Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing alone

Writing alone is a lonely enterprise and having the social interaction of a partner or writing room can make the process a lot more fun and (if you have the right partner/room) 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, Pokeman Go. 

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.

I will tend to write until I'm stuck on something. I'll then stop, even if it's in the middle of a sentence. I'll put it down for the night. Usually, if I allow my subconscious to work on it overnight I will come up with the solution in the morning. Then I can go back to work and have a head start. Others must power through until they finish a scene, regardless of how long it takes. They need that sense of closure. Can't fault 'em for that. It's just not the way I personally work.

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.  


Jim S said...


Friday question.

Whose career would you have rather had, Larry Gelbart's or Ernie Harwell's?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

For many years my practice was to use editors as a motivating source of fear. The bane of my existence was the editor who said, "Oh, get it in whenever." "NO!" I'd scream. "Tell me there's a deadline and if I don't make it I'll never work for you again!" Usually, they complied.

Wanting to get paid is also a huge motivator for me.

Unfortunately, these do not work for projects like fiction and plays that have no deadline and no money attached because the market for them does not exist yet.

I am also a night person, so for any deadline I like to finish before I go to bed so I don't have to worry about waking up early enough in the morning to finish before sending it in. I agree about the problem-solving power of sleep, but I have to make do instead with the problem-solving power of washing dishes.

The really hard part for me is getting started. Time limits ("You only have to work for 15 minutes.") don't work. At various times I've made various rules - eg, can't look at email/tennis discussion group/the WELL/Twitter/today's news until I've written at least one sentence. I've been told that some novelists deliberately left a sentence unfinished overnight to get them started in the morning. That doesn't work for me because I can never remember what I was going to say.

I'm sure routines work for some people, but I'm not one of them. I do wish I could find a nearby coffeehouse or pub I really liked, because I actually do find it easier to concentrate with a certain amount of activity surrounding me, but there just isn't one. Too many places here insist on playing annoyingly loud annoying music, or they have deafening coffee machines. If I have to block the *place* out I might as well be at home.


Melissa C. Banczak said...

Anyplace where there is no tv. Usually the mcds in our tiny town. They see me come in the door and have my large hot tea ready by the time I get to the register. (I write from 6-11:30 at night so I sometimes don't want caffeine but the counter people are so proud of the fact that they know I'm a regular and know what I get that I hate to tell them I want chocolate milk instead. I don't do carbonation) If I hit a snag, I pack up and go for a drive. I always carry a voice recorder and use it for most of my outlining and dialog. It's so much easier to create a conversation that flows if I don't have to type. And sometimes I'm surprised by what one of my characters says in the heat of the moment.

ScottyB said...

I hate the lonely part of writing. But then, I don't have to deal with anyone's bad habits.

A lot of times, just getting *started* can be a chore, especially if I've got a ton of other stuff on my mind. So there's this little ritual I go thru to get the fire lit. I'll fire up the live stream of an awesome old-hits radio station here in Chicago (; it's awesome), open a 16-oz. can of Genesee (a sip here, a sip there because it's pretty gnarly, but no other brand does it; maybe it's that black can of death staring at me), and I'll start reading the PDF of a script I've downloaded, especially if it's of a movie I've enjoyed. Sure as shit, my mind clears up soon enough and I'm able to get on with my project. I figure it's because I've been able to *focus* on one thing instead of having a whole army of everyday bullshit creating a beehive in my brain. I just know it works.

Then I just keep writing until I run out of gas, which on some days might end up being hours and hours.

VP81955 said...

Since my focus is on writing features, not sitcoms, I tend to write alone (although I wouldn't be averse to someday finding a permanent collaborator). I split my time between typing in the hallway of my floor (the room I occupy has no wifi access) at night or spending a few hours at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, usually the one at Wilshire & Vermont. (I don't drink coffee -- which I'm sure to several of you makes me a heathen -- and CBTL's tea selection is far superior to that of Starbucks.) Once I regain full control of my life and can again use my desktop computer, I'll probably do most of my work from home.

Rashad Khan said...

It's been so long since I have even ATTEMPTED to write anything (over a decade, in fact) that I can't remember how I used to do it. Too many rejections and insurmountable fears, I guess, have convinced me I'm simply not good enough to make it as a writer -- even though, try as I might, I can't find anything else that satisfy me as much as writing, if not more so. (Which might explain why I've been unemployed since 2007. But I digress.)

Dana King said...

I write every evening after supper, except on weekends when I do it mid-afternoon. When drafting I have to write one single-spaced page before I can quit. (Two each on Saturday and Sunday.) When editing, I have a set amount of ground I have to cover before I can stop. I can go over, but not stop short. If I run out of time or find I'm getting tired, I'll add parenthetical comments about where I want to go in general the next day and stop. Not in the middle of a sentence, but often mid-paragraph.

Johnny Walker said...

Once I've started I hugely enjoy the process of writing. If only I could get started more often. I'm reminded of a (painful but true) Dale Carnegie quote (probably misattributed): "Those unable to motivate themselves must come to terms with mediocrity."

I did find the Aaron Sorkin MasterClass to be amazingly inspiring, though. Also the last thing I posted here from Joss Whedon about the difference between movements and moments. That was huge for me. And Rob Grant's bit about writing towards tentpoles. And of course, whenever Ken writes about writing.

