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Dear Story Nurse,
I almost always work in short little bursts of a few minutes. Even when I clear out my schedule and sit down to have a long writing session I get the most done if I work in bursts on a few different works at a time. And, I also tend to have a lot of little 2–5 minute breaks in my day while I’m between tasks at work, or waiting for things. I’ve been frustrated with my lack of writing time lately, so it seemed totally natural that the obvious solution would be to try and write during the breaks I usually waste on the internet.
And for some reason I can’t.
My attempts at writing during my downtime currently just involve me staring blankly at an open document for a few minutes and giving up.
On the rare occasion I can get started in a timely manner I can write a little segment of text then go back to work and it feels really good, but getting started as soon as I open the document is REALLY HARD.
The type of writing I do doesn’t seem to make any difference; it’s equally difficult for fanfic, original fiction, and work-related science writing.
How do I stop needing a ritual 15-minute staring session before I start writing?
Dendritic Trees (she/her)
Dear Dendritic Trees,
Thanks for writing in again—I love answering your letters! (And if any past letter writers are wondering, yes, you’re always welcome to send me another question.) I appreciate that this time you gave me a nice easy question to answer. The answer is: you can’t.
Every writer has a different process. Your process appears to require you to idle your brain for a bit before getting it in gear. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that it’s inconvenient to you given your other constraints at the moment. Alas, sometimes creative work is inconvenient.
I totally understand you thinking that “do work, write for five minutes, go back to work” is the same as “sit down, write for five minutes at a time on a bunch of different things for a few hours, get up” but it really isn’t. You’re discounting the crucial transition from the work or everyday life mindset to the writing mindset. That transition takes time (apparently for you it takes about 15 minutes) and is very difficult to rush or skip.
In my experience, a lot of the transition time between not writing and writing is spent getting your intuitive, creative side and your intellectual, designing side (or your conscious and subconscious or left brain and right brain or whatever metaphor you like) to work together, like getting two high-spirited horses to draw a carriage. If you simply don’t have time to do that, here are some writing-related things that mostly rely on one type of thinking or the other.
- Doodle. Free-associate. Let your intuition run wild. You can try to do this with relation to a particular plot or character issue, or just meander. Maybe you’ll come up with the ideas for your next six stories. Maybe you’ll get a page full of meaningless scribbles. Both those outcomes are fine.
- Make a list of title ideas.
- Come up with some questions about your story or characters that you can’t immediately answer. “Why” questions are particularly good. These two nations are at war when the book starts—why? Lisa has an inordinate fondness for milkshakes—why? Don’t try to answer the questions for now; just ask them.
- Come up with some ridiculous ideas for fanfic of your work. Coffee shop AU! High school AU! One character throws another a surprise birthday party! Or match your cast up to the cast of a book or movie or show: which Avenger or Crystal Gem or member of the Ring Fellowship would your protagonist be?
- Take a quick online personality quiz as if you were one of your characters.
- Draw a quick sketch of a character or a scene. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to figure out who’s standing where in an interaction where physical proximity is important.
- Do a little bit of research. It might help to plan ahead for this so you stay focused and get the most out of your short breaks: “On Tuesday, I’m going to see what I can learn about medieval sheep farming.”
- Outline the next scene you want to write, or work on the outline for your whole story.
- Create a timeline of significant story events.
- Try to answer some of the questions you came up with in another day’s question-generating session.
You may try a few of these things and realize that you need your work downtime to be downtime. If trying to get anything done during your breaks ends up frustrating you, take them as breaks. The time isn’t wasted, any more than time spent sleeping or eating is wasted. Your brain can’t keep going at top speed all day, and valuable, important things happen when you let your mind wander and ruminate. If you’re not a fan of staring off into space, try reading a book or working on a handicraft project or playing a silly phone game. Give yourself permission to rest.
Separately, see what you can do to carve out more writing time that includes the 15-minute staring session and whatever else you need. Your innate writing process is what it is. Work with it rather than against it, and you’ll be much happier and more productive.