Writing Habits: Getting Back on Track

There is a famous quote: “If you take one day off writing, your muse will take off the next three.”

In other words, it will take you three days (after skipping writing) for you to get back into the flow of your writing project. Even taking one full day off will cost you in focus.

De-Railed Once Again

Because of some unexpected events in January (including a contracted nonfiction project that was taking hours and hours more research than I had figured on), I laid aside my novel about mid-way. After five weeks, I was at a place to pick it up again. But I couldn’t get moving.

So I did what I am always telling other writers to do. I found an online challenge that lasted a week. (Beth Barany ran the challenge through a special Facebook page. For my challenge, I chose “writing 500 words per day” for a week on my novel.) I got behind early in the week, and on Friday had to write 2,000 words to meet the challenge for the week, but I did it, and I got unstuck. I’ve been able to write 30-60 minutes every day since–and I plan to keep it up.

The other thing I did was buy an ebook (free on a daily free ebook notice I signed up for) and read Master Your Time in 10 Minutes a Day by Michal Stawicki. I had also let go of several smaller projects in January that I wanted to restart (reading, studying) that had overwhelmed me. But by using his “10 minutes a day” approach, I got back into all five projects again. I set my timer, worked hard on each thing for ten minutes, then moved on to the next thing. I learned (again!) how much I could get done in ten minutes. More importantly, though, I got unstuck and moving again.

Time of Re-Entry

I don’t know why this is, but when you finally get back to writing, you can expect some uncomfortable, not-fun writing days, producing stuff that stinks. Several writers I’ve read lately say that if you’ve been away from your writing for a week or more, you can expect about ten days of writing that is no more fun than getting teeth pulled when you start again.

When I say “away from your writing,” that’s what I mean too. Sometimes–and I am sooo guilty of this–we fool ourselves that we’re writing when we’re:

  • Reading a writing magazine or blog
  • Marketing a story (looking for publishers and agents)
  • Blogging
  • Journaling
  • Answering email to writers, editors and family members
  • Speaking at writer’s conferences
  • Going to book signings or book store readings
  • Posting to Facebook or Twitter

That’s not the kind of writing I mean. Those are writing-related tasks, and writers today have more and more of them, it seems. They have to be done. But they don’t take the place of writing.

In the Flow

To stay in the groove, so to speak, you don’t have to write for hours and hours every day (although hours are lovely and the more, the better.) I have found that if I work on my novel for even twenty minutes a day, I can avoid that horrible getting started angst the next day. And I don’t have to waste time trying to remember where I was, what the characters were feeling, what the plot problem was, or that new insight I realized about the theme. Our brains seem to be able to hold onto those things for about 24 hours.

As Heather Sellers said in Page by Page, “I try to avoid missing days. The not-writing days aren’t worth it! It’s too hard to get back into it. This is why athletes cross-train off season. This is why people who are successful with weight management stay below a certain weight. It just isn’t worth it. Getting back into shape is just too hard. It is easier to keep doing it, tiny little writing periods, day after day. Without missing a day.”

Too Late?

What if you’ve already missed a few days, or weeks, or months of writing? Then start again. But you can also take this to the bank: your writing will stink, you will hate it or question your story or your talent or your motives, you will feel self-indulgent, and writing for twenty minutes will feel like hours. But this really uncomfortable period is usually necessary. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that–if you stick it out for about ten days straight–it will pass. The muse will return, the writing will be fun again, you’ll realize how much you missed it, you’ll love your writing rituals and routine, and you’ll wake up eager to write as you did in the past.

Once you regain that wonderful writing state, do everything you can to maintain it. If you know you have a super busy day tomorrow, set your alarm twenty minutes earlier and write before the day takes over. It doesn’t take much writing to stay in the flow–not nearly as much as it takes later if the writing stalls.

Write daily, if at all possible. As the note stuck to my computer says, “You don’t need more time…you just need to decide.”

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14 Responses to Writing Habits: Getting Back on Track

  1. Katlyn says:

    This hit home for me! My 10 to 15 minutes a day have been sporadic, and I only just started it recently. I have more often than not been totally stuck, and I have not enjoyed it. :) But this is encouraging – if I stick to it and get through the 10 days, I can look forward to a little easier time! Thanks for the post, I think I needed to read this today!

