Naps, Breaks, Vacations, and Drifting

Counter-intuitive Routes to Creativity and Productivity

 By Steve Hooley

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah has passed

One week until Christmas. Twelve days after Hanukkah. Family gatherings, parties, and travel, all will cause interruptions in our writing schedules. Are these interruptions good or bad? Do they help or hurt our creativity? Do they increase or decrease our productivity?

As I contemplated a topic for this post, I remembered hearing of references to the benefit of breaks from writing to increase creativity and productivity. I had always been somewhat skeptical, being more of a puritanical believer in “put butt in chair” and write. I thought this might be a good time to take a look at some of that research on breaks.

Before I start on the topic today, I should mention that JSB wrote on a parallel topic this past Sunday, 12/12/21 – “Ways to Write When You’re Not Writing.”

Back to today’s post:

I found an article in Scientific American that summarized some of the recent research. And an article in Writer’s Digest, (Writer’s Digest, May/June 2021, pgs. 40-44, “The Curiously Effective Way to Beat Procrastination,” Michael La Ronn), had caught my eye with a discussion of “drifting.” These two articles are the basis for today’s post.

Summary of research over last ten years

In the article from Scientific American, titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” author, Ferris Jabr, begins with a brief intro: “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks, and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”

He describes what happens when we don’t take those breaks, and defines “cerebral congestion” as that “sense of so much coming at you at once, so much to process, that you can’t deal with it all.” He then shifts to the benefit of long periods of time (vacation) away from the cause of the stress.

Apparently, people in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong take the fewest days off work each year (10 days), versus European Union (20 days) or the Netherlands (26 days).

Along with the intuitive belief that such continuous busyness is not healthy, there is now much empirical evidence from studies that “the benefits of vacation, meditation, and time spent in parks, gardens, and other peaceful outdoor spaces, along with napping and unwinding while awake, can sharpen the mind.” It is argued that downtime restores the brain’s attention, motivation, productivity, and creativity.

Unfortunately, the benefits of vacation may fade within two to four weeks.

Boys in the Basement and the Default Mode Network

The really interesting research has revealed how much the brain goes on working when we are not concentrating, working, or focusing. A “mysterious and complex circuit stirs to life when people are daydreaming.” This is called the Default Mode Network (DMN).

Immordino-Yang, a research scientist at USC, in a review of research on the DMN, argues that “when we are resting, the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes…”

Other research suggests the Default Mode Network is more active in highly creative people.

Power Naps

So, if we need to turn our DMN loose to do creative things for our brain, we should take more naps. Right? Many studies have established that naps “sharpen concentration and improve the performance of both sleep-deprived and the fully rested…”

Here, the interesting data is in the length if naps. One study looked at 5, 10, 20, and 30-minute naps. The five-minute naps barely improved alertness. Ten minutes and higher increased performance, but the 20 and 30-minute naps were associated with half an hour or more of “sleep inertia” (post-nap grogginess). The study concluded that 7-10-minute naps were best.

 Restorative Breaks and Mindfulness Training

Here’s my favorite. Breaks taken in a natural outdoor setting (vs. in a setting full of city noise and chaos) led to a 3-times greater improvement in memory. I wonder how the sound of my chain saw (requiring ear protection) affects the benefit of the “natural outdoor setting.”

And, finally, “mindfulness training” (sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment) is believed to “improve mental health, hone one’s ability to concentrate, and strengthen memory.”

 The Bonus, “Drifting”

This if from the article in Writer’s Digest. When I read this article several months ago, I shook my head. I didn’t know what to think. I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margins: “What!?” “A disease becomes a cure.” “Really?” And “Procrastinate, just not too long.”

But, after reading the other article on brain research and the benefits of taking breaks, I’m trying to be more open-minded about this approach.

If you haven’t read this article, I urge you to do so. Basically, the author is arguing for an approach to writer’s block where you “give your mind permission to do whatever it wants to fuel your creativity. Simply put, you let it be curious.” (Drifting). In the author’s case, drifting took the form of three days off just to let his curiosity explore.

Near the end of the article, he lists 5 ways to “Drift Like a Pro:”

  • Read a Book About Something New
  • Consume Other Content
  • Meet New People
  • New Experiences
  • Travel

And in a final section, he writes, “Teach yourself to drift, and enjoy the journey.”

It sounds too good to be true. I don’t know if I could trust myself to drift purposefully or return from the journey. I worry that it could be addictive, or the easy way out.

 

Okay, time for your thoughts:

  1. What kind of “restorative” breaks have you taken or will you take over the Hanukkah – Christmas holiday?
  2. What type of naps, breaks, vacation, meditation, or drifting do you regularly practice to maintain your creativity and productivity during the rest of the year?
  3. BONUS POINTS – What do you think about “drifting?”

 

This is my last post before the Christmas – New Year’s break. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Productive/Creative New Year! See you in 2022.

