Writing Rituals, Order and Routine

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Over the last couple of months I witnessed first hand the power of order and ritual in my writing – or, more correctly, I witnessed what happens when order turns to disorder and the ritual of planning and creating disappears. All this because I agreed to step up and volunteer to be president of my sons’ elementary school parent teacher organization and in a giant ‘poof!’ of hot air all my creative order and energy disappeared with it. 

Taking stock after a couple of months I now realize just how important order, routine (and time!) is to my creativity – and how I have to reclaim them all, in order to re-establish the balance we all struggle to maintain between our writing life and our ‘other life’.

This fact was solidified when I read David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘The Good Order‘ – though this opinion piece veers into politics – it was the idea that creative people need to build and maintain their own order and routine that resonated with me – as well as the fact that doing so can be surprisingly hard (which the last few months have certainly demonstrated!). This op-ed piece also referenced a book entitled ‘Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” complied by Mason Currey (whose website on creative people’s daily routines I encourage you all to visit – if only to read first hand how many artists face their work with deliberation, ritual and routine). 

Many writers establish very strict routines in order to get their writing done. Anthony Trollope was at his writing desk by 5:30am and insisted on completing 250 words every fifteen minutes for the few hours he had before his day job started at the post office. Trollope produced a staggering 49 novels in 35 years writing this way. Stephen King gets up at the same time each day, has a glass of water and his vitamins, and sits at the same seat at his desk, where his papers are arranged in the same way each day, before he starts to write. King says this helps tell his mind this is time to start dreaming (a sentiment I love by the way!).  When John Grisham was first starting out, he would arrive at his legal office by 5:30am each weekday to write with a goal of completing a page a day. He says his rituals then were “silly and brutal but very important”.

Since volunteering my time and seeing it evaporate just as quickly, I now need to reestablish a new set of writing rituals and routines. I’ve never been one to have any real ritual beyond what I call the art of showing up with my bum in the seat and my fingers on the keyboard each day – but now I need to establish a new order and a renewed sense of discipline. I’m even contemplating setting my alarm clock so I won’t be able to let my volunteer time bleed into my creative time. 

So I’m turning to you my TKZers – how do you set your writing routine? Have you had to ‘reset’ that routine when circumstances changed and you suddenly found your writing time being eroded? If so, how have you gone about establishing a new routine or order?  

Rituals and Superstititions

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I remember hearing a talk given by a historical writer who went into great detail about how she got herself prepared to write each day. Her rituals included mood lightning, music, incense, and a few historically appropriate artifacts to get her into the mood, and I remember thinking “what?! I don’t have the luxury of time for all of that, I just have to sit down and write!”. But in many ways that’s not strictly speaking true. I was thinking about it this morning and realized that, like many writers, I do have my own set of rituals and superstitions that form part of the creative process that leads to sitting down, facing the empty page, and writing.

First of all, I have to mentally prepare myself – that means from the moment I get up the words are already forming. In the shower I’m formulating sentences and by the time I’m in the car on the way back from school I feel the ghosts of my characters coming to take their seats. I’m mentally rehearsing for when I finally sit down and write…and when I do I have  a separate notebook for each new novel. I have a scrapbook too – in which I jot down historical notes and cut and paste maps or photographs. When I write in long hand, which I sometimes do rather than type, it has to always be done in a rolling-ball or  fountain pen as I hate ballpoint pens (I used to only write in ink using a fountain pen until my dog Hamish chewed it to bits…) I always write at home, never in cafes, and always in total silence.

Okay, so I admit it’s a pretty lame ritual. I’m not up at the crack of dawn like some writers who get their best work done at 4am, and if I had my choice I wouldn’t be up at 2am either (although I often end up writing this late out of necessity).  I don’t write in a shed like Roald Dahl or use ballpoint pen on A4 paper with only two punch holes (not four) like Philip Pullman. I don’t have an antique hour glass like Dan Brown that I use to mark the time (nor do I do a session of push ups or sit ups either!). I also usually write fully clothed (unlike John Cheever  who apparently wrote in his underwear). So I guess I fall on the rather dull end of the writing ritual scale.

But how about you? Do you have any  specific writing rituals? Are you superstitious (or OCD…) and insist on anything specific when you write? 

Magic words

By Joe Moore

WARNING: This post is not about self-publishing or gatekeeping or Amazon or e-books or all the other stuff we’ve been thrashing about over the last week or so.

It’s about magic.

Recently I was invited to speak during career week to third and fifth graders at a local elementary school on what it’s like to be a writer. Frankly, I expected only a handful of kids to show any interest while most would probably react with boredom. After all, how could I compete with the fireman and his Dalmatian that were the previous guests? I was pleasantly surprised to find classroom after classroom packed with genuinely interested kids who paid attention, asked great questions, and promised to go home and start writing their stories. I found out a few days later that some actually did.

