How do I write?
October 17, 2011 12:46 PM   Subscribe

So, I'm a thirty year old guy who has spent the majority of his life openly and continuously telling anyone who even looked like they had a modicum of interest that he wants to write a book. Fiction, philosophy, fantasy, something. The problem is, once I've finished work and I go home I'm also a thirty year old secret slacker who finds that every time he tries to actually sit down and write, I go through something like these stages.

A) I don't write anything. I stare at an empty screen and ten seconds later I'm watching five episodes of the Office on Netflix.

B) I write 2 lines. I stare at them and five seconds later I'm watching ten episodes of Community on Hulu.

C) I write a paragraph. I get so happy that I managed to do it that I rewatch the entire run of The Wire.

My brain just goes blank and resets to TV or some other thing. I've never been able to create without a deadline. I require structure to the story but can't conceive of how to formulate it. I write crappy dialogue with characters that are all just monotone versions of myself and every time I sit down to do something, all I can do is think of other tasks I need to do instead of writing, clean the flat, get lunch, get new pens. Whatever. I've been trying to get myself into a writing programme for years and have never managed to actually follow through and do it.

This happens EVERYWHERE I go and I can honestly say that if I could just manage to sit down and actually write something, I'd be happy. Like, lifelong happy. This isn't really a case of writer's block, I have great ideas and millions of them. I just lack the discipline or am encumbered with some spastic inability to concentrate.

I'm still not sure how to get over this. I want to start writing a book right now. Does anyone have any Advice?
posted by rudhraigh to Media & Arts (63 answers total) 196 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pomodoro Technique
posted by Loto at 12:48 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Write or Die
posted by castlebravo at 12:50 PM on October 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


You know what worked for me? More plot technique, less trying to be like Jack Kerouac and force some magical process where it would "come to me." I recommend checking out classics like The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Poetics that will make your brain fizz with new ideas about structure and conflict.
posted by steinsaltz at 12:52 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


NaNoWriMo is coming up. Just do it!
posted by Wretch729 at 12:52 PM on October 17, 2011 [11 favorites]


NaNoWriMo.
posted by AmandaA at 12:53 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ah, Wretch729 beat me to it!

Seriously though: it's great. Even if the novel sucks, it's there. Do it!
posted by AmandaA at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2011


Also The War of Art
posted by steinsaltz at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Throughout my twenties I identified myself as a writer, even though I was not working as a writer. When I was around 30, my long-term work project got shut down and I was laid off with over six months severance pay. I had a great idea for a book. I had money. I had time. I had often been told that I was a great writer. I had no more excuses.

Four months later I realized that although I liked the idea of being a writer, I did not actually like writing. The process of writing, itself, was extremely unpleasant to me. I believe this is true for many writers. However, for these writers it is even more unpleasant for them not to write, so they buckle down and do it.

I realized that I had a choice. I realized that I wasn't a writer, that the world would got on without my writing, and that I could get on with my life. I've done that and I'm quite pleased with the outcome. It's been a tremendous relief.
posted by alms at 12:55 PM on October 17, 2011 [31 favorites]


Have you ever tried writing in the morning before work instead of in the evening? I find that certain times of day are much more productive for certain things. Often if I am struggling with a project I'll try to tackle it before my brain is awake enough to wander.
posted by kris.reiss at 12:58 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seconding try getting up a little earlier to find time to write. Get rid of your television, go cold turkey, no cable, no Netflix, etc.
posted by mareli at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bin the TV. You don't need it. A writer's group might create a deadline.
posted by Leon at 1:05 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


What about a writer's workshop? I knew a woman who wrote most of her novel using such workshops. She'd have to have a chapter done for others to review every month (they'd rotate around the group). It provided more than structure, she also got a lot of great feedback.
posted by ldthomps at 1:06 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe you could try creating an artificial "deadline" for yourself. Take a not insignificant amount of money, whatever amount you think would truly motivate you, and give it to a friend or family member. Tell them to hang on to it for one year. If at the end of the year, you've written something and at least attempted to get it published, you get the money back. If not, the person gets to keep/spend it as they choose (except they can't give it back to you, that would contravene the entire point).
posted by katyggls at 1:12 PM on October 17, 2011


Yeah, NaNoWriMo is starting in just two weeks. You'd be shocked what a challenge, deadline, and community of fellow writers can do for your motivation. Go for it.
posted by litnerd at 1:12 PM on October 17, 2011


Also, I asked a question last year largely revolving around getting ready for NaNo and getting around the distractions. Some of the answers over there might help you too.
posted by litnerd at 1:14 PM on October 17, 2011


For me, I go to a coffeeshop.

While I'm not writing a book at the moment, I am studying some math on my own - and it's the same thing. I need to do at least a little each day, or I get nothing done. So, after work, I hightail it to the local Starbucks* by work with my iPad and notebook. It works for me because I'm not at home, so I don't have the TV and DVDs to distract me. Also, I get off work at 7-8pm, and Starbucks closes at 10pm, so I only have a couple of hours to get my work done. I could spend it on math, or I could spend it frittering around on Twitter. Even if I only get a little work done, at least it's something. And I like their Americanos.

So far, this has been the best system for me. And, as a bonus, I have more free drink certificates that I know what to do with.

*Any coffeeshop, or place away from the house, can work. I just go to Starbucks because it's literally the only coffeeshop by work that's open after 8pm. I have another friend who can only study in the library, for the same reasons.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:15 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


-Yeah, if you're serious about this, get rid of your TV. At least temporarily.

-You need to block out the same period of time every day for writing. Even if its 20 minutes. make that your writing time that you defend vigorously, even if no actual writing gets done. Just sit there in front of your computer and struggle.

-One paragraph is a lot for one day's work. You should reward yourself. Just not with TV.

-Outline.

-Don't spend any time reading over what you justw rote until at least the next day.
posted by the foreground at 1:17 PM on October 17, 2011


Stop telling people that you want to write a book. It makes you less motivated, not more.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 1:17 PM on October 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Do you think maybe you might have ADHD? It really should not be this difficult to concentrate all the time.
posted by milk white peacock at 1:18 PM on October 17, 2011


I once heard this advice:

Write it stupid.

It doesn't have to come out good; you just have to get it on the page. Don't let yourself do ANYTHING except write until you have written a pre-determined amount (two pages a day seems to be fairly common). After that, you CAN write more, but you don't have to.

Two pages a day. You can do that!
posted by cider at 1:19 PM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Seconding recommendations to go work in public spaces. I spend an afternoon or two a week in the Starbucks near my house (I would go somewhere else if there was somewhere else, but there isn't) and find that the presence of other people helps motivate me to actually be productive instead of waste time on the Internet. I feel like they know and judge me if I'm not being productive. (I'm a grad student, so a lot of my work is, in fact, writing.) Also, using public wifi makes me not stream things, since I don't want to kill other people's network productivity.

Also, apps like Quiet have been really helpful for me lately. I've been surprised at how much they (and just putting the windows I need into a separate desktop) can help me stay focused.

Lastly, and this one is more personal than the other ones, I got a prescription for Adderall to treat long-undiagnosed ADD a few months ago, and it has improved my ability to focus a lot. Of course, you still need the self-discipline to motivate you to focus on things (and the right things), but it's definitely been helpful to me.
posted by naturalog at 1:21 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


GastrocNemesis has it exactly! I have always called this 'Productivity porn' because talking about something obsessively gives just enough satisfaction that you don't have to pursue the real thing. Restrict yourself to talking about the things you have actually accomplished and not about your dreams.
posted by InkaLomax at 1:22 PM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why do you want to write a book? Do you have a compelling story or character inside your head that has to burst out?
Or do you like the idea of having written a book? Of being the sort of person known for writing a book?

It may be that a novel's not your format. Have you tried non-fiction, short stories, screenplays, plays or even a memoir? If none of these appeal, maybe you're not a writer. It's not a crime to change your mind.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:25 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


1) I do think NaNoWriMo would help you, especially if you join with other local participants. This will create the external pressure you need.

2) I am, alas, a slacker who loves to write. Sometimes the best thing for me is to turn off the computer and write by hand in a notebook. Or if you must type, shut off the internet. They even have things you can use to lock yourself out of ... I'm not sure, certain websites? The internet? for a certain amount of time.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:26 PM on October 17, 2011


I was similar to alms but exactly the opposite. I had never defined myself as a writer externally but always thought of myself as one ever since my 6th grade teacher made us journal every day after lunch for 30 minutes a day, non stop, no dicking around, pen to paper, no looking around. Even if you didn't have any idea on what you wanted to write; she could be a monster so no one dared challenge this. I had many journal pages that contained the lines "I have no idea what I'm going to write about." but eventually it just became something. And that's when I thought this writing thing wasn't half bad, even if it was my private thing and something I never shared with anyone else. Even though I was an English (writing) major in college, I still never felt comfortable calling myself a writer, even though others would define me as such. (What else do you call the guy who wrote your play?) But I completely stopped defining myself as a writer for most of my 20s when I completely stopped writing. Then once I started thinking of myself that way, I felt more like myself. But once I started thinking of myself in those terms -- in some ways for the first time at all (I even put it in my Metafilter profile!) when I didn't start writing, I felt miserable about not doing it.

Then I started writing 750 words a day. At first it was hard to even concentrate that much. In fact, sometimes if I had a particularly well written Metafilter comment that day(please don't check my user history to see if any of these actually exist), I'd even copy those in there just to reach my deadline. But as it became more regular, whenever I would have those ideas that come to you like the ones you mention, I'd jot them down, email them to myself, somehow save them for later as things I should flesh out in my 750 words. Then that list became too huge with ideas and some of those ideas could be grouped together* and though I would still write the 750 words in the morning, I'd flesh out the idea some other time. (I still get distracted, but that's what the part of my apartment where the wi-fi doesn't reach is for.)

