It’s hard starting a story cold, as many of you have found when you try to write a novel. You know that you want to write, but sometimes it just won’t come. So you sit at your computer and do nothing.
I think I understand why this is, but let me first illustrate the problem:
Two days ago, I put in a nice full day working on a number of things—I was working on a writing book, answering emails, dealing with a contact—and late in the afternoon, I sat down to write a short story. I’d thought about the story, even plotted it out. But as I sat down to compose, it seemed that it just wouldn’t come together, and I didn’t type anything into the word processor.
Now, in theory, I knew how to write the story. I knew how this one would start and how it would end, but for some reason my brain wouldn’t cooperate.
You see, writing is a full-brain activity. If you’re going to do it well, then you need to get both hemispheres of your brain focusing in harmony—both the logical side of the brain and the creative side. But that creative part of your brain is rather wayward. It is constantly trying to solve what it considers to be your most important problem, and it gets derailed easily. You want to write a story, but it might want to head off an argument that it sees brewing with your spouse. You want to write a story, but it’s calculating how much money you’ll be short on payday. You want to write a story, but it wants to plan next Saturday’s dinner party or try to figure out how to deal with the kid who is bullying your child at school.
So you have to push that creative part of your brain toward thinking about writing problems—both the imaginary problems that your character’s are facing, and the artistic solutions that you might employ to tell your story well.
It’s not enough just to get into a creative frame of mind, you actively have to demand that the creative part of your brain get to work. And you have to run it through its paces day after day. Just as you can’t go out and run a five-minute mile on your first try, you need to train your creative mind to handle those writing problems consistently.
I’ve found that if I go on a writing retreat and keep a daily log of pages completed, I get something like this:
Day 1 – 8 pages
Day 2 – 13 pages
Day 3 – 18 pages
Day 4 – 22 pages
Day 5 – 22 pages
Day 6 – 22 pages
Day 7 – 34 pages
Day 8 – 9 pages
Day 9 – 30 pages
Day 10 – 36 pages
Once I hit my stride, it isn’t hard to compose 20-30 pages per day. But it always starts slowly. On my first day of writing cold, I might just get a scene done. Then I suddenly begin writing two scenes for a few days. Then I get to three scenes. For some reason, I tend to crash after a week, but then my brain really jumps into high gear and I begin composing four or five scenes. In fact, I’ve written as many as 70 good pages in a day.
But it all comes as I train my creative mind to worry about fictive problems. For me, there are two main skills that a writer needs to develop: first, you have to train you mind to worry about fictive problems, and that can be darned hard to do. You see, you’ll try to do it, but then suddenly life will hand you a real problem and say, “But shouldn’t you really be worrying about this?”
The other great skill with writing is learning how to get into a creative trance so that you are imagining your story so completely—acting it out, hearing dialog, smelling and seeing it—that you can bring the story to life for others. After 30 years of doing this, that comes to me pretty easily. It’s dealing with other things that derails me.
Keeping your creative focus is hard to do. I’ve found that if I write every day, then my mind will continue to focus on my novel. But if I veer off course for three days, guess what? I have to struggle to get back into the groove.
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I will also be teaching at SpikeCon on July 3rd, also in Layton, Utah. Learn more here.
Don’t forget to register for two upcoming writing workshops. Writer’s Peak July 19-20 and The Plot Thickens Master Class September 18-21. More info on MyStoryDoctor.com.
New online workshops will be up on July 13th. The Advanced Story Puzzle and Writing Enchanting Prose.