Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Warm-Up Exercises for Writers - It’s a trap!

Ted Sturgeon, a fabulous SF writer (and the inspiration for Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout) rushed to his typewriter each day, loaded in a page, and filled it with gibberish. It was his way of fighting writer’s block. Eventually, it didn’t work. He added other warm-ups, extending the time between typing and actually having to work on a story. Damon Knight told me with sadness about the thousands of hours Sturgeon lost (in his view) to these rituals.

Musicians tune up. Singers hum and go through other vocal exercises. Actors stretch their bodies and recite tongue twisters. As a writer, it makes sense for you to find your own ways to warm up, ease yourself into the task, and enter the magical space of creation.

I believe in writer warmups, but a part of me shouts, “It’s a trap!”

Warmup need to be don’t thoughtfully and with awareness of the danger, so I’ll offer a few:

Ritual - Some of these are benign (more or less). Having a special place, a sharpened pencil, and a fresh cup of coffee don’t absorb a lot of time and energy (unless you need to fetch fresh coffee from Starbucks or find you’ve run out of grounds or have a 12-step brewing process.

Other rituals (lucky hats, spinning your chair, playing music) may make sense to cue your body. I use a timer as a starting gun. Once it’s set, I’m working. Not elaborate? Not time-consuming? Not likely to be frustrated and send you away from your work? No problem. But watch for problems. Allegedly, one writer used to be unable to write if his pencil sat askew on his desk. Those days were lost.

Pacing and muttering - Okay, this is not planned for me. I just do it. Especially if I have been avoiding a scene in a story, am starting a new work, am struck with inspiration, or feel the urge to put in extra time on a story. If I find myself pacing and muttering, I let it go on until I can’t resist the keyboard. I let it run its course like a fever. Then I sit down and let the words pour out. My main mistake (for years) was diverting this process, usually because I had something on my to-do list or I (foolishly) answered the phone. My muse pushes me around. If yours does, too, let her (him, it). This is a golden kind of warm-up. The side effects may be a stiff neck or a loved one left standing in the rain, but the story is served. (And suffering comes with art, right?)

Getting prepared - This could be making the coffee, but I’m thinking more of looking at your outline, reading the last page you wrote, or making a few notes about what you intend to write next. For me, it’s looking at the prep sentence I wrote the day before. Or, when I am in the deadly middle of a long work like a novel, reading my list of why this story MUST be finished.

Rewriting - I mention this with red flags flying. In my experience, the biggest danger to writer productivity is looping — continually revising work before the draft is complete. But sometimes, for some people, rewriting the last paragraph from the day before or even the last page can recapture tone and voice and propel the work forward. Forward - that’s the key word. Go backward, and abandon all hope.

This is not a comprehensive list. You can write a page of gibberish or interview a character or dance to a disco tune and that may be just what you need. Don’t get lost. Don’t get distracted. Don’t, in any case, cultivate an addiction, even if your favorite writer was a drunk or hooked on heroin.

I’d also avoid reading fiction, especially fiction you love, right before you draft a scene. It’s likely to force discouraging comparisons. Or to influence your style (as Stephen King has written about   regarding Harlan Ellison’s work). TV or other media may also give you problems. About the only thing I can get away with is pulling up a short poem on YouTube. But even that may be risky.

The good news is that, once you’ve found ways to get you writing at your best, you can use them when you need them. Until they stop working. Then use a different method. Don’t just keep adding warm-ups.

No comments:

Post a Comment