It’s the #1 question I get from aspiring writers. How do you center yourself and clear your head before you write? What do you do when you sit down to write, and it feels like swimming through a vat full of peanut butter?
Trust me, we’ve all been there.
Feels kind of like this, doesn’t it?
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
Believe it or not, there are a few simple strategies that can help you get–and keep–the words flowing.
The first is simply to change the way you think about those first few minutes when you seem to be spinning your wheels.
When I was in my teens and twenties, I did a lot of theatre. Every time i went onstage, I’d feel butterflies. “I’m so nervous,” I would think. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Then I read an interview with a famous stage actress. When the interviewer asked if she ever got nervous before a performance, she said something like this: “I always get butterflies before I go onstage. But I don’t think of it as being nervous. I think of it as being excited.” She said that surge of adrenaline, which most people would think of as anxiety or nerves, gave a heightened energy to her performance.
Science bears her out. The words we use to describe our feelings strongly influence how we experience them. This article in The Atlantic explains how it works.
So if you find yourself struggling to get the words rolling, the first step is to re-frame the experience. You aren’t stuck. You aren’t suffering from writer’s block. You simply haven’t warmed up yet.
Your Brain is Like a Muscle
Imagine running a marathon without warming up or stretching beforehand. Not only are you unlikely to win the race, there’s a good chance you won’t even finish. You could end up on the sidelines for days or even weeks, nursing an injury that could have been prevented if you’d just taken the time to prepare your body first.
While writing a chapter of your novel may not land you on the sofa with an ice pack and a bottle of ibuprofen, that doesn’t mean your creative brain can go from zero to sixty in under seven seconds.
Your brain, like your body, needs a warm-up.
The Boys in the Basement
The next thing you need to do is put your subconscious to work for you. Stephen King refers to his subconscious as “the boys in the basement.”
There is a muse, he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but “he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy.” (Here’s the full quote, if you’re interested.)
You have to put in the work, King says, but it’s worth it, because “the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. That’s stuff in there that can change your life.”
But how do you get the boys in the basement to cough up their magic?
Easy. You keep your WIP (work in progress) at the front of your mind. When you’re taking a shower or working out at the gym, noodle with your plot and characters. What if this? What if that? Play out scenes and dialogue like little movies in your mind.
Fall in love with your story, and your muse will fall in love with it too.
But thinking about writing still isn’t writing, so let’s move on to the next step.
Bell, Book, and Candle: Your Writing Ritual
Like many top athletes, Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s second-highest paid soccer player, has a game-day routine that helps him get into a winning mindset. He spends an hour before each match focusing on the game, stretching, warming up, and listening to music. Then, before the team heads out to warm up, after he puts on his boots, he turns to his reflection and stares into it, psyching himself up for the match.
Some writers also find it helpful to have a writing ritual.
Maybe they always work in the same place, or they light candles and meditate for a few minutes before they start. Maybe they take the time to brew the perfect cup of coffee or prepare a favorite treat. Some listen to a particular piece of music. Some set up a little toy mascot, like Superman or Baby Groot.
Those are all good, but I recommend creating a short routine you can do without props so you can do it any time, anywhere. Like six long, deep breaths, or a few minutes of meditation.
Your ritual should be something you enjoy that is quick and easy to do. By doing the same little action every time, you’re training your brain to think, “Whenever this thing happens, we write.”
Your Writing Warm-up
There’s one final part of your warm-up. It can even be part of (or all of) your writing ritual.
Does this sound familiar? It’s from a question I received a few days ago. “I’ve had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out,” the aspiring writer said. “I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?”
The truth is, spending 10-15 minutes getting yourself ready to write isn’t unreasonable. In fact, a few minutes of preparation can make the difference between a slog and a slide down a water chute.
It helps to go into it with an idea of what you want to write about. If I don’t have a clear vision of the scene I’m working on before I start, I’ll spend some time writing longhand, just playing with ideas until the scene becomes clear. It might be something like this:
Jared is riding his horse when he hears Frank’s car. There’s some small talk that isn’t small talk–“Are you working?” “Skip traces, etc.” “You’re wasted on that. What happened to Josh wasn’t your fault.” Lots of subtext. Frank tells Jared they need him to come down to his office and identify the body of an Asian woman found in the dumpster. Jared says he doesn’t know any Asian women and can’t help. Frank pulls out a photo and says, “This was found in her hand,” and it’s a photo of Jared’s dad from the Vietnam war. Dad is in front of a shack, along with a smiling Vietnamese woman and two small children. A family Jared never knew existed.
This is very free-form. I just throw in whatever comes to mind, but when I’m done, I’m ready to write the scene. If the scene is already planned but I’m still having trouble focusing, that’s another issue. Sometimes it really does take a while to get immersed in the scene–and sometimes it’s a struggle all the way through–but I just keep putting down words. You can always make it better later.
How about you? What are your favorite tips and tricks for getting the creative juices flowing?