The Writer’s Toolbox
Writer’s Tool # 1: Keeping A Journal
Keeping a journal has been an essential practice for me as a writer. It’s the only thing that brings me back to the page when I’m going through a difficult writing challenge. It’s the only place I can bitch about my life, and the pages will always always listen. It’s a place to vent, and to generate new ideas. Most importantly, it’s a place to mull over ideas that aren’t quite working, or a plot that just doesn’t seem to be working out the way you wanted it to.
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way encourages ALL artists, not just writers, to keep a journal of 3 pages everyday; longhand writing called “morning pages” to be written first thing in the morning.
I usually keep 3 pages of journalling, but seeing as I start work at my ‘non-writing’ job at 6:30 am, I rarely get the opportunity for morning writing. Thus my writing falls in the nighttime. If it wasn’t for my journal however, I dont know how I would have got through many frustrating situations and bad creative spells.
Writer’s Tool # 2: The Dice Trick
One of the hardest parts of writing, for me, is finding courage to face the blank page. It stares back at me like the foreboding black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A very simple and easy trick to getting some desperate motivation is the Dice Trick!
You’ll need the following tools:
-A Pair of Dice
Simply roll the dice. Whatever pair of numbers you get, that’s how many pages you’ll have to write today. So you may very well get two sixes, telling you that you have to write 12 pages today! Or, you can get a pair of snake eyes, and you’ll only have to write 2 pages.
The point of this exercise is to simply get you writing. It’s simple, and rather juvenile… but it works for me. Especially because I’m the laziest person on the planet, and I need people to motivate me just to tie my shoes.
For more desperate times … simply add more dice.
Writer’s Tool # 3: Keeping a Tidy Workspace
A lot of people say that having a cluttered workspace is a ‘sign of genius’ or ‘creativity’. I say they’re probably right because my desk can sometimes get very messy, and let’s face it… it’s obvious I’m a genius.
But in all seriousness, when my desk gets too messy, more often than not I can’t work there until it has been straightened up. Take 15-20 minutes today, and thoroughly organize your workspace. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to make 3-4 piles of paper of things to sort or throw away.
I usually have to make one pile for the new material I’ve written or I’m working on. I have another pile of old material that may not be very good anymore, but I’ll keep it for archive purposes. I make a third pile of random ideas for other scripts/novels that have popped in my head but don’t belong in the first two piles. Lastly, I’ll make the most important pile, the garbage pile (or recycling if you’re awesome.)
It’s important to remove the clutter from your life. How can you think clearly, when the very spot you’re working in, is cluttered?
Which area would YOU prefer to write in?
Task: 15-20 minutes of ‘organization’ and ‘clean up’ time for your workspace. Find an appropriate spot for everything. Don’t worry, having a clean desk doesn’t make you any less of a genius.
Writer’s Tool # 4: Sleep
Anyone who has attempted running on little to no sleep as many times as I have, can attest to the truly paralyzing power of fatigue. I can always tell when I’m not getting proper sleep, as I suddenly find myself stricken with bouts of extreme stupidity or forgetfulness. I’ll loose my keys, or lock them in my car’s ignition. I’ll find myself struggling to do a task properly at work that I’ve done many times before. I’ll start to slue… diphh… miff, dur… slur my words. It’s amazing how suddenly my mind becomes blank, and I can no longer remember who J. K. Rowling is. Now here is the golden question of the hour kids:
How on earth can anybody write like that?
The answer is simple: You can’t.
Get some freaking rest. Even GOD rested. You can’t create that brilliant screenplay or novel, running on 4 to 5 hours of sleep everyday. Take a nap. Catch some of those elusive Z’s, and discover the rejuvenating, cup-filling, creativity energizing, power of sleep. If you don’t think you ‘have a choice’ in finding time to sleep, tell your friends or family you can’t socialize late into the evening. You need to be an old person, and go to bed at 8:00 p.m. sometimes. Trust me. As somebody who is truly a Night Owl, I love staying up late, but If I don’t get to sleep-in in the morning, I can “rest unassured” that I will NOT get any writing done that day.
TASK: Set aside a full 8-10 hours of wonderful, uninterrupted sleep. I promise that missing Survivor, or So You Think You Have Talents Or Whatever isn’t that big of a deal. Your creative writer within will thank you… as will your friends, family, and co-workers…
Writer’s Tool # 5: The “Mommy, I’m Bored” Jar – For Writers
For me, hearing myself utter the words “I’m bored” is horrifying. If I’m bored, then why aren’t I using the time to write? How did I get so distracted from my craft that I have to utter the words “I’m bored” !?!
The fact of the matter is, there are times when I’m exactly like that. There are also times, when I don’t know the next step in my story, and I need to take some time to figure it out.
One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me as a kid was the “I’m bored” jar. It was an ordinary canning jar, but on the inside, there were dozens of little papers that had suggestions as to how I could eliminate my boredom. But sometimes, when the suggestions were something along the lines of “clean the bathroom”, I was less inclined to do them. Yet, I found myself doing them anyway. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps I was a mental kid, but there is something commanding about a piece of paper that has an answer to your boredom.
