Saturday, November 12, 2011

How do you write alone?

Hello from the LAX Hilton where The SITCOM ROOM is underway. Twenty attendees are divided into four “writing teams” and are learning first-hand what a writers’ room is really like. Hopefully, they’ll gain more knowledge than weight.  And not be too distracted by the Anime convention that is also going on this weekend at our hotel.   Fortunately, I'm dressed like Speed Racer.

But back on topic:  at least they’ll have each other. Writing alone is a lonely enterprise and having that social interaction can make the process a lot more fun and (if you have the right group) expedient.

But what if you have to write alone? How do you develop the discipline to face the tyranny of the blank screen?

This is a task made even more difficult these days because we have the internet and worse, Angry Birds at our fingertips.

There’s no right answer; just various methods and tricks others have used. You have to find the one that’s right for you. But here are a few options:

Pick a specific time of day and force yourself to sit down and work at that time. Could be early morning or the middle of the day while the kids are at school. I’m a night person. I will tend to write late at night when the house is quiet and there’s nothing on TV but infomercials and GOLDEN GIRLS reruns. Many like to get up early, get their writing out of the way and be done for the day.

Pick a specific amount of time. An hour, several hours. Writer/goddess, Jane Espenson goes on half-hour or hour “writing sprints” where she clears the deck and works non-stop during those periods. 

Some people need goals. They have to write a certain number of pages or scenes before they step away. If they finish that script by Tuesday they'll treat themselves to a Thai massage at that new parlor next to the bail bonds place.

Finding comfortable conditions is key for some writers. Are you a “must be isolated with no noise whatsoever” kind of a person? Or are you a “must be in public where there’s activity and energy all around” kind of guy?   Proust used to write in bed.  If Shakespeare were still alive I'm sure he'd be a Starbucks man. 

Does music provide some inspiration? A noted poet friend of mine has Jackie Wilson records blaring while she writes poetry. They all end up reading like “Lonely Teardrops” but still.

One method I don’t recommend but writers have been using it for centuries is getting completely shit-faced before writing.  Get your supplies at Staples, not BevMo. 

Another method that works for some (but not for me) is waiting until the last minute and then just blasting forward. They need that self-imposed pressure and prelude to their next heart attack.

Look, writing is hard. If it wasn’t then Kim Kardashian would be doing it (especially if she could do it in bed). But if you find the right way to work (for you), it can make the process far more manageable. Personally, I’m not the best person to ask. I checked my email twice while writing this post.

But how do you work and why?  If we can't all write together, we can at least tell each other how we do write.  

Back to the SITCOM ROOM.


JOV97 said...

Every day I get up and plan what I write, and then try and stick to it. I get distracted a lot though, so sometimes I try turning off the internet to help me concentrate. It makes a big difference knowing you can't just hop on and check your email every other page.

Oponog said...

I get most of my "writing" done while driving in the car. I put one of my favorite songs on repeat, and as the miles pass, I get in a zen state and figure out the next chapter, occasionally reciting a line or two into my voice recorder. Then when I have time, I type it out on my laptop (preferably outside on my deck), usually producing large word counts in short order. I have always written like this, even college term papers. I have figured out some amazing plots while driving; it seems like I have to put writing on the back burner to let my subconscious work on plotting problems or having my character arcs evolve organically. The music on repeat seems to be important as well for letting me be as creative as possible.

Fortunately, the job that pays the bills requires me to drive ~30K miles per year, so I get a lot of "writing" done. I'm not sure how it would work if I ever got paid for my writing. It's a dilemma.

Please Leave Name said...

I have some horrible habits... err... writing habits (we'll not discuss those other habits, they're not appropriate for all ages). The first bad habit is, I get distracted easily and lack the ability to focus for any sustained period of time--a bird flies by my office window and I'm transfixed for minutes until a squirrel does a tightrope act across a telephone wire, and then... well, you get the idea. My second bad habit is I'm a spurt writer--when I write it all comes out quickly to the page or not at all. But my worst habit is I need to walk and talk to write. By that I mean I go for a walk with my dog and as I do I talk the entire script to my dog and rate her response. This works most of the time, but she's very negative and as a direct consequence of her opinions I've abandon many a promising story.

