A commercial fiction writer has to produce good material in a reliable, regular way. All three points must be met—good, reliable, regular—or a career is even more of an up-and-down ride than it would be otherwise.
What about those days when it feels like the brain is empty? When you feel you’re out of words, when the ideas are not flowing, when the internal critics sneer over everything you do manage to produce? We all have them.
My secret weapon on such days is timed writings. It is a very simple concept: set a timer, sit down, and write until the timer goes off. This should not be a long period of time—20 minutes is about right. You can can use a computer keyboard and screen, or a notebook. On days when the internal editor is especially nasty, I like to use a pen and paper. It short circuits the demand for perfection—I am freer to be messy with words, handwriting, ideas, and I don’t have to worry about the spell-checker underlining typos and misspellings; it is more difficult to rewrite; and I know, in the back of my mind, that I will write a second draft from that rough sketch so it really IS okay if it’s a big messy jumble.
One major rule: no rewriting. You move forward as fast as you can, making no judgments about what is emerging. The point is to leave the left-brain editors and critics on the sidelines and get to the creative centers, which is where ideas live. It’s a way to get around fear. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear that this book won’t be as good as your last or anywhere close to any good at all. You can use it to delve more deeply into a character’s motives or history or personality, explore the plot or something that might be bothering you about a plot, anything.
A few ways I’ve used timed writings: some years ago, I was stuck at a turning point in a medieval novel. The characters were to make a pilgrimage and I couldn’t seem to figure out what the heroine was feeling. I sat down at my dining room table, found a shawl to put around my shoulders so I would feel vaguely medieval, turned off the lights, and lit candles. Using pen and paper, I found myself writing, “I am sore afraid….” In the character’s voice, I could discover the depths of her fear and concerns in a way that was not possible if I’d been judging everything that came out of my keyboard.
Timed writings can also be a way to expand or explore new ideas. I’ve had a Sunday book (a side project) brewing for a couple of years. Between deadlines on my novels and teaching and traveling, there has been no time to work on it in big chunks. But it is fun material, and I find it refreshing creatively to work on projects that are not under contract. So once or twice a week, I settled in to a 20 minute timed writing on some scene or idea on the Sunday book. When I sat down to pull the pieces into order, I was astonished or realize I’d written nearly 40,000 words.
Often, I can find an idea for a column or a blog through a timed writing (as I did here…600 words in 25 minutes). It can help me get going when I’m just tired and don’t really feel like working—20 minutes can move me sufficiently into the book world that I’m immersed and happy to keep going. On really bad days, I’ve been known to write 20 timed writings over the course of a day. (Which can end up being quite a lot of work, all in all.)
Give it a try. Remember: keep it simple. Set a timer for 20 minutes, start writing, and don’t stop or edit until the timer goes off. See how it works for you.