Slow and Steady Writes the Book
Write a page a day, you’ll have a book in a year
“I’d like to write a book someday.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that comment I could hang up my pen and quit writing myself. The conversation often continues something like this:
“What are you waiting for?”
“Oh, I don’t have time to write a book.”
“How long do you think it takes to write a book?”
“Years. Well, months at least — I don’t know.”
“How about twenty minutes?”
This is the point at which I get the blank stare or the half laugh of someone who thinks I’m trying to tell a joke except they don’t get it and instead default to a polite chuckle.
“No. Seriously. I wrote my first three novels in lunch hours and coffee breaks. Twenty minutes at a time.”
That’s when the penny drops. And, often, the excuses begin.
I need a lot of time to settle in and get my thoughts together.
I need to do too much research.
I could never remember what I was doing from one session to the next.
For each of these ‘reasons’ not to put pen to paper there are solutions if, in fact, you only have twenty minutes a day to write. This is why I always start every writing workshop I lead with the absolute easiest writing exercise in the world.
Just Write — Don’t Stop for Anything
The only rule is you need to keep your pen moving (or, your fingers on the keyboard) for the ten minutes or so that the exercise lasts.
Every 60–90 seconds I toss out a random word (samples below if you want to try this) and the participants have to somehow integrate the word.
That’s it. I told you it was simple.
Guess what? By the end of the ten minutes, most people will have filled a page with something. And that’s the other point, when we are writing drafts, noodling around, getting our thoughts organized, it’s perfectly fine to do that in a wild spew that doesn’t make a lot of sense, doesn’t flow beautifully, and maybe doesn’t lead anywhere. [That said, more than once I have seen some fabulous pieces emerge from these random word writing splurts. The human mind is, sometimes, truly magnificent.]
If you do this every day for a year, you will have a big fat stack of pages, somewhere to start, something to edit and shape and turn into whatever you want to turn it into… You will be better at the craft of writing just because you have taken the time to do it every single day.
There is no need to wait until you have the perfect writing space, a new journal, or a sabbatical from your job. It’s not even necessary to start out with a great idea. The process of putting one word after another generates one idea after another and nothing beats the practice of sitting down, pulling out your notebook and just starting when it comes to getting going on that book project you may never otherwise get to.
That’s why as I begin this Prompt a Day for May project I’m starting with this most simple of exercises. Go ahead — grab a piece of paper and a pen or, if you prefer, your laptop or digital device, and take a ten-minute break from reading Medium stories. Write something instead.
How it Works
There are many versions of this free-writing exercise floating around. The only real rule is that you keep your pen moving.
Down below I’ve provided a list of words (as well as a variation on the exercise in which you find your own words). Your challenge is to integrate each word one after the other as you write non-stop.
Take the first word on the list, set your timer for 90 seconds and write, using that word somewhere. When you reach 90 seconds, move on to the next word. Don’t try to plan ahead or second-guess yourself. Just switch gears and roll with the punches. (If you are inclined to cheat, print out the list of words and cover all the words except for the one you are working with.)
There is no one way to make the words work for you. Some people try to string all the words together in a more or less cohesive narrative. If that’s the way your mind works, that’s totally cool. Go for it!
Other people prefer to just play with the sounds of the words and the language. For example, if the word is cow you might riff on that and create a string of sounds and you might write something like this:
How now cowbell me bowl me blow me down tomorrow will be another day.
Obviously, that made no sense whatsoever and was inspired merely by the sound of the word. That’s fine.
Some people like to take each word and treat it as an individual entity. If this is how your mind works, go ahead and free associate with whatever each word brings up. You will wind up with a series of short paragraphs, each which stands alone. Each short segment of the writing may focus on a single element, image, idea, or theme. Others somehow manage to weave the random words into a cohesive whole and that’s cool, too.
Write, No Matter What!!
The only real rule is that you must keep going. It does happen occasionally that a word will come your way about which you have nothing to say. That’s fine. Here’s what might happen in that case:
Cow? That is a stupid word. I have nothing to say at all about the word cow. Couldn’t you think of something better than that?
Derivatives Are Acceptable
Use each word as you see fit. You may add endings or change tenses to fit the flow of whatever it is you’re writing. So, for example, if I the next word is scream you may use screamer, screamed, screaming. All of those derivatives are totally fine as long as the root word is in there somewhere.
Remember, you have about 90 seconds for each new word.
Don’t stress. This is meant to be fun.
Ready? Set. Go!
break (or, brake)
The exercise should take you about 10 minutes or so.
Try This With a Writing Partner
When you do this kind of exercise with a friend or your writing group, choose words that can be used as more than one part of speech. The very best words are those which have multiple meanings and can be used as both verbs and nouns. It can actually be quite fun to collect words like these in a file somewhere. Pull them out when you want to spur yourself into action and do this exercise on your own.
I highly recommend doing some version of this exercise before you sit down to a writing session. It can help shake things loose and get you writing without a lot of self-editing. The worst thing ever when you sit down to write the first draft is to allow your inner editor to stay in the room.
Variations on a Theme
Most likely, your mind will naturally have been attracted to one way or another of doing this exercise. If you are someone like me who likes to create stories, you will probably have found some way to tie all of those words together in one narrative. Go back and do the same exercise again using the same words but this time take a different approach.
If you wove together a story, then the next time you do the exercise don’t allow yourself to have any continuity between the words at all. Try using the sounds of the words to inspire you or create a series of free associations and see where your mind takes you. Sometimes it’s the less obvious solution that leads to the most interesting discoveries.
Grab a Book from Your Shelf
If you want to try this on your own and you’re not quite sure where to go for inspiration, grab a couple of books off your bookshelf and open to a random page. Close your eyes and plop your finger down the page somewhere and use whatever word you land on. If it happens to be at, the, but, or something else lame, move to the right until you hit the first real word. Don’t cheat. It’s very tempting to keep scanning the page for a word that you find interesting. Don’t give in! The reason this works as well as it does is the random nature of the input. The less you plan, the better.
It’s always entertaining to see how other people respond to the very same list of words. I also find this aspect of the exercise to be hugely inspiring. It just goes to show you that the same set of inputs will be interpreted and manipulated into something completely different depending on who is doing the writing. Lest you think you have nothing you need to say, this exercise should prove otherwise. [If you don’t already belong to a writing group or have a writing partner, come join us in the Write Now! group on Facebook. You could share what you come up with there. We’re newish and smallish but friendly!]
The other thing that this exercise demonstrates is just how much writing you can get done in the space of a very short amount of time. In 10 minutes or so you should have been able to write a couple of paragraphs, half a page, or perhaps even more. For all those times when you have said I don’t have time here is evidence that, in fact, you don’t need a lot of time to write.
As I said earlier, if you were to write one page every single day, by the end of one year you would have completed 365 pages. That’s enough for the first draft of a book.
If you aren’t comfortable enough to share today’s writing results, that’s OK. But do let us know how you found the exercise, what your response was: what did you find to be challenging? What did you enjoy? Did anything surprise you?
Do you have a favorite writing prompt or exercise you go to when you are feeling stuck? I’ll be sharing some favorites this month and would love to hear what tips and tricks you use to get you going so please feel free to jot a quick note in the comments below.