American novelist Louis L'Amour once said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I love this quote – it makes a lot of sense and it speaks to the prolific writer I aspire to be. However, I’m also a firm believer that writing, as with any creative process, cannot be forced. Is it possible, then, that the key to maximum productivity at the keys lies somewhere in the middle?
In my book, The Writer’s Toolkit, I share almost two-hundred exercises, techniques and ideas to inspire and advance a working draft, while boosting motivation – keeping your time at the keys focused and enjoyable. If for some reason it is not possible to write around a roadblock, I encourage you to step back from your script and complete a quick writing exercise or prompt to help you reengage and reconnect with your love of writing. It’s easy to feel defeated by a hurdle on the page, especially when we can’t see an obvious way around or over it – by focusing on an unrelated exercise, however, we provide a distraction, helping us to snap out of our writing funk and return to the problem with renewed vigor and a fresh perspective.
Below are five things we can all do to establish healthy habits and keep our writing sessions positive and productive, every day.
1. Kick-off every session with a small victory.
What better way to sit down at your computer and tackle that problematic scene than having already achieved a win on the page. Think of it as your warm-up. An Olympic athlete wouldn’t hit the track without having stretched and psyched themselves up first... right? Similarly, a musician wouldn’t attempt a public recital without tuning up and playing a few notes. For me, sitting down cold and expecting my creative mind to deliver the goods simply isn’t going to happen. Instead, try putting your writing muscle through its paces with an inspiring writing prompt or exercise before you get to the important stuff. In my book, there are 101 quick-fire writing prompts, which can all be done in under five minutes and are sure to kick-start a productive writing session. Colour outside the lines a little – allow yourself to play and create. Write something silly and non-sensical... it's for your eyes only will provide an excellent writing warm-up. Something else I do every morning without fail, is type a quick six-word-story on my typewriter - replacing the sheet of paper monthly for a rolling stream of flash-fiction. This takes less than thirty seconds... why not give it a go? Take whatever real-world thoughts, stresses, nagging ‘to-do list’ jobs are on your mind when you enter your writing space, boil it down to six words and commit them to the page – de-cluttering your mind and allowing you to focus on the bigger task at hand.
2. Stay connected.
Unless you are working in a writer's room, writing is by nature a solitary pursuit. With this in mind, it is so important to maintain a healthy connection with your creative network. Checking in with fellow writers is a terrific way to share ideas, get eyes on your work and keep each other on track. So often we spend time writing scripts on spec, with no clear road to production; or sending out countless query letters into the abyss. It’s easy to give up hope and believe we’re not up to the job, or that our work is not good enough, whereas, in reality, we are simply laboring in a congested market. Instead, establish a trusted inner-circle of writers to check-in with regularly. If you can do this in person, or perhaps join a local writer’s group, that’s fantastic. Otherwise, why not plan for a weekly virtually coffee morning with one or two writers and share your tales from the trenches! We’re all hammering away at the keys, fighting the good fight... but let's not forget the importance of human interaction for our minds and souls.
3. Give yourself a break and make time for inspiration.
As I said at the start, I strongly believe that like writing cannot (and should not) be forced. It’s okay to not be ‘in the zone’ one-hundred-per cent of the time. Most singers would struggle to sing from sun up to sun down and I’m sure painters don’t have the inspiration or aptitude to stare at their canvas from nine to five every day. Instead, reconnect with what inspires you and remind yourself of the reasons why you write. For me, this usually includes reading a play script or screenplay, watching a comedy-drama on TV, or listening to a Broadway cast recording or movie soundtrack. Indulge! Soak up a little of the things that feed your soul, or perhaps the things you aspire to emulate in your own work. Go see a play or a movie and get inspired by produced work, after all... that's the end goal, right?
4. Don’t allow ‘writer's block’ to taint (or terminate!) a writing session.
Instead, see it as a positive – a gentle nudge from the talented writer inside of you that there might be something blocking the path ahead. This could be for several reasons... maybe you know deep down there is a better way to tell the story. Maybe you realize the stakes could be raised to provide more compelling opportunities, or heighten conflicts for your hero. Or, maybe you simply know, that if you keep heading down a path that simply doesn’t feel right, you will eventually run out of steam and enthusiasm, causing the project to grind to a halt. Instead, see writer’s block as a warning sign from your inner creator – roadblock ahead, turn back or consider a different path! When this happens, try stepping back. Re-set and refocus with a quick unrelated writing prompt or exercise. Consult your outline and explore all alternative routes and detours.
5. Ditch the deadline!
Unless you are working on a commissioned piece or writing assignment, my best advice is this... don’t write to a schedule, write to a plan! Schedules are dictated by time and impose deadlines. They can be restrictive, and add unnecessary burden and pressure, sucking the air out of your creative process. Plans however are driven by the pursuit of a goal and serve to keep your mind focused on that end goal. So, instead of stifling your writing sessions with questions like ‘when am I going to finish this draft’, ‘when am I going to see my work produced’, focus on the “how”. Break your project down step by step, from concept to outline, page to pitch. How are you going to write it and what might the road to production look like?
Paul’s book, The Writer's Toolkit: Exercises, Techniques and Ideas for Playwrights and Screenwriters is published by Nick Hern Books, London.