Article 2: Creating An Environment Conducive To Writing
We are often told that ‘real writers’ don’t wait for inspiration to strike, but produce a set number of words/pages on a regular schedule. While this kind of productivity may sound like it calls for heroic self- discipline, there are ways to make it a little easier on yourself. The force of habit and the power of setting can both be used to help you make your daily writing quota with less effort. All you have to do is put a little forethought into it.
The idea is to set yourself up with the visual/auditory cues that trigger your urge to write, and then nurture that spark of artistic passion into a habit by putting it on a regular schedule. As we all know, habits are hard to break. When daily output becomes a habit for you, it’ll be easier to write than to not write.
The first step is to find the things that trigger your creative state. Creativity is different for everyone. Some writers love working in a bustling, crowded café; others work best at the beach or at a park. Well, that does sound terribly romantic, doesn’t it?
For some reason, none of those work for me. Whenever I have tried these pleasant exercises, I usually get nothing accomplished and end up people-watching instead, or I inevitably need that one research book I didn’t bring. My muse is more the hermit type. Solitude, silence, tranquillity. For me, minimal stimulus helps me maintain a single-minded focus, while being in the same place at the same time every day helps click the “on” button on my creativity so that my muse realizes we’re at work now and it’s time to get cooking.
The sheer routine of it, the familiar taste and smell of my coffee, the sound of my computer booting up, all combine to get me into my writing state of mind that has become habitual over the years that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be a full-time novelist. I realize that my preferred setting and unvaried conditions would probably feel like the solitary confinement cell to many people; I also realize that most writers don’t have the luxury of writing full time, with a whole room dedicated to creativity. Don’t worry, we can work around it! Until I began selling my work, I, too, had to fit writing into my day however and whenever I could. For the first few years of my efforts, I worked on a dinky Brother Word Processor at the kitchen table in the one-bedroom apartment where Eric and I lived. All those years of struggle have made me so incredibly grateful for every day that I get to sit down and write stories for all my lovelies out there in ReaderLand.
In any case, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find out what conditions generate your most creative states and then to seek practical ways to harness the power of setting in order to access that state so that you, in turn, can produce reliable results day after day in the form of pages written. I offer you the following tips and suggestions from what I’ve learned over the past decade about getting oneself to write AND to enjoy the process. If you begin to notice that your muse is of the hermit variety like mine, then the following suggestions might prove of particular use. As always, if it doesn’t strike a chord for you, just throw it out!
If you’ve only got the kitchen table, there are things you can do to make it work for you. Heck, that is where Nora Roberts got started, too, so I guess the rest of us have no excuse! I believe Nora talks about writing with her then-infant son in the baby-seat on the table next to her typewriter, and she had, what, fourteen New York Times bestsellers last year? What an inspiration!
If you’re saving on space, it’s particularly important to keep your story materials well-organized. This is a good discipline to get into anyway even if you had a whole room where you could spread out your materials. For each of my books, I buy a plastic accordion file (the kind with 13 file slots and a ribbon closure). They’re about $3 at Office Depot. I label the file slots: Schedule, Premise, Hero, Heroine, Secondary Characters, Plot, Charts, Settings, Bibliography, Synopsis, Questions, Feedback. You can label them whatever will be most useful to you. The point is that with this system, you can work anywhere. All you’ve got to do is whip that accordion file out and you’ve got all your stuff organized in one place.
Another pointer for working in a small space is to keep it neat and uncluttered. If your space is cluttered, trust me, the procrastination fairy will order you to forget about writing right now and clean it up. Can’t possibly write with a mess like that staring you in the face. Clutter causes stress.
Lighting – Assuming you are working on a computer, be careful to position your monitor to avoid glare on the screen. This will cut down on eye strain. Watch out for windows and mirrors behind you that will reflect excess light onto the screen.
Positioning – Your monitor should be 1½ to 2 feet from your face and as close to eye level as possible so that you don’t have to lift or lower your chin, and thus end up straining your neck. A pillow for low back support helps keep you from slumping at the desk. (Slumping makes it difficult to take those nice, deep breaths that continually replenish the oxygen in your blood and keep you wide-awake and alert.) Resting your feet on a foot stool is also good for your lower back.
