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FALL BACK INTO WRITING

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What could you do with an extra hour in the day? Make progress in decluttering your house? Take the dog for a run? Bring your checkbook up to date? Meditate? Write?

We were all handed that extra hour on Sunday. Spring forward, Fall back. You’ve been getting up an hour earlier for the past six months, your body is accustomed to it now. Why not keep getting up at that earlier hour through the winter? It’s likely to be the quietest hour of your day—perfect for writing. (Though I must admit that this morning as I try to write this, a car alarm went off in the neighborhood, some cats started fighting, and my dog Edward thought it was his duty to go out and break up the fight. Since I wouldn’t let him out, he barked. Which started Crystal, the bad-tempered boxer in the house behind us, barking too. So much for early morning quiet!)

My own writing progresses best with regular sessions. An hour to write is a luxury, and it’s a luxury that only costs getting myself out of bed at the same time I’ve been doing it. What a bargain! Half a year of those extra hours adds up to over 180. I can do something with that.

And I will.

KICK START

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We’ve all done it. Sat there staring at a blank piece of paper, unable to decorate it with a single word—let alone the pages and pages we need (and want) to write. Mind just as blank, a white screen hiding the thoughts that will turn to words that will flow onto the page. How do you get past that screen and start writing?

“Free writing” has worked well for me. You start with some kind of prompt, set a timer for ten minutes or so, and just pour anything that comes into your brain onto the paper. My friend Marcia and I took a class several years ago where each student wrote down a word or short phrase on a scrap of paper. The instructor gathered them, then chose two at random and told us to write something that included both. You’ll be amazed at what your brain can do with that kind of prompt. For instance, I did a ten-minute free-write once that had to include “loopholes” and “anger.” (Go ahead. Set a time for ten minutes and do it. There’s a good stopwatch at http://www.online-stopwatch.com/.)

Mine? It was something like this (okay, yes, I’ve edited out a few embarrassing bits. It’s my blog, I can do that.):

Loop holes & anger—my 1st thought was of feeling angry when someone else takes advantage of a loophole—loophole, what a funny name—the eyelet for a shoe lace might be a literal loop hole, if you think of the bow knot as a series of loops—loop hole, loop hole—loop; here we go loopty loo, here we go loopty lie…circle games with children, as children, fun & scary, most things were scary, you were never sure exactly what the rules were (always seemed to be loopholes in them!)… Loopholes—could be a breakfast cereal. Anger sounds like a breakfast cereal for MBAs in the 80s. You could have it with a nice cup of Morning Thunder tea and be ready to head off to work, terrorizing your underlings & making lots of money, which you could do so well because money was the whole point and you could use any loophole you came across. So—are they loopholes when other people use them and just opportunities when it’s yourself? The implication is a loophole lets you get out of something (so maybe the loop is a noose you’re escaping).

Is it good writing? Nah. But it doesn’t have to be. The point is simply to write. Once you take your finger out of the dike, the words keep pouring through. It’s a warm up, it gets you going. If it’s a real writing project you’ll clean it up after you have a first draft. But you have to get that first draft out!

We used to start the meetings of my writing group with free writes. We used all kinds, including the random word type. Once I let everyone select a button from my rather large stash, and we wrote about where they came from. (That one was actually a little annoying. By then end of ten minutes Brandy had written a scene that clearly could be the basis for a whole novel. Over achiever!) Sometimes one of us would run across a picture that would suggest something. This was one of my all-time faves:

Inspired by this example, come up with a new Christmas ornament and write the ad copy for it. You might want to aim it at a particular niche market—obviously, the sky’s the limit!

silly ornament picture

Of course these days you can Google anything and get a zillion hits. Certainly true of writing prompts. And there are tons of books out there too. I seldom buy writing books; I find them intimidating. As soon as I start to read one I am utterly convinced that I cannot write. But I made an exception for The Pocket Muse: Endless Inspiration: New Ideas for Writing by Monica Wood. Just what it claims—inspiration and ideas. Have I used it? No. It sits there forgotten on my office bookshelf, waiting for me to remember it. If I need a kick start I’m more likely to grab whatever book is close at hand, close my eyes and pick two words from a random page, and see what pours out. Sometimes it’s something profound. Sometimes it’s “Deep South” “Joy”:

Down in the southland where the porpoises play
Sitting in the sun feeling joy all day.
Deep South isn’t just the southern states.
Deep South can be where you stack your plates.

BABY STEPS

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When I announced the publication of my book, the reaction of one of my colleagues was, “OMG, when do you find the time to write?” The easy answer is “Why do you think I get up so freaking early?” But the issue of finding—or making—time to write is something that plagues all the writers I know.

A big part of becoming a productive writer is finding a process that works for you. Some writers thrive on stimulation and do their best work in busy places like coffee shops. (Of course the caffeine they consume may be part of the fuel.) Others of us crave uninterrupted quiet, which is the advantage of being a morning person—the rest of the world is still asleep and won’t bother you. But after you find your time and place, there’s that little thing called getting started.

It’s the classic writer’s dilemma, that way that blank page or screen in front of you can create an equally blank mind. In my writing group we used to confide to each the lengths to which we would go to keep from having to come up with some words to fill that blankness. We all agreed that we didn’t so much want to write as we wanted to have written. (Okay, we also wanted to have been discovered, published, well reviewed and on some best seller list somewhere.)

I’ve written three books now. Still working on two of them, but I did travel from an opening paragraph to getting to write “The End.” Along the way I found that for me, the secret to remaining productive is to set the bar low. Ridiculously low, so that I had no excuse not to accomplish my modest goal: write at least two sentences every day.

The thing is, once you have two sentences out there, you can usually keep going and do more. Still, two sentences are all I can get manage some days. But there will be at least two more tomorrow, and the day after that. And by writing those minimum-of-two sentences first thing in the morning, they hang around in my head all day. Often by the time I get home in the afternoon I know what comes next, and have another writing session.

I know writers who get completely engrossed in their stories and dive in, coming up hours later with pages and pages written. Sometimes I envy that. But some of them have a very hard time getting into that zone and weeks can go by without a single word being added to that manuscript. We all have projects that were started with great enthusiasm, only to be abandoned before they were done. A couple still nag at me; I hope I can salvage them one day. But when I do, I know I’ll use my two-sentence method to keep going.

Baby steps work for so many tasks in life. Break down a job into small enough pieces that just getting started doesn’t overwhelm. I was so relieved when I figured out I could apply this to writing. And I feel a thrill every time I get to type The End.