    • kwpadmin says:

      I’m glad it helped, Katlyn. We’re all in the same boat. I keep thinking that since I have been writing for thirty years that surely these silly rules don’t apply to me. HA! We’re all in this together, and being “daily” about it is one of those areas! :-)

  2. Thanks for the great post, Kristi. I’m just starting a new project that is going to need my daily attention. Nothing like a challenge to get the words on the page. I’m doing a daily check-in again to help keep me focussed. I’ll be bookmarking this post as one to go back when I find myself substituting writing tasks for the actual writing–I’m really good at doing that!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Oh, Heather, I am so good at that too! These blog posts are me preaching to the choir most of the time! :-) Right now you’ll find me muttering, “Just ten minutes…you can do ten minutes” a lot!

  3. Bonnie says:

    I downloaded the 10-minute productivity e-book and am finding it very interesting. What I especially like is that the author talks about several of the usual productivity programs like GTD and says what has worked for him and what has not. Most of the popular productivity systems want a person to move from task to task in an orderly fashion. The author says that his day job does not support this approach. That has always been my complaint and my frustration. My entire day job is mostly responding to phone calls and handling walk-in customers. I may have lots of free time during a given day but won’t know that first thing in the morning. I am able to have a routine to follow but no schedule. The author acknowledges that many of the productivity systems don’t work for him or by extension — me. Thanks for telling us about this little book. I don’t think I want to be as productive as he is but I wouldn’t mind getting done more of what I like to do. I noticed that the author didn’t mention doing any household tasks or pet care etc. when he counted out the hours in his day. Must be nice to have a wife. We all need one.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Bonnie, that is so true about his lack of need to run the house. I didn’t notice much time in there for kids either, unless I missed it. I don’t want my life scheduled down to the minute either. And like you, interruptions and changes are always rearing their heads! But doing something just for ten minutes at a time works, no matter what my schedule and energy level are like!

      • Bonnie says:

        Oops, I spoke too soon. The author did refer to doing housework and laundry in the latter part of his book. My apologies for misjudging the fellow. But I still don’t see any way under God’s green earth that he could get everything done in a day that he says he gets done. It makes me tired just to read his list. But I loved the book. Time to do ten minutes of something or other.

  4. Vijaya says:

    Ooooh boy, between school closures, finishing some little projects, I feel completely scatterbrained. We’re having another ice day … and as much as I love this downtime with my kids, my schedule is completely off. That historical needs a final polish and I have to pick it up and STICK with it!!! Next week … Must go find my trusty timer.

    • kwpadmin says:

      I have heard from MANY writers with kids home for lots of snow/ice time, followed by ten more days of early spring break for many. Yes, dig out that timer. Go for ten!

  5. Jennifer Rathe says:

    Yep Kristi, right on again. I fallen again. I tried running my own challenge in Jan. with weekly check-in, but it didn’t do what I thought it would. I’ve been on and off again for two months. THe only problem with the 10 minute thing is that I have to finish a scene when I start it and that takes 1-3 hours for me. I guess if I scheduled the 10, I’d find a way to keep going and that would be better. Plus my oldest is threatening to give up naps, and I haven’t figured out how to adjust yet,

    • kwpadmin says:

      I’m with you, Jennifer! I’ve had a couple of work-for-hire books to do (for which I am very grateful, truly), but finding time to write on the novel has been so hit and miss. Oh, I know I could cut out the grandkids or something like that, but I’m not willing to go there! They grow up even faster than my own kids did.

      About naps: my kids still had to have a quiet hour after lunch in bed, even if they read for the whole hour without falling asleep. It established good reading habits, gave them down time, and still gave me a writing hour. I do it with grandkids too. :-)

  6. Sherryl says:

    Thanks for the great reminder, Kristi. I’ve been letting my novel “go” while enduring a few busy times, and yes, it does feel like pulling teeth when I go back to it.
    I need to remind myself that just ten minutes a day (and I can always find it if I really want to) is all it takes to stay with the muse!

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