I began my presentation by telling them that at the end I would reveal the two magic words every great writer uses to create great stories. This was my hook that kept them listening, and it worked.

The two magic words are: What if?

I’ve used them to create the premise of 6 novels, my two current works-in-progress and many short stories. Here’s a sample:

What if someone used the DNA found in the Holy Grail to clone Christ? THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY

What if a 5000-year-old relic revealed the secret to surviving Armageddon? THE LAST SECRET

What if a quantum computer could bring down all the resources of the world and throw nations into chaos? THE HADES PROJECT

What if a group of state-sponsored terrorists could deliver a lethal virus with something as innocent as a cough or sneeze? THE 731 LEGACY

What if someone was stealing the burial remains of the most infamous mass murderers in history in order to genetically regenerate them into an army of killers? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES

What if the search for an Old Testament artifact uncovered a plot to destroy a major U.S. city with a nuclear device built by the Nazis at the end of WWII? THE BLADE

magicAs far as I’m concerned, those two words are magical. Repeating them is like an incantation that launches a spell and sets the imagination afire. They form a seed that can start growing from the moment the question is asked: What if? The two most powerful words in the craft of writing.

I keep a list of “what if” questions and ideas that I’ve accumulated over the years. They come from everywhere; the newspaper, TV, movies, books, articles. And I’ll be a lot of you guys have a similar list.

So why am I even talking about this? After all, writers already know the magic words. What I want to suggest is that you use them like I did to ignite the imagination of future writers of all ages. If revealing those two words sends a kid home with the fire to write a story, and they do, then there’s truly something magical going on. Pass on the magic words to others as often as you can. You just might be responsible for the next future New York Times bestseller. And wouldn’t that be magic!

Silly writing rituals: creativity pills

So the other day I heard a report about a new placebo study. According to researchers, placebos (sugar pills) can relieve ailments, even when a patient knows he’s taking a placebo.

Before the study, medical professionals assumed that placebos wouldn’t work if patients knew they were being given sugar pills. It turns out that assumption was wrong. In a study of patients with IBS (er, Irritable Bowel Syndrome), 60 percent of patients reported that they felt better after knowingly taking a placebo twice a day.

That day I was feeling uninspired in my writing (which probably explains why I was surfing the Internet and reading about placebo studies). So I wondered: If a placebo can cure cranky bowels, could it help me break through a minor case of writer’s block?

I decided to run my own unscientific study. I didn’t have any sugar pills on hand, so I reached for the next best thing: my daughter’s jelly beans.  I figured that labeling and ritual had to be part of the reason why placebos work, so I poured the jb’s into an empty prescription  container. (And I have to report that jelly beans look extremely potent when they’re staring up at you from a bottle of blood thinner medication.) Then I put a nice label on it marked “Creativity.”

As part of my morning ritual I started taking two “creativity pills” with my coffee. As I solemnly popped the beans, I paused to meditate for a few moments about my writing goals for the day.

And by God, it worked. I blasted right through that writer’s block. I wrote four pages that day, and haven’t looked back since.

The only thing is, now I’m afraid to stop taking the beans. I think I’m hooked. For my next batch I’m thinking of getting those special-order M&Ms–the ones you can order with little messages written on them. I’ll get them labeled with something like, “Writing is rewriting,” or whatever fits.

What about you? Do you have any silly rituals that help you get your creativity engine going?

And if you happen to be in the market for a writing pill, I can get you a great deal on a placebo.

Writing rituals

Most writers have rituals, little warm-up routines that we must complete before daily writing commences. Our personal writing rituals, which can sometimes be elaborate, are considered sacred to the creative process. Victor Hugo reportedly wrote in the nude. Ben Franklin is said to have written in his bathtub. When he was working as a lawyer, John Grisham rose at 5 a.m., arrived at the office by 5:30, and then wrote a daily quota of 1 page per day.

When I was working a day job, my ritual was similar to Grisham’s. I would rise by 5 a.m., get the coffee going, then sit down at the dining room table and work until I had at least one page done. Then on to my day job.

Now that my day job has been offshored to China (thank you, globalization), and I find myself with much more free time, my writing ritual has inflated like a CEO’s salary. In addition to coffee I now do some Internet surfing before settling down to writing. Depending on my level of motivation, surf’s up anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours. I also feel a strange compulsion to sharpen every pencil in the house before I hit the keyboard. I think it’s a leftover ritual from high school, when I would rise at 4 a.m. to do my homework. I never did any work at night, and still don’t. My pencil-sharpening compulsion isn’t nearly as time-consuming as the ritual of a friend of mine, who is a successful writer. A major procrastinator, she cleans her entire house before settling down to work. If the house is already clean, she’ll organize her drawers.

Here’s a little ode to ritual by MsWriteNow. And then tell us–what is your writing ritual, and how important is it to you in terms of getting your work done?