Michaeline: Heigh-ho, Trigger!

Queen Isabella in a luxurious riding habit on a horse, surrounded by supporters

Heigh-ho, Trigger, away! (Oh, yeah, Trigger was the cowboy’s horse. Still, same concept. Get on the horse and ride.) (Queen Isabella brought to you via Wikipedia Commons.)

I’m talking about anti-procrastination this month, and I’ve got another link-heavy post, but I hope you find it useful. Last week I talked about using hypnosis to boost your motivation. I know it sounds crazy, but many writers talk about how the process of writing is a trance. In this YouTube video, Stephen King said, “You fall into a kind of a trance if you do the same passes over and over.” He’s talking about setting up habits and triggers. Eating breakfast with his wife, having a pot of tea, and so on. These things tell his backbrain, it’s time to write.

Musician and novelist Nick Cave also called the creative process “an altered state in itself” when he talked with NPR recently. “I wake. I write. I eat. I write. I watch TV.” It’s worth listening to his interview to get a really no-nonsense sense of process (and be sure to read the transcript for extra thoughts).

So, if writing is a trance, it helps to set up triggers to put you into this trance. Triggers can be habits, talismans or conditions of the environment, and I suspect that most writers fall into them by accident, and use them almost superstitiously. If you want to go about deliberately creating triggers, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the conditions you find yourself writing in.

So, while some writers may go to great lengths to create a writing office, I want to be able to write on the go. I have a “magic carpet” mousepad that puts me in the mood for fantasy, and a mini-ritual of unpacking my computer and setting up music that tells me it’s time to write.

Talismans come in all shapes and sizes. In Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp: Or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, Mr. Earbrass has a lucky sweater that he wears backwards. (He also uses talismans for the final draft process: fresh ink, pheasant-feather pens and “two reams of the most expensive cream laid paper” – yes, this graphic novel of a novelist’s journey through a book is set in the pre-electronic age.) Other talismans could include a lucky cup or drink, or even a real talisman. I bought a good luck charm from a temple in Tokyo that is supposed to encourage enterprise, and tucked it into my computer bag. It would probably be more effective if I took it out and meditated on it for a few seconds before I began a writing session.

Habits are probably one of the most important triggers. I’ll talk more about timing next week as a trigger because it’s such a big subject.

But I think the very best trigger is simply re-reading a bit of the work, then plunging in – promising yourself that you will write 500 words, or 300 words, or 100 words, no matter what needs to be deleted afterward. Starting is often the best trigger of all.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Heigh-ho, Trigger!

  1. Whatever gets you to the keyboard is worth a try.

    In a lot of ways, I was lucky in that when I got out of college and started working, I wrote for small newspapers. Every day you had to sit down at the typewriter and bang something out—and lots of times, you had to bang out three or four or even more things before the day was over. And those stories had to be to a specified length, and they had to be turned in at a specific time. The first story I wrote, I almost had a heart attack. I was terrified it would be lousy. (It probably was lousy, but they published it anyway.) The thing about that daily grind is that writing a newspaper story requires a formula, and if you learn it, it isn’t necessarily easy, but you know what you have to do. And so you do it. This is really good training for being a novelist, because even though as a novelist you struggle to meet creative challenges in a way you don’t for small newspapers, you still have to put your butt in the chair and write it. I don’t have a talisman; I’m more of a Stephen King or Nora Roberts type of person that way. I get up, eat breakfast, turn on the computer, and know I have to get to work. And thank heavens, I have no anxiety over it. The words might be lousy, but, as we know, that’s what revision is for.

    Who knew, those little jobs so long ago would have turned out to be so handy? You’re right, Michaeline, starting—plunging in—that’s a great trigger.

    • I have fond memories of working for the school newspaper — $10 a story, and if I didn’t write enough, I didn’t eat Sunday night. Or make my housing payments. Amazing things would come up when the deadline loomed. Did it for two years.

      Then I got a different job after graduating, and fell out of the habit, I guess. There are a lot of nice things about doing newspaper articles. They are often short, and they are often done in a day (or a few hours). If you don’t know the facts, you phone someone up and find them out (and while I have considered many times “phoning up my characters” and interviewing them, it always winds up feeling too silly).

      (-: School papers aren’t the same as “real” papers. Our editors were young and often didn’t know what they were doing, and the guidance was earnest, but not always right.

      I wonder if my experiences there are helping or hurting my writing now? Gosh, I just loved doing it. I had strong motivations to get my butt in the chair, and I loved having written. (-: Not sure I want to go back to the poverty motivated situation, though. Although a little extra money for retirement is somewhere on my list of reasons for wanting to get published . . . .

      Next week I’ll talk about triggers, and one of the links talks about the now vs. later.

      (-: Just kind of riffing off your comment, Kay. I’m glad you said that — it’s bringing up some good things to consider.

  2. I like consistency – in an ideal world I’ll play the same music, sit in the same place, at the same time of day, use my laptop – but it’s not really necessary. I can scribble notes on the bus, or think about my story while I’m standing in a queue. I just have to be careful, because if I disappear inside my own head I lose the outside world altogether – I guess that’s the kind of trance you’re talking about, Michaeline. I could easily miss my stop, or the second half of a play, or whatever.

    Continuity is critical for me. As long as I keep writing, even scenes that don’t quite work or will be deleted later, the story stays in my head and keeps growing, and I want to capture it. If I’m away from the story for a period of time, even for something good like RWA, the trail goes cold and it takes me a while to get back in to it. Then I might put off starting because getting up to speed is not satisfying, though I must say this blog has helped enormously with that. Writing a post every week and getting involved in the other Ladies’ posts means I never truly grind to a halt, and that’s invaluable.

    • I know what you mean about the support group. Every week, at least one person posts or comments about something that reminds me why I want to write.

      (-: And yes, being in that trance can have annoyances. I shouldn’t romanticize it so much. I am annoyed to NO end when someone comes in the middle of my trance and disturbs me. Once I get going, it’s hard to stop unless I’m ready to stop. I wonder if I use that an excuse not to write for 20 minutes or whatever? My natural writing period is about 40 to 50 minutes. After that, I usually need to stop and assess. I suspect I do that, and I’m annoyed with myself.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Michaeline – starting is absolutely the best trigger. The more I get into the habit of writing, the easier it is to start each time (and if I can’t start, it’s probably because there’s a problem with the scene). So, for me, the only answer is to write (even if only 200 words) at least 6 days a week, and I nearly always achieve this. The thing that keeps me at this is that if I don’t have that kind of routine, then days… drifting into weeks… could go by before I get back to it. When that happens (like Jilly commented above), I then have to waste ages getting back into the thing – I’ve realised that this is both deeply unsatisfying and a complete waste of the very limited time I have.

    And referring back to Kat’s brilliant post of yesterday, I also had no idea what lunacy I was embarking on when I thought what fun it would be to be a writer! I’ve been working on this story for nearly a year (3rd draft and many changes later). I have five (yes, five) previous efforts gathering dust in the attic… and I know I’ve a way to go yet. But I love it. Except when I hate it.

    • LOL, essentially, writing is such a simple thing. Listen to the voices, put it down on paper or screen, then fix it up so other people can understand what the voices are saying. I think I just make things too complicated.

      I have left the book for months. I have thought about it everyday, but the meta-things are not the same thing as being in the characters’ heads. I’m reading some books to put me back into the book, and also just writing as often as I can manage. That helps. I need to pull up my song list for the book, and see if that helps if I listen to it during my morning commute.

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