The Writing Life: Warm-ups

Athletes, dancers, and musicians all know the importance of warming up before going all out in their particular activity. Raising body temperature and blood flow to muscles, tendons, and joints helps make them resilient, thereby reducing the risk of injury. Range of motion increases. In the case of hard physical exercise, the heart rate rises gradually from resting into the target range. Adrenalin and other hormones prepare both body and mind to work.

What about writing? Do writer warm up? Do writers need to warm up?

Yes and no. And maybe. Writing is and is not like running track or performing Swan Lake (either the musical score or the choreography!)

Some writers dive right into a day’s work. They champ at the bit, ready to boot up the computer or insert a piece of paper into their typewriters. Words don’t just flow, they gush like a creative geyser too long pent up.

Then there are the rest of us. We fiddle, we daddle. We surf the net. We answer emails. We wash the dog (don’t laugh, that chore — post close-encounter with a skunk — delayed the writing of this blog). We do anything and everything except put our fannies in the chair and our fingers to pen or keyboard.

Octavia Butler used to say that when she had difficulty writing, she did something she really hated. A class in accounting. Scrubbing toilets. Getting teeth cleaned. (I don’t remember what examples she gave, but you get the point.) Okay, you say to yourself, you have a choice. You can do X or you can write the next chapter. My sister, a visual artist, employs the same tactic. I know she’s in a slump when her house is inhumanly clean.

I suggest less-overwhelming alternative tactics to ease us over the inertia barrier. These things convey a modicum of likelihood that no matter how blank our minds are at the present moment, they will not remain so. Here are some things that have worked for me:

•    “Morning pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. One or more pages of longhand scribble, content irrelevant. The point is to keep the hand moving, the words — however inane — coming.
•    The “all I have to” game. All I have to do is read the last page/paragraph/chapter. Okay, now all I have to do is add one sentence. Good. All I have to do is one paragraph. One page… (Although usually by then I’m over the “hump”).
•    Work on something non-fiction. A blog, article, essay. This is tricky because it can also be a diversion. So limit it to length or time spent.
•    Enter in my writing journal what I hope to accomplish today and commit to recording how the day’s session went.
•    Read a critique I’ve written of someone else’s work.
•    Write a paragraph on a “secondary” work — something just for fun (fanfic works great for some people). Agree that once I’ve hit my serious-writing goal for the day, I get another fling at shameless wish-fulfillment self-indulgence.

These are some things that have worked for me or other writers I know. What’s your secret strategy for jump-starting your writing day?

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online.

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The Writing Life: Warm-ups — 5 Comments

  1. I know of writers who rewrite the last paragraph or page of the ms. And I don’t mean rewrite as in write better. I mean just keying the last hundred or so words in again. That seems to kick it loose — and there’s always a little fix or two that needs to be made, did you really mean to put that comma there?

  2. I hadn’t heard that one, but it makes sense. Some days, I need a “way in” that’s downright unintimidating. I have to think “I can do this” in order to get my brain in gear.

    It took me a long time to figure out that it’s okay (and normal, at least for me) to have trouble getting started. Sometimes, it’s on a daily basis. Then, there are times when something launches me into a mega-productive session.

  3. For me, I have to write every day at a certain time, usually within the first hour or so of waking up. I’m still fresh that way and unsullied by other thoughts or plans. But if I don’t want to write then I just can’t, and the only time I don’t want to write or can’t is when I hit a wall, generally in the sinister form of a major plot hole.

    I can’t force, trick, or bribe myself into doing anything I don’t want to or am not ready to. It’s just not in my nature. So I do something else. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. I just forget about it for a few days, as if I never was a writer. I don’t obsess about it or constantly re-read my old stuff trying to get a creative spark. I just let it be.

    And, usually, a week or so later, something strikes me out of the blue and I’m on a roll again. It may be on a different WIP but I just go with it and see where it takes me.

    That being said, one of the ways I used to practice trying to get out of a writer’s block funk was using one of those “Writer’s Block” books. They really get you moving, and, in my case anyway, I ended up using almost every random scene I wrote in something or other, or it gave me an idea of how to fix a hole.

  4. Cruising LiveJournal usually does it for me, but if it doesn’t, putting up an entry or two at GoodReads, or making a blog post will boot the brain. Then I reread some of what I did the day before, and I’m off and fumbling through the day’s work!

  5. Alex, it sounds like you really understand your own creative process and have found ways of living gracefully with the rough patches.

    Sherwood, great idea about Goodreads. I just joined as an author and have been meaning to put up some reviews.