by Chris GavalerInspiration is a luxury. I do not sit down at my computer spiritually aglow, fingers tapping in ecstasy. I think it's a bad model for writers. Novels are more like houses, the process of constructing one a long and labor-intensive activity. There are sparks of insight, moments of crystalline clarity, but more often writing resembles brick-laying, a word, a sentence, a paragraph at a time. That's not a complaint. I love writing. I love the daily labor of assembling language, even if the finished manuscript is only a two-inch high paper edifice when it's done spooling from my printer.
By inspiration writers usually mean either the moment when an idea for a writing project crystalizes or, more importantly, the motivation which keeps them working at it afterwards, brick by brick. Both are acquirable skills, the second more critical. Lots of folks have ideas for novels. A few start them; far fewer complete them. What's needed is not inspiration from some otherly source but commitment, something you supply yourself.
I set my alarm for six A.M. six days a week. When my circumstances allow it, I work until noon (necessary and inevitable interruptions included). I used to work in the evenings and weekends. Many authors describe exact rituals, writing only at certain motivating hours. If that applies to you, great. I don't think it matters when you schedule writing time, as long as you have reasonably predictable slots. If every week is up for grabs, then it is too easy for writing to get bumped, especially if you are in a difficult project or, worse, between projects.
The schedule still applies and, in fact, is more important if you are cycling through a mental block. It's the writing time, not the actual writing, that matters. If you spend an hour with your fingers on the keyboard staring at a blank screen, it still counts. It sounds weird, but I would call that hour productive. So-called writer's block is a misnomer, an outward symptom of your brain working on something. Be ready to catch the flow when the gate opens again. Abandon the schedule and your commitment to writing, and it may not.
Short and long term goals help in the same way. When I'm in a rhythm, I know how many pages I average each time slot. There are always variables, but figure out what your pace is and make it your low-pressure expectation, the target you vary around. Observe yourself for a couple of weeks, and you'll know what you can expect monthly. I have a rough target length at the start of each project, so I know when I should be at the half way mark and on the final chapter. I began my last novel in September and tried to complete a first draft before Christmas; I needed until mid-January instead. I'm usually off a couple of weeks one direction or the other.
Goals are helpful as a means of focus. If you're prone to self-flagellation, I suggest keeping them loose. But having none allows the specific writing project and writing in general to dwindle when other pressures and preferences arise. I considered writing a "job" rather than a "hobby" long before I got published or was anywhere near publication. It was then and is now a job I enjoy immensely, but there are always bad spots. Decide in advance that you will get through them.
Once you have gotten yourself to the computer screen (or tablet if that's your preference) in a consistent manner, the next obstacle can be the blankness of the page, that imp of inertia. The first sentence is the hardest to write. For that reason, I usually skip it. I jump in somewhere else, the second paragraph, sometimes the second chapter, whatever is most appealing to write at that moment. It's much easier to go back later and fill in the "beginning." This counts for the overall novel as well as smaller sections, each new chapter presenting its own hurdle.
Skipping ahead is easier to do if you have an outline or notes for where you think you're going. Sometimes I plan meticulously, deciding every scene in advance. For Pretend I'm Not Here, I did the opposite, writing my way into the action to see what would happen. Both approaches work, but once you've worked through the initial sections (as I did), I recommend having at least a rough sketch of the overall project, and then allow it to change as radically as it needs. When I get into a tight spot, I give myself a break by going into future chapters and scribbling down groundwork, the fun-to-sketch notes that will make it easier to write in detail later.
Though no plan at all can be a problem, over-planning and over-thinking can be worse. Outlines are fine, but remember that ideas change when you try to nail them down in language. After a certain point, planning becomes a form procrastination, a way of avoiding the real work of writing, usually because you're intimidated at the prospect of starting. Again, I would just leap in anywhere and get real words down on real paper (or computer files).
Starting each day can be hard, too, especially if, like me, you're only half awake and squinting from the glare of the desk lamp. I like to leave myself a treat from the day before. It's important to have an accessible thread to pick up from where you left off, a bit of incomplete dialogue for instance. Stopping at a closure point makes starting that much harder. Begin the next chapter, at least the first paragraph, when you're still on a roll. That way you're picking up from the middle, a much more welcoming place at six o'clock in the morning.
If I was greedy the day before and left myself no easy thread, I usually jump ahead to a easy bit until I hit my stride again. There is a limit to this strategy though. I never venture far out of the chapter I'm in, and never past the next. The potential for chaos seems high. An "easy bit" for me is dialogue. I write just the spoken words, almost in play form, with a few notes that I will later expand into framing details, mostly setting description and the novelistic equivalent of "stage directions" for characters. Sometimes I draft all of the dialogue for a chapter and then work my way through again, filling in my now extensive notes.
When the need for distraction grows so intense that no "easy bit" will satisfy, I still look for a productive form of procrastination. I read that Stephen King (a severe seven-days a week writing addict) works on his primary project mornings and then in the afternoon switches to his "toy truck," any piece of writing that grabs his interest and which may or may not evolve into something worthwhile. I keep my toy trucks in a file labeled "Ideas." I may scribble down something as brief as a sentence or as long as several pages of random notes and loose outlines. Only a tiny tiny number of these ever escape into subsequent projects, but I find the distraction useful and reasonably brief. A few minutes playing with a toy truck is usually enough to satisfy that part of my brain avoiding the real writing, and then I'm refreshed and back on track.
Sometimes, however, the isolation of writing takes the heaviest toll, particularly when you are immersed in a seemingly endless project with no publication prospects in sight, and a sense of futility creeps in. You need readers. Aside from a moral boost, this has practical benefits. I try to have one or two in-process readers, people who read my work as I print each new chapter. This eliminates a feeling of isolation, and it lets you test the material early on, before you have boxed yourself into any growing problems. Often what you think is on the page is very different from what someone else will see. The reader, sadly, is always right. Find out sooner rather than later. Second and third sets of eyes find not only basic errors but a variety of plot and character inconsistencies and other awkwardnesses.
A writing group can be a great way not only to improve your writing but also to establish a sense of community and connection. There can also be too much of a good thing; too many opinions from too many people early on can be distracting. You can't satisfy everyone, and you have to learn how to balance and insert your judgments. If possible, find at least one person who can read your completed manuscript as a whole, someone who hasn't been reading installments. The reading experience is drastically different and therefore beneficial to you afterwards. Just knowing that there is someone waiting to read your novel can be a wonderful motivation, too. I must give one warning though: most people (probably many of your family members and friends) are not good at giving feedback. Choose your readers carefully.
So these are one author's tricks: a consistent schedule, predictable goals, loose plans, easy jump starts, productive procrastination and trusted readers. There's nothing very magical on the list. They are all ways of establishing your own commitment. If you choose to write, you will. If you wait for the muse to move you, you may or may not. So I recommend moving the muse yourself and manufacturing your own inspiration.
**Chris Gavaler is the author of Pretend I'm Not Here, a romantic suspense novel published by HarperCollins.