 

7 Tips For Producing More Words

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know this to be true: to make serious dough as a writer means a) writing a lot; and b) writing well. This latter consideration is why TKZ has been around as long as it has (and we’re proud to say we are once again a Writer’s Digest Best 101 Websites for writers). We care about our craft and love helping writers get better.

As for writing a lot, most of you know that my best advice is writing to a quota. I’ve done this for 25 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet my daily, weekly, and yearly output. I used to go for a daily quota, but would feel guilty when I had to miss a day for some reason. Now I use a weekly number, and divide that by six days (I take one day off to recharge). If I miss a day I can readjust and add more words to the other days. 

I’ve also made a study over the years of writing efficiency. I don’t like wasting time when I write. I want to get the words out and stories completed. Here are some of the things I do. Maybe a few of them will help you, too. 

  1. Writing Sprints

Sometimes you can sit down at the keyboard and pound out 1,000 words or more in a state of delightful flow. Other times writing seems like walking in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits. On days like that it feels daunting to contemplate 1,000 words. So I break it down into writing sprints.

A sprint is 250 words. That’s all. A nifty 250. Your Ficus tree can write 250 words. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree. Just do it.

Then rest. Catch your breath. Walk around a bit. Then come back and do another 250. 

Repeat until your quota is done.

Remember this rule, too: when you write, don’t stop to edit. Keep going. Which leads us to #2: 

  1. Place Holding

Often in your writing you’ll come to a spot where you’ll need to spend time on things like research, coming up with a name for a new character, specific details of the setting, and so on. When I come to such a point I put in a placeholder (three asterisks ***). That way I can keep on writing and later come back during editing time and fill in the info. 

I might be writing along and put in: ***POLICE PROCEDURE. This tells me there’s a specific detail I need to research on that point.

Or a new character comes in. I might use a descriptive word and do the name thing later: ***SNARKY. My placeholder brings me to this spot, I created the name, then do find (SNARKY) and replace with the name.

This keeps me writing “in the zone.” 

  1. Scene Storming

If you take just 2 -3 minutes to “scene storm”—brainstorming with a scene goal in mind—you’ll write a scene with an organic connection to the overall story and, as a bonus, save time in the revision stage. Yes, you’ll need to edit your immortal prose, but it won’t necessarily be a macro edit. In other words, you usually won’t have to throw out entire scenes and write new ones.

To storm a scene, ask three basic questions. 

First, what is the viewpoint character’s OBJECTIVE in the scene? What does she want? If she doesn’t want anything, don’t even think about writing that scene. 

The objective can be external or internal. 

Examples of an external objective:

  • Question a witness
  • Confront a boss
  • Hide from a stalker
  • Get a weapon
  • Avoid being followed
  • Steal the money
  • Gain access to a location

Examples of an internal objective:

  • Figure out the next move
  • Get a handle on emotions
  • Analyze the situation
  • Relive a memory (e.g., flashback)

Next, come up with a list of potential OBSTACLES to gaining the objective. This is where conflict, external and/or internal, develops. Obstacles can come from another character who has an agenda directly opposed to your Lead. Or it can be something physical, like the bridge is out or the car won’t start.

Finally, what will be the OUTCOME of your scene? Success or setback? Usually the latter makes for greater suspense, but occasionally you’ll want a success…so long as it leads to more trouble! 

My favorite example of this is from the movie The Fugitive. Remember when Richard Kimble is posing as a hospital custodian? He’s on the trauma floor when a doctor asks him to help by taking a kid on a gurney down to an observation room. But he knows from what the kid is saying and a sneak look at the x-rays that the kid needs to be operated on, stat. In the elevator he changes the orders and delivers the kid to an operating chamber, saving his life. Success! But he was observed looking at the x-rays by the doctor, and she confronts him and starts calling for security. Now he has to make an escape. More trouble!

So just a few minutes considering Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome will have you writing faster because you know where you’re going. 

  1. Riff like jazz

Now and then I like to riff on an emotional moment within a scene. When I come to a place where a strong emotion is felt by the Lead, I write 100 or 200 words without stopping, finding various ways to describe the emotion. I might use metaphors, memories, smells, colors, whatever comes to mind. I write these really fast, letting the intensity of the moment drive the words. 

I analyze later, and may end up using only one or two lines. This may, at first blush, seem like inefficient writing, since I toss out a lot of it. But in this case it’s worth it, because the lines I use will be some of the best writing I’m capable of.

  1. Write something on your next project

Wait, what? You don’t have your next project ready to go? You need to be more like a movie studio! You have one novel in production (your WIP). But you also have your next “green-lighted” project, the one that will be given your full attention when the current work is finished.

If I hit a snag in my WIP, I let it rest and go over to my next project. I have it set up in Scrivener and look at my scene cards on the corkboard. I’ll choose one that calls out to me and write 250 words or so for that scene. Then back to my WIP.

