These are five dangerous words for someone who wants to write a book (or story, essay, blog post, etc.). They’re right up there with “if I have time.”
“I’ll work on my story today…if I feel like it.”
These words are especially dangerous if you’re rusty, new to writing, or tend to procrastinate.
The key to writing anything is making yourself feel like it.
We’re not masochists, here. Or if we are, that’s a separate thing! Most of the writers I work with have a complete manuscript before they approach me. It might be full of holes, or need substantial rewriting, but they’ve actually done the writing of the first draft.
I like working with writers who’ve finished a draft, because then I know that they know it’s not super-easy to write a book. My experience is that the ones who write the most, with the least self-flagellation, approach writing with self-compassion.
They help themselves get to the project on a regular basis, and to keep getting to it even when it gets complicated.
Just because you don’t feel like it doesn’t mean it can wait.
Writers know that to get to the end, they have to keep going. If you’ve published a book, or even read this post on project management principles for writing a book, or this one on writing more by starting small, or this one on getting published, you’ll know that writing the first draft is only part of what a writer does on any given story or book. It’s not even the first task! But it’s the most important one. Without a first draft, you can’t do the other necessaries.
You might be thinking, “Surely experienced writers don’t say, “If I feel like it” about working on their books!”
Yes, they do. I said it yesterday. I write a lot, and I don’t always feel like it. I would say I feel like it about 10% of the time. So I use certain interventions.
3 clever interventions to make you feel like writing:
1. Remember that action comes first
Only what you do matters, not what you think (e.g., about how life will be when you have written the book / story / etc., or when you’re in tip-top physical condition). If you want to get in shape, you have to get regular exercise and take some care in what you eat. The actions required for writing are different, but they’re still actions. Thinking about writing and actually writing are two different things.
2. Lay out your tools
Writing has a few tools—a computer, or a pen and paper. A chair. A desk or table. Sometimes other stuff. Here’s the list of stuff I’m using to write my current novel’s first draft:
- 100 index cards
- a stack of lined looseleaf paper
- A bunch of handwritten notes, also on looseleaf paper
- two books (Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker and Mastering Plot Twists by Jane K. Cleland), where I’m doing the exercises to help generate a stronger plot. I’m more of a pantser with fiction but it hasn’t been serving me well.
- 7-10 library books on mental asylums, electricity, and the history of medicine (don’t ask)
- pen, pencil, eraser
(It’s a two-step process)
Laying out my tools is a two-step process, because writing makes me nervous a lot of the time. That’s why I don’t usually feel like it. It’s pretty normal. I teach writing, I’m in writing groups online, I write a LOT for work, and I know a lot of writers, so trust me on that–it’s normal to feel nervous or weird when you sit down to write, or even think about sitting down to write.
A great way to avoid this nervous feeling is to pretend that I have a colleague—basically, I’m two people. One of them, the administrator, sets out the tools with zero nerves or interest. Just gets the stuff out of its spot and puts it on the table.
About fifteen minutes later the OTHER person (still me), the writer, puts the kettle on, sets the timer for 30-60 minutes, sits down with a cup of tea, looks through the tools, then does something.
The “something” doesn’t have to be what we might think of as “writing.” Not every stage of writing is actually stringing sentences together. Sometimes it’s looking at an idea from every side, sometimes it’s research, sometimes it’s reading and fixing stuff already written. Sometimes it’s writing new stuff. Your writing self will know what to do when they sit down. Maybe immediately, maybe not. But if you never sit down, forget about it.
Yesterday morning, after employing these first two interventions, I sat down and wrote scene cards (one of my first-draft processes) sketching out the plot of my work-in-progress from its midpoint to the climax. I mean, that’s no small cheese. That’s quite a feat. I feel very good about that. It took me less than 30 minutes. I got to tick off an item on my “to do” list. And they’re solid ideas. I like them and I know the next step, which always makes it easier to get back to the table after “the administrator” lays out the tools.
3. Be prepared for discomfort
Yes, you may get frustrated. It would be weird if you didn’t. That is life. It happens at bus stops and in cafeterias and at sporting events and even when watching TV. One of the traits of humans it that we get frustrated. It happens with home improvement projects and learning the piano and … well, you get the picture. It’s definitely going to happen with writing.
Discomfort never killed anybody. As writer Joyce Carol Oates said in an interview:
One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. … I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.Joyce Carol Oates, The Paris Review Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978
Part of preparing for discomfort could be looking at your life. What do you do a lot of that’s very easy for you? What do you do a lot of that’s hard? If there’s an imbalance (more easy than hard), you might need to set that right. Here’s one idea on YouTube, a 14-minute animated video called “How I tricked my brain to like doing hard things.”
You could try this dopamine detox to make complex tasks easier to approach. Why not? If you do, drop me a line through the contact form and let me know how it goes!