Today we’re featuring long-time friend of MW Lauren “Scribe” Harris. Scribe is the co-creator and MC of the podcast Pendragon Variety, a audio literary magazine and round-table discussion podcast for aspiring writers of genre fiction. She has done voice acting for podcasts and is currently working on a number of titles through Audible.com’s Audiobook Creation Exchange program. She writes Lady Lauren’s Panacea, the fantasy review column for the Intergalactic Medicine Show and is the managing editor of Pendragon Variety Magazine, an ebook and audio literary magazine offshoot of Pendragon Variety. And now she has released her first ebook novella, Exorcising Aaron Nguyen, on Amazon. Welcome, Scribe!
The trouble with having a hobby (or a job) where one depends on one’s own discipline is that we will find any excuse not to do it. The trouble with that hobby being writing is that, for those of us who write on some sort of electronic device, distraction is close at hand. We often toss around the words “Butt in Chair” on Magical Words, but that’s honestly the easiest step of the process. I was sitting down to write this blog post and my butt was firmly in the chair. Still, I had a moment where I pulled up the blank document and immediately glanced to see if my coffee cup was full, and then to check if it was hot, or if I was hungry. Like I had to be completely comfortable before I could crank out words.
Of course, I don’t. When I was in college, I’d rush to the local coffee shop between classes to write, using my grocery money to buy $1.00 coffees and $0.50 refills until my hands were shaking and I was lightheaded with hunger. Even now, when I really get into the groove, nothing can distract me. My problem is getting started, getting away from the distractions, and battling cluttered thoughts that I’d rather just blot out by watching the next episode of Teen Wolf (shut up, it’s a good show).
Butt in chair is easy. The part that’s harder? Hands on keyboard; words on page.
HOKWOP sounds like a verb. To hokwop. Don’t talk to me, I’m hokwopping. I have finished hokwopping for the day and may now watch something with Tom Hiddleston in it. The Art of HOKWOP.
I don’t have a full-time job right now. I’m living at home with my parents, because I’m (very lucky and) trying to go professional. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also an extraordinary gift that I don’t want to waste. So I have to act like a professional. If you haven’t read the book THE WAR OF ART and the sequel TURNING PRO, then I give you permission not to HOKWOP for a few hours so you can read them. They’re excellent books with motivation and tough love for all creatives. I’ll list some further reading sources at the end, but make sure not to use these books about creativity as a method of procrastination. I’ve been guilty of that in the past. There’s no easy-button. You’ve got to do the work.
So, without further ado, here are eight techniques I use to HOKWOP.
FOR THOSE WITH CLUTTERED THOUGHTS
I. Clear your space.
I am not the neatest person ever, but I have learned that the state of my focus is often reflected in the state of my living-space. If you find your thoughts are too jumbled to work, look around. Is there dust? Is there clutter? Have you made your bed? Take a day, or even a few hours, and invest the time in organizing and cleaning your space. This is not only therapeutic, it also gives you ample time to think about your story. If you’re going to do it, though, do it. Don’t drag it out over several days–that’s procrastination. A wise Jedi Master once said, “There is no try.”
There’s something about cleaning that organizes the mind. Putting things in order and cleaning off the grime is literal, but it’s also symbolic. I’m always shocked how a little physical organization improves my clarity of thought, and how a clean desk improves my work-ethic.
II. Morning Pages/Brain Dump/Journal
I first did The Artist’s Way when I was in college, and it helped me to get back to my creativity baseline after some toxic writing classes and a rather toxic relationship convinced me I sucked at everything. One of the most useful components of this creative “unblocking” was something called Morning Pages.
These morning pages are little more than a three-page stream-of-consciousness journal where you whine and complain about everything that’s bothering you, plan what you’re going to wear or eat for dinner, and generally just unburden yourself first thing in the morning. I suck at mornings, but I loved morning pages. I still do them quite a bit and they really help me to start and focus my day.
