Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

by James Scott Bell

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

You know me. I’m a quota guy. I call that the best writing advice I ever got. It’s the reason I can look back over 25 years and see all these books lined up.

I write 6,000 words a week. I divide that into six days so I can take one day (usually Sunday) off. If I miss a day for some reason, I make up the deficit on the other days. Since 2000 I’ve kept a record of my daily, weekly, and yearly word count on a spreadsheet.

Every now and then I’ll have a week where I do very little writing, if any. I highlight those weeks on the spreadsheet and note the reason. One time it was pneumonia. Another time it was a week-long conference. Most recently it was a trip to Ireland with my wife and daughter. I give myself a pass in these instances.

Aren’t I nice?

Most days, however, I try to write first or second thing in the morning. If I can hammer out a “Nifty 350” or a “Furious 500,” the rest of the writing day is so much easier. Some days the words flow. Other days writing feels like trying to jog in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits.

You all know what I mean.

After 25 years of this, I dare say I’m familiar with just about every mental condition of the writing life.

So today I want to talk about two mind tricks that will help you get going on days when those snow shoes are attached.

  1. Fifteen Minutes

In the current (October, 2017) Writer’s Digest, David Corbett interviews Michael Connelly. At the end he asked Connelly for his best advice for aspiring writers. Connelly said:

I’d pass along what I learned from Harry Crews, who was my creative writing teacher at the University of Florida. He said if you want to be a writer you have to write every day, even it’s only for 15 minutes. It was the “15 minutes” that hit home. You have to keep the story fresh in your mind; you can’t let it slip away.

A few days ago I was avoiding the blank screen. I remembered the Connelly quote. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “At 11 a.m., I will give fifteen minutes to writing.” That felt doable. It wasn’t a heavy burden.

So at 11:00 I sat down and started typing. I noticed it wasn’t long before I was into the story again. When I next looked at the clock it was 11:25 and I’d typed 654 words.

  1. The One-Inch Frame

This idea comes from Anne Lamott and her book on writing, Bird by Bird. She writes about having an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

This has worked for me, too. If I bring my focus down to just one thing, and forget about the big picture that is an entire novel, it feels easier to accomplish. Invariably, after I fill that frame, I want to keep going. So I’ll write to another one-inch frame. After that I’m usually off to the races and the words flow again.

As Yogi Berra once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” The same goes for writing, especially if it’s something you want to do long term. That’s why I wrote a whole book on the mental game of writing.

Next time you’re stuck because you just don’t feel like clacking the keyboard, give yourself fifteen minutes or a one-inch frame. You can do that much, and you’ll probably end up doing much more.

So what about you? What tricks do you use to get yourself going when the going gets tough?

25 thoughts on “Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

  1. “You have to keep the story fresh in your mind; you can’t let it slip away.”

    How true this is–not just for the story itself but you lose your grip on all the research that goes into a story if you don’t regularly come back to the project, & that drives me insane because I have to spend more time re-familiarizing myself with the material. Such a waste of precious time! GRR!!!!!!!

    Having now been “back on the wagon” of writing daily for the last 35 days, I don’t use a time trick but a word count trick. To get myself back in the groove, I simply ask myself to write at least 25 words a day. I’ve never written that low a word count on any of those 35 days. Granted, a couple of days it wasn’t a lot more than that, but you can produce more than you think once you sit your butt down and put pen to paper (and that’s my latest thing–I seem driven to use pen and ink, rather than computer).

    The last 10 months have seen a slow re-tooling of my life after a major life change. I may not win any awards for high word count, but I’m producing. Period. For that matter, I thought ‘d convinced myself that my fiction writing days were over & that I was switching to non-fiction. But this darn novel series just keeps intriguing me & I gotta go after it. AND I’m slowly but steadily feeling my way into writing my first non-fic. And I’m finally at a place where I believe it will happen.

    Writing a little each day puts the confidence in motion to do just that.

    • “I may not win any awards for high word count, but I’m producing. Period.”

      Bravo, BK. That’s absolutely the ticket. No matter what the word count, the steady production is what it’s all about. Onward!

  2. Thanks for the motivation, Jim.

    My #1 trick is to show up here every Sunday, even If I don’t have time to comment. Ninety percent of the time there’s teaching that reinvigorates my determination to keep at it.

    #2 – I keep a journal at my bedside to look at each evening when I’m doing my reading. I’ve never succeeded at writing every day. I read the Michael Connelly interview in Writer’s Digest, and I, too, was impressed with the line about the importance of keeping the story fresh in your mind. So on the days when I don’t write, I review my journal and brainstorm new twists and turns that aren’t already in the outline. It helps keep me in the story, and it makes my next writing day more productive.

    Thanks for the motivation, for recharging our battery for the coming week.

    • Steve, I love your #1. We’re happy to be here for that.