Move Around! – I used to force myself to stay in the chair until the pages were written, but now I get up and take a ten-to-fifteen minute break each hour to move around and stretch a bit. This has aided my productivity a great deal. If my energy level is flagging, it gives me enough time to crank the tunes that help to get me psyched up again. If I hear “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” then, sister, you better look out. I have been known to dance around with my dog while listening to said tunes (ok, you can quit laughing now) and this boosts my mood, reminds me to have fun with my work, and gets me jazzed to jump in for another hour.
By the way, a really good stretch to avoid Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is to take your fingers with your opposite hand and bend them back slowly to get a nice pull in the front of your wrist. Keep those joints healthy!
Drink Plenty of Water – You already know this.
Rest — If you can’t keep your eyes open, go take a nap, for goodness sake, or at least take a short walk to get your blood moving. Most people have no idea how draining writing fiction is; it sucks out huge amounts of your mental and emotional energy. If you don’t watch it, you can soon find yourself ‘running on fumes’ as they say, and the next step after that is burnout. Novels are more marathon than sprint, so you need to pace yourself. Some days we have more energy than others. I know that as dedicated as many of us are, it’s tempting to force ourselves to do more than we can, but try to be nice to yourself. Your muse will thank you. Forced writing usually isn’t good. It takes forever, and if you would just take care of yourself and rest for a while, you can usually come back and finish the same amount of work in half the time than when you’re exhausted. Trust me.
Tools at Your Desk.
Equip yourself for success. I know writers have no money, but buy these things, at least, so that you can write well. At bare minimum, a writer needs to have:
*Dictionary (Get one with the dates of words’ first documented usage, if you want to write historicals. I use the Merriam-Webster 10th edition. Also recommended, the Oxford English Dictionary affectionately known as the OED.)
*Thesaurus (please don’t rely on the one programmed into your computer)
*Style Guide (such as the Chicago Manual of Style or at least the little Strunk and White’s to consult when confusion arises)
*Baby Name Book (at least one, for naming characters)
*Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer
*Plenty of pens and notebooks, note cards, a calendar (on which you’ll write your own self-appointed mini-deadlines as you work to get the whole novel written).
I like big whiteboards and I have them all over my office walls. They offer a tremendous amount of space on which to plot, because I need to be able to see the whole progression of the story at one glance. The downside is that they are very reflective and throw glare onto my computer screen at certain hours of the day when the sun hits them.
Writing software. This is not an area of expertise for me, but there are certainly a lot of programs to choose from, is you think they might work for you. I have tried Dramatica Pro, but the bottom line for me was that filling out all the innumerable little screens and answering the multitude of questions was a big waste of time. That’s just me. I’m a right-brained kind of gal. Most programs have a Demo that you can download to see if you like it before you purchase. I will say I’ve heard really good things about WriteWay Pro.
Avoiding Visual Distractions.
Visual distractions can be either positive or negative. I used to have a view of a beautiful horse farm from my office, but I had to switch rooms because too often my gaze would wander out the window to where the horses would be cantering across the rise. They are so beautiful, those pure-blooded Arabians, that they would just mesmerize me. And the foals every spring racing around on their wobbly new legs—! Too adorable. The light was too strong in the morning and made the office sweltering by noontime, so I had to switch to the other side of the house.
But when I switched, I ran into a new distraction. I had set up my bookshelves across from my desk and every time I looked past the screen, I was presented with a wall of romance books, particularly the “keeper” shelf, with the best of the best, my favorite books by the finest authors that I was sure in my more insecure moments (oh, sure, I get those, too!) were so, so, so much more talented than I. I had to move those books. They were making me batty.
It might seem like a small thing, but what does your gaze come upon when it wanders away from the computer screen in between sentences? Is it something that triggers you to feel anxious, doubtful about your own ability, overwhelmed, or in any way stressed? If so, it qualifies as a distraction and should be removed. Feel free to replace it with something that encourages and inspires you. I suggest a large photo of Sean Bean. *g* (Viggo Mortensen is acceptable, as well.)
Dealing With Noise.