* Seriously, I was able to create an entire outline just from text message ideas that I had on my way to and from work one week.

Now I'm writing an hour a day on days I write, which is most of them but certainly not all of them, and some week's isn't any of them. But I still collect those ideas for the days when I feel like it. It's on a lot of scattered things, but the way I learned to do it was the same lesson I learned in 6th grade -- just keep fucking writing. If it's unpleasant, then I'd talk alms path. But if it's still something you want to do, don't make it a "I'm going to sit write down and do nothing but write" if that doesn't work for you. It seems like the blank screen blocks you for some reason; even if it isn't "writer's block" as you define it, it's blocking your writing, so you've got to find a way around it. Collect and write just a bit -- even seconds at a time if that's what it takes and eventually the seconds may turn into minutes the way you are doing it, and if not, do it a different way. Find out what works for you.

You don't have to "just sit down and write" to be a writer. Yes, eventually, you have to put pen to paper (metaphorically at least) but there's more than one way to skin this particular cat, and you need to find the one that works for you.

(This answer was written in tribute to my sixth grade teacher, pen to paper, not letting up. Apologies for typos/lack of sense

posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:27 PM on October 17, 2011 [24 favorites]


Recent advice on how to get started writing fiction – the Guardian is doing a whole series on how to write fiction.
posted by zadcat at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


I came in here to say what alms said. I quit trying and learned to accept the fact. After years of beating myself up, it was the best thing I've ever done for myself.
posted by slogger at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2011


I am going to give you permission to procrastinate for one week further. During this week, you will read learn writing with Uncle Jim on AbsoluteWrite. Preferably every single page. His advice, more than NaNoWriMo (which I had lost twice before this, and have subsequently won), more than any other method, was what got me writing. Basically, he helped me see that anything but consistent daily output was bullshit. This attitude is also known as "butt in chair, hands on keyboard." When I'm feeling lazy, I use a bright red 30-minute timer to facilitate this. Set it, write until it goes off. Take a break. Do it again. You write a book by writing a book. Circular, but true.

(Disclosure: just finished up a workshop with the Uncle Jim in question. He's awesome. Since reading those threads four years ago, I've written 5 and a half novels, and gotten a literary agent. If that's worth anything.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:33 PM on October 17, 2011 [20 favorites]


I've written and published one (academic, and reasonably successful) book, and been involved in some way with numerous others. So what do I know?

I know it took me a decade start to finish, research to final copyedit. It could have been done in 6 or 7 years, although my distractions were mostly in other dimensions of my career.

What I know is that there are two stages to writing. One is the part covered extensively in advice books: write a little every day; "free write" when you can't think straight; have a support group of fellow writers with whom you exchange drafts constantly and with whom you are openly and mutually critical; write with your best energy (mornings for some, evenings for others, mid-day for still others) before you burn up that energy on the smaller or more trivial tasks (try doing that as an academic administrator and you lose your mind or your position, however -- even those of us who write for a living often have a "day job" that is the nuts and bolts of our professional obligation and main source of our paycheck and that isn't, directly, doing research or writing); verbalize your ideas to others and then try to write them; don't be a perfectionist -- accept that a lot of what you write will be bad to get to that one good nugget in the rubble; use robust tools to organize your materials and information (whether that's a scrapbook or DevonThink or any of a hundred other productivity tools). Etc. Etc. It's all great advice.

But . . .

There is a saying among academics who advise PhD students: all dissertations are written in six months. The only question is, *which* six months? Eventually, really producing a piece of writing, certainly anything of the scale and complexity of a book, comes down to sitting down consciously for as much time as you can stand for as many days or weeks or months as it takes to write the thing itself rather than fragments and pieces of it. I know a few people who manage a page or two a day in between everything else, or who write profitably in the interstices of their busy careers, but for the vast majority, it is a painful, solitary, terribly anxiety-inducing, physically demanding push to the finish to really get it done.

The closest thing I can compare it to is pregnancy and childbirth, albeit I want to acknowledge the differences are obviously significant. But as an analogy: you suffer a little every day to make sure that your future baby gets whatever it needs to keep developing, but in the end, you have to push like crazy and it's going to freaking hurt for most people. But it's worth it in the end a hundred times over and you won't remember the painful part very clearly anyway.
posted by spitbull at 1:39 PM on October 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Although, echoing Ideefixe above, all my advice presumes you have something coherent and original to say.
posted by spitbull at 1:42 PM on October 17, 2011


If I'm really having problems with distractions, I'll sit down and write things out longhand for a while, until I get frustrated with my lack of speed and need to switch back to typing. Then, when I sit down and type up what I've written already, I end up editing it automatically as I type, speeding along the path to a clean piece of writing.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2011


Two suggestions:

1) Start doing morning pages as described in The Artist's Way. Three pages, hand-written, with no breaks (short of the building catching on fire) until you're done. Yes, the writing will be crappy. Yes, you may well feel dumb doing it. Yes, I have had days when I wrote more than a full page of THIS SUCKS THIS SUCKS THIS IS STUPID WHY AM I DOING THIS HOW MUCH MORE DRIVEL CAN I SCRAWL OMIGOD THREE PAGES IS TOO MUCH I HATE THIS... but I did feel better and like my creative channels were less clogged up with all that crud once I was done.

2) Commit to writing shitty first drafts like Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird.

Both of these are related to getting out of your head and getting the writing flowing. Once you're writing, then you can work on improving the quality of what you're writing. But you've got to get it out of your head and into a fixed form (on paper or on screen) so you can work with it.
posted by Lexica at 1:45 PM on October 17, 2011


I'm not really a writer but, when I went back to school for my degree I suddenly had to put out a lot of writing in the form essays. I always hated writing but it turns out that I'm pretty good at it. I still don't like enough that I want to make a career of it but here are the things that really helped me:

1. Outlining. This was huge but the reasons why will become apparent later.

2. I started writing non-linearly. For essays this meant that I would always write most of the conclusion and introduction last. I'd also put together different sections as I came up with ideas. The outlines really helped with this as I had idea of what the larger picture looked like and could fill things in as I thought of them. I used to sit down to write something and feel like I needed to start at the beginning. I would try to come up with a great or even mediocre opening line and, when I couldn't, would end up just staring at a blank screen and not starting at all.

3. I accepted that my rough draft would be, well, rough. If I got hung up on something, I'd just fill it in with a placeholder and put a little note into come back to it later. For example, (NOTE: Add an example here later). Just get it out and edit later. It was amazing how much easier and faster it was to make a crappy rough draft and fix it up than to try and make one draft and make it good.

4. Write and read a bunch. It doesn't have to have anything to do with your project. I started reading fantasy novels and wrote a lot of stuff on various internet forums. Some people keep journals, do what works for you but write more.

5. Make sure you have some way to jot down ideas as you have them. You never know when you'll get a good idea and you need to make sure and put it to paper right away if you don't have time to work on your project now. The idea might even be for a later project.

That's what worked for me anyways.
posted by VTX at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Turn off your wifi and/or your TV.

Even better, turn off your wifi and go to a location like a coffee shop or library where you have a very limited menu of distractions available. Write longhand and transcribe later if that's what it takes to keep you on task.

I second joining Absolute Write and reading every word of Uncle Jim's thread. It's pure gold through and through.

But also... writing is a muscle, you know? Seven years ago, writing a thousand words in a day was a superhuman effort. I wrote a 2400-word chapter today and have enough mental energy left to do homework with my kids, cook dinner, and contemplate revising another chapter later tonight. Do a writing C25K: One sentence this week. Two sentences next week. A hundred words the week after. Don't take any days off, ever. Once you get into the habit of writing, the inertia will keep you going.
posted by Andrhia at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seconding NaNoWriMo, or Write Or Die above.

Or simply doing this now and then:

1. Pick a short-ish duration of time (five minutes, ten minutes).

2. Pick some random topic to write about (the internet is LOUSY with lists of "writing prompts" to choose from; pick one of those).

3. Get a notebook or computer (whichever it is you feel most comfortable using) and a kitchen timer.

4. Set the kitchen timer for the length of time you've decided.

5. Start writing about the chosen topic -- DO NOT STOP AT ALL FOR ANYTHING until the timer goes off. Don't stop to choose your words, don't stop if you mis-spell something, don't stop if you find yourself writing about something totally different, just keep the pen moving or your fingers typing no matter what comes out, keep it up and type type type or write write write until the timer goes off even if you go from helping some guy on metafilter who's trying to commit to writing and you end up talking about your fifth grade math teacher because you've suddenly started thinking of him for some reason and then that reminds you of the time that he told a story in class about how he cut his finger when he was fifty because he was screwing around with a hacksaw and it was so deep it cut his tendon and the only way they could fix it was by tying it together like it was a pair of pieces of string and then he held up his finger to show you all and you could see how the tip of it was all crooked and you just realized this second that that is the very first minute you became aware of how fragile lives and bodies are -- just keep writing and write down whatever you think of.

6. When the timer goes off, stop. Save your notes aside.

7. Repeat the whole exercise again with a new topic, after a break, if you want.

You're just starting out. This will help you find some stuff that you get excited about writing -- maybe that weird memory about your math teacher will lead you on a whole memoir, maybe you'll suddenly realize in the middle of what you're writing that you've been just inexplicably writing in haiku without intending to. Maybe all you'll come up with is a gabillion variations on "this exercise sucks and EC sucks and I don't know why she told me to do this because I"m writing crap". Doesn't matter. Just keep going until the timer goes off.

