Saturday, March 22, 2008

When to STOP writing

Sitting down to start writing each day is tough. And so is knowing when to stop. If the two events are usually within fifteen minutes of each other pick another profession. But if you’re really putting in the hours, and there’s no foreman telling you when quitting time is, when is quitting time?

Some screenwriters go by number of pages. Others set a time limit. One I know eats chocolate covered coffee beans all day and when his hand starts to shake that’s the time to wrap it up. There’s no right answer, except maybe the last one.

A lot of writers will hang in there until they finish a scene. They like that sense of closure. There is something to be said for that peace of mind. Especially if you’re neurotic and from what I hear, one or two writers are.

On the other hand, I like to stop when I get stuck. It’s usually in the middle of a scene. (Ernest Hemingway used to stop in the middle of a sentence. I always wondered if he wrote a suicide note that read: “I’m sorry, I just can’t go…”)

Instead of gutting it out, I will walk away from the computer and just let my subconscious mind work on solving the problem. I know that sounds very “Yanni” but for me, a relaxed state is when I do my best thinking. I’ll keep a notepad by the bed and in the morning just lie there like a slug and let my mind run free. Very often the answer will come. Similarly, the shower is a good place to problem solve, and one of the few shower activities you can admit to.

The added benefit of allowing yourself the night and morning to break through your problem is that when you sit down to start writing again you’ll already have a head start. You won’t have to face the “tyranny of the blank page.”

Writing is rewarding but never easy. We resist starting and constantly fight the temptation to stop. Kurt Vonnegut talked of the difficulty. He said whenever he’s in a room with writers they’ll all be bitching about how hard the process is. All except one. He’ll say it’s a breeze. Every day it just flows. Invariably HE’S the worst writer in the room.


Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that:
Writers are those who have a harder time writing than other people.

Tis true.

Bitter Animator said...

I find it takes me about two weeks to gear up to write and make myself do it so, when I start, don't let myself stop until I've finished something.

That said, it's completely different when I write for a living, something I'm not doing right now. During those times I sort of have a rule of 'one thing finished, one thing in progress and one set of ideas for the next thing', whatever the 'thing' may be. I was working on very short scripts last year so my 'thing' was the whole script.

Cathy Fielding said...

The late Michael Kanin wrote:

Writing is something one has to admire.
The art and the craft are a constant delight.
How great for the ego to sway, to inspire,
The fly in the ointment is having to write.

Creating a manuscript, even a stinker,
Requires an effort that boggles the mind.
My God, all that sitting, like Rodin's "The Thinker",
Can seriously damage your brain and behind.

For forty-odd years in this noble profession
I've harbored a guilt and my conscience is smitten.
So here is my rather embarrassed confession --
I don't like to write, but I love to have written.

Anonymous said...

I find it best if I have a target and so I always quit after seventeen words.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

So how fast should writing go?

Alan Aykbourn (the British playwrite) thinks about his play all year and then writes it in two weeks. Sam Shepard used to write a play in one night.

Last year I had to write a pilot and it took me two months. It wasn't my best work, nor my worst.

Currently I am working on a series, with other writers who complain that the eight days they have to complete a 45 minute episode from a treatment is not enough. I don't expect to need more than four days for mine. I will take the extra time to have another look at it, but still... eight days? That's eight pages a day... I'd go mad.

Anonymous said...

Inspirational and valuable choice of topic. What a concept. I’m right there with you on the stop when you’re stuck theory, and yet Ken sometimes I have to question your judgement. Even though I usually also stop-when-stuck, I’m still a lousy writer.

Not that he’s Turgenief or Trollope or anything (unless I’m thinking of Hasty Pudding Club and spelling the last name wrong), but I remember Al Franken advising something like “Stop on the downslope.” Or the “downhill,” or the “downside” – well anyway down-something. And I always thought that he meant it as a way to avoid dealing with the blank page by always leaving something you already now you are going to write to get you started in the morning. Or even as a motivational device? That sounded pretty good to me too. Do you think that’s what was meant? Maybe he was just thinking about the senate campaign and meant “I’ve got to make a stop down state?”

Beth Ciotta said...

Great post, Ken! Glad to know I'm not the only 'shower thinker' out there.

I do some of my best problem solving in the shower. I heard somewhere that it has to do with the ions in the water. Apparently it promotes creativity... or something like that. :)

Anonymous said...

My best ideas also came in the shower. Makes you wonder how Shakespeare and Homer did it. Although the Greeks did have bathhouses but I'm pretty sure they weren't for writing.

For all you writers currently employed in television, the next WGA contract should have a clause where every office has its own shower. Although, knowing the producers they'd come back with cold water only and you'd have to shower with another writer to save on water. Not too many writers I'd like to shower with. In fact, I can't think of one. Well, maybe Diablo Cody, she might come up with some good ideas when she's wet.

Alex Epstein said...

Good post. I can tell I'm getting to be a better writer because it gets harder and harder to write stuff.

Sleeping on it does work. I came up with a whole show pitch in the middle of the night once.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, if you have an idea of where you want to take something, but you're not sure of either where to start or how to bridge from there to what you're more confident about, doing the sections you're settled in with first and then working your way later towards the front or towards filling in the gaps helps. It does create the problem of possibly having to re-do some of that work later to create continuity, but as Ken said, at least you've got something down on paper as a starting/destination point for later.

(The other side thing I'd like to point out is never, ever write on deadline under the influence of intoxicants, without giving yourself at least the next morning to read what you've written sober. Sometimes, writing in a state that might not pass breathalyzer or urine tests opens the mind up to new ideas or ways of looking at things that can create new possibilities in your story. Other times, you write 20 pages of naval-gazing crap and think it's S.J. Perleman. Best to check it yourself the next day while straight before handing it in for anyone else to look at.)

Anonymous said...

I only stop writing when my Sharpie runs dry and/or I hear someone enter the next stall (hopefully, not a Republican congressman).

Anonymous said...

I once asked Edward Albee how he wrote. "I write the whole play in my head and when I have it memorized, I sit down and type."

And it was Shaw or Wilde who said "I spent all morning deciding where to put in a comma...and all afternoon deciding to take it out." Or something like that.

Unknown said...

I know it sounds totally silly but I too believe that you can solve problems during your sleep. When I was eleven years old I solved a level of "Oh No - More Lemmings" during my sleep after having tried for four hours before going to bed.

I woke up, started my computer - and got all my lemmings to safety within the first try :-)

I know I know. It's totally silly. But I was so amazed that morning that I actually knew what to do when I woke up after being stuck for such a long time the day before :-)

wandermaus72 said...

I usually solve my writing or translating problems running a half marathon. If that hasn't solved it, there's always the shower after the run... ;-)

Cap'n Bob said...

Cathy is basically quoting Dorothy Parker, who said no one wants to write, everyone wants to have written.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this a repost of a blog written two years ago? :)

Unknown said...

If I am working on a project, written or otherwise, if I am blessed with a burst of inspiration or progress, I refuse to stop until exhausted.

Then I do my best to focus on anything else before I call it a night. Slumber comes quicker that way.

Anonymous said...

>>Instead of gutting it out, I will walk away from the computer and just let my subconscious mind work on solving the problem. I know that sounds very “Yanni” but for me, a relaxed state is when I do my best thinking. I’ll keep a notepad by the bed and in the morning just lie there like a slug and let my mind run free. Very often the answer will come.<<

There is a lot of medical evidence that sleeping is NOT a passive activity. Important items are sent from temporary to perminant memory, and a lot of problem solving takes place. Of course, none of that happens if you snore. After all, how much sleep can you really get with your wife slapping you on the head all night.

Anonymous said...

Birgit said...
I usually solve my writing or translating problems running a half marathon.

Not quite a month ago I was in a 10K race for Alzheimers. We're still looking for 12 people. (Actually, you'd be suprised. Got a few laughs. That's me, life on the edge.)

Anonymous said...

"When I was eleven years old I solved a level of 'Oh No - More Lemmings' during my sleep after having tried for four hours before going to bed. I woke up, started my computer - and got all my lemmings to safety."

Huh? I don't know what you're talking about. I'm old.

Actually, I had the same experience when I was 11. I woke up, started my abacus, and got all my Carthegenians to safety. Then, many years later, when computers were finally invented, I was able to throw away all my quills. Anyone need a ream of two-decade-old carbon paper and a half dozen unopened bottles of Liquid Paper?

I try to write to the end of a chapter, which means sometimes, chapters get a lot smaller suddenly. "That scene can wait for the next chapter. I'm sleepy."

This is good however, as I believe that shorter chapters keep readers reading longer. (I believe this the most when I want to stop.) If you're nearly but not quite ready to turn the lamp off and sleep when you finish a chapter, you look at how long a chapter is. If it's 7 pages, you're more likely to say "I'll read one more chapter before I sleep." than if the next chapter is 35 pages. I find, as a reader that I may read seven 10-page chapters when I wouldn't have started a 30-page chapter.

But when I'm just too groggy to remember what order the letters are on the keyboard, I turn it off whereever I am.

TCinLA said...

That very excellent screenwriter, William Goldman, said a screenplay should be written with all deliberate speed, because it would communicate to the reader. After 30 years "in the screen trade" I think he is right.

I am a terrible procrastinator, so I usually set myself a minimum of 5 pages a day before I can "do something else." The ancillary rule is, "if it's working, stick with it." Roger Corman once pitched me an idea I liked so much that I bet him I could write a shootable first draft in 96 hours, double or nothing. And 96 hours later (with about 14 hours for sleep overall) I wrote "The End" and it could have been shot, but while Roger was reading it over the weekend I was too, and on Monday I convinced him to give me four days to do the revised draft. Which they did then shoot. (did I mention this was when I was much younger? Did I mention Roger did pay off double? He did.)

