept my inner editor at bay and allowed me to write freely. My fiction may have benefited, too, in that I came fresh from one dream state into another. I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Earlier this year, I heard Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler speak, who said, "There are fundamental truths about the artistic process that you must attend." The main one is finding the dream state that gets you into your stories. If I start answering email first thing in the morning--or using Quicken or anything practical--that seems to dump me from the dream state. If I write first, that's the easiest. I recommend Butler's book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
7. Different authors, different strokes. I asked author Jessica Barksdale Inclan, who has a wonderful blog here in Red Room, how she manages to write a blog daily. It was all I could do to write one a week. She said she uses blogging to warm up to her novel. It gets her in the rhythm. I tried that one week, and I wrote a lot of interesting articles, but very little fiction. For me, that kind of writing threw me out of the dream state. For her, it pulled her in. Figure out which type of person you are.
This really is all to say, "Be in tune with how you work best." Maybe you have to pretend you're writing a letter to an old girlfriend. Maybe you need your Blackberry to ring you every twenty minutes. Be the master of your brain. Perhaps that's the secret.
What works for you?
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