Strategy Number Two: Just Start.
Last week we looked at some of the mental blocks that help resistance get a foothold in your brain.
When resistance is at its most active, though, is the few moments before you sit down and start writing, to about twenty minutes after you have “started” (if you actually do start!)
These are high risk moments, when, if you are not aware of what you’re doing, you will slide into the arms of resistance. Whatever your particular favourite version of resistance is, be it reading social feeds, playing solitaire, or – like me – reading about resistance and productivity, if you don’t learn how to avoid the lure, you will look up twenty minutes later and find you haven’t written a word.
It is possible to go for weeks this way, convinced that you are writing industriously, yet have nothing to show for it. You can tell yourself that you’re researching, or you have to learn just one more skill before you can actually write. Or perhaps this character over here needs more development…
An oldie but a goodie is telling yourself you deserve the time off. You’ve worked hard, often at a day job, before you sit down to write. So you deserve a night off from the “hard work” of writing.
As I said last week, resistance can plant itself in your brain, and you may not even be aware of its existence. But it is there!
I labelled this week’s strategy “Just Start!” This sounds easy. It is anything but easy.
However, if you can just make yourself sit and put your fingers to keyboard, even if you’re producing complete drivel, then your writer brain will take over and kick resistance to the curb. You win.
That’s the entire trick of this strategy.
If you are like me and every other writer I have ever met, your brain will sheer away from just sitting and starting. It seems too simple, and it usually is. You will come up with all sorts of excuses to not start.
As soon as you catch yourself not starting and doing something else instead, be nice. Gently take yourself back to the keyboard and just start again.
Once you actually have started, don’t stop for at least twenty minutes. From experience, I know it takes about twenty minutes for flow to kick in. Your writer muscles warm up, your brain picks up all the strings of the story, you can see the scene in your head and suddenly, you don’t notice you’re actually writing. You’re just recording the scene.
At that point, it is safe to stop, take a break and come back to it. Until then, you can derail your entire writing session if you stop. So don’t.
Because just starting is so difficult, here are some tips and tricks that will help you put your fingers to the keyboard.
Have files already open and everything else closed.
This one works work very well if you’re not carting your laptop around with you during the day. If you have a desktop computer, or your laptop stays at home, then, at the end of each writing session, save everything…and leave the files open.
Have the cursor sitting where the next word begins.
Also, shut down every app and file that has nothing to do with writing. Then you aren’t tempted to have a quick look at email, or your social feeds, before you start writing.
There are keyboard shortcuts for just about everything. But there are also shortcuts you can build into your file system, so navigating to the current manuscript is simply a matter of clicking on the shortcut that you keep on your desktop.
To create a shortcut to your manuscript file in the Windows operating system, right-click on the file name and click on the “create shortcut” option in the drop-down menu.
Then drag or copy and paste the shortcut to your desktop. You can also add it to your start folder. It should be added to whatever screen or window you have set up display when you boot your computer.
Because I don’t use the Mac operating system at all, I had a quick look for the same option for the Mac operating system. I found the explanation here. Mac shortcuts are keyboard shortcuts, which means you can open the file with a few keystrokes, instead of clicking on the shortcut on the desktop, as you do in Windows.
Mind dump into your manuscript
At the end of your writing session, as you’re in flow, you probably already know what comes next.
While most people find it absolutely impossible to leave a half-finished sentence, as Ernest Hemingway claimed to do, the next best thing is to scribble down some quick notes about what comes next.
Don’t rely on your memory for this. It isn’t that your memory might fail, but that having those notes there will trick you into turning them into full novel text, when you next open your manuscript.
They help ease you into the story.
You can mind dump into your manuscript at any time during a writing session. It could be something that you think of about a scene you’ve already written, or a scene to come. If you want to spend the time, you can move down to the end of the manuscript and write a note for yourself that will remain beneath the cursor until you get to it.
Or if you’re in a white-hot rush to finish the scene, which happens when you’re in full flow, then xxx separate your notes with triple x’s, as I have done here xxx, then carry on.
You can always come back to the notes later, and they are searchable via the X marks.
Even if you don’t leave notes for yourself, do try leaving a rough outline of the next few beats as a note for yourself, for the next time you sit down to write. I think you will be surprised by how much it helps you get going.
Know your tech.
Troubles and inefficiencies with technology will help resistance beat you down not just at the start of your writing session, but all the way through it.
It is miserable trying to deal with recalcitrant computers, or files that keep losing themselves and failing to save, when some basic knowledge of computers and programs will save you.
Whatever programs and tech tools you choose to use, take the time to learn how to use them properly. Learn their shortcuts and hacks.
You don’t have to become a Maestro, but you do need to reach a point where using the software is invisible to you. You shouldn’t have to think about how to save files, or how to navigate to the end of the file. You don’t have to wonder where the file got saved to, or spend twenty minutes trying to find where the system put it, because you have preset those settings.
Learn to touch type, if you haven’t already. If you are a self-taught typist, and you think that using the three fingers of each hand is good enough, I beg to differ. There are historical arguments that touch typing with a QWERTY keyboard is inefficient. These are quite true. So further limiting your self by using only three fingers or two, when you could be using all four and your thumb, seems silly.
There are tutorials and training all over the Internet to make you a more efficient typist.
While I do not suggest learning to type with one off the alternative keyboard layouts, like Dvorak, I do propose that you become as efficient as possible on the world’s most common keyboard.
Especially, if you are still looking for keys, you should train yourself to touch type. You may think you are fast, but you could be so much faster if you didn’t have to look.
Simple efficiencies in typing, which increase your word count by a mere one hundred words per hour, add up to an additional 3,600 words per week, or 187,200 words per year, the equivalent of three books! What could you do with an extra three books per year?
You could also learn to dictate, and persist at it until you are good at it. (I’m hanging in there, still…)
I have mentioned in several blog posts about keeping your hands on the keyboard at all times. That means mind-dumping notes in the manuscript, as I described above, or learning to use shortcuts for formatting. You shouldn’t be doing a great deal of formatting while you are writing, but some is unavoidable. The shortcut commands for italicizing is very simple (CNTRL+I in Windows, CMND+I on the Mac — and I didn’t have to look that one up, either!). The Em-Dash is CNTRL+ALT+Number-pad minus sign. Persist in using them until you no long notice you are.
Also, don’t click away! Again, dump your notes within the manuscript. Don’t switch to your notetaking app. Don’t research facts unless you absolutely have to. Leave a marker, and come back to it later. Use common names, and a global search and replace command later to put the name you finally settle on for your character in its place.
Learning the technology and getting good at it can help not just with starting a session, but will help you gain greater word count.
However, especially at the beginning of the session, anything at all that makes you think about the physical act of writing has the ability to derail you, and stop you thinking about your story. Eliminate the roadblocks at every opportunity. Make it as easy for yourself as possible to start writing.
You may think that writing rituals are too woo-woo for you, but at their heart, they are creative forms of habit stacking, that lead you into writing with the least amount of resistance.
Writing rituals are little things you do, in exactly the same order, every time you sit down to write. You don’t do those things at any other time. The act of doing them at this unique moment presets your brain for writing.
I’ve heard of some wildly elaborate writing rituals, and they can verge on the ridiculous. Rubbing yourself with ash and sacrificing babies is taking it too far.
Writing rituals comprised of thirty separate acts, and take forty-five minutes to complete, are also taking it too far. This is when a writing ritual becomes another form of procrastination.
However, lighting a pretty smelling candle, meditating for a few minutes, or reading through yesterday’s work, or all of the above, are useful writing rituals.
Julia Cameron recommended three morning pages, in her wildly successful bestseller, The Artist’s Way. These could be successfully adapted as a writing rituals, too.
I don’t use a writing rituals. The closest thing I come to a unique and consistent habit, pre-writing, is to read over just a little of yesterday’s work. However, I don’t always do that. Sometimes I leap into the writing itself, because I know exactly where I am, and I’m dying to write the next scene.
Writing rituals may well work for you. They work for hundreds of other writers. As usual, experiment.
These are only a few tips to help you avoid the phenomenon of not starting. Because the human psyche is capable of inventing infinite varieties of disguises for resistance, you need to learn what your own patterns are, and find ways around them.
Once you get the hang of just starting, start keeping track of the number of consecutive days when you do sit down and just start. Along with the skyrocketing word count, the unbroken chain of days when you have resisted resistance will build its own momentum.
It is these steady days of monotonous routine that get multiple books written.
Next week we will look at some of the circumstances and situations surrounding you that can make writing difficult.