I took the lesson a little further, though. I’m not a person with focused thoughts. I’m a foggy thinker and a daydreamer and always have been. I get distracted halfway through a sentence and have never been great at expressing myself out loud. Writing has always been a way to clarify my own thinking. I suspect other writers are often the same.
Whenever I run into a problem with a story, I pull out a notebook and journal about it stream of consciousness. I ask questions, I toss out ideas, and I go through what works and what doesn’t. This really helps me to articulate the problems I’m having and work toward a solution without getting distracted.
Speaking of distraction…
FOR THE EASILY DISTRACTED
III. Go somewhere.
Really. Get out of your space. There is such a thing as priming a space for a certain activity, and if you have primed your desk or bed or wherever you write for distracting activities, it means you’ve made a habit of it and your brain is going to be even more likely to want to check Facebook.
How many of you just opened a new tab (or thought about opening a new tab) to check Facebook?
Yeah. Power of suggestion.
Get out of your space. Go to a coffee shop. Go to the kitchen table.
IV. Write analog.
I’ve always written better longhand than on the computer. I don’t know why, I just do–there’s something about the process of writing in a notebook that helps immerse me in what I’m writing far better than a word processor. It may be for the same reason that I like reading physical books over ebooks (I know, that’s starting to be blasphemy these days). It also gives me the added bonus of being forced to reread and consider my words as I type them into the word processor. Like an enforced first-pass edit. But, like the rest of the world, I have increasingly used word processors for my rough draft.
The siren song of social media might as well be the dirge to my writing career, because nothing can tie my brain to the mast and plug my limbic system’s ears with wax.
The instant I think of that little blue bird or the book of face or the youtube or the BLOG READER, my fingers itch to check the tab. When I sit down at my computer, you know what I do without thinking? I open Google Chrome. Not Scrivener or Microsoft Word, but Google Chrome. And what’s right there? Links to Facebook, Hootsuite, Gmail, Youtube, my blog, Audible, and Netflix. Basically everything I use to waste time (I have banned myself from using tumblr and pinterest except on weekends, because holy mother of rabbit holes).
If you’re the same, divorce the digital. Write analog. Use a notebook and a pen. You may not get your thoughts out as fast as you think them and you may not be able to read your own handwriting, but guess what? Words on page! More WOP than if you’d been watching old Disney movies or pinning 87 things to do with mason jars…which you will probably never do anyway.
V. Find an accountability buddy.
This one’s tricky and potentially dangerous because it might bring up negative feelings with others or might tempt you onto some of the time-suck websites.
If you have a writing group, try setting up weekly goals and keeping each other accountable to them. If your writing group isn’t terribly active, or is more like a “wannabe writing, actually playing World of Warcraft” group, it might be easier to look to other sources to keep you accountable. A word of caution: when dealing with struggling creatives, the potential for negativity is great. Be cautious of how you hold someone else accountable, or who you ask to be your partner. Some people say they want to be held accountable, but get defensive and surly when they don’t do the work. This not only takes the wind out of the sails of competition, it makes everyone feel bad.
Which is why I like competing with strangers.
NaNoWriMo is a great way to be both accountable and motivated, but it’s only one month per year (well, there’s Camp NaNo, but that hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same success). My favorite consistent source is Twitter.
Scroll through the #writing and #amwriting hashtags and see if you can find someone who also wants an accountability buddy. Do a writing sprint together, like it’s a mini NaNoWriMo. Another hashtag to utilize is #1k1hour, which is a hashtag where writers challenge each other to write 1000 words in 1 hour. It’s tough, but fun, and is a really great way to get started. Have a 1.5k goal for your day? Two sessions of #1k1hour will help you out.
FOR THOSE WITH TROUBLE GETTING STARTED
VI. Make a schedule
I’m a big fan of schedules. Largely, this is because I’m disorganized and can never stick to them, but like to have a map to keep me accountable and aware of what needs to be done. As long as I have a schedule, I will always get something done, even if it’s not as much as I’d hoped.
Having a schedule is really important because it’s what will teach you to get started.
“But I’m a Perceiving type, not a Judging type! I can’t force my muse to inspire me on a schedule.”
First of all, dragon poo. Second of all, yes. You can, and even if you can’t, you can press your butt to the chair and write some crap until she straggles in with hangover shades and rhinestone flip-flops to spritz you with inspiration. The point is to have the habit. Think of it like a stage. If the lights are on and curtain drawn, the muse will show up like the Broadway starlet she is and invite the audience to moo. If the lights are off and there’s no one in the seats, she’s not going to break down the door. At least, not often enough for her to have a career.
VII. Establish a trigger
A trigger, in the lingo of productivity gurus, is an action you take that impels you to work. Some writers sharpen pencils, others open a blank page, others do yoga. Part of establishing a habit is establishing a trigger for that habit.
At the moment, when I sit down at my computer to write, my habit is to click on Google Chrome. This begins a series of events that leads to a low-productivity morning, until guilt eventually drags me away from the internet and shoves me lead-footed onto the page. I’m currently in the process of breaking that habit and establishing a routine that includes a new trigger, which will get me writing.
First, I have to break the old habit of surfing the net in the mornings. My trigger for that is the automatic desire to open Google Chrome when I open my computer. It’s muscle memory at this point–I hardly notice I’m doing it until it’s done. While I’m breaking this habit, I’m trying to establish a new one, which is opening the document for my work-in-progress.
To remind myself of that trigger, I’ve established a schedule (see VI) where I wake up, do morning pages, go for a walk, eat breakfast, do some yoga, and sit down to write. I recognize that everyone doesn’t have the luxury of such an open morning. I’m getting up at 6:30 to do this, and I start writing at 9:00 – I have alarms set for each. When I was in college, or working, my trigger was often sitting down at a coffee shop, taking a sip, taking a deep breath, and opening my notebook.
Figure out the triggers for your negative habits, then find or establish a positive trigger. I’ll be updating folks with my habit progress on my own blog, if you care to join me.
VIII. Set a timer
When I first quit my job, I did a 13-day productivity makeover self-help book because I didn’t want to waste my valuable unemployment time by loafing around, feeling sorry for myself, and watching the six episodes of Sherlock as an endless loop. This was where I learned about goal-setting and schedule-making and keeping track of my own time, but it was after resetting my own brain to want a more productive lifestyle that I actually found something that worked for me like nothing else.
The Pomodoro Technique. Named after the pomodoro tomato timers, the technique is simple: you write out your to-do list in order of importance, set a timer for 25 minutes, and as soon as the timer starts ticking, you start working. After 25 minutes, you take a 5-7 minute break, and set the timer again. You do this for 3-4 sets of 25-minutes or until the task is finished. After the task is finished, or you’ve done four “pomodoros”, you take a 15-minute break, then move on to the next item on the list.
Confession: I’ve never been able to do more than 6 pomodoros in a day, but the great thing about the timer is that it gets you started. It tricks your brain into starting a task it deems daunting with the promise that you only have to work on it for 25 minutes. Usually, I stop using the timer because I either haven’t noticed it go off because I’m too absorbed, or because I’ve…ahem…gotten distracted on one of my breaks.
Still, using a timer–one that ticks audibly–is a powerful motivation for starting. That might be a great trigger if you’re the competitive or pressure-oriented type of worker.
None of these techniques is going to work without motivation. You have to put in the work, and to put in the work, you have to love it. I’m not talking about the kind of motivation that should really be called “comfort” or “encouragement”. I’m talking about motivation as energy, motivation as that explosive force of passion that powers us toward the keyboard in the first place. The tools above are tools you can use to direct that energy rather than ignoring or diverting it, as we so often do, to lesser channels.
Happy productivity, compatriots of the pen. I wish you much HOKWOP.