In addition to your WIP and your next, you should also have several projects “in development.” Everything from one-line ideas to elevator pitches. Give these some thought every week in a dedicated “creativity time.” See my post on “Chasing a New Idea.

  1. Write dialogue only

By writing just the dialogue—and by that I mean no descriptions or action beats—you can generate a lot of words that will help develop the scene. You go back later and insert the other stuff. I know what my scene is going to be about (via scene storming). By just writing dialogue I allow my characters to improvise. It’s fun to hear what they come up with.

  1. Drink stronger coffee

Hey, it worked for Balzac. Of course, his 50-cup-a-day habit led to his untimely death from caffeine poisoning. But he did produce the work!

My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, of course. Well, a little. I really mean this tip to be: take care of your brain. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat salmon and blueberries, nuts and dark chocolate. 

And yes, “the science” says that moderate coffee intake is good for the gray cells, and for other things like reducing the risk of Type-2 diabetes and liver disease. So enjoy a cup or two of joe as you write. Your brain will thank you as your fingers fly across the keyboard. 

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some writing to do on my WIP. If you have any tips that have helped you with writing production, please share them with us!

How to Work on More Than One Book at a Time

The most critical thing a writer does is produce. — Robert B. Parker
When I started writing seriously, after ten years of believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction, I decided I had no time to waste. I wanted to be prolific. So I set out to work. Looking back at 20 years of getting paid for what I write, I see three practices that have helped me more than anything.
First, a quota. I’ve always written to a quota and that, IMO, is the most important thing a writer can put into practice.
Second, I systematically and consistently studied the craft. I read novels with intention, examining author technique. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, went to conferences, devoured books on writing and practiced what I learned.
Third, I always worked on more than one project at a time. That’s what I want to talk about today.
No publishing house or agent is looking for one good book. They are looking for authors who can keep on writing them. Which is why it pains me when I see the same faces at writer’s conferences who are still working on the same projects, year after year.
I am always telling writers who show me their first finished manuscript, “That’s great! Congratulations. You learn a tremendous amount finishing a novel. Now get to work on the next one. And the one after that.”
This is especially important in the new era of self-publishing. The winning indie formula is quality production over time. You want a trend line that looks like this:

Upward direction is a function of producing new work, the best you can do, in various forms (short stories, novellas, novels, non-fiction). So work on more than one project at a time.
My method is to think of myself as a mini-studio. I always have a main project (my work-in-progress, or WIP). I have several projects “in development.” That means I’ve started making notes on character and plot, and perhaps a preliminary story board (I use Scrivener’s index card view for this). Projects in development go into a file I call “Front Burner.”
Then I have a file of hundreds of ideas I’ve collected over the years. Usually one or two lines. Sometimes just a title. I scan these ideas from time to time, looking for the ones that catch my fancy and, if they do, I make a few more notes. If I start to like something, I move it to the Front Burner.
As far as the writing itself goes, my first priority each day is to my WIP. I want to meet my word quota on that project. Part of my day will usually be spent editing a finished work. To do this, I print out a hard copy. I still like to be able to cross out and write notes on paper.
Another portion of my day will be spent on a Front Burner project. I prioritize these. I want to concentrate on the ones that meet this formula:
Desire to Write + Commercial Potential
Somewhere in the intersection of those two things is the project I “green light” for writing in full. I lean heavily on the desire line, because I believe you write best what you’re passionate about. For example, I love writing my Jimmy Gallagher boxing stories. They only make me Starbucks money, but I write them because I want to. Eventually there will be enough for a collection. I write the Sister J vigilante nun series because the concept was too good to pass up. (Note: I’ll have Force of Habit 2: And Then There Were Nuns out later this month. And a new Jimmy Gallagher next month). 
Now, I realize time is an issue for many writers. There’s the day job, the family, the remodel, the PTA. But that doesn’t mean a writer cannot put into practice a personal plan for prolificity (like all those p words? That was fun to write, but there’s no money in it). Here is what I suggest:
1. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Up that by 10%. Make that your writing quota.
2. Keep a notebook (or electronic equivalent) with you, and train yourself to think “What if?” all the time. Write down lots and lots of ideas in this notebook. The key to creativity is to take in a ton of ideas without judgment, and only later choose the best ones.
3. Spend a few hours each month looking at your idea file and expanding the ones you really like into a few paragraphs.
4. Try this: write like mad on your WIP. Take a break. Then write like mad on another project. Go back and forth.
5. Finish your novel. If you’d like some help with it, I will soon be offering you a way to do that. Check here for more information.
6. Revise your novel. At the same time:
7. Get to work on your next novel (or novella or story).
8. Never stop.
A plan like this, consistently followed, will please and amaze you. And you will be a real writer, one who produces words. That’s the main ticket in this game. Everything else is secondary.

What about you? Do you have some sort of system you follow for consistent productivity? How do you choose what projects to write? 
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My new thriller DON’T LEAVE ME is available here: