The excitement of a new writing project can buoy you for a while. You are pushed forward by the thrill of embarking on a new adventure, a brand new path. But, after a while, you may find yourself slowing down. You grow footsore and weary. Two thousand words per day drops to one thousand. Then five hundred. Then you skip a day of writing. Then two.
Pretty soon, you lose track of your storyline and have to re-read large swaths of writing just to fight your place and recapture your flow.
THEN, IT BECOMES A SLOG.
With your momentum gone, you struggle to find your rhythm, to re-immerse yourself in your story.
How can you stop yourself from reaching that point? How can you consistently crank out a thousand or two thousand words every day until your first draft is complete?
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you might press on simply out of peer pressure. But what about the rest of the year? Or, what if you’re aiming to write ninety thousand words instead of fifty?
WHAT THEN? WHAT’S YOUR STRATEGY?
I’ve experience both high-momentum projects and excruciatingly slow, start-stop projects. I’ve learned how to keep marching, even when I feel like jumping ship and swimming as far from my project as I can. I’ve boiled it down to three pretty ordinary strategies and three unique ones. Let’s start with the ordinary:
1. Set a goal
Take a page out of the NaNo book and set a concrete goal for yourself. It doesn’t have to be as rigorous as 1,667 words per day (NaNoWriMo’s goal), but it should stretch you at least a little bit. Ten words, for instance, is not acceptable. You can do better than that. Try five-hundred or a thousand. Or, set a different kind of goal altogether, say, a first draft by the end of April.
Post your goal somewhere visible—the bulletin board above your computer, the log-in screen of your phone, your laptop’s wallpaper. Look at it every day. Feel guilty—oh-so-guilty—if you stray from your goal. Give yourself a reward if you succeed. Punish yourself if you fail (no ice cream/T.V./video games/whatever for a month; pay your friend $50; do your least favorite chore…I’m looking at you dusting!).
2. Write every day
It may sound obvious, but writing a little bit every single day is the best way to capture and keep your momentum. If you let time pass, you lose the thread of your story and you’re forced to re-read sections to get yourself up to speed on what’s happening.
If you write every day (preferably at the same time), you get into a flow. You get—you guessed it—momentum.
And if you happen to miss a day?
Don’t freak out. Jump back into the saddle as quickly as you can and recapture that energy.
3. Find an accountability partner(s)
There’s nothing like some good old fashioned peer pressure to make you want to complete a project. As I mentioned earlier, NaNoWriMo thrives on peer pressure. You, too, can subject yourself to the scrutiny of others! All you have to do is let one or two people know what you’re up to and ask them to hold you accountable.
Tell them your specific goals and ask them to check in with you from time to time to see how you’re progressing. The more ruthless and judgmental the accountability partner, the better. You must fear the disappointment in their voice when they check in and you haven’t been holding up your end of the bargain. You want an accountability partner who will say, “Oh, I see. Just a thousand words this week. I thought you were better than that.”
If you don’t have such a partner—or don’t want one—try outsourcing this responsibility to the interwebs. Tell your community (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…wherever you hang out) about your goals and then feel the pressure as a thousand sets of eyes watch for the post that says, “Hooray, I’ve completed my manuscript today!
ALL RIGHT. I’VE GIVEN YOU THE ORDINARY (YET EFFECTIVE) METHODS FOR KEEPING UP YOUR MOMENTUM. ON TO THE CLEVER ONES:
4. Write the next line
You might be tempted to stop writing after you’ve finished a scene or a chapter. Don’t. Stopping your writing at this point is like riding a wave all the way to shore. You’ll have to pause, paddle your bum back out into the ocean, and jump on the next wave. If you let enough time pass, you’ll lose all your momentum and be tempted to stay on the beach and enjoy a Mai Tai instead of putting in the work to ride the next wave.
Instead of stopping, challenge yourself to go a little further. An extra inch—or stroke, if we’re sticking with the surfing metaphor. Think about how you’d like to begin the next section or chapter and write the first paragraph, or even the first sentence. That way, when you return to your work you’re already immersed in the next scene.
If you’re like me, you’ll read a little bit of what you wrote during your previous session and use that writing to get back into your groove. If you’ve already written the next couple lines of your next chapter, those lines will propel you forward. Wave caught.
5. Outline as you go
Many writers’ works in progress (WIPs) take unexpected turns. Maybe a new character crops up, or the plot takes a sudden dark turn that was not in the initial outline. Sometimes the story will end up veering far away from your outline, and that’s okay. It’s fine to let your story lead you around by the earlobe. However, you might find yourself pausing more and more often, puzzling about how to fit together all the disparate pieces.
I’m the kind of writer who allows my story to have wings. I stray from my initial storyline, pop in new characters, invent new motives, and plunk in new challenges for my protagonist as I go. How do I keep from losing momentum (and writing myself into a corner!)?
I OUTLINE AS I GO.
What that means to me: At the end of a writing session, I’ll take a step back. I’ll think about the next few chapters in my story and how they need to unfold so that everything makes sense and ties together. Then, I’ll write a short paragraph or a few bullet points outlining my next steps. This method gives me direction and helps make sense of a modified outline.
Think of a modified outline as a skeletal structure. Maybe your initial outline was something like a canary skeleton, but you took a new direction and ended up creating an emu. All the bones—your plot points—have to fit together, and that’s why it’s helpful to make mini outlines as you go. Otherwise, your emu might end up with a leg that doesn’t end with a foot, or with its beak sticking out the back of its femur.All the bones--your plot points--have to fit together, and that's why it's helpful to make mini… Click To Tweet
6. Create a writing habitat (and occasionally burn it to the ground!)
Many of us are creatures of habit. We sink into our routines and feel comfortable when we’re in them. Even though I’m a freelancer with different projects month-by-month or even day-by-day, I still have some habits that encourage success.
For one, I make sure I’ve eaten before I write. I don’t want to have to think about my grumbling stomach while I’m plunking out a story or writing a newsletter for a client. I also make a daily to-do list at the start of my day. It’s always a stretch list (meaning I load it up with things to do and star the important items) and I always tick off items as I do them.
Beyond that, a lot of my routine changes. I work in different locations, at different times, and with varying degrees of noise (although I prefer absolute silence, which is a little hard to achieve in a coffee shop!).
OKAY, SO THAT’S HABIT. BUT WHAT ABOUT HABITAT?
Habitat is environment. It’s your surroundings. Yes, it’s a good idea to foster daily habits (like writing every day…see Step #2), but it’s also a good idea to set up a familiar writing habitat. When you, for example, listen to the same playlist when you write, you thrust yourself into an environment that says, “Okay, it’s writing time!”
Side Note: I usually write in silence, but when I’m in a coffee shop I throw on my headphones and listen to Hans Zimmer or some other acoustic music. I have no freaking clue how some people can write while listening to actual words. If this is you, how do you do it?? I’m genuinely curious.
CREATING A SPECIFIC WRITING HABITAT WILL SIGNAL TO YOUR BRAIN THAT IT’S GO-TIME. TIME TO WRITE. TIME TO PLACE YOUR FINGERS ON THE KEYBOARD AND GET TO WORK.
Think about the temperature, what you’re wearing (comfortable clothes Vs. business attire), the lighting, the room, the position of your feet, the noise level, the beverage by your laptop (peppermint or green tea for me, usually). Tune the room to a certain pitch, so to speak, and you’ll subconsciously put yourself in the mood to write.
Okay, I realize that not everyone can set up a predictable workspace every single day. If you have kids, they might interrupt your quiet writing habitat. If you usually write at home, but are out of town for a week, you’ll have to adapt to a new space, a new habitat. If you’re used to writing in a certain chair at your favorite coffee shop, but someone takes your seat, you’ll have to suck it up and work by the wall instead of the window.
BUT, you do have some measure of control. Put on your comfy pants, crank up the heat, grab a black coffee, and start writing!
I have a client who has studied neurology and likens such habit- and habitat-making to creating a path in the snow. A new path can be difficult to walk, but as you repeat your steps, day-by-day, the path widens and becomes easier.
Create a familiar rhythm—and a familiar environment—for your writing and you’ll find that your brain will be primed to write. You’ll sail down your well-trodden path in the snow.
AND NOW…HERE’S WHERE I TAKE ALL THE ADVICE I JUST DOLED OUT AND STOMP IT TO PIECES:
I’ve found that a writing habitat is generally a good thing, but sometimes, I thrive on change and new environments. Sometimes, getting out of my comfort zone is precisely what I need (especially if I’m in a writing funk).
In those cases, I burn my writing habitat to the ground and do something completely new. I’ll write on paper, instead of my laptop. I’ll drink wine, instead of tea. I’ll go someplace noisy and attempt to work without my headphones.
Just like a hay field needs the occasional fire to burn out the weeds and start over, so too do I need a radical change in habitat.
What about YOU? Do you have other methods for keeping up your writing momentum? Please share! And let me know if you give any of these methods a try.
Kate Bitters is a Minneapolis-based author and freelance writer. She is the author of Elmer Left, Ten Thousand Lines, and He Found Me. One of her proudest/nerdiest moments was when Neil Gaiman read one of her short stories on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater.