Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How Do You Write So Much?

"How do you write so much?"  I get asked this question a lot.  Personally, I don't think I write enough.  But folks keep asking me so I'll give a shot at answering.  Until recently, I had a full-time IT job and wrote on the side.  I had (and still have) all the other demands on my time: a wife and kids, a house, and hobbies.  But I still managed to write.  I've written around thirty projects to various stages over the past fourteen years, mostly screenplays and children's books.  That doesn't seem like a lot to me - two projects a year to some degree of completion.  But people were still mystified that I could produce anything.  "How do you write so much?"  What they really wanted to know was some secret, some "trick" to being able to write.  As if there's some Nintendo cheat code or software program you could use to unlock magical writing ability.  There's no magic to it.  It's like any of those other self-improvement questions where you know the answer but hope there's another way.  Sorry, buddy, it's diet and exercise.  Or in the case of writing, it's this:

That's my office chair.  I got it at IKEA many years ago and have worn it down by sitting in it and writing.  The padding has worn out so much that my legs get a bit numb after a writing session.  The Germans call it "sitzfleisch" (sit + flesh) - the ability to persist or endure in a task.  AKA "butt to chair."  It's the same thing as Malcolm Gladwell's ten thousand hours or Dan Coyle's deliberate practice - the ability to persevere in building your ability through repetition and discipline.  Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) always talks about sitzfleisch.  Writing is like a muscle, in that it needs to be regularly exercised to be strong.  So sit until you write something.  Then do it again the next day.

I write whenever I can snatch a free moment.  The main time I write is in the evening.  I tuck the kids in, tell my wife not to bother me for an hour, put on my headphones, and I write.  I don't watch TV or play Xbox or anything else until after I get in that one hour a day.  Like you, I'm tired from work and the commute and the dozen things around my house that need fixing.  But I sit in that chair any way.  And I find I usually enjoy myself once I get started.  For bigger things like breaking a story I usually need more than an hour so I'll do those on the weekend when I can get at least two straight hours free.  My wife is wonderful in that she'll take the kids to some event nearly every weekend to give me some precious writing time.

Mind you, I don't only write in the aforementioned chair.  I write wherever I can.  I've written on planes, trains, cars (while my wife's driving), couches, beds (while sick), coffee shops, libraries, hammocks, bars, BBQ joints, work offices, cafeterias, etc.  I use a laptop and headphones to write - that gives me portability and noise cancellation.  I write to music (usually themed to the project I'm working on).  That does two things: focuses me and cues my brain that it's time to write.

"I wish I could write," you say.  "I don't have time.  Commuting eats up my day."  I've commuted two hours a day for several years - I use the time to think about story, record Voice Memos into my iPhone, or listen to writing podcasts.  Mostly I use the commute for working out story ideas in my head or education about the craft.

Writing isn't hard.  Starting to write is hard.  When you're actually already writing and it's flowing, it feels pretty fantastic.  If I know any tricks, it's ways to fool myself into starting to write.  Here are a select few items from my Writer's Bag O' Tricks:

Trick #1: The main reason I write in Movie Magic Screenwriter (even my books) is because it has an inline notes feature.  I prototype my scenes there and know that my notes will never show up on the printed page/.pdf so it doesn't feel like "real" writing.  That means by the time I put it on the script page I've already written a few drafts as notes.  Then the process of writing the script pages is more like transcribing my notes into a different format.  That reduces the pressure.

Trick #2: Another trick I use is to tell myself that I can always fix it later.  I save multiple copies of every file I'm working on before I change it - it's a psychological tactic to tell myself I can always go back to an old version if I don't like what I write.  Psst: I never go back.

Trick #3: Lately I tell myself I'll only write for five minutes because that feels super easy.  Of course I never write for only five minutes.  Once I get started it's fun and I don't want to stop.  But I still have to tell myself I'll only do it for five minutes.  Honestly, if you only write for five minutes a day you'll produce a lot more work than someone who writes for zero minutes a day.

Trick #4: Another trick I'll use is to put on my headphones and start my writing music before I'm ready to write - the Pavlovian response kicks in and as soon as I hear the opening bars of my playlist I have to write.  So I trick myself by saying I'll just listen to the music.

Trick# 5: Never start from zero.  I'll usually begin by reviewing notes I left myself from the night before.  Then I'm always working off of something rather than having to invent from a vacuum/blank page.  At the end of my writing session, I leave at least one writing task to start with the next day.  It's a nice small thing to start with that will get the gears rolling and carry me into the rest of my writing.  Even just reviewing notes or outlines is a great way to spark ideas and automatically trigger yourself to write.

Using all of the above tricks, I've managed to fill these four boxes with my writing:

That's fourteen years of writing.  I know, it should be more boxes.  I don't write as much as I should.  But at least I write.  I fill some boxes.  And if you fill enough boxes with drafts and half-started projects and finished scripts, you end up with boxes like this:

Boxes full of your books that people buy and read and love.  So sit in your chair and fill a box.  Then do it again.  Then some day people will ask you, "how do you write so much?"