5 Ways to Start Writing Right Now

There’s this thing we do when we have to take out the trash, scrub the bathtub, or visit the in-laws.

  • “Right after this nap.”
  • “Right after the game ends.”
  • “Right after I hit 110 on this World of Warcraft toon.” (Currently sitting at level 1.)

It’s called procrastinate, and for good reason. No one wants to do chores because we don’t get anything out of them. (Unless you count a fresher smelling kitchen.) That’s why the allure of video games isn’t surprising: you kill something, you get a reward.

So why do we still procrastinate when it comes to something we want to do–like write?

I mean, we don’t hem and haw over whether to eat a cupcake or not.

  • “Nah, I think I’ll eat it next week.”
  • “Maybe after I eat this huge salad.”
  • “I have to go work out first.” (Said no one ever in the face of cake.)

chocolate-cupcake-1014635_640

You do want to write, right? You do dream of sitting in your pajamas every day, writing for hours, chain-smoking and drinking scotch, right? Being a best-selling author, going on whirlwind book tours, speaking at international writing conferences, and being nominated for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, right?

The problem with writing is, we’re not getting a sugar rush or anything else for that matter after putting in the time. Sure, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re getting a reward by actually giving yourself something when you’re done (a cupcake perhaps?), but that’s going to be costly both for your pocketbook and your waistline if that’s your only source of motivation.

What can you do instead? So glad you asked. Here are five ways to start (and keep) writing that don’t involve rewards.

1. Face your fears

You may think you’re not writing as much as you’d like (or at all) because you don’t have time:

  • “I have to take the trash out.”
  • “I have to scrub the bathtub this very second.”
  • “I have to visit the in-laws this weekend.”

Or you don’t have a dedicated space:

  • “I’d be able to write if I had an 18th century escritoire.”
  • “I need to buy some post-it notes first.”
  • “The kids will bother me more if I close the door.”

You may even think you need more time to let your ideas percolate before committing them to paper.

If you find yourself coming up with excuses as to why you don’t write, it’s because deep down you have some fear of the outcome. It could be fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of never having another creative idea, fear of missing out on something else, fear everyone will know you’re a fraud, fear you’ll be letting your family down, fear everyone will think you’re awesome, fear people will demand more from you, fear of overwhelming success.

Whatever it is, the only way you’re going to get over it is by acknowledging it.

facing fears

Get yourself a journal (or any other notebook, napkin, junk mail envelope because that is not an excuse to not do this exercise) and write about why you’re not writing. Go ahead, start with all your excuses. Take your time. Come back to this exercise as often as you like. This process will suck and make you feel worse, but you have to do it. It’s like an infection festering deep inside that once it finally bursts through the skin like a big, fat pimple, it hurts like hell for a while. Then you slap some cream on it and wait while it heals.

I guarantee once you find the real reason behind why you’re not writing, you can overcome it.

(Hey look, you just wrote something!)

2. Once more with feeling

Now that you’ve cleared away those excuses and named your fears, it’s time to stop feeling bad about them. If you procrastinate instead of writing because you fear rejection, then what would it feel like to be accepted? Who do you want to feel acceptance from–your parents, a publishing company, your classmates at a high school reunion, a bookstore full of fans lining up to buy the fourth installment in your highly acclaimed detective series?

Whether you want to feel accomplished, light, energized, successful, or something completely different, meditate on it. Feel it. In your soul. Sit with your eyes closed and be in that moment. See yourself typing your last words of the day and hitting “Save.” You stretch back and feel __________.

happy writing

What you’re doing right now is setting yourself up for success. You’re programming your mind and body to replicate those feelings every time you write. Trust me, it will be a much more enjoyable experience than the usual self-flagellation you would normally inflict because your subconscious used to associate writing with fear.

Practice how you want writing to feel every day. Before getting out of bed, before going to bed, before writing, or whenever you get a chance. Connect with it, and soon your subconscious will associate the new feeling with writing instead.

3. Be your own cheerleader

You should be feeling pretty psyched up to write by now. Further this excitement (or cement it in place) by telling yourself how excited you are to go home and write. I know you talk to yourself out loud anyway, and I bet most of what you say is pretty negative.

  • “I can’t believe I just said that. I’m so stupid.”
  • “What was I thinking eating that cupcake?”
  • “I just wasted my whole weekend binge-watching Sherlock instead of writingI’m such a loser.” (But really, who could blame you on that one?)

Let’s turn that around by using the power of crazy talk to inspire yourself.

cheerleader

Keep telling yourself, all day, every day, how excited you are to write and pretty soon you’ll be believing it. Now watch as the first thing you pick up when you get home is your laptop (much to the delight of your cat if she’s anything like mine).

4. Spare no details

Once you’ve identified how you want to feel, write about it.

Grab your journal or the back of your kid’s math homework (because who needs math when you’re a best-selling author?) and write out how you envision your perfect writing life. You can start with the moment your eyes open or the moment your butt hits the chair at your 18th century escritoire. You could be well into your millions or be about to accept an offer on a four-book deal. Spare no details.

Where do you live? What does your work space look like? Who is with you (no one? lucky you!)? How long do you write for? What are you writing? What do you do before you write? What do you do when you’re done? Do you drink a pot of tea and eat gingerbread scones while writing? What do they taste like? Are birds singing, is music playing, can you hear the winds howling around the eaves? How do you feel while you’re writing?

home office

Use as much sensory detail as possible. And most importantly, use the feelings you identified in #2 as often as possible. Take as much time as you need for this exercise. Go back to it over the course of several days or whenever you have time, adding more and more detail.

This doesn’t have to be polished or perfect. You do not have to be poetic. No one is ever going to read this but you. But it must move you and it must call up your feeling du jour.

Now, every day for as long as it takes (days, weeks, months, years), reread what you wrote and reconnect to that feeling.

Alternatively, you can do this exercise as many times as you want, rewriting your perfect day of writing so you are in your  dream space or your current digs, your ideal situation or your chaotic life.

(See what I did there? I just got you to write and you liked it.)

5. Write for low stakes

If you’re just starting to get into the writing game or you’re trying to build a habit, don’t crush it with some lofty goal like writing a novel every agent will fight over that will make you a million dollars so you’ll never have to work that boring desk job again.

Instead, find something you like to write for fun. Maybe it’s working on #4 above, maybe it’s using writing prompts. Maybe it’s writing World of Warcraft serial fan-fiction starring your own character. Whatever you choose, it should be something you do for yourself. It doesn’t mean no one else will never read it, but you aren’t placing any unreal expectations on it either. If you never shop that short story around, it won’t be the end of the world.

success

When I searched for images labeled “success,” this is what I got. This is what you should aspire to when just starting out. Be zany. Be creative. Be wild. Have fun.

That doesn’t mean you can never aspire to finish your novel. It means, you should wait until your subconscious associates writing with having fun and feeling (fill in the blank) and your habit becomes automatic and something you look forward to. Again, this could take days, weeks, months, years.

If you’ve followed along with these (very helpful) suggestions, you’ve probably noticed you got some writing done too. Yay you!

You didn’t procrastinate, it didn’t kill you, and your fears never actualized. I call that success.

If this post helped you in any way, drop me a comment. I’d love to hear about all your amazing success stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday Inspiration: Neil Gaiman

Working on stories was something I did for fun. I didn’t have any grandiose aspirations of becoming published or being a best selling author. (Well, I did, but those were dreams I never thought would actually come true.) I just loved to create characters and send them on exciting and often dangerous adventures. I particularly remember feeling excitement and joy at the prospect of working on my stories during the summers when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree because I worked full time and went to school full time, which didn’t leave time for anything else.

Somewhere along the way though, specifically after graduating from my MFA program, I lost that feeling of excitement and joy to write. I had adopted the mindset that my writing had to perfect, it had to be “of publishible quality” (like they taught in grad school or you wouldn’t pass). I believed my writing had to be perfect not just after months and months of revisions but on first drafts too. After all, I’d been on a schedule of both revising 30 pages and writing 30 new pages every 30 days for two years, which was a ridiculous schedule and did not lead to writing “of publishible quality.” I’d effectively lost my joy.

That mindset of perfection and never being able to achieve it eventually warped into thinking and feeling that writing was hard and laborous and torturous and something to be avoided at all costs (to, you know, wash the dishes or clean the litter box). Of course, not writing just perpetuated feelings of guilt and shame (especially when my mother asked me if I was working on anything) because that was all I knew how to do, that’s all I really wanted to do, and I had let my higher or my younger self down.

I needed to get back to that feeling of excitement and joy, and it needed to start with accepting that first drafts are not meant to be perfect.

Say it with me, kids, “First drafts shouldn’t be perfect.”

The belief that writing was fun and easy naturally followed, and guess what? It is.

I actually look forward to my days off now when I can sit down with my novel and play. My writing hasn’t changed (it still takes me hours to write a scene), but my mindset about it has. And that has made all the difference.

So I invite you to honor your higher self or your younger self who used to get excited to write and felt joy while doing it–not because she was trying to get published or land an agent but because it was fun and that’s what she did.

You are on the cusp of change and your brilliant future awaits. Get excited and get inspired for it by watching Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.

Now go out there and “Make Good Art.”

 

 

A Word About Antagonists

No matter what you call them–antagonists, bad guys, villains, opponents–they always get a bad rap like 7th grade bullies.

Who's the real bully?

Who’s the real bully here?

It only seems natural that we think of antagonists as evil because they make it increasingly difficult for our main characters to reach their goals. And because we love our main characters and want to protect them and watch them succeed, we make sure we create antagonists our readers will hate.

But antagonists don’t have to be evil, and we shouldn’t always think of them so one-dimensionally.

Regardless of whether it is your protagonist or antagonist, all characters are motivated by something. All characters have a distinct and specific internal need that drives them, however subconsciously, toward their goals.

Antagonists are no different, though usually they are motivated by ignoble desires like greed, lust, power, and revenge. But if we truly look at what causes those characters to embrace their dark side, we’ll see some sort of tragic event in their backstory. Perhaps they were subjected to neglect or abuse, witnessed corruption or violence, were bullied or humiliated. Enslaved even.

We aren't born bad.

Antagonists aren’t born bad.

These are all events that could have happened to our main characters too. And in either case the internal need for each type of character is the same: the need to be protected or to protect, the need to be loved or to love, to be accepted, to be recognized, to face fear, to just be happy.

Unfortunately, while our protagonists take a more worthy approach to fulfilling these needs (saving the world, kittens, old people), our antagonists take a slightly different, selfish path to reach them.

So when dreaming up your antagonist, try to sketch him as a complex, multi-layered character and not just a vehicle to make your protagonist’s life hell. Ask yourself what he is motivated by and what need he is trying to fulfill. For instance, a teenager living in the ghetto whose father always told him he’d amount to nothing may choose to join a gang and prove he is worthy of his father’s respect. Not evil (though he may do evil things), just a bad choice in how he goes about proving it. Another kid with the same history may choose to further his education, become a lawyer (much more evil), and move away. The same need, a different, more moral (cough) response.

Which brings me to another bit of advice. There are two different reasons your antagonist and protagonist will clash.

First, your antagonist may want the exact same goal as your main character. For instance, two men fighting over the same girl (if only).

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

Obviously, they will both do things to stop the other from getting her. Your protagonist will choose more righteous actions while your antagonist will generally be a douchebag. Is the latter evil though? He may be, but he may also be your main character’s best friend. What makes it wrong for one man to fall in love with that girl and not wrong for the other? Both inherently need to feel loved, though one may be motivated by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or jealousy.

Secondly, your antagonist and protagonist’s goals may be mutually exclusive. That is, one may not want the other to reach it. For instance, the Nazis wanted the Ark of the Covenant for power. Indy didn’t want them to get it.

Now this is a villain.

Now this is a villain.

Did either achieve their goal? Technically, yes, but not in the way they had imagined. And that’s okay if the goal doesn’t turn out the way your characters think or want, if the ark ends up in some military warehouse where another power-hungry leader can get to it. At least your main character saved the day for now. Not for reasons of power or greed or lust. For humanity.

And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the difference between protagonists and antagonists. It’s not that their needs or goals are necessarily different; it’s that the antagonist, growing up jaded and cynical, is motivated by selfish reasons and makes bad choices.