How To Build A Writing Habit The Easy Way

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So you want to start writing regularly? Or you want to increase your current productivity and write more every week/month/year… I’m going to reveal the secret in this post. Or, more accurately, I’ve already revealed the secret by using the word ‘habit’.

Yep, that’s right – you’ve got to make writing a habit so that it happens almost automatically.

Then you can sit back and watch your word counts rise. Okay, maybe not just ‘sit back’, but you will be amazed at how much you get done with what feels like very little effort.

Think about the stuff that you do every single day; watching television while you eat your breakfast, brushing your teeth, clearing the dishes after dinner, putting on your shoes before leaving the house… You don’t have to think about these tasks and you never (or hardly ever) miss them out. However ingrained and natural these behaviours feel, you weren’t born doing them. Somewhere along the way, you developed the habit and now they are a part of your life.

You might be thinking that brushing your teeth doesn’t take very long and writing a novel does, but you are going to build your writing habit by starting small.

Even tiny actions, repeated regularly over time, can make a big impact.

Plus, once you establish a habit it’s easier to tweak it (to, say, increase the amount of time you spend writing).

ID-100323590It’s this last principle we’re going to use to get started. Think of an existing habit you have and adjust it. For example, when you brush your teeth, use that time to think about your writing. If you don’t have a story in mind, use the time to brainstorm ideas. If you’re completely stuck, just use the time to reflect on your new creative habit. The focus should be on positivity; you are giving yourself permission to day dream, not trying to accomplish anything concrete or scary.

After a week or so, you are going to add a new habit and this one will actually involve writing. Pick a clearly-defined task that is easy to complete, and pick a time that is both easy to remember and suits your current schedule. The aim is to minimise every possible block to achieving the task and, once you’ve done it, to reward yourself. I like to use stickers for this, but it’s your choice!

For example, you might decide to write for ten minutes every day (or every week day). That’s a small, clearly-defined task.

You might choose to add it to your evening routine, say after dinner (before you get up to wash the dishes) or first thing in the morning before you get out of bed.

Next, you prepare for success. If your writing session is scheduled for first thing in the morning, put your notebook and pen (or laptop) next to your bed the night before.

Repeat the habit for a few weeks until it feels very natural and easy. If you miss a session, don’t beat yourself up about it, just do the next one.

One final note: Even if you’re finding your goal very easy to manage, don’t be tempted to increase or change it too quickly. If you raise the bar too fast, you’re more likely to miss sessions and get discouraged. Allow yourself to ‘win’ at the task easily and regularly and you’ll soon have an instinctual writing habit in place.

What do you think? Do you already have a regular writing habit and, if not, will you try this approach? I really hope it helps!

 

[Toothpaste image credit: by aitbodyphoto courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net]

Creative Thinking for Beginners

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This post is aimed at the absolute beginner, but it might help if you’ve temporarily lost your creative-mojo, too!

Maybe you want to write but you’re too scared to try because you don’t think of yourself as creative.

Maybe you had some knock-backs or harsh criticism in the past, or perhaps the idea of creativity just feels out of your reach… Something that you’d love to do but just isn’t on the cards.

You need a crash course in creative thinking and the best news is that it won’t cost you a penny (and very little time).

The first thing to say is that you are already a creative person. I can say this with authority because it’s part of what makes us human. (If any toasters are reading this, sorry, but kudos on the literacy skills).

You are a creative person. You have your unique perspective on the world and a well of individual thoughts, responses, interests and emotions. All you have to do is to start noticing and valuing these things and you’ll find that ideas begin to flow.

Creative thinking is about two things – noticing stuff (external observations and your own thoughts) and then putting them together in new and interesting ways. Don’t worry about the ‘new and interesting’ part just yet, just concentrate on noticing.

So, when you see a person walking their dog while furiously typing into their phone and it strikes you as funny, notice yourself noticing it. Expand on the impression a little by thinking about that person and why that text is so important and serious. Imagine describing the person to someone else and pick out a few details which encapsulate the scene.