      The journaling idea is a good way to keep the story fresh even if you’re not putting down the words. In fact I like to keep a novel journal that I jot in before I start to write. We’ve just got to be careful not to let journaling be a pleasant way to keep us from producing!

    • I like that idea, Steve–reviewing your journal even on the days you don’t write to keep it fresh.

      And yes, I concur–TKZ is a valuable tool for keeping up motivation. I keep up with TKZ even if I only visit other writing blogs sometimes.

  3. During my writing day, I write Americanized haiku. My concentration is putting thoughts into 17 syllables–the 5/7/5/ ideal haiku pattern. Sometimes, I will add a season and a plant or flower of some kind, but I also am just as likely to add a Glock, a Howitzer, a 75-mm recoilless rifle, or a lab puppy, preferably blond and hungry. My haiku is never going to make me a national treasure of Japan, but it does give me a thought that I can probably use somewhere.

    I keep them in a journal full of scratched-out starts, tac-tac-toe games on the right side of the blue line, a memory or appointment here and there. I use loan words, and anything else I can think of.

    Tides and roar out there,
    the new start of times, seasons
    begin way out there.

    A devil of green
    goes down under blade and scythe,
    haw, the monster dies.

    Watashi no shōri

    • “Sometimes, I will add a season and a plant or flower of some kind, but I also am just as likely to add a Glock, a Howitzer, a 75-mm recoilless rifle…”

      Love it, Jim. A grest little device for accessing regions of the brain.

      Call Hallmark!

  4. Thanks for the stimulus. I’ve been almost exclusively editing/revising my back list of short (and short-short) stories, but I’m going to try to do at least a one-inch frame each day on the novel. (I loved _Bird by Bird_.) I’m not sure where the novel is going yet or if it’s going anywhere. I’m reading _The Lincoln Lawyer_ now and, though I like writing crime stories, I despair of ever achieving that kind of knowledge of the criminal justice system. I’m trying to find a novel-length story I can write that doesn’t require that knowledge yet isn’t naive or wrong. So in the meantime, at least a one-inch square each day.

    • Just remember that Connelly, a former reporter, has the luxury of endless research and talking to experts. He thus gets things right most of the time (though he does get some things wrong that only a lawyer would notice).

      A good expert opinion is gold if you can find it. And usually, you can.

  5. Amazing how often serendipity strikes and TKZ has just the post I need to read. I’m trying to get back into my book after a few days away from the keyboard and it is tough! I absolutely do lose the immediacy of the story and will struggle a few days to get back into the groove. Meanwhile it’s a grind!

  6. Hi James!
    I tend to tell myself I just have to fill one page, even if it’s not good. One page seems do-able to me, and if I do a whole page and only get a few good sentences out of it, that’s a few good sentences I didn’t have before.

    Love your books and your posts!


  7. Jim, I was discouraged to realize I needed to rewrite a significant portion of a novel. The “one inch picture frame” analogy may help me get over the “procrastination-itis” that has over come me. Thanks.

  8. Your “trick” reminds me of one of my fave take-to-heart advice, from Walter Mosley (which I wrote about here a while back) — you have to re-enter the imaginary world of your novel every day or you lose the emotional thread. Even if it is just to go back and read what you wrote yesterday, you have to keep connected. That imaginary world is so ethereal that if you leave it for too long, it fades away like Brigadoon.

    So that said, off I go…

  9. Having been in the final editing phase of the novel, which means sitting in front of the computer and letting Word read it to me (that nasty voice NEVER misses anything), and then getting 21 chapters of my next audiobook to listen to (and my narrator DOES miss a word here and there, so it’s another case of listening to every word), my poor WIP has languished. However (she says pretending to be confident), since the novella is the next book in the same series as the audiobook, I am at least semi-immersed in the tiny town of Mapleton.

  10. What a great post and thread. ALWAYS relevant. Prioritizing writing is always a challenge for me. Prioritizing anything is a challenge, but I can’t write worth a damn on ADHD meds. I recently got a full year, write-on calendar with all my deadlines on it and hung it on the wall right in front of my desk. It really helps me to focus.

    I also have several writer friends I check in with during the week. If one of us is feeling stuck, we send out a call–it usually results in a sprint that gets us going.

    The fifteen-minute window is a terrific tool, too. One of my favorite decluttering gurus says, “You can do anything for fifteen minutes.”

    • Always good to have a little help from your friends, Laura. I also like the calendar idea. I used to tape a yearly calendar on my office door with my deadlines on it. Now that I’m under mostly self-imposed deadlines, I think I might try that again. Thanks for mentioning it.

  11. Good tricks — thanks, Jim. The key really is to stay connected to the story. One trick I use when I’m away and unable to write, like at a convention or as recently, sitting with my mother in a hospital, is to look for three things each day that I can give my characters. It may be an emotional experience, a gesture that conveys an emotion, even a hair style. Carry that book journal and write them down. Draw from your life and stay connected.

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