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How to Get Words on the Page, No Matter What

Even one is more than zero, right?

We’ve all had those moments as writers: ones where the only thing dancing on our Word document is the cursor. Seconds tick by, a single blink capable of sucking ten minutes of our precious little writing time, and yet what can we do? Nothing.

Or, so it feels.

However, there’s something we can do to make the most out of those writing stints of ours. In fact, there’s a lot we can do—but if you’re looking to sit down this afternoon, tonight, or tomorrow morning and shred your keyboard with the next scene in your work, then there are a few tricks I have that keep me on target.

Think About Your Next Scene Before You Write

There’s a lot of dead space in our day-to-day lives. Going for a walk? Standing in the check-out line at the grocery store? Taking the bus for a short ride downtown? Got space between classes, or thirty minutes on break? No matter where you are or what you’re doing, let your brain do that cool thing it likes to do: wander and daydream.

When I’m writing, I come into my writing session knowing where I’m trying to go with my work. I break up my writing into scenes, too, so it’s not a mammoth effort to try and chip away at my story where I left off. It’s a lot harder to get momentum if you don’t know where you’re going than it is if you have an idea—and it doesn’t even have to be a very fleshed out idea yet, either. Toe that line between planning and pantsing, and see where a general idea and some daydreaming can take you in a one hour sprint when you finally sit down.

Break Your Scenes Into Pieces

Let’s be honest: sometimes, wherever you’re at in the story can feel like a schlog to write, especially if you’re thinking about other action-packed and wild scenes that you’re more fascinated with. Every scene has its place in a story, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we said some weren’t more fun to write than others, and frankly, when I’m planning out my writing days, I sometimes set days aside to write stuff completely separate of where I was in the story just the day before.

Maybe I don’t want to continue where I just was; maybe I want to write a scene with different characters that happens elsewhere. Maybe I ran out of ideas for what I was just writing, but my brain is still bursting with color on a separate section. I used to fall into a trap of thinking I had to start my writing at the start and end it at the end, but the truth is, the more you can get out, the more you have to work with when it’s time to revise.

(Because you will have to revise. No matter what you do.)

Whatever it is that’s calling your imagination, if you’re looking to get words on page, do not sit there agonizing over that one piece that you can’t figure out just yet. Move on! Don’t let your momentum die in one place when it can pick up speed somewhere else!

Ditch the Perfectionism

Read that line in the last section again: you cannot skip revision. You cannot sit there, shred a godly and perfect first draft, and then just do some light copyediting on draft 2. It is simply not going to happen—and that stung when I had to admit that to myself, yes, but it also made it so much easier to keep going.

During my NaNoWriMo experience this year, all I knew was that I wanted 50,000 words added to my document. When I tell you that I had chapters that started in winter and ended in summer, with characters who were named one thing and were suddenly called another, characters that had one motivation only to end up doing a 180 later with a different motivation… yeah. It was a mess. Still is a mess, waiting for me to revise and finish it later on. But you know what happened by the end of that writing challenge?

I went from 24,500 words to 75,000. I succeeded in my goal, and I discovered so many amazing places my story could go, so many incredible things that could happen, by just thinking of a general idea for a scene and sketching it out. What started as a simple, cut-and-dry story that couldn’t hope to be even a novella soon found the pulse to become a proper stand-alone novel. It needs refining, absolutely—if I showed it to anyone right now, I’d be nothing but embarrassed—but once it’s polished, it’s going to shine.

And I wouldn’t have had it at all if I sat there stressing about the details, going back and forward and back again, trying to make sure everything was perfect from the get-go. Pro-tip: tag a comment on something so you don’t miss it later and keep it moving.

Do Anything Else Besides Writing

At the end of the day, you can’t do your best writing when you’re tired. Or hungry. Or missing out on the other things you love. When you’re sitting there, drained, miserable, and realizing you can’t just pick up your books, games, T.V. shows, puzzles, art, or anything else—when you can’t see your friends for a night out or have a dinner date with your love or stop by to visit family—you end up in an awful position: one of resentment and frustration.

Publication Coach sums it up well: “spending too much time on writing takes away time to do the other things that feed your work.” And it’s true. How can you do your best work when you’re denying yourself the things that make you feel alive—that inspire you to create in the first place?

It’s easy to make a schedule and stick to it. Plenty easy to have a plan and execute that plan, easier than you think. But feeling good doing it? Feeling like doing it at all is worth it? That’s harder when you’re so burned out that you feel like a living ash pile. And people don’t tend to do things that make them feel this way—or, if they do, it certainly isn’t something they do in a healthy manner. The love for creating becomes the anxiety of being productive, and the joy in completing a project becomes the relief that you can finally get it the hell away from you.

What creative person wants to live like that?

So next time you sit down to write, with whatever time you have—be it thirty minutes, an hour, a half a day—be sure you know how to maximize your time. Come prepared with at least an idea, and let that idea spin you to your next destination. Let your mind wander in the times you’re not writing, and most importantly, let yourself have a break where you need it; don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. You’ll never have to worry about your love souring that way.

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