Since before I can remember, I’ve wished I could figure out the perfect writing routine. I love to write, and I love to be productive, and I just want there to be a list of steps I can follow to create a bunch of great stuff every day of my life. I have not found this to be the case. The same steps that move a story forward every day for months end up making me spin my wheels for months after that. Figuring out what I need to do is an ongoing challenge, but now that I’ve accepted *that*, the experimentation is actually kind of fun. I recently managed to finish another feature-length screenplay, and in case it helps you, I thought I’d share some information about the routine I used to do it.
I like writing best in the morning. It’s just the time that feels best for me, and it’s nice to start the day having accomplished something. If it’s good, it makes anything bad that might happen the rest of the day sting a little less. If it’s bad, well, I have the rest of the day to figure out how to fix it tomorrow.
So my routine starts before I go to bed. I make coffee for the next morning. A programmable coffee maker is one of my most valuable writing tools. After setting up the coffee, I turn the Wi-Fi off on my computer, I turn off text notifications on my phone and I set it to Do Not Disturb. I have it set up so that in case of emergency, the people who need to get through can do so. But I don’t want to wake up and see anything that is going to distract me from writing.
It’s best when I’m already writing something because then I can go ahead and open that document on my computer. If I’m starting from scratch, I try to at least have an idea of what I’m going to write. I write on a Mac, and I like using the Stickies application to place a virtual Post-It note with a description of a scene next to a blank document.
If I am already writing something, I open the document and go back 3 pages from where I stopped. This is a weird thing that I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone else doing but that I find extremely helpful. I back the document up 3 pages in one window, then I open a blank document beside it. I begin my actual writing by re-typing those last 3 pages. If a line doesn’t sound right as I’m re-typing, I might tweak it, but mostly I don’t change anything. I use that re-typing as a way to get myself back into the rhythm and flow of the characters and the story. It doesn't always work, but there have been many times that I ended a session with no idea where a scene was going only to figure out after re-typing.
Speaking of backing up though, let’s go back to the night before. I turn off my notifications, I set up what I’m going to write, then I set two alarms--one for when to wake up and another for when to stop writing. I write best in bursts. If I don’t have enough time, it is difficult for me to lock in and move forward, but if I have too much, I usually reach a point where I’m just grasping at straws and either staring at the monitor or moving the story in directions I end up changing anyway. There’s also something to me about not having an alarm set that adds almost as much pressure as not having any time. Knowing that the session is going to end motivates me to do something. Regardless of what it is, I know that I’ll have time to let what I’ve written incubate between sessions.
I also have the clock hidden on my computer and try to avoid looking at the time while writing. I need to know that the session will end but not exactly when.
Figuring out the right amount of time for a session involves a lot of trial and error, and I have always had to work around the schedule of a day job. On this most recent project I found I worked best in 90 minute increments. I tried to wake up at 5:30 every morning to write before work, then take a nap when I got home and write for another 90. Last fall when I changed jobs and was able to work later, I finished up the latest draft by writing for 3 hours every morning.
So I set my alarms then I go to sleep. A lot of writers suggest writing as soon as you wake up because it helps silence your inner critic and access parts of your subconscious that help you be creative. This is definitely something where everyone is different, but it works for me--at least right now.
However, I don’t go directly from the bed to the keyboard--not any more. I did that for a few short film scripts and one feature. It takes a lot of discipline, and as disciplined as I can be about writing, I still enjoy hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep. It’s easier not to do that if I know I don’t have to write *right away*. Instead, I wake up and drink my first cup of coffee while listening to music. I try to think about the movie, but if I’m in a particularly stressful spot, I just try to focus on the music and not think about anything else. It’s meditative as well as energizing. I make playlists that fit with the tone of what I’m working on and listen to the same one every morning. Instrumental--it’s difficult for me to write if I’m listening to lyrics.
After that first cup of coffee, it’s “ready or not, here I come.” Again, it’s easier if there is material to re-type, but even if I’m starting from scratch I can gain some confidence by remembering that as crappy as it is at first, I’m going to be able to tweak it until I’m happy with it. I write until the alarm goes off, then when it does it’s “pencil’s down” even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes the best I can hope for is being in the middle of a sentence! If I’m in the middle of a sentence, there’s a good chance I know exactly where I’m going in the next session.
This works right now, and who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and this will finally be the routine that works until the day I die. I could just as soon see myself telling you ten years from now, however, that the best way to write is 45 minutes every other day, longhand, drinking green tea in a public library. The important thing, once again, is that you figure out what works for you. And if it’s not working any more, I think you have to find that balance of being patient with the process and trying new things. Don’t get so bogged down in routine that you stifle your creativity, but use it to quell your anxiety and keep you pointed in a positive direction.
This article is part of an ongoing series where we ask local writers to outline their process of writing a script. More entries to come.