Could I ask you for some advice on the writing process (in regards to books, not games)? I’m working on writing my own fantasy story, but it’s slow going due to a myriad of factors. I was just wondering if you have any tips on how to get the creative juices flowing, so to speak. As it stands, I write maybe a few paragraphs at most whenever I open up the documents, which isn’t often (time is not something I have a lot of to use, sadly).
Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I completely agree. Forcing myself to sit down and write, schooling myself to do that and only that and not the hundred other interesting things I could be doing (look! Tumblr!) is a chore. Sure, there’s a story I want to tell. It’s burning inside me and I want to see it take shape… it just kills me there’s this whole intermediary process required to get it from my brain into a form which other people can consume. There’s all that typing, and editing, and more editing, and… bah.
So I can commiserate when someone says they have trouble getting the creative juices flowing. That’s not always the case for me— sometimes the juices are flowing overtime, and it’s all I can do to keep up with where in the story my mind’s already raced… it’s mentally juggling around the climactic encounter at the end and I’m still writing that stupid exposition-laden part in the second chapter. Ugh.
A lot of times, however, the juices are at a standstill. I’d really rather be doing anything but writing. A hazard of doing it professionally, I guess, is that you need to write every day no matter how you feel. You learn to come up with coping mechanisms to keep things going.
First off, I’ll point out that everyone gets their creativity from somewhere different. I’ve always thought that should be obvious, but after talking to some folks I’ve come by the impression not everyone knows that… they think there’s a set process to creativity, to writing. What works for one successful writer should work for everyone, in their minds.
I’ve never found that to be the case. Some people require strict organization and planning. Some people are more stream-of-consciousness and couldn’t write under those circumstances— even if they wrote an outline they’d abandon it by the fifth page. Some people struggle to write action scenes. Others are bored by writing dialogue.
I think it’s all fair, so long as you find what works for you. I don’t know if it’ll help at all, but I can tell you what works for me.Establish a Quota
When I’m writing for a game, it’s a word count quota. When I’m writing a novel, it’s a page count quota. It doesn’t have to be large, and quite frankly the quotas I set for myself are low enough I couldn’t possibly just write that amount every day or I’d never finish on time (1000 words or 5 pages, if you’re nosy)… but the quota’s what I have to write before I’m allowed to stop. I know the quota going in, and I’ve agreed to it. Even if it’s an absolute struggle, I do it. If I absolutely cannot, then I have to add on what I missed to the next day’s quota.
I have a German upbringing, however, so guilt happens to be a great motivator for me. And discipline is its own attraction. Don’t ask.Don’t Expect Perfection
Very important when you’re writing to a quota: don’t expect everything to be perfection. I have too many writer friends who trip themselves up trying to make every page absolutely perfect before they move on. They go back and revise, hate what they’ve written and then revise some more, and then get depressed when they’ve done all that work and still have only written a small amount. Then they give up.
There’s a time and place for revision, and that comes after the first draft. Right now, you just need to write— even if it’s terrible. Putting words down is the only way you’ll defeat the blank page (or the blank screen). You may get several pages in before you’re suddenly struck by a brilliant idea and decide to go back and start over— and that’s fine. You still need to get those several pages out in order to reach that point, don’t you? Tell yourself that not every line is going to be perfect immediately, and that’s okay.Don’t Mix Worlds
Some people are better at this than others, but for me I need to establish a separation between my non-writing time and my writing time. I need a space which is my writing space, and that’s the only thing I do there. I can write on my PC at home, but the only way I can do it is by clearing everything off my desk— I just move all my personal stuff out of sight. Doing that tells my brain that it’s time to work. I need to trick it.
This is why I can’t play games on my PC at work, incidentally. But them’s the breaks. Since I don’t wear a suit and my office isn’t very office-like, I need a way to switch over into “work-mode”… it’s a trick that’s always worked for me, though I imagine others would need their own way of doing it.Rituals Are Your Friends
Yeah, some people might say rituals are a crutch. I don’t disagree. It’s a cheap tactic— but, the way I see it, you’re at war with your lazy brain. Switching over into “work-mode” isn’t always going to go far enough, so you need to get tricksy.
