A Modest (Writing) Proposal

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Here’s a common-sense mantra for writers: Before you do anything else, Write Today First.

In theory, it’s a pretty great goal but the acronym tells a different story:

W.T.F.

Sometimes, despite good intentions, our hearts simply will not settle. My mind (not to mention my body) can be relentless in its sabotage. In fact, the best way I’ve found NOT to write a novel was TO write a novel in the first place. Which is why I’m sharing with you an experiment that worked for me last year.

In 2015 I decided to begin my day with just ten minutes of writing. After the kids left for school, I set a timer (to avoid checking the clock) and wrote in a notebook using a pencil like the dinosaurs did (to try something different).

Once the timer was set, my brain accepted that very soon I’d meet my goal. This eliminated the fear (not to mention the excuse) that I had bitten off a word-count I couldn’t chew. The time-limit forced me to move quickly; and since I wasn’t pausing to edit on my laptop, I wrote SO MUCH MORE.

This seems counter-intuitive because most of us type faster than we write; but we also waste time fiddling with first-draft sentences at the keyboard. Although I feared I’d write garbage if I couldn’t edit along the way, I often preferred what I wrote longhand (frantically and sloppily) than the mannered and overwrought paragraphs I eked out at the computer.

Occasionally—because of other obligations, errands, distractions, or procrastinations—this would be the only writing that I accomplished. Still, I told myself at least I’d done ten minutes and I was quicker to forgive myself than I had been on days when I didn’t write at all.

(Remember my slogan? I did not do nothing TM.)

But what happened more often than just a ten-minute session was this: Back at my computer desk, I’d type out the longhand pages and discover upwards of 500 new words! That’s more than an entire day’s output when I’m truly blocked and struggling.

If I had even more time (can you imagine?), I’d expand on the newly-written scene and try to end each day at a spot that provided an easy starting point for the next ten-minute session.

On mornings when I had no easy re-entry, I’d pick a side-character and write a first-person monologue. Details from their perspective rarely worked in the actual manuscript, but these pages ALWAYS provided insight into other storylines and motivations.

After a month of this routine, I tried completing my ten minutes at other times and it consistently worked for me. The hour and location didn’t matter. As long as I had my timer and my notebook, I could bang out 500 words (more or less).

This was progress made. Every. Single. Day.

Leaving my computer desk relaxed and inspired me so I wrote on a couch, in my bed, in the backyard. The paralyzing element of “work” disappeared, and I gave myself license to play with words; to come up with new plot threads and dialogue I hadn’t considered.

I also tried lighting candles and meditating beforehand, but all this did was improve the ambience and remind me I suck at meditation.

No, the key elements seemed to be the timer, the notebook, and the pencil.

Although I’m not a psychologist, I can guess why: The longhand renders output that’s authentic and straightforward; the timer offers a readily-digestible task. We writers believe we must tie ourselves to the chair with a minimum goal of WORKING FOR TWO HOURS.

But two hours = daunting. Ten minutes? Anyone can do that (without sacrificing the gym or lunch or an occasional shower).

Note: If your day is too packed to carve out even ten minutes, you’re too busy to be a writer. Embrace your current life—it’s fodder for future manuscripts—and try again in a year or two when your schedule isn’t as full. 

Bottom line: Letters for Scarlet took years to write; my current WIP, under six months. So what’ve you got to lose?

Starting on February 1st, try it for one month. Ten minutes a day with a pencil in a notebook.

Then report back here, because my writer-friend, you are not alone.

p.s. If you sign up for my once-a-month newsletter, I might love you forever and I’ll definitely send you a free copy of Running with Pencils. Click here, then don’t forget to check your inbox for the confirmation email.

34 thoughts on “A Modest (Writing) Proposal

  1. Challenge accepted. Bam!

  2. Yes! I am seriously doing this again because I have an idea for my next project…

    We can be each other’s cheerleaders (that would be a first for me).

  3. I need this. Currently curating for the makeover of my site … and writing seems to have gone awayyy.
    Ten minutes, I can spare ten minutes 😉

    • Site makeovers are tough but oh so worth it!
      I hope the physical changes will give you an emotional fresh start for your writing.

      I’m here when you’re ready. Always!

  4. Laurel

    Feb 1- challenge accepted. And thanks.

  5. Aparna Sreenivasan

    Thank you, but can I do it at the end of the day instead? When the kids go to bed?
    If so, challenge accepted.
    And once I go on sabbatical I will start my day with writing – flip it 🙂

    • Yep! That’s what I discovered – any time and any place; the timer and notebook were the keys.