Writers, I give you the “I’m bored jar” … for your craft. Inside, you can write any number of possible suggestions you can come up with to nourish your creative boredom. Here is a list of examples of what you can write inside:
No matter what suggestion you pick out, there will always be something to feed your creativity. If you write them yourself, you usually start to have an idea of what you want to do the most – and by all means go ahead and do that very thing. The point of this jar, is to get you to exercise your creative muscles when you just don’t know what to do.
TASK: Set aside 20-30 minutes, and write down as many suggestions for your writing life as you can think of. Take a moment to find an old jar, label it however you see fit, and fill it to the top. At the end of this task, open the jar, take out one suggestion, and do what it tells you. I promise it won’t be in vain.
Writer’s Tool #6: The Word “NO”
It’s a poignant reply, one that is often unemployed by most writers. Very few people realize the power of having creative boundaries.
Simply tell people “no”.
Of course you could opt for a less abrasive approach to “no” like:
- “No thank you.”
- “Sorry, I can’t. I’m writing that day!”
- “I have to get some work done! Thanks though!
- “I can’t volunteer for your bake sale, I have an important writing deadline coming up. Yes I know you need 10,000 cookies by thursday. I’m sorry. Best of luck though! I’m rooting for you! I know you can do it!”
- “I can’t, I promised my creative coach I’d have something written for her this week!”
I realize these may not be applicable to every situation. Of course you could always lie by saying you have a “funeral” to attend or something, but I find that honesty is the best policy. Your true friends and family will understand that you need creative time to yourself.
Anyone who gives you a hard time about can go suck a lemon.
It’s a simple word. N and O, spells NO. You’ll find that practicing the art of “no” in your life, will result in extra time for yourself, and a schedule that isn’t quite as hectic as it used to be. Nobody likes having to remember a dozen things they’ve committed to in one week. It’s hard enough having to do things like working a day job, or raising children. LOL – bottom line is, if you have a choice to say “NO” to work on your craft, and you say “YES” … don’t complain that you don’t have enough time to yourself.
Writer’s Tool #7: The Gadget-Free Day
You’d never believe it, but in a timespan of just four months…
…I’ve locked my keys in my car a total of 7 times.
Oh yes, I’m an idiot.
Thankfully, I’m not capable of misplacing my brain (at least, I hope not), and there is usually always access to paper and pens. You’d be shocked how many coffee stores, or restaurants are willing to part with a few pieces of paper and a pen if you ask nicely.
Now, if you’re a dunce like me, and you need to wait around for people to bring you a spare set of keys, or for a mobile car service to arrive, you can get pretty creative in passing the time. I’ve learned the benefits of using this time to concentrate on my writing.
I get a good chuckle out of picturing the first few times I’ve done this, and literally thinking to myself “Oh no! My cellphone, laptop, and journal are locked in my car! HOW AM I GOING TO WRITE?” … then it dawned on me one day, while waiting for my parents to bring me my spare set of keys, that I could simply ask a local Starbucks for a few pieces of paper and a pen.
Not only did they provide the materials I needed, in feeling sorry for my predicament, they gave me a free latte! Score!
It’s funny how many businesses are so eager to help you when you do something stupid. It’s almost as if the break in routine gives them an excuse to leave their all important burger flipping, in pursuit of some scrap paper… or some band-aids (don’t ask.)
At any rate, the lesson I’ve learned in all of this, was how much ACTUAL writing I completed, not having my cellphone, or an internet connection to actively distract me from doing everything. It’s astonishing how your brain is FORCED to think, when you have nothing to do.
This is also a fantastic way to iron out writer’s block. I’ve climbed out of many plot holes, and character problems this way. It amazes me how much of a creative recovery it can be, not having a gadget at your side. Unless you’re some sort of business tycoon, and your crackberry or i-arm is some sort of appendage, then I highly recommend trying this out. Before the advent of technology, many writers got along just fine without a cellphone, laptop, or what-have-you. “Just turn it off” some might say …
… sorry, I don’t have that kind of willpower. Perhaps that’s also a reason why I’m tubby. Just leave your devices at home, and thank me when you get a crap-load of writing done.
TASK: Set aside a large chunk of time, and leave every precious electronic thing you own that may distract you at home. Bring nothing but some paper, and a pen. (perhaps an extra pen, just in case.)
This writing tip is brought to you by a forgetful idiot.
Writer’s Tool #8: The Weekend Card Trick
This is something I recently thought of, and have put into practice. At first I was very skeptical, but was shocked to see how well this is motivating me to write.
Some of you may remember the Dice Trick. This is very similar, but this requires a little more time and effort. If you’ve successfully managed to bring yourself into a writing routine but want to step up your game, this is a great way to do that.
Take any deck of cards. Set aside an entire weekend without responsibility, social interaction, or work. This may take some time to do, but I’ve managed to steal at least one weekend a month now, just to concentrate on my writing.
