7.20.2014

5 Ways to Help Build a Creative Routine

I read a great little article on Lit Reactor about how to build a writing routine, and I think it's definitely a topic worth addressing, because whether you're just starting out writing or if you're a pro, you may have trouble nailing down the reasons why some days you write like gangbusters and others you can't seem to force out more than a measly "the" before the shiny objects or the dreaded sandman pull you elsewhere.

Some of this can be attributed to lack of inspiration or being stuck in a plot dead end, but I know when I'm not feeling on the ball, it's because I did a poor job of preparing myself for the task. Like any other job we do in life, be it cooking, working out, going to our day jobs, or doing homework, a ritual or at least an acknowledgment of some necessary preparation is in order. I'm not the most routine oriented person I know. Sometimes I write a lot in the morning, other times I burn the midnight oil. If the story is in a particular hot spot, I tend to do both. But I have found that a certain set of parameters has to be put in place in order for me to work to an optimum level, and while it's going to be a little different for everyone, I think it's worth trying out these five basic things I'm about to lay down here. Most of my suggestions have to do with how you treat your body, and there is a good reason for that. A good body equals a good mind, and a good mind is a productive one. So let's go.

1. Get Plenty of Sleep

Because everyone looks like this when they sleep...
90% of the writers I know absolutely insist on the magical powers caffeine to help them write billions of words, and the association between writers and coffee is about as plain and common as the one between Colonel Sanders and fried chicken. But I guess I'm odd or something, because I don't require much if any caffeine in order to write. My coffee drinking seems to coincide with seasonal changes or other drastic shifts in routine that have my sleeping schedule in flux (see: summer vacation). On the days when I do feel like I need coffee, it's because I didn't get enough rest the night before. If I don't have my requisite seven hours a night, I feel dopey in the morning. Nothing gets done, let alone the writing. I used to love being up during the wee hours, but doing that and sleeping late to compensate for it just doesn't mesh well with the whole having a family and a couple pesky animals thing. So rather than depend on the caffeine high alone to motivate you to the keyboard, consider whether you're getting enough sleep, and if that sleep is good sleep (apnea and alcohol-free, for instance). I can guarantee that cleaning up the sleep routine even a little will give you a boost of brain power that no chemical stimulant will be able to match.

2. No Food

But only after you write
Oh look at me, recommending a starvation diet. I'm actually not doing that, but the Lit Reactor article mentioned how food can be a creativity killer, and I couldn't agree more. I've been on fasting-style diets and found that when my digestive system wasn't being taxed at all, I was in sort of a writer nirvana mode. Of course, I can't sustain myself for long on diets like that and I'm not saying you should start fasting or even that you should write while feeling physically hungry (because that's just as distracting). But you might consider not writing after you've just had a big meal, particularly one that is heavy on starches. You might be the exact opposite, but to me, writing on a full stomach is a lot like exercising on a full stomach. Both make me feel sluggish and wrong, and I never get very far. On a typical morning following a good night of sleep, I start the day with a very light snack (a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt, sometimes a smoothie). Then I'm ready to commence writing. I like to get a good chunk in before breaking for lunch, at which point I consider myself done until a couple hours after dinnertime. Or if you're going to incorporate a heavy meal into your day at some point, try to counterbalance it with some decent exercise. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Move Around, Dammit

Me in fifty years, before I start an important scene
I'm the least disciplined person I know when it comes to working out, but even making a little effort to move can mean a boost to the word count and to your overall sense of motivation, provided you don't overdo it. When I was swimming more than an hour a day a few years back, I wasn't writing much because I was doing more than my body was equipped to handle, and I didn't have anything left for the page. But if I don't exercise at all, I feel terrible and will often even fall asleep in mid-sentence. For the longest time, I was starting to wonder if I had an attention disorder of some sort, but I realized my body's engine was running worse than a mid-80s Chevy with flood damage due to a severe lack of activity. These days, I try to keep my swims to 45 minutes, no more than an hour. Any more than that, I become stiff and tired, and the whole concept of exercise works against me rather than with me. Either way, just take 45 minutes out of your day and do something. Even breaking it up in to chunks throughout the day is better than nothing. Getting up from your chair a couple times an hour to lift some free weights or do a few yoga positions or some good old-fashioned push-ups will make a world of difference.

4. Kill Your Distractions


Before they kill you...
The article was so right on about that, and I'm sure I've talked about this before, but you definitely have to find a way to deal with outside distractions, especially early on in your career when your confidence is probably shaky and you haven't proven yourself able to finish much of anything. Even if you can't get away from the internet, unplug your router. Or if that would make things too inconvenient for anyone else trying to use the internet in your house, there are programs that will disconnect the internet from your computer for a set amount of time (I particularly like Freedom). Consider a device for writing that has no internet connection, like pen and paper or an Alphasmart. Turn off your phone's ringer for an hour or so. Go in a room and shut the door or tell the people in your life that you are not available during certain hours of the day, that your writing IS a job and they should respect that. One thing that has become the most helpful to me is deactivating my Facebook account when I'm trying to get a new project up off the ground. Some people can handle their Facebook addiction better than others. Sadly, it's probably the largest timesuck in my online world, and checking it has become nothing short of compulsive. When I started my book Kudzu back in February, I decided the best thing I could do for myself and my state of mind was to deactivate Facebook for a month. And that wound up being the most productive and peaceful month I'd had in years. Five months later, I was signing a contract with my new agent for that very book. Hey, I know it won't always happen that way, but I'm just saying . . . there is a lot of good that comes from clearing the noise and clutter out of your head. Take a Facebreak. You'll be glad you did.

5. Make Sure You're Writing What You Want to Write


Maybe you want to try something else for a bit...
I hear from a lot of people who are just having a hell of a time finishing a story they started, or they've thought about it a long time and have plotted and researched a ton of stuff, but just can't seem to get it off the ground. We all hit bumps in the road with a project. In fact, without fail, I reach a major crisis of confidence in any project around the time I hit 30K words. That is usually when the honeymoon period wears off and it starts to feel a bit like a chore. Almost always, though, I forge my way through it and by the time I pass the 50K mark, things start to feel a little better again. Every project is plagued with those kinds of fits and starts, so I don't want anyone to think that having an off week means you shouldn't be working on your current WIP, but I think if the problem becomes pervasive enough that it's not any closer to being finished than it was two months ago, then it might be time to do a little soul searching and ask yourself if this is really what you want to be doing. It's a well-known wisdom that the most important part of being a writer (at least the kind whose goal is to sell books) isn't just writing, but finishing what you write. But there is a fine line between having a rough week and torturing yourself with a piece of work for months or even years on end. It's that kind of thing that tends to make people resentful of the craft and stifles inspiration and creativity. It's OKAY to start something else if it will inure your wounded spirit. It's okay to come back to the old project later, with a refreshed sense of purpose. Hell, it's also okay to not come back to it at all if you've found a project that has really captured your attention. Follow your bliss. Do the thing you can finish. It's easy to build a writing routine around something you don't resent.