Do that daily. Things will Come Out.

(That weird rambling thing about the math teacher in the middle of point 5 was my own "don't stop writing for anything for a duration of 60 seconds" mini-example of the kind of things you can uncover by doing this. I haven't thought about that math teacher in 32 years.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:56 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have the same problem with motivation with my comics. I sometimes re-read this this from a cartoonist, How to Be Creative and stop by reddit's GetMotivted section. I also bought the War of Art, but found it very underwhelming and borderline religious/new age junk.

I also remember a quote from an artist who I admire. I can't find the link but he essentially said "Look, we all start in the same place, sitting there in front of a blank piece of paper and convicing ourselves that we can't do this, but somehow we manage." I feel if that someone at his level thinks like that then its normal for me to feel like that and these feeling will never go away. It will always be this hard, which is a liberating thought because now I can't tell myself "But its so easy for the other guys! I'll never get the hang of this."

Beating laziness and the comforts of the information age is hard. I figure I work really hard at work for a salary but I somehow can't force myself to do the same thing at home for two hours? Why not? Don't I want to work for myself? Don't I want to make something? Am I sick of just being the expert consumer who never tried his own hand? Put yourself on a real schedule and follow it. Accept that this shit is hard, that's why so few people attempt it.

Lastly, don't tell people what you are going to do. Tell them what you've done. Its unhealthy because you feel pressured to live up to your ego and people wonder why you keep talking about things you never do.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do whatever PhoBWanKenobi tells you to do.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I also deal with idea fatigue/laziness/blocks by always texting or emailing myself ideas I come up with during the day. So if i get home and I'm too tired to be creative, I can still compile my ideas into my idea file and maybe work on one or two of them. I don't sit myself down and tell myself "Hey, its time to be smart and clever. Go!" Its nice to be sitting on a stack of decent ideas so that when I have time I can just dive right in.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:00 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


A big thing about NaNoWriMo is that it really shows you the kind of effort that's required to be a writer. I think you should just write a terrible 50,000 word novel next month -- which will probably take you some number of hours every day -- and then you will understand what it means to be a writer and you can evaluate whether or not you really want to do it or not. Having done NaNoWriMo, my feeling is that being a writer isn't about having some kind of innate talent or special insight into humanity. Those things are good, but that's not ultimately what writing is. Writing means spending a lot of time doing the face-meltingly difficult work of writing words down on a daily or near daily basis. Do you really want to do that? It's okay if you don't.
posted by chrchr at 2:16 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


One problem is that you're probably writing on the same device that entertains you, and it's just proffering al kinds of diversions that are far more exciting than a paragraph in which two people walk out on to a front porch.

If the TV and laptop are too distracting, then all the suggestions above (leave home and write in a cafe, put your TV in the closet, switch off the internet) will be helpful. I've also minimized distraction by working on an AlphaSmart NEO, a full-size keyboard housing a basic word-processing program, with a screen that only shows you the last few lines you've written. There's something about working that way that keeps me from being too fussy and keeps my momentum going. It has weeks of battery life, so you can take it somewhere totally free if distractions and bang away on the keys. Later, you just connect it to your computer via USB to download all that heartening prose for later editing. I got one for cheap on craigslist.

I'll Nth NaNoWriMo, having written a book in a month (although not that month). It was a terrible book, but it was a book. When I sat down to start the next one, there was no question of whether I could write a novel, merely the issue of how good a novel I could manage. This time.

Also, and this may just be me, but when I'm writing I have to put myself on a stimulus diet. Too much radio, TV, metafilter, and other entertainment quiets a part of my brain that I need to animate the scenes I'm imagining. I need my brain to be a little hungry.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:46 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


People who decide they want to cut hair, get the training and then go cut hair. They don't show up at the salon and fret over "trying" to cut hair - they just do it.

Also, and this is crucial.....

There are people who waste their days away telling people they want to be a writer - and then there's people who just sit down, every day, and write.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:56 PM on October 17, 2011


Go take a writing class. The class will frequently provide you with "what to write about" and deadlines for assignments, both wins for you. There is a marginal chance you may also improve your dialogue.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:58 PM on October 17, 2011


A laptop that is internet-equipped -- a laptop ANYWHERE NEAR A WI-FI SIGNAL -- is death to my productivity. I got to the point where it was looking like I would no longer meet my contractual deadlines because I could not concentrate long enough to write 500 words a day, much less produce a 100,000 word book.

What saved me: I got off my laptop -- home to Netflix and a million other brain-candy internet distractions -- and started using one of these. No bells, no whistles, just pure word processor goodness. I know a dozen other professional writers who use them; one of them was kind enough to recommend it to me.

For some reason, the utter simplicity of the device also somehow allowed me to rediscover my love of writing. Whenever I press "on" on this thing, it's like I'm eleven years old again, stuck in the backseat on a long road trip with only a notebook and a pen to keep me entertained -- and absolutely gleeful about it.
posted by artemisia at 3:09 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Start writing every day. Period. Write every day. I started on 100words.com which is on the honor system, write 100 words every day and only one "miss" day per month ie only one day per month where you forgot to write your hundred that day. You only get your month put up at the end of the month, after completing each days hundred; it's a nice motivator. And -- you try to write something, and really *say* something, in 100 words, do that and you'll learn to edit, cut! cut! cut! relentlessly. I (usually, not always but it is the intention) try to take the salient of my day, the pivot point around which the day swung, the most important thing in that day, and I write about it, large as I want, spit it out, get it down, words to sentences to paragraphs and on and on. Then come back and cut! cut! cut! cut! and get it down to one hundred. Fun.

750words is also fun, I've done that some, but I usually end up just spitting words out and not coming back to tighten it up, in fact that's all I've ever done there, hopped onto the keyboard and spit out the 750 and then hung it up, another day done. It's fun, but it's spraying more than saying.

nanowrimo -- don't think of 50,000 words. Think 1,666.66 words per day for thirty days. I've started it maybe seven times since 2002, finished four times I think. I don't write a novel, and I know that's what it's about and blah blah blah but I don't give a fuck, I use it for the support of the community of other insane people doing this insane thing, it comforts me to know that there are many others committed at the same time I am, in coffee shops and dim bedrooms and blues clubs and cheezy restaurants and maybe sitting in their girlfriends kitchen in their underpants, banging away at the keys. Do whatever you want -- I hang to the 1666.66 words daily, and some days I write twice that and some days I just check in, barely able to key in the date, but I do write every day in November. It's a kick. Fun. Myself, I just write day in the life -- woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, etc and etc -- I've written in the aforementioned tacky all-night restaurants and blues clubs and wherever else, I live on the river right across from downtown Austin and it's really fun to take my laptop down the the river and bang away at it there at two AM or three, I love how the nights sound and feel, for me that's the best time to write, or do much else, truth be told.

Picasso said it -- Painters paint. They paint. How can you tell that someone is a painter? Um, well, do they have paint on their pants? That's a clue right there. Writers write. If you want to be a writer, write. The way to learn to write is to write every day. The way to learn to write every day is to write every day.

It's never going to get any easier, it's never a better time, there is never going to be a time to get away from it all. The time is now.

You don't need to throw away your tv and you don't need a new one, you don't need the right word processor or pen or the fancy-pantsy paper or what-EVER your big fat nasty-ass ego is telling you you're going to need before you begin to rock and roll, what you need to do is sit down and write.

Write about how pissed you are that you don't want to write today.

Write about how annoying this thread is to you, how nobody here really understands what you're up against.

Write about the inequities of the class system, the inequities of capitalism, the inequities of your marriage.

Write about your underpants not fitting correctly, not exactly how you'd want, how they pinch your balls and how annoying that is, and how you've got to shift around all. fucking. day. so as to minimize the effects of this catastrophic ordeal you bravely endure, never telling anyone, silent in your sufferings, and just how unfair that all is.

Write about any fucking thing that comes into your head, and if nothing comes into your head write about that, write about it in a rage, write about it in white-hot heat, or maybe write about it as your sniveling landlord would write about it, and now that that little prick has crossed your mind write about him, how that sweaty little fuck wears those shirts with greazy dirt inside the collars, how you keep looking at that when he talks to you -- It's so distracting! -- and how his rent increase is keeping you from getting that new computer you're sure you need to write the words you've just written about him.

Just start fucking writing. Come on. You knew we were going to say this, you knew that this is the only way, you knew coming in that there is no easy way out, there is no escape from tired fingers, that there is no escape from the that jangly tired in your head that comes from spitting out word after word, comes from really allowing the writer that lives in you to wring your goddamn soul out. But you also know -- you have to know, it's why you're interested in this, it's why your wrote this question -- you also know that the best way to learn about yourself is to sit down and see what your imagination has on its mind today. You know that there are bits of yourself that you will never, ever see in any other way, the only way they ever come to light is on the page through tired fingers. You know that you're smarter than you are, you know for a fact that there is a teacher inside of you, that there are pieces inside of you that can guide and direct your path, pieces which can only be accessed through this discipline, through sitting down, through holding to it, through writing every goddamn day.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:14 PM on October 17, 2011 [46 favorites]


There are a million zillion hacks and tipsntricks out there and some of them are going to be useful to you, but not a one of them is a robot that will put you in a chair and hold you there. You must own the process - there is no muse, and this isn't your job so there's no real-world consequence if you don't do it. None of the other tips will ever work if you don't approach it as if it is your fault if you don't write. If you're a slacker, it's not Netflix's fault. If you're using Netflix to avoid facing your own writing, that's not Netflix's fault either. Overcome the fear that keeps you out of the chair.

But also, almost every author I pay attention to has a version of a story something like this (last read last week from Ann Patchett): every so often, someone stops them in a store or at a signing or a family reunion and says, "You know, I have a GREAT idea for a story. You write it and we'll split it 50/50."

Ideas are easy. There's some kid right now balancing on the back two legs of his chair staring at the ceiling thinking about the greatest story idea anyone has ever had. But he's not ever going to sit down and do anything with it so we'll never hear it.

If you're into mystical woo woo or neural programming or whatever, consider this: if all you do is walk around informing the universe that you want to write a book, the universe or your own brain is going to helpfully...make you want to write a book.

I am not a good writer, nor am I as consistent and disciplined a writer as I'd like to be, but when I sit down and do it I usually get a payoff in words on screen. And that is pleasant, and like many other things in life we will return to pleasant things and they will become habits and priorities, but you alone are responsible for getting yourself to that point.

But also: NaNoWriMo. It forced me to teach myself how to put my ass in the chair. And then read Outliers and consider how long it's going to take to get your 10,000 hours of practice in if you don't get started right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:18 PM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Besides NaNoWriMo, I also recommend using Freedom to turn off the internet for however long you decide to write. Seriously: when I have it externally disabled for a set period of time--even though I know that I can always turn it back on again, and that I could get up and do something besides write!--it's enough of a motivator to Get It Done.
posted by Maya Cecile at 3:24 PM on October 17, 2011


My close pal is a famous writer. Her mantra: Any asshole can write for 15 minutes.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:23 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


What, no recommendations yet for Lynda Barry's What It Is? There exists no better jumper cables for one's creative writing engine.
posted by Robot Johnny at 5:53 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


1) Make it fun.
2) Make yourself want to do it.
3) Make it Not Serious.

Ideas: response/constraint writing, letter-writing, collage-writing-- watch your favorite TV show and rant about it, write down your favorite memory from childhood on pretty paper and decorate it and send it to someone, start a journal exchange (where you physically mail journals) with someone in another country, get a book-full of constraints or prompts for 100-word drabbles and go to town writing 100 words only.

Write things that don't involve a screen-- write on napkins, on loose-leaf, write things you'll never see again (mail them to random addresses, leave in secret places in parks, etc). Write things that are mostly visual art/poems. Write things that are just really creative shopping lists and then shop with them. Write things you wanted to say to an ex and then burn them. Write a collection of really bad jokes (write things with no Plot, Character, Structure pressure).


Ditch the idea of Being a Writer. Writing is about the act of writing, not about an identity. Accept that people are writers because they write, rather than writing because they're Writers. I'm a writer because I write. I sometimes not write novels/stories for long periods, but I still tend to write emails, blog entries, long thought-out responses on boards-- I write! I'm a writer. You wrote this! You're a writer. Keep writing... stuff. Find more stuff to write. Like something? Write about it. Don't make it a Thing, an Idea, a Plan-- forget plans. Write in the moment, the moment you think of it, and if it's 2 sentences, it's good. Make a 2-Sentence Fragment Journal (I used to have those) and collect Ideas in one place. Combine 2-Sentence Fragments to form 4-Sentence Fragments. Connect them into nonsensical strings. Put those strings up on your fridge. Make a nonsensical poem from your Big Ideas.


Make notes as you watch House-- not instead of, but as you watch/do/listen whatever you do instead of writing. You're not avoiding writing-- you're always in the process. The process isn't about writing but writing is part of it-- you're always in some part of it, all the time. Brainstorming, incubating, conceptualizing-- all this is part of writing.

Then, when you're ready and your ideas are bursting at the seams and you must WRITE OR DIE, set aside time. Go somewhere you are alone, just you and a piece of paper-- not a computer 'cause those have distractions. Just you and a pen and paper. Start writing. Keep going. Set a timer-- you'll write for an hour on that Tuesday, or whatever. If you don't write, write 'I have no clue where I'm going with this' or 'I can't write', over and over. Just don't doodle-- make sure you write. If you do that, you've won-- you've been writing. You're a writer.

It's very easy, actually. As long as you're ok with producing complete crap, you can do it with almost no effort. Embrace the crap. Embrace all writing and forget being a writer. That is the only useful advice I've ever found.
posted by reenka at 6:20 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (author of Gates of Fire) has his answer, with some mysticism. As I understood it, your job isn't to write. It's to show up, clear the space and your mind, and put in the time. If you prepare, your personal Muse/Genius/Self will show up with creative ideas and write through you. Just stay with your hands on the keyboard and let the muse work. If the muse doesn't show up, it's not your fault, because you did your part.
posted by sninctown at 7:13 PM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


I will second What It Is as a wonderful book. I love the panel where she is shown going "I want to write, have to think of a story." Twenty years later: "Shhh, still thinkin'..."