Once you have your weekend booked, find a loved one or a trusted friend and have them ‘deal’ you out 3 cards. I think you get the picture of where this is going. When you are dealt your cards, the number on the top corner is the number of pages you are required to write.
I ask you to get a loved one to deal them out for you, as they will do a good job at holding you accountable to see that you actually write them. If you get an “ACE” that counts as only one page. Jacks are 11, Queens are 12, and Kings are 13. Now, I’m not a heartless bastard, so if you get 3 Kings, my suggestion is to possibly add a rule that no 3 cards can be the same. If you want the challenge, then by all means, go for the gold! You could even vary it up, and use the symbols on each card to represent a certain scene or genre to write. Hearts could be romance or comedy. Spades could be labour or war orientated.
I find this an excellent challenge, and the point of all of this is to just get you writing. At the end of the day, make this your own. Draw one card a day if you wish. Just find the time to write.
Writer’s Tool #9: Cellphones, iPods, Etc!
If you remember the last writer’s tool about the “Gadget Free Day”, equally can be said for having a gadget on you at all times.
Some writers may tell you that getting a portable recording device is an integral tool to the craft. I say bull$*&%. If you have a cellphone, chances are you have two functions: Voice Recorder, and a Notepad.
I tend to use my notepad more often, but there are times when I’m out and I don’t have time to write anything quickly. I’ll just excuse myself into the bathroom or someplace private, record a few choice words into the recorder app, and BOOM. Instant notes.
I’ve outlined many plots this way. Most people have either a cellphone or ipod nowadays. Whether you have a Blackberry Playbook or iPad – or just a plain cellphone, why not utilize your morning commute to the fullest extent? Hell, I’ve even used my phone while sitting on the … well, I won’t go into details. But basically you can take notes virtually anywhere.
A lot of writers I know tend to forget, or under-utilize these functions. Sometimes it’s easy to remember to keep a grocery list, but forget notes about your characters. What I love most about my phone is that I have the option of just e-mailing lists or voicenotes to myself for later use.
Do I recommend texting your entire novel to someone? No.
Do I recommend tweeting your entire novel, or posting everything on facebook using your phone?- absolutely not. That’s annoying to everyone in social media platforms, and a great way to lose followers. Not to mention you’re inviting someone to steal everything you’re doing.
Do I recommend you use mobile technology to write down notes, and possibly write pages for yourself while you have a spare moment in your busy day? Abso-freakin-lutely.
If you’re always thinking about writing while on the go, this tool will help you start putting those instantaneous creative thoughts into practical application.
Writer’s Tool #10: Just ZIP IT!
Sometimes, writers need to learn to shut their mouths. I have a friend that enjoys blabbing about his ‘newest’ story all the time, but has he written anything? No. That’s because he’s too busy talking, and not busy writing.
Talking about your story while it’s still in the planning stage has to be one of the worst things you could do. Not only does this give your peers a false expectation of what the final product might look like, but you will find yourself sabotaging your own creativity by catering to their reactions. Sure, they might think your Inciting Incident is really cool, but what if you find out later that it doesn’t work for your story? What if the scene you pitched has a plot hole? Suddenly, your rewrites may negatively effect the opinions of those you’ve pitched to.
I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I pitched a story before I had anything written, and when that story changed, the people around me were very disappointed. I fell into a bout of writers block, because I was trying to cater to their initial reaction to something that would never work on paper.
This is a common mistake of many writers. Do yourselves a favour; learn from my mistake, and wait to reveal what you’re working on until you have a working treatment/first draft. You’ll save yourselves the guilt when people ask you: “So how about that story? Is it finished yet?” or “What ever happened to that dead-end alley scene? That was cool!”. With a first draft your close advisor can tell you what they didn’t like about it, and when you change it, you still have something that’s yours.
Don’t undermine your own efforts by pitching something you aren’t absolutely sure about. As a writer, you should exude confidence with potential publishers/producers. Your pitch should be a well oiled machine, assisted by your editors who actually have something to work off of, rather than their own expectations.
Writer’s Tool #11: Using a Timer
Lately, my motivation level has been comparable to that of an overworked donkey. Between working at the bookstore, working on a short film, preparing my house for retail showings, spending time with family, and the overall cluster-fuck known as Easter, the “I’ll write when I feel like it” mentality is all but a luxury for me right now.
When “life” starts to get in the way of my craft, I like to turn to my old friend Mr. Egg Timer. You can use any timer really, whether it be a timer on your phone, digital watch or bedside alarm. The point of using a timer is to keep yourself focused for short bursts of time.
When I set my timer for… oh, let’s say 60 minutes, I make a personal vow to myself that I’m not allowed to check my inbox, my cellphone, or any other distracting tech at my side. It’s 60 minutes focused for writing only, and the payoff is always fruitful.
It’s important to know that one hour of writing time every day (or every other day), is better than NO writing time at all. An important lesson of my young adulthood has been in learning to take responsibility for my own actions. No amount of excuse making will genuinely excuse the fact that I’m not writing. Using a timer is just one of those little things that helps keep me focused when life starts to get punishing.
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” – Robert Collier