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Imagine your mind is like a camera, taking snapshots. Fix these images in your mind by being very specific on the details. This will help you to recall the impression later on, but will also hone your powers of description.

Play the ‘what if’ game. What if the sky was a different colour? What if cats could talk? What if a modern-day bubonic plague decimated the population? It’s okay if you can’t think of an answer, just practice asking the questions.

This works just as well for more ‘everyday’ scenarios, too. When I’m on a train or restaurant or waiting room, I like to people-watch (sorry people!), but I also like to think through ‘what if’ for scenarios like a fight breaking out or the train derailing. I think about what I’d do (and feel!) in the situation and what the other people around me would do, too.

Which leads me to my final bit of advice for creative thinking:

Embrace boredom. Boredom is your new best friend.

Intentionally leave your paperback at home and put down your smart phone. Go for a walk without audio accompaniment. Engineer small spaces of time in which you don’t have an escape mechanism for your mind and, instead, entertain yourself with the thoughts in your head. This might feel uncomfortable – even scary – to start with, but it will get easier.

I hope this is useful. Do let me know if you’d like more of this kind of post, and please leave your own tips for creative thinking in the comments. Thank you!

Ann Patchett On Writing: Killing The Butterfly

Staff_Ann_FinalAnn Patchett is one of my favourite writers. If she’s not one of yours, you probably haven’t read her, yet… She won the Orange Prize with the (astounding) Bel Canto, but all of her books are brilliant.

In last week’s C.L. Taylor interview, I mangled a quote from Ann Patchett and it inspired me to re-read the essay I had half-remembered.

It’s the best, most truthful description of the writing process that I have ever read.

Patchett spends months thinking about her novel before she starts writing. She doesn’t make notes or an outline, she figures things out in her mind and says that this is her favourite part of the process.

‘This book I haven not yet written one word of is a thing of undescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life… 

When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.’

The whole essay is wonderful. You can purchase it as a standalone:

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life

Or, along with lots of other great essays, in

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

What do you think? Does this description of the process ring true for you? Let me know if you have a different take (or favourite writing quote – I love a good writing quote!). 

Process Not Product

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One way to tackle a fear of failure (or, its equally prevalent and powerful cousin – fear of success) is to stop focusing on the outcome of your creative work.

When we think ‘today I’m going to write the next chapter of my book’ or ‘I’m going to finish that short story’ we’re inviting a terror spiral that goes something like this:

I don’t know what happens next in the story and the characters feel kind of flat which means – argh -I’m wasting my time with this piece and I ought to start something new… But that means I’ll never finish anything and be a Real Writer, and if I do finish it what if it doesn’t sell? Or what if it does sell and then people actually READ IT? Uh-oh, I’d better take out all the blasphemy, my mum won’t like that. And, I can’t write that scene I was thinking of because it’s twisted and everyone will think I’m a horrible person. Perhaps, I’ll just go on Twitter…

Instead, try this: Today I’m going to practice writing. I will write 300 words because that’s how you get better at writing, by doing it.

Or: I will write for one hour, because I’ve been managing 50 minutes for a while, now, and it’s good to push myself, to stretch my goals and improve my concentration.

Every time you catch your mind throwing out an end-result-related thought (such as: ‘If I write 1000 words I will be halfway through the book’ or ‘is this YA or Crime Fiction?’) gently push it aside and think something process-related. It takes practice, but I promise you it helps.

Over time, you will naturally focus more on the process of writing which will help you to be more ‘in the moment’ of your creative work and to be more productive.

Here are some more examples of ‘process-thinking’:

  • I will write some sentences today and each and every one will make me a better writer.
  • I will write for at least ten minutes today and will work at extending my focus for longer periods until I can write for thirty minutes at a time.
  • Okay. I’m working on this scene. What are the characters feeling? Where are they? What would happen if I changed the setting? Or the POV? I’ll try it three different ways and see which I like best…
  • I’m stuck. I’ll just do some free-writing on another project because all writing is practice.

What do you think? Do you already focus on process-over-outcome? If not, are you willing to give it a try?