Anonymous said...

Music. It's line mainlining Thalia.

And when Thalia gives way to one of her meaner sisters, shower, walk. Get away from the desk. I personally don't recommend working out knotty plot points while driving because one overshoots and ends up in Bakersfield, or Needles. Oops.

Mac said...

Dave Eggers recommends a computer download called "Freedom" which locks you out of the internet for up to eight hours. I've never used it, as much as the net is a massive time-waster, I find a five-minute surf is perfect for clearing your head when you've been banging it against a brick wall. Of course five minutes turns into fifteen minutes very quickly.

Like Oponog, I write a lot in the car. I find a long motorway drive very productive for breaking initial ideas. Then I stop at a roadside cafe and jot them down in a notebook. Then in the evening I work on them at the computer.

I tried writing completely shit-faced, and it read like an amazing breakthrough into some genius realm I never knew I was capable of. Then I read it next day and it read like the crap you talk when you're drunk. Hilarious to the drunk, boring to everyone else.

Blaze said...

I've found I can't lock out the internet. I NEED the internet while I write. I've grown very dependent on mini-research as I go along, especially since I write a lot of period fiction. Some of these side trips are relatively trivial, some turn out to be major memory hiccups that needed correcting. In any case, it saves me from making cumbersome notes to fact check later or cross my fingers that some other set of eyes will spot major errors before publication. (And that those major errors aren't the keystone to the plot!)

AlaskaRay said...

I do my best writing alone, on the treadmill at the gym, with my Ipod playing in my ears. I type it up when I get home.


Brian Fies said...

Two tricks help me. One, even though I work at home, I get dressed as if I'm going to the office. Not a suit and tie of course, but something nicer than jeans and sneakers. That seems to get me in the right frame of mind.

Two, I always try to leave myself a bit of unfinished business from the day before. Something small and easy, so I can sit down and get into the groove without thinking too hard or starting from scratch.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Not everyone -- especially non-writers -- believes that you can write while your doing something else, but you can. I find that I can come up with the opening, headlines, first thoughts, general directions, etc. during a good run. That helps when facing the blank screen.

From there come several levels of concentration. For "busy work," I can have a podcast, the TV or a DVD going and sort of "half watch," the way Garry Marshall said people "watch TV while discussing their curtains."

For more concentrated writing, where I know where I'm going and have to really focus, silence is too loud, so I need instrumental music to plug up the other distractions in my brain -- and I get so into what I'm writing, I don't totally hear it. That's the nirvana where time and space disappear and you get lost in the work.

Dave Creek said...

I prefer being alone, when I write -- I have an hour each day after my wife leaves for work and before I have to leave, and a lot gets done then. If I stop in the middle of a sentence, I can usually pick up the thread that night when I get another hour or so in.

I prefer listening to movie or TV soundtrack music when I'm writing -- anything with a beat or lyrics is distracting, but Thomas Newman is great for quiet emotional scenes (ANGELS IN AMERICA, for instance), and Jerry Goldsmith is good for many scenes evoking wonder, especially since I'm writing science fiction (various STAR TREKs), and I'm especially fond of Greg Edmonson's UNCHARTED video game scores. Mind you, I have no interest in video games, I just like his scores.

Brian said...

Pick a specific time to check your email and read blogs (oops, back to work)

Ruth Harris said...

First thing in the morning when it's quiet. Breakfast first, a shower, clean sweats, a little lip gloss, a spritz of perfume. No music. Never any booze/drugs. Sometimes after a cup of tea at about 4/5PM for a second round.

When I get stuck, I get up & do chores around the house or run errands. For me, a body in motion is a mind in motion. The gym is a good place to write so is the shower. I keep notebooks everywhere in the house, in my purse or pocket to note the errant thoughts. Don't trust my memory.