If you are faced with the distressing prospect of trying to write in a noisy environment, you have my sincere sympathies, but do not despair. The solution is to create your own noise to drown it out. You’re going to need some headphones. On the other end of those headphones, you can play period music while writing your historical or perhaps nice instrumental jazz as background music for your contemporary or sassy chick lit.
If the music simply creates more of a distraction for you, I would suggest buying a sound machine. I have one that’s also a digital clock. It’s called Body Basics by Homedics. It has a radio and a timer, but the reason I bought it is that it has six different sounds that you can select from, with a little socket thingy where you can plug in headphones. The sounds you can choose from are: woodlands, spring rain, mountain stream, white noise, ocean waves, and summer night (crickets). They’re not expensive. Mine was about $30 and has saved my sanity on more than one occasion.
There’s always old-fashioned swimmer’s ear-plugs, too. They’re cheap to buy and easily available at your local drugstore, but for me, I find them uncomfortable and thus a distraction.
Using Your Sense of Smell to Help Trigger Your Creative State.
Here is a really cool tip that I learned from Harlequin author Melissa James from Australia. (Check out her books at www.melissajames.com.) I have to say it’s one of the coolest writing tips I have ever received from anyone. It has to do with using smells to anchor ourselves to our stories.
The sense of smell is famous for its ability to transport our minds back to a particular memory. For example, if you smell cinnamon oatmeal cookies baking, it might mentally transport you right back to Grandma’s house and her backing them when you were a little kid. You’re suddenly “there.” You can not only smell the wonderful delicious odor, but you can see the room, hear the sounds of her house, etc. One memory blossoms into a whole complex of instantaneous remembrances.
Well, this tip involves utilizing this remarking power of smell to zap ourselves into our story world in the same fashion, by deliberately building up strong associations between the story you’re working on and one particular smell. You can choose a scented candle, a cologne, a box of herbal tea, a potpourri, a type of candy with a distinct smell—whatever you want.
The key to making this fantastic trick work is to inhale the smell when you’re really “on” and totally immersed in your story. This will help your brain to make the associations between the two, the smell and the story. Thus, the next time you want to get deeply immersed in writing the story, a sniff of this particular scent will help bring your mind back instantly to all those associations connected to your characters and plot.
If you are working on more than one book at a time, Melissa suggests having a different scent assigned to each story. It’s just a very swift way to get yourself “in the mood” to work on that particular book instead of having to re-read pages and pages of what you’ve already written (and thus run the risk of being tempted to start revising those pages for the umpteenth time, instead of moving on to the next scene).
In closing, if you take away only one suggestion from this article, I hope it would be to do whatever you can to reduce the stress in your life, especially whatever stress you may have around writing, because I can tell you from experience that really is counterproductive. Yes, as we know, there is such a thing as “good stress,” termed “eustress,” but in this world, unfortunately, it seems like so many of us live our lives racing around at top speed, barely able to keep up with all that we have to do, compromising our health, and making ourselves nuts. Too much stress shuts down creativity.
Published authors have deadline stress and angst over all the numerous things we can’t control, like sales figures and reviews. But, as many people fail to understand, the not-yet-published also frequently suffer major amounts of stress about their writing, the stress that is generated by aiming at any difficult goal.
Striving to do anything really well is stressful because that means you’re pushing yourself. You’re not one of the people who’s just sitting around like a lump complaining about life, you’re doing something meaningful, taking risks, and working toward the noble goal creating a thing of beauty. That is wonderful!
You should be proud of your dedication to excellence and your own noble desire to add something beautiful to the world, but we all need to learn to recognize when we might be pushing too hard. Doing so for too long of a period leads to discouragement and burn-out, as I mentioned earlier. It’s extremely common in our field.
So, look for small, simple strategies that will help you remember to ENJOY writing instead of stressing out over it. Fill your writing environment with small pleasures to remind you that this is supposed to be fun, and it’s all about inspiration—getting from jaw-clenched discipline to joyous creative flow. If you’re sitting there battling against your manuscript, gnashing your teeth over how ‘awful’ it is, you’ll exhaust and demoralize yourself rather quickly.
When you enjoy writing and have the tools you need on hand, your output will actually be of better quality and will exude higher, more joyful energy, and that is far more likely inspire your reader, and that’s where success as a writer begins.
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