Ken is right about stopping and letting what I call "sidereal thinking" take place. One can also call it serendipity. I often go build a model - a very detailed ship or an airplane, worrying over historical accuracy, quality of construction, quality of painting, etc. (sort of like working on a screenplay) It's very involving, but after a long long time doing this (since I was a kid), there is a certain "comfort zone" that allows me to do some stuff "on autopilot". While you're doing this, your mind is going over the real project. All of a sudden you go "Ah Ha!" put the model down and run to the computer.

If you're going to do it this way, I suggest some sort of addictive behavior (like models) that won't kill you (though your wife might think of it) - the other kinds of addictive behavior writers are subject to in situations like this are ultimately harmful (see Hemingway).

If you're really "stuck" I find Hemingway's idea of sitting in front of the keyboard for 30 minutes every day regardless till you get so bored you write something to be good advice.

By Ken Levine said...

Yes, from time to time on my free blog I re-post something from sixteen months ago. During that time I've picked up one or two new readers so it gives them a chance to see a post they might otherwise never have come across.

And warning: I might do it again from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Stop pointing at me, Ken.

Mary Stella said...

I’ll keep a notepad by the bed and in the morning just lie there like a slug and let my mind run free. Very often the answer will come. Similarly, the shower is a good place to problem solve, and one of the few shower activities you can admit to.

Most of my writer friends relate similar experiences. I know a solution to a stuck scene usually presents itself five minutes after I've gotten out of the shower. Some claim it's the negative ions in water releasing our creative energy.

I don't care why it works, just that it does!

Mary Stella said...

A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large. - Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby

Nothing like running into your deadline to motivate you through the block.

Anonymous said...

In the shower???

Dude. This is why men should shave their legs, use conditioner, rinses, hot oil (For your hair! On your head!), and all other sorts of monstrosities that keep women busy.

Also, this took about 45 seconds to write. So the question is: Good grooming or good writing?

Anonymous said...

"Yes, from time to time on my free blog I re-post something from sixteen months ago...And warning: I might do it again from time to time."

What a rip-off! I want my no money back!

I have NEVER reused - excuse me, I meant "repurposed" - a joke I've used before. I swear this, honest injun, so there's NO NEED to comb through my old sketches, plays, and books, looking for how the same gags show up over and over. (and over and over and over.) I said there's no need. Stop that! You better have a warrent!

Okay, in 1974, in a piece on The Oscars, I wrote "The winner of Best Direction was the Exit signs at all theaters playing BLACKENSTEIN. The other nominees were West, North, and Up." Last year I wrote "The Oscar for Best Direction went to the exit signs at all theaters playing RV. The other nominees were East, South, and diagonal." In my Oscar piece this year I wrote "Best Direction? Do I have to do that joke again? The winner was 'Down,' which is the direction Cody and I prefer to go." See? Completely different exact same jokes.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I just ride the subway to the other side of town and just write. When I'm using a computer I'm more likely to get distracted, thinking about the million things I have to do and not doing any of them.

Now if only I could read my handwriting....

Marly K said...

I like stopping in the middle as well. My rule varies but I usually set a weekly deadline for myself. And, weirdly bc of this method and even though I'm a procrastinator, I find that I end up doing the bulk of my work during the week so that I can enjoy my weekends without feeling guilty. I also believe in non-writing days bc sometimes as a writer, you feel guilty when you're NOT writing so that you end up detesting writing and thus end up procrastinating. If that makes any sense...

I find it interesting that so many people feel apologetic about sleeping on a problem. Hey, if it worked for Einstein, it's good enough for me. I'd add that it works for life problems as well. Like a charm. I only wish I'd discovered it sooner.

Anonymous said...


I wanted to offer a belated apology for remarks I made about you, a comedy troupe called Employee of the Month and a few others who were referenced in an LA Times piece a year ago Christmas. The remarks were actually aimed at the Times piece itself but I wish I hadn't done that either. It was the Winter TCA's and microphones were available to me and when asked, I regrettably bitched about the piece.

I should have passed on the question or, at worst, said what I honestly felt--which is that I was surprised to see a writer publicly slag another writer (possibly because I don't spend as much time on the Internet as you might think.) You get to have a website about whatever you want and if it's one where people talk about script writing, even better.

Again, I hope you'll accept my apology and best wishes for the future.

Aaron Sorkin

By Ken Levine said...


Assuming it's really you and not someone just logging on using your name, I greatly appreciate your note.

I remain a huge fan of your work and look forward to all of your new projects. And the next time the LA Times asks me to comment on another writer I shall graciously decline.

All the best,


By Ken Levine said...

P.S. Aaron,

My wife was in New York recently and really loved the FARNSWORTH INVENTION. She saw it with the stand-ins and it was still great.

Anonymous said...


Thank your wife very much for me and I'll pass her compliment on to Hank and Jimmi's understudies.