There comes a point in my first draft process, usually around 30,000 or 40,000 words in, where I just hit a wall. I spend thirty minutes staring at a blank page, or I can’t stop my hand from clicking over to an open Twitter tab. When I’m feeling listless in my writing, I am a procrastinator to the extreme, so I’ve started using some interventions to keep me focused.
I have no self control. If I have the impulse to go to Wikipedia, I will spend hours reading about the history of the Boston subway system or the lives of medieval kings. Which is great for building a repository of fun facts for parties (well, my definition of fun, at least), but is not great for getting a novel finished.
To curb those impulses, I use SelfControl, a free app for macOS that allows you to create a “blacklist” of websites you don’t want to be able to visit, and then blocks them for a specified period of time. No matter what you do, you cannot get past the block. Even if you restart your computer! I block websites like social media, news, and forums, because I will do literally anything to avoid writing when I’m stuck on something. You can also create a “whitelist” that blocks all websites except for the certain few that you list.
I don’t think I would have finished any writing project without SelfControl—it’s probably my number one tool to force myself to focus. The downside is that it’s only available for Mac. If you’re on PC there are similar apps like Cold Turkey and Freedom, but they require you to purchase to get full functionality.
Write or Die
If you’re just sitting in front of your Scrivener document, staring at a blinking cursor, Write or Die might be what you need to kick your butt into gear. I would describe it as a fear-based motivational tool. You open up your Write or Die window, set a word count goal and a timer, and press start. You write in a window in the app, and if you stop writing at any point, the screen turns red and horrible sounds like babies wailing or screeching violins start to play until you start writing again.
This may sound stressful, and it is, but I find it especially helpful during NaNo and first drafting when the goal is to get something down on paper. If you’re not into the scare tactics, you can also set it up to “reward” you, showing you pictures of kittens or tropical locales after you’ve written a certain number of words.
Write or Die has a paid desktop app, but the web version basically has all the same functionality and is free!
This is where we take it retro. If you were in school in the early 2000s, you may remember one of these popping up in your classrooms. If not, here’s the deal: an AlphaSmart is a standalone keyboard that has a small screen above it (it basically looks like a giant graphing calculator). You can only see between five or six lines of writing at one time, and all you can do on it is type.
If you’re the type of person who can’t stop editing what they’ve written earlier in the day and can’t move on to the next thing, AlphaSmart may be for you, because it’s really hard to scroll back up and see everything you’ve written. It also serves as a sort of manual SelfControl app, because there’s no way to access the internet from it.
When you’re finished writing on an AlphaSmart, you just plug it into your computer, open your word processor of choice, and it transfers everything over easy peasy. The version I have holds about 100 pages of text within eight separate documents. They no longer make AlphaSmarts new, but they are plentiful on eBay for about $25.
When I’m fretting over a plot point and don’t know how to proceed, I step away from the prose. Sometimes I’m just too in-my-own-head about the logistics of my storytelling that it completely paralyzes me. Free writing helps me get a little bit of distance, and most of the time it turns out the solution was really easy all along! If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m just going to continue to evangelize about free writing until we’re all practicing it on the regular.
So now you have all the tools to go forth and continue your writing! If you have any tools that help you get unstuck—especially if they are more tactile like notecards systems, whiteboards, etc.—I want to know!
Part I | Part II | Part III | Historical Bonus
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