Me, I sit up. I adjust myself so I’m seated properly, back straight and feet planted. Arms on the rests. It’s unnatural for me, as I’m always hunched over my keyboard, but I do it whenever I’m about to write as it’s a nice little “kick” that tells me I’m about to get busy.
I also do a bunch of things online before I get started— I check my email, check the few websites I go to regularly, check the forums… I allow myself a set amount of time to do that (though that can get kiboshed if there are important emails to which I need to respond), but I need to do it. It’s a way of “clearing house”, making me feel like I’ve attended to all the things I need to so I can move on. I have to fight distraction, which is why I only allow myself a limited time, but it’s a ritual that tells my brain “okay, you’ve checked all your stuff… now get cracking.” I’m not allowed to go online again for at least an hour, and thankfully I’m often too engrossed by that point to do it anyhow.Getting Inspired
It occurs to me that the original question may be as much asking how I get inspired, as opposed to solely asking how I task myself to keep on target. If so, that’s a slightly harder question. Inspiration is difficult to manufacture. It’s something that everyone in my profession is trying to do, and often failing at, so if I had a sufficient answer for this I’d be much more successful.
I can give some advice, however, that I’ve given to some of my writers when they’ve hit a wall— they’ve been handed a plot or a character which doesn’t speak to them, or they’re trying to create a plot for which they just can’t think of anything interesting. They bang their heads against the problem, doing it by rote, and then realize it’s as banal as they feared. What do they do then?
My answer: “Find something
interesting in it.”
If they’re writing a character that’s not speaking to them, change it. If they’ve got a plot that seems boring, change it. Put something in there which makes it interesting, even if it’s a small thing. Give a character a quirk. Change their gender, or their outlook. Make them hate something intensely, or love something they can’t have. If it’s a plot, add a complication. Change the location, if you can. Make the plot-giver intriguing, or deceitful. It’s a double-cross… no, a triple-cross! (I did this when I wrote the Drow city in BG2.) Or mix it up! Start the plot in the middle of the action, or reverse the scene entirely. When I was stuck beginning The Calling, I actually cut the first chapter entirely— the book begins in what was originally Chapter 2, and while the cut was painful at the time, it worked. Just add one element that makes you smile, makes it more yours.
This doesn’t mean you need to re-write your entire outline, or throw out the entire concept for the plot/character. As professionals, we don’t often have that option anyhow. It means you play with it, shake it up a little. Quite often my writers get stuck in the mindset that they have to write what they’ve already come up with… I think this happens to other writers, too. They’re so committed to what they’ve already planned out that the idea of actually changing something becomes anathema. They’d rather stick to the plan than realize it’s the plan itself that’s boring them.
Another possibility is some brainstorming. When I’m stuck, I bounce an idea off of someone. I announce it to the rest of the Writers Pit, or I call up a friend who’s patient enough to let me explain my entire plot to her. Maybe the suggestions will spark something, or just the act of my speaking the story out loud will do it. It usually works, though not everyone’s going to have someone with whom they can brainstorm. That’s okay— most peoples’ ideas really suck anyhow, and they’ll never be better than your ideas. It’s just a way of making you engage with your story outside of your own head, to be honest, and sometimes that’s all you need.
If, after all that, you still can’t think of a single thing to change? A single thing that brings you joy as a writer, which makes your scene/character/project cool and something you want to do? Then you shouldn’t be writing, harsh as that may sound. You probably need to re-charge, go back to the well that inspired you to be a writer in the first place… whatever that is.
Don’t worry about it. It happens. Give yourself permission to fail, just like you give your first drafts permission to kind of suck. Try not to be so miserable your roommates threaten to smother you in your sleep should you ever write another novel (sorry, Cori). It’s okay to step back and regroup… so long as eventually you face that blank page again, take a breath, and just write.