The other thing compelling about The War of Art is Pressfield's focus on "Resistance" as a shape-changing evil force that tries to stop you from writing by trying to make you think you should be recording songs on GarageBand or doing dishes or whatever else besides what you are supposed to be doing.

Pressfield says you must lock yourself into an eternal battle with Resistance for the long haul. I found the book surprisingly cool.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:36 PM on October 17, 2011




Throw out the fucking TV.

Buy a laptop with no wifi. Go to a coffee shop every morning for 40 minutes. Do whatever you like. Hopefully writing will interest you more than minesweeper. Alternatively, don't leave until you have written a page. Even if it's crap just to get out of there.
posted by User7 at 8:05 PM on October 17, 2011


I'm gearing up for nanowrimo and I'm going to try boring myself into action. I'm turning off the internet, stepping away from the computer and literally staring at a wall for some not-yet-determined length of time until I start feeling the imagination get fidgety. Once things get to a rolling boil in there I'll sit down at the computer again to get typing. Initial testing seems promising, but may need some adjustment.
posted by wobh at 8:06 PM on October 17, 2011


Get a typewriter. I saw one in good type-able condition at a goodwill shop for $25 the other day. I would have picked it up, but I already have a "portable" Smith-Corona.

I know it sounds a bit strange, but typing on a typewriter is different than on a computer. Since you actually have to push the keys and move the paper, it actually feels like you're getting something done. In addition, a typewriter has no online access, no music, no video, and not even solitaire.
posted by FJT at 8:28 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to be a dick, but: Stop making excuses, getting distracted, and asking MetaFilter. Just write. It will hurt. Keep writing. It may never get better.
posted by nbergus at 8:42 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


1) Get everything that might distract you done.

2) Seperate you research and outlining stage from your actual writing stage, so you have no excuses to wander off.

3) Sit down and write the fucker. And if the perfect words don;t come, just write anything. Maintain forwards momentum, you can edit later.

If the distractions of your home are too much go to a coffee shop with a laptop, and turn Wi-Fi off.
posted by Artw at 10:08 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm also very early in my writing, so this is my opinion as a fellow newbie:

It's obvious that this is something that needs to be practiced often. I'm learning to set aside time to just write, to get used to writing. I don't treat anything that comes out as meaningful - it's strictly for the purpose of learning how to put thoughts to paper, practice narratives, experiment and so on. Like pianists practicing scales. It keeps the brain sharp and ready to go on to the fun part...

Which is the actual writing when I have an idea/inspiration of some sort - I like to keep a freeform document expressedly for the purpose of getting down those ideas or riding out a writing mood. This is the part where what I write I will want to revisit, continue or edit, and think about using as a part of a portfolio/submissions/self satisfaction. Mostly, it's satisfying to have thought of something, and be able to convey that in a competently and which represents the thought well.

People want to write because it's challenging, and it can be a very interesting and fun intellectual journey, more than many other things - but you have to work your way up to the point where you can get to that - such as a pianist will have to play about a decade worth of scales before they're good enough to play a concert. And before that point, it is so boring and undermining. I finished my first short story, and I'm outrageously proud of myself, but it reads like I've unleashed a heinous crime unto the world. So no wonder it's easy to procrastinate, and it's about a gazillion times more fun to watch Breaking Bad - Anything is more interesting than an unpracticed writer's brain trying to string a sentence together. So I would say, if you want it badly enough, try the tricks other people have shared here (thanks!), don't beat yourself up for getting distracted, but do keep pushing on and get back to it and practice practice practice. You'll see improvements (I used to not be able to finish stories) and usually with that, you get more ideas too.
posted by joannqy at 11:48 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


joannqy: " ... it reads like I've unleashed a heinous crime unto the world ... "

I'd bet 25 bucks that this is not true.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:44 AM on October 18, 2011


Geoff Dyer on how to write fiction.

"spokesman for the former, I have written novels even though I have absolutely no ability to think of – and no interest in – stories and plots. The best I can come up with are situations which tend, with some slight variation of locale, to be just one situation: boy meets girl. Other things – structure and tone – must, in these severely compromised circumstances, take over some of the load-bearing work normally assumed by plot"
posted by Ideefixe at 9:49 AM on October 18, 2011


Coffee/cigarettes.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:00 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Readers and writers have spectacularly deficient attention spans. Write short standalone pieces (stories, essays, poems? limit yourself to a certain low word count) that you can finish and publish individually and then collect in a book.
posted by pracowity at 1:50 AM on October 19, 2011


Step 1. Unplug the internet.

Step 2. Turn off the lights.

Step 3. Put on some great music.

Step 4 (MOST IMPORTANT). Crack open a bottle of something good.

Step 5. Write.
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:31 PM on October 19, 2011


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