Even though I've been writing a long time, I still find it hard to trust my subconscious which is where the real work comes from. The sub-c will come through every time--you just have to stay out of its way. Not easy as we (I) tend to be a control freak.

The only writer I ever knew who could write shit faced did so every night after a sumptuous dinner with wine & brandy. After dinner, already well lubricated, he tanked up on gimlets & wrote long-hand on legal pads, stopped when he was so loaded he could no longer write (literally couldn't hold the pen/pencil) and typed it up first thing the next AM when he could still (sort of) remember what he had in mind & could read his increasingly-illegible hand writing.
He was a very, very successful mystery writer & very, very productive. You'd know his name.

DorChi said...

I carry a Moleskine book around me when I work, I catch bits of conversations and I collect so many ideas that once I come home the words flow easily from me. My page:

David Schwartz said...

For me, I always make a goal of myself as to the number of pages I need to get written that day. Once I know that I will get that number of pages done, it takes the pressure off, since I know I'll get the pages done. I'm fortunate to have the discipline (stubbornness?) to get the work done. And even if they are not the best writing I've ever done, I know I will at least have something on the page to work with. I find it easier to edit and rewrite my work than to write it from scratch, which is why the self-imposed daily page count works for me!

Dan Tedson said...

I've been lucky in that I only have to write comics when an idea strikes me. I'll usually flesh it out in my head and then make it up on the computer. An important part of my editing is to then put it away for awhile and come back to it fresh and see if it makes me laugh. Not is it clever, or will other people like it, but does it uncontrollably make air escape mine mouth.

If I had to write so much every day, whether I felt like it or not, I think I'd do what David Schwartz said. I'd set a page count and hit it, trusting in my editing ability later, when maybe I will feel like it.

YEKIMI said...

I started writing jokes as a freshman in high school as a way to save my sanity. I had moved North from the South and didn't have any friends [until my senior year] and wasn't likely to make any because everyone said I "talk funny" and to me they were the ones that sounded strange. By the time I was in 10th grade I had decided I wanted to go into radio. By my junior year I was writing jokes for some morning DJs. I am a night person so I could never get to sleep until 2 or 3 AM even though I had to get up at 6 for school. So I wrote jokes, pages and pages of stuff while I was up, wrote parodies, whatever struck my fancy. Some nights maybe half a page, other nights 4-10 pages. I passed a few around school and they got passed around to other people, soon I was walking into the school office, telling the staff that I was printing up tests for a teacher and mimeographing about 50 pages of jokes to hand out. They NEVER caught on. A few teachers encouraged me and my senior year, homeroom was a lecture room that had an ENORMOUS blackboard. I proceeded to fill it with jokes. Until a humorless teacher kept sending me to the office for being "disrespectful to school property". A true WTF? moment. The principal would always say "Don't do it again" and then wink. About 22 years ago my best friend was killed in an accident and nothing seemed funny anymore so I just stopped writing. Every once in a while though I'll start something and then it just tapers off.

So a Friday question: Has there ever been a time when something has happened that made you just want to quit writing?

Eric Abrams said...

Whenever possible I try to end just before writing a scene I'm really excited about. That way, when I start up again the next day, I look forward to tackling that scene which, hopefully, gives me momentum for the rest of the day's work.

RCP said...

Hope everybody is writing up a storm in The Sitcom Room - what a great experience it must be. And no doubt you're all being spoiled by those fancy catered meals. Did someone mention squab on a bed of wild rice?

As per the first options you listed - I'll make myself sit and write, though instead of a set time and time limit, I'll set a goal for a minimum of 1,500 to 2,000 words, continuing until that number (or more depending on the day) has been reached. This is a comfortable amount for me. The writing isn't always consistent, and if I'm stuck on one piece, I'll start another or just recount the day to keep fingers and what's left of my brain cells moving.

I've always been fine writing solo for long stretches at a time, and prefer silence. Writing with others can be wonderfully stimulating - while providing a useful check on the "occasional" ego trip (at least in my case).

it's a dog eat dog world and i'm wearing milk bone underwear said...

Silence! thank you. it's the only way to go, for me. I can get very cranky otherwise. and shouty. if there's any noise at all, my brain i mean, even the hint of noise on teh horizon, my brain can smell it, like a dog can smell the bacon in my pocket. I'm the same way with reading, trying to sleep, etc. Funny thing is, I think that I daydream best in a crowded place, but I can't for the life of me read or write. in a crowded place. so, like i said, silence!

HogsAteMySister said...

I think I'm a "my get up and go got up and went and now I am just pissed" non writing person. So there's that.

Unknown said...

I found that I procrastinate as well but the fact is - I'm thinking about the project/task all the time and usually I have the "How I'm going to do it" all laid out.

Problem is, the further you go in life the bigger the tasks get. Suddenly there aren't projects anymore that you can do during a one-nighter but where you HAVE to learn for a test each day for at least a month or write at least two hours every day.

Getting that transition done to me is the art.

Those people who set due dates and then treat themselves to a Thai massage? I wouldn't be able to not just get the massage and delude myself into thinking that I'll be able to relax during the massage and the thinking time I get would be worth it.

Pat Reeder said...

I am totally nocturnal and work all night long. I write a topical comedy service for radio. All afternoon and evening, I search the Internet for news, looking for good premises and writing them up for later. But that's just the serious phase one. Only after the parrots are asleep and the house is dead silent can I start writing punchlines. My wife is the same way, thank God. We couldn't work in a writer's room. She did take Danny Simon's class once and decided that just wasn't for her.

I do humorous public speaking on occasion, and I can make crowds laugh by ad libbing. But to write the really quotable lines, I need to be alone in a darkened room with just the soft hum of the air filters.

An said...

I don't make my living at writing these days, but one thing I cannot have when I write is music. I don't know what it is, but my writing mind cannot override a melody, no matter how bland or familiar. I also enjoy writing under pressure a bit more than I should, especially if it's a project I don't love. Yes, there's the pleasure of putting off something unpleasant, but more importantly, there is also the giddy thrill of racing against and beating the clock, and somehow turning out something pretty great in the process. Trifecta!

Dude of The House said...

One thing I learned this weekend, Ken, was that writing cooperatively is very beneficial. As someone who generally writes alone in a quiet space, having others to bounce ideas off of and riff until finding the right phrasing was amazing. Now I just need to find a writing partner. Maybe I'll check Craigslist's Casual Encounters. I assume this is the kind of thing that refers to.

Thanks again for a great weekend at The Sitcom Room!


JJ – The Dude
Twitter: @DudeOfTheHouse

Colleen Kelly Mellor said...

I'm going through my day--anything but alone; it just looks like I am. Throughout the day, I'm having a conversation in my head (even--sorry!--when I'm with other people) I'm honing pieces, figuring other angles, jotting down thoughts verbally on my mini-tape recorder, taking photos to go along with my blog...engaging...engagin..engagingThe actual writing comes at the end of ALL of that. So, I look solitary, but I'm actually almost never that way--even if most are the voices in my head. Sounds dangerous...does it not?

Unknown said...

Writing involves feelings and emotions that only you experience. You need to be alone to attract the Muse who confers inspiration, a channel of pure persuasion and creativity. This is why many writers need to be isolated. Would you tell a painter or sculptor that they needed someone else working on their piece of pottery or to put their paint on the canvas?
Of course, other people get into the mix when actors read, and producers quibble and developers nit-pick. That is another kind of writing.

Weston said...

I would love to have the opportunity to write in a writing room. I write my blog before work at my desk and find my thread. I need to see that thread that leads to a thought which leads to a concept. Once I find it I get going and very rarely stop. I can blast out a post in 25 minutes over 500 words long (obviously not the greatest work). But I feed so well off others and would relish the chance to do so.