How to Increase Your Productivity When You Don’t Feel Productive

by James Scott Bell

Sometimes it’s just plain hard to write. Like when you’re sick. Or feeling drained from a job. I recently went through a season of this, a mix of some medical stuff and general lethargy. For the first time in 25 years, I found myself missing my weekly quota disturbingly often.

It made me mad. I’ve always tried to stay in the tradition of the great pulp writers, who had to produce or they wouldn’t eat.

Erle Stanley Garner routinely wrote a million words a year.

John D. MacDonald was known as the writer with the red-hot typewriter.

My keyboard was getting cold. So I had to go back and re-establish some disciplines. Here they are:

  1. Plan the next day’s writing the night before

At night, when I’m always too spent to produce more, I take just a few minutes to think about what I’ll write tomorrow. Hemingway famously said he’d leave off writing midsentence, so he could take off running the next day.

So I think about the scene I’m going to write next. I give it some structure brainstorming: Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.

Then I’ll write one sentence. Just one. And that’s where I start when morning comes. Which brings me to tip #2:

  1. Sleep

We all know that good, restorative sleep makes a big difference in our daily lives. We also know sleep problems are rife, especially in the anxiety-inducing world we live in.

That’s why there’s a boom in sleep products. The most common ingredient is melatonin. I like to manage my melatonin naturally. I try to get ten to fifteen minutes of sunlight between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. (good for Vitamin D, too). I also try to keep off the blue light of phone and computer and TV screens before bed. If I do some computer or watch some TV, I wear yellow-tint glasses. This renders color movies or shows a bit, well, yellowish. But I can live—and sleep—with that.

Now here’s JSB’s secret tip for a good night’s sleep: Quercetin. I pop an 800mg tab half an hour before I hit the pillow. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night.

And here is an added benefit: Quercetin is an ionophore. That means it’s a molecule that helps your cells absorb good things, like zinc. Another ionophore is hydroxychloroquine. Remember the suppression of HCQ at the beginning of Covid? Don’t get me started on the political and medical malpractice of that. HCQ, like quercetien, helps the cells absorb zinc which, along with D, is the Praetorian Guard of the immune system.

Thus the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples are a great source of quercetin. That’s why all those apple-egg-meat eating farmers never got sick.

  1. Write first thing in the morning

Well, second thing. First thing is make the coffee. Mrs. B and I spend devotional time together, so I get up earlier and knock out a Nifty 250 (or 350 if I’m going good) before she joins me in the living room. I sometimes do this on my laptop. I used to do it on my beloved AlphaSmart. But Alphie is showing his age lately, so I invested in a very cool Macally wireless keyboard that has a slot for your phone or tablet. I write my words in Google Docs.

Getting a 250 or 350 jump on the day makes hitting the quota so much easier.

I’ll sometimes do some morning pages to get the engine started. This often results in a new idea for a story. [Note: I don’t count morning pages in my quota, unless I end up using some of them in a project.]

  1. Sprint

I look at 250 word chunks as “writing sprints.” Go fast. Catch my breath. Then sprint some more.

Periodically, I stand and move around, so I’m not on my butt for more than a half hour at a time.

  1. Lightly edit the previous day’s writing

I emphasize the word lightly. I’m not going to labor over things, but just go over the pages to make obvious changes. More often than not, I add new words (which counts toward my quota).

  1. More than one project

I usually have at least two projects going. My novel is primary, and if I’m going good I push through to the quota. But, like Asimov, if I get to a cul-de-sac I jump over to another project—usually a short story or a piece of nonfiction—and work on that for awhile.

Following this plan, I find myself more easily hitting my daily quota of 1k. I finished typing this at 11:07 a.m. Friday, and my word count is 1754. Now I can look forward to lunch. Hawaiian pizza, anyone? Ha!

What about you? What do you do to stay productive, even if you’re not feeling like it?

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise?