This was an article I originally wrote for a writing blog by my friend Kitty Bucholtz called Routines for Writers. Lots of useful stuff over there — check it out!
I’m a stay-at-home mom of two active kids, ages 8 and 3, and I wrote four screenplays in the last year — three for hire and one on spec with a writing partner. So it stands to reason that the most common question I get asked about my writing is “How do you get it all done?”
The asker is usually someone without kids, maybe single, often unemployed, and in my head I think, “With all that time, how do you not get it all done?” You are not waking up to a three-year-old sitting on your head, racing to get everyone to school like a NASA shuttle lift-off, running home to cram some writing in before hustling back to preschool pick-up, Brownies and pep squad.
You people that sit down with your cup of coffee and drink it all before it gets cold… I envy you. But I think I’ve also figured out your fatal flaw and developed an immunity it. I’ll share the secret with you.
I used to think the number one problem with writers who couldn’t finish a script or a novel was sheer laziness – lack of discipline. That might be true. But if laziness is number one, then the number two killer of a writing project is INDECISION.
I’m in two writer’s groups (I’m starting to sound like I’m operating on Adderall…) and I’ve seen it many times. A terrific idea and a brilliant writer gets waylaid and discouraged by too many options. What if the hero was an accountant? Would an insurance salesman be better? A statistician? What if he had three kids instead of two? Pet dog or cat? Chinchilla?
The joy of writing is that you have an infinite number of options in your toolkit. But options can also be rabbit trails. The more you explore the rabbit trails, terrified that somewhere out there is a better option than the one you have now, the further you will stray from what inspired you about your story in the first place. And when you finally make it back to the actual writing, you’re exhausted and burned out on your story. That exciting idea now feels like a chore.
So how do you avoid the rabbit trails and just “git ‘er done”? (Quoting a beloved hero in our household, Tow Mater.) First, you have to trust your instincts and inspirations as a writer. You have opinions and a clear point of view – that’s your voice as a writer. Don’t second-guess your instincts because “the market,” or one editor or agent, or your spouse thinks you should change the best friend character to a talking pony. You know your story and what belongs in it better than anyone.
Second, work out some habits for stopping indecision in its tracks. Here are a few methods I’ve adopted that keep me writing decisively (and quickly!):
- Set aside separate times for brainstorming and for actual writing. During writing time, keep writing. Don’t waste precious moments staring into space. When I stare off, moments later I am wandering to the kitchen for chocolate chip cookies. (See below for what to do if you get stuck.)
- Write from an outline. Never sit down just to see what happens if you start typing. Know where you’re going — beginning, middle and end.
- Give yourself a daily assignment from the outline. On most days I have 3 hours or less to write, so I choose one thing to accomplish for that day. A scene or sequence. Something specific and achievable.
- Don’t run from “clichés.” I used to spend endless amounts of time mulling over ways to reinvent characters and plot turns I suspected to be clichés. Then feedback would send me right back to something “tried and true.” Clichés may be tired, but archetypes are extremely useful (and universal). So don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel (see that cliché?), just build a wheel that fits your particular story.
- Bookmark it. Sometimes I still get stuck. Because I have an outline, I know what’s supposed to happen next, but I don’t know how to write it. Yikes! Indecision! Instead of staring and cookie hunting, I put in a bookmark. “Training montage goes here.” I make that an assignment for another day, and I move on to the next thing I’m supposed to write.
- Plan tomorrow’s assignment. At the end of my writing time for the day, I decide what tomorrow’s work will be, so that my brain can subconsciously incubate on that assignment until I sit down at the computer again. While I’m driving to school, unloading the dishwasher, or taking a shower (my most inventive time of day), the inspiration will hit or the answer will come. And then, when it’s time, I’m ready to sit down and write it.
A good writer is a good decision maker – deciding the who, what, where of the story, as well as deciding how that story should be told. Ultimately, the key is focus. Staying focused on the basics of the story that inspired you, and not getting lost in the options that are not that story. Staying focused on the task of writing, no matter how small a window of time you have. Staying away from the chocolate chip cookies…