I’ve written every day for the past year, without fail. Not as an arbitrary challenge or as a conversation piece at parties, but to become a better writer. To establish a habit that is so ingrained in my being, that to not do it would feel unnatural, wrong.
The most important part of establishing a habit is repetition. It’s not a habit if you’re not consistent. If you only do it once a week, it’s going to take a lot longer to cement itself (if it ever does). It’s got to be a routine, like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or yelling at your coffee machine to work faster.
I write first thing in the morning. I write at other times too, but this is the one I don’t miss (I even coach other people on it). I sacrifice 45-60 minutes of time I would have otherwise been sleeping to do this. So I have incentive to use my time well. I also try to make it easy on myself. When I walk into the living room in the morning, the computer is waiting for me, the tea kettle is full of water, and all I need to do is press a button and sit down to write. Preparing these small things the night before can make a big difference. Remove any small obstacles that might make you consider doing another task first. Don’t check your email. Don’t look at your snapchats. Don’t start your workday. Not yet. This comes first.
The other secret to a good habit is momentum. To this end, I start off each morning by writing about whatever bizarre dream I was just having. I don’t especially care about recording these for posterity. Yes, it’s interesting that I dreamt about Luke Skywalker straight up murdering a tattooed villain by force-lightning him in a bear hug, but that’s not the point. The point is to get your fingers moving. Once you’re typing (or writing), it’s easier to keep going. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The same is true of your mind.
“I’m writing. This feels good, let’s keep going.”
Here, have some numbers:
550 – my average word count each morning
3 – tv shows
1 – short film
1 – play
12 – features (one of which is a public domain book adaptation)
I bounce back and forth between these each morning. Brainstorming characters, stringing together storylines, creating worlds, and exploring all the different paths an idea could take (which is freewriting, essentially).
I am not wont for ideas. I have 10x this many that I jot down and disregard because it’s more of a skit, cartoon strip or joke, than an idea worthy of a tv show or feature film. Other common reasons: derivative, boring, not something I would write (a genre I’m not interested in, probably), or it’s good but my other ideas are better.
Of the 17 different ideas above, this is how I currently divide my time:
- 80% brainstorming – characters, plot, world, story, dialogue
- 10% pages – actual script pages
- 10% process – figuring out how to approach a topic
Not ideal, which leads us to…
Over the past year, I’ve accumulated a massive amount of ideas, characters, and potentials for worlds I’d like to write. But I’ve come to realize that while creating worlds is satisfying, I need to expand them. I’ve placed a moratorium on new ideas. Nothing can be added to the pile of 17 until I’ve “finished” at least 5 of them. As Chuck Wendig would say, I’ve got to Finish. My. Shit.
I recognize that many of those 5 will be terrible. That’s the point. I can’t really get better at the whole screenwriting thing until I’ve repeated things.
Idea —> Brainstorm -> Outline -> First Draft —> X Draft —> Done.
Until I do that 5, 10, 15 times, I’m not going to markedly improve. Your mileage may vary, but that’s my game plan.
These last 365 days have shown me a lot about myself. That I love writing more than I love sleep (gasp!). That I can establish a new habit that at first feels daunting. That I have at least some talent for world building. That I have too many ideas and need to focus on seeing them through, one at a time. That practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes you better. And who wouldn’t choose better over the alternative?