Loosehead said...

I write computer software, rather than eloquent words; the vocabulary is somewhat limited compared to English, but I find the sort of approach summarised by "gather all the information you can about the problem, set your hindbrain going on it while you get some sleep, and the solution will be there waiting for you in the morning" works best for me. I know its not the same as writing a script or a piece of literature, though a working piece of software has a kind of eloquent beauty. Some people like to pull an all-nighter and power through, but whenever I've tried that I've always wondered "who wrote this crap" in the morning. I guess a relaxed frame of mind suits some of us for problem solving, and others prefer a little pressure. Horses for courses.

Dhruv said...

I am not a professional writer.

I just write to just offload pain onto the sheet of paper or nowadays computer.

When some problem or incident or suffering weighs on my mind, I offload it on paper.

I find solace in reading it occasionally and try fooling myself that my writing has somehow helped me.

Fred Vogel said...

I write short stories and poetry, not scripts. 4 hours in the morning and 2+ in the afternoon. I treat this as a job so I (try to) take weekends off.

DBenson said...

After a career in copywriting by day I still think of personal writing as a nighttime activity. I favor a bit of solitude, ever since a childhood incident where my little brother overheard me reading my superhero sound effects aloud (months later, he intercepted a phone call for me and recounted the incident while laughing hysterically). I still read some passages aloud, that being an easy quality test (If you have to work to match the sound to the intent, it's time to rewrite). That rules out the coffee joint as a writing venue.

In college and immediately after I wrote on a manual typewriter; moved to an original Macintosh so I could write really late without annoying downstairs neighbors (printing on the dot matrix printer was another matter). In time I did everything on desktops, at work and at home.

Now I write on a laptop with my legs up on a sofa; ofttimes with non-vocal music on. This method has spoiled me; my ability to write extensive notes in legible printing (almost comic book quality) has atrophied.

The power to edit and revise swiftly and easily, on the other hand, has helped me break an old college habit of never editing, but instead trying to write my way out of a hole (after realizing I'd based six pages on a huge error, I'd pivot with something like "And having played devil's advocate, we can now see a clearer path ..."). It also liberates me to recklessly write down blind alleys and use really stupid placeholder notions, knowing I can go back and reroute with ease.

Wayne said...

Good enough for Trumbo.
Good enough for Churchill.
A hot bathtub is the best place to write.

ElleInDublin said...

I have a day job so twice a day (morning and afternoon) I set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes and just write myself an email for 10 minutes, almost like a HIIT session. Because the time is so short it’s terrific overcoming procrastination, for advancing the story, solving plot problems or even just identifying why I don’t want to write this now (usually it’s because I’ve hit a point that’s boring or problematic or nothing happens or the wrong thing happens) and how to fix it.
Then in the more traditional writing hours of lunchtime / evenings / weekends I type up my emails into a proper document (for outline) or a script package (for script) and then continue from there. It’s great because even in a week where I don’t have any other writing time (because I have a life), I still have 1 hour and 40 minutes of writing under my belt. The progress isn’t fast but it’s definite and when I sit down to my outline or script proper I can really see it. I also now use these 10 minute sessions for brainstorming / problem solving when I do have a full day or evening to write as I find them so useful. I also edit as I go along, which I find makes things easier (although I know others disagree).
Obviously paying work brings it’s own deadlines, but for spec stuff I am in a writers group that meets monthly so I always try to have something to bring along to that, which works as a deadline.

Andrew said...

@Johnny Walker,
It was actually Andrew Carnegie. The full quote is: ""People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents."

If I could only make a living as a useless trivia buff.

A. L. Crivaro said...

I'm a morning guy. Home office. I used to require absolute silence, but since getting married that is no longer the case (sometimes my wife will be in the same room doing her own thing). My aim is to write everyday, but I often miss the mark (maybe once or twice a week). I use Word. I outline heavily. And I will axe pretty much anything that gets in the way of the story (which contributes to my slowness).

Myles said...

We all know reality shows are written so in a weird way Kim Kardashian is one of the most successful writers of the last decade. Lol. Scary.

Mitchell said...

I've aped Neil Simon's method, which I learned from his autobiography/memoir, and found works best for my mindset. I'm a 9-to-5 guy. As soon as 9 hits, I'm up by my computer and corkboard, and my options are write, nap, or bust. After taking several naps, I inevitably get bored enough to where I'm dying to start writing. Then, when 5pm hits, no matter where I'm at, I shut it down, hopefully giving myself an easy spot to pick up from on the next day. Also it lets my subconscious mull over any rough areas from the day.

One of the important things I learned was that the 9-to-5 doesn't mean actively typing or writing during those hours. It just means being committed to writing. If I can't come up with something, I'm not forcing it. But just being in the physical space of my "writing area" and not allowing myself any other outlet is usually enough to get the juices flowing sooner rather than later, and often I find that inspiration strikes sooner than if I'd allowed myself to get distracted.

Johnny Walker said...

Ah! Thanks, Andrew!

mike said...

I write first drafts always in longhand on a legal pad. Then type it into my desktop, polishing as I go, which serves as a de facto second draft. Then I print it out and polish and rewrite again. Then when I am absolutely convinced it can't be improved upon, out the door it goes.