      And your sabbatical will be the best thing ever.
      I’m so excited for you.

  6. I’ve been journaling for ten minutes a day for years. Sometimes these entries are labored, and sometimes they aren’t. And sometimes they turn into blog posts, and the angels sing. Why couldn’t a book?

    I knew I came here for a reason. You are a stone-cold genius.

    • *they turn into* a book. gah my addled brain

      • Also, YESWRITEABOOKYOUAREONEOFMYFAVORITEWORDSMITHS.

        (My second goal for 2017 is to use “wordsmiths” as often as possible.

    • For 2017, I’m going for stone-cold fox.
      #goals

  7. Can I tell you something? I free write 10-20 minutes every day, in a notebook, yet I haven’t been brave enough to “count” it by working on my WIP in that time frame. For February, I will try. (Nothing else is working!)

    • I totally understand this because you imagine this writing is a warm-up or practice, but I’m here to tell you when you aim it at your WIP, you might love what happens!

  8. **The longhand renders output that’s authentic and straightforward; the timer offers a readily-digestible task.**

    The awesome, Natalie Goldberg, calls this MONKEY MIND.
    It’s the cream at the top of the tin can. It’s the authentic self.
    It’s the raw shit.

    One can always edit later!!

    Julie, I love reading your posts! xx

    • Thanks, Kim!
      Right back at you.
      Writing doesn’t get any more raw and real than yours.

      XO

  9. This is totally motivating and doable!

  10. This seems so SMF easy. WTF, indeed. I’ve been struggling with time issues. Job, kid, dog, husband (who, him?), house… But ten minutes. Longhand? Mind. Blown.

    • Julie Gardner

      I hope it works for you, Cam.
      I get SO MUCH from the ten minutes; once I’ve expanded and edited, it’s a springboard for an entire day’s worth of work.
      (And at least it’s something. I hate those days where I beat myself up because I never sat down to write at all because I didn’t have *enough* time to devote, you know?)

  11. I’m thinking I can manage 10 minutes. The thing is, my hand cramps horribly after like 3. If that happens, maybe I’ll try voice recording (because really, using the computer will make me look at the words as I go and I’ll want to immediately fix/edit them BECAUSE EVEN IF NO ONE EVER READS THESE WORDS, THEY MUST BE THE BEST WORDS WORTHY OF REMAINING UNSEEN).

    • Julie Gardner

      I know exactly what you mean. I can spend hours (HOURS) reworking a single dang paragraph and make no progress.
      (And usually, this means the entire paragraph is just not working and needs to be cut.)

      The longhand prevents this and I have to forge on. I hope it works or that voice recording is a good alternative!
      I’ve never tried that. I kind of hate the sound of myself – ha!

  12. Dear Lord, lady! You’re a genius!!

    Challenge accepted. Happily!

    • Julie Gardner

      Yay! I can’t wait until March 1st to find out who got something out of this!
      So glad we’re friends.
      XO

  13. This is good solid advice, my friend.

    • Julie Gardner

      I need things to be as EASY as possible otherwise I’m too quickly daunted.
      (Or lazy.)

      Shhh.

  14. This is fascinating to me Julie! It’s also taken me (taking me!) years to finish my first novel and I would love to make the next one a more succinct process. But I despise handwriting stories. My fingers don’t work fast enough with a pen and I end up annoyed 🙂 But I may try this at the computer. 10 minutes a day is definitely doable. Thank you!

    • I think as long as you commit to NOT editing at all, this could still work for you. Ten minutes with a timer going will get your brain sparked and you will make at least SOME progress; if nothing else it’s an entrance back into your story each day that hopefully leads to more!

      Good luck (and I can’t wait to read your novel someday!).

  15. Cheryl

    I think 10 minutes of planking or squats might be less painful for me at this point! Writing hurts. Therefore I ignore it. Ten minutes of margaritas together instead?

  16. I can get behind this, ten minutes a day is a good start.

  17. I’m in!!! Just get this damn dog off of my lap as it’s biting my writing hands. And my paper. And any pens. And the computer. And my nose. Dear god.

  18. I, as usual, am doing something very very wrong. Because I write all day long, and yet… no book.

    xoxoxoxo

  19. I know this. I KNOW this. I TELL people to do this. Do I do it myself? NO.

  20. Shoot, its already past Feb. 1st. I’m doomed.

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