I like time off as much as the next writer. In fact, when I take vacations, I try to leave my laptop at home wherever possible so there is no option to write a chapter. But time has taught me that walking away from the computer—or pen and paper—can be a dangerous thing if I don’t give myself a deadline to return. Because while it feels like I’m recharging mentally, I start to lose some of my facility with words after a couple of weeks. And I shudder to think what would happen if I stopped writing for longer than that. I took a long break after school before I set to work on my first novel and trust me-there was some serious dumbing down that took place in that time!
For awhile I thought maybe that was just because I was out of school and not talking about books and writing on a regular basis. But eventually I realized it didn’t have anything to do with a lack of classroom experience and everything to do with NOT writing. Your writing talent is a muscle. Flex it regularly and shape it with exercise and your words flow faster, smoother and sound all the sweeter in the ear. But if you quit using the muscle, it turns to flab in no time.
Writing frequently doesn’t have to be a chore. Mix it up by writing in a journal or keeping morning pages (have you read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way on this topic?). You can write about your observations during the day or you can spout about your daily frustrations and joys. Topics like this keep you actively writing without having to expend a lot of effort on “what comes next” the way you need to when writing a book. There’s nothing stylized about keeping a journal. You simply write what comes to mind. This act of writing will improve all the rest of your writing by giving you a simple, focused outlet to practice your craft.
To give yourself a challenge or to flex another writerly muscle group, try writing a page of description in your journal one day. Take a common room and write about it from the perspective of a stranger or one of your kids. See the details through new eyes and explore the room with the five senses. Exercises like this fine tune your sense of detail and help you to cultivate your descriptive skills.
Extend this challenge by writing about a wider variety of subject matter. The Internet overflows with websites that give journal prompts. Just Google the phrase journal prompts or writing prompts and see what comes up. You might describe your bedroom as a child or write about your first day of junior high. You could describe one of your favorite people or rewrite a moment in your past you wish you could change. This kind of exercise keeps you engaged in regular writing and varies your routine.
Beyond the buff new writer muscles you’ll build with this exercise, you’ll also gain invaluable insights on your creative process. If you wrote at a variety of times of day, think about which times were most successful. Are you a better morning writer than afternoon writer? Do you need to wait until after dinner to even think about writing? The more you understand your process the better you can take advantage of your best creative times and – just as importantly-you can avoid sitting at your computer during those times of day where your thoughts are sludge. If you know you can write three pages in an hour in the morning when you are fresh, you’ll never want to waste two hours in the afternoon to get those same three pages because you keep drifting off over the keyboard.
Do you need a routine in place to write? While some people can plunk down anywhere and start typing away, most of us need to indulge in a small amount of stage setting. For example, I like to have my desk cleaned off, my phone at my side, the door shut and instrumental music playing as I work. Chopin is great, but I need something darker for my medieval books. Does noise bother you while you work or do you like a multimedia blare to fuel your pen? Everything you learn about your creative preferences is pure gold to the working writer.
While journaling can be a fun way to build your writing skills without the pressure of adding to your work in progress, you can also use your journal pages as a place to brainstorm your next book. Have you ever tried writing a note to yourself about your story when you don’t know where to go next? A journal is a super place to work out story problems or test scene ideas. Use your journal to brainstorm ten scene ideas or try coming up with ten random opening lines for stories you haven’t even imagined yet. There’s something exciting about coming up with “just” an intriguing opening line. It’s a creative exercise, and a great line just might inspire its own book!
You can also try writing a scene out of context as a journal exercise. Turn off your internal editor and write a high-powered action scene out of sequence. Does the act of disconnecting it from your story ramp up the tension or allow you to think about the sheer impact of the scene without worrying about character motivations and over-arching conflicts? Even if this activity feels painful to you, try it once just to see what happens. Sometimes the most challenging of professional experiences can bring out our most supercharged work.
Writing requires tremendous discipline and the sooner you figure out how to motivate yourself, the more successful you’ll be. By setting small page goals with a writing journal you can develop a good habit of writing while discovering a lot about your creative self in the process. Remember that the point of the journal isn’t to be brilliant. Your goal is simply to write. Write for fun, write to learn. But mostly, just start writing. You’ll be surprised how fast the exercises pay off in discipline gained and creativity awakened.
Joanne Rock frequently analyzes her work process in the hope of finding ways to streamline, tweak or sometimes completely overhaul her approach to writing. She is the author of over thirty books from sexy contemps to medieval historicals.