Writing Habits: Set a ‘Trigger’

According to countless articles all over the web, habits are supposed to be automatic. Once you start and execute a new part of your routine for a month or two, it becomes easier to continue than to quit, so they say. If you’re anything like me, this hasn’t necessarily proved true for you. I’ve never reached a stage where a habit, even ones I’ve pushed through for over a year, started running on autopilot.

So I was skeptical when I came across a slightly different approach to the “write every day” refrain: instead of scheduling a certain time for writing, set up another action to use as a ‘trigger’ before starting. The idea is that it will help shift your brain into the right mindset for writing once you teach it this new pattern of cause and effect. As this great article on the neuroscience of writer’s block explains it: “If you light an orange-blossom candle or brew a pot of Café Verona prior to each writing session, and never at other times, neuroscience suggests that within three weeks, the scent of orange blossoms or taste of coffee will trigger the urge to write.”

I decided to give it a go. I bought a candle and committed to lighting it just before I started drafting, in hopes that my brain would come to associate that act, and eventually the scent of the candle, with writing. Other ideas for ‘triggers’ might be playing a certain song, wearing a certain hat, or signing yourself in using a Clock In app.

The shocker: it works! After just a few sessions, I noticed that it was easier to get into the flow of writing after performing the ‘trigger.’ My theory is that it works well for me due to my specific flavor of writer’s blockthat is, emotional regulation issues and OCD. The physical ritual of lighting the candle helps me let go of whatever thoughts or emotions are tossing around in my head at that time and give myself permission to move into a different mindset. Similarly, blowing out the candle after the session helps me let go of whatever emotions came up during the drafting process, itself. Overall, this new habit smoothes out the transitions, which for me, are perhaps the hardest part of being a writer.

If you’re habit-resistant, I’d suggest experimenting from this angle and trying to find a ‘trigger’ or ritual that works for you. The more you can uncover the underlying issues and fears holding you back, the more you can find unique ways of getting your brain to cooperate with itself.

Monday Blues: Inspiring Music

(“Monday” Blues: On every first Monday of the month, I’ll recommend a new world – a book, a game, a podcast, etc – to escape into. Or at least to look forward to after a hard day’s work.)

I’m going to do something a bit different for today’s Monday Blues. Instead of focusing on storytelling media, how about music that offers the perfect backdrop when working on your own stories and creative projects?


Wherepostrockdwells

Post-rock is such a beautiful genre. It’s atmospheric and ambient, yet evocative. It’s subtle but intense. It’s sometimes sad, but in that warm, melancholy way that highlights  wonder in the world. When I feel drained, simply listening to the right post-rock song often brings me back to a content, inspired place. It’s amazing what a difference music can make.

If you’re new the genre, check out Hammock (especially the Everything and Nothing album), God is an Astronaut, Distant Dream, and If These Trees Could Talk (if you like your rock heavy). With streams dedicated to different albums, the Wherepostrockdwells channel mimics the experience of walking into a music store to sample and select the perfect CD. Unlike the other channels in this list, Wherepostrockdwells usually uses album covers instead of aesthetic images for its videos, but post-rock album covers often make for interesting, surrealistic works of art in their own right.

An odd observation: While YouTube comments are normally dreck, the comments left on post-rock videos are often wonderfully creative and emotional, and can provide inspiration in their own right. Post-rock music is indeed a haven.

ChilloutDeer

In terms of less heavy ambient music, Chillout Deer is my go-to channel. It provides wonderfully designed mixes featuring a variety of relaxing, atmospheric songs in various genres collected around themes. Unlike those from similar channels, I find that Chillout Deer’s mixes actually evoke their themes with an eerie efficiency: listening to “Journey” feels like departing on a long adventure, listening to “Daydream” stirs the sensation of “sehnsucht,” and “Utopia” brings wonder and contentment. Because these mixes are so tightly themed, it’s easy to find the perfect creative soundtrack for any project. The channel also uses lovely visuals in its videos to further tempt the muse.

Odysseus

If electronic genres like synthwave and trance are more your style, Odysseus also offers a variety of themed mixes. The collections are atmospheric without being distracting, and paint both futuristic and retro soundscapes. It’s perfect for anyone delving into a sci-fi project, or for some aural escapism while working on less exciting tasks like updating your website or writing marketing copy. As a writer who tends toward the post-apocalyptic, “Dystopia” is one of my favorite mixes. The visual aesthetic used by the channel is also immersive and inspiring in its own right.


I hope you enjoy these channels like I do; outside of stories, music is one of my passions. Do you have any favorite You-Tube go-tos for evoking a creative mood?

Favorite Story Features

For this month’s story craft post, I’m going to go highly subjective. Out of curiosity, I spent a couple of hours last week breaking down my own favorite stories (my favorite books, games, movies, etc) and looking for the common threads that ran through all of them. I certainly found a few consistent factors, including several which I didn’t necessarily expect. Your mileage may vary, but here’s what makes me personally fall in love with a story:

  1. An accessible surface; a deep, complex, nuanced core.
    1. Most of my favorite stories have made themselves appear accessible on the surface – a standard sci-fi game, a standard shounen anime, a standard small-town murder mystery, etc – but with a deeper, and usually darker, core. They intentionally foster approachable first impressions to draw people in. They don’t necessarily lie about what they are, but they keep their secrets close until you get to know them better. This gradual unfolding is immersive, surprising, and ends up becoming addictive – what will happen next? As expectations fall away, so do “rules” and predictability.
    2. This deeper core usually revolves around themes that comprise the soul of the work.
  2. Memorable, “rule of cool” characters with realistic psychology.
    1. My favorite characters bring in elements from the most exaggerated genre fiction – unique vibes, tragic backstories, odd features, immense talents, unusual names, exaggerated speaking styles, amazing powers, etc – alongside grounded psychological elements from literary fiction – motives, needs, wants, fears, hopes, complex relationships, inner conflicts, strengths, flaws, contradictions, etc. Combining the fantastical and realistic creates characters who transcend mundane humanity – becoming memorable and iconic – while remaining so achingly human.
    2. These characters have psychologically realistic growth arcs that tie into the story’s themes. Each character often has their own sub-theme, as well.
  3. A distaste for expectation.
    1. This doesn’t mean being satire (far from it), but it does mean flipping tropes around to different angles, combining or using them in unconventional ways, or eschewing common genre tropes entirely.
    2. My favorite stories have some element of surprise – twists, gimmicks, “gasp” moments. Many of them end with a “clincher” – a final twist or shocking moment – instead of a clean resolution arc.
    3. This also applies to concepts like, and especially of, gender. None of my favorite stories have ever entirely accepted gender as a flat, unexplored binary. Some have actually veered into borderline problematic territory, while others handled these themes deftly, but none have blindly accepted the notion of the binary and its roles. When the binary is questioned, even a little, characters instantly become more free and alive.
  4. Sweet, soft moments contrasted by wrenching disasters.
    1. My favorite stories aren’t afraid to toe the line of melodrama, without ever quite crossing over it. Stories should be cathartic – felt in the body, mind, and soul – and they embrace this. In doing so, they include unflinchingly sweet moments between characters and showcase the beauty of their people and worlds. They invite readers (and players, viewers, etc) to sink in and fall in love. They also include moments of brutality, sorrow, shock. They aren’t afraid of diving into the strange and horrific. They are less concerned with being realistic than they are with evoking an emotional reaction. The contrast between joy and horror creates “flashbulb memories” that stick with audiences and keep them coming back for closure.
    2. These stories aim for satisfaction. They don’t time-skip over the most dramatic or impactful moments, even if they take place in resolutions.
    3. “Flashbulb” moments should incorporate – and tie together – the plot, characters, world, and themes. The best of them even take advantage of language in a literary sense.
    4. My favorite stories tend to use tenderness and introspection during “relief” moments, rather than humor.
    5. Often, their endings are bittersweet.
  5. Moments of wonder.
    1. My favorite stories, if even for a moment, invoke wonder. This can be done through character, setting, plot, or even literary language, but most often, comes when one or more of these elements combine with theme. If they all combine with theme, the resonance is stronger still.
    2. To evoke wonder, the story must not be afraid to address the unknown – and often, to leave aspects of the unknown just as unknown at the end of the story. They embrace curiosity, uncertainty, awe, fear, joy, sorrow, life, death, the human, and the divine. They seek to transcend the story world’s own mundanity.
    3. Such stories reach for the sublime. Even if they can’t quite stare it down, they glimpse it. Even if they can’t quite hold on to it, they touch it. They find the magic in the mundane – either literally or metaphorically.
    4. There is often a haunting tone to these stories at their core, both during and after their ending. They carry a certain bittersweet taste. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t also show the simple joy of existence.
  6. Mixed genre classifications.
    1. Most of my favorite stories don’t fit entirely into just one genre – after all, neither does life. My favorites use genres as tools, not limitations.
    2. These stories also often mix elements from the genre fiction and literary fiction umbrellas (as seen in the contrasts present in the other points).

What common threads have you caught running through your own favorite stories? Do any of my factors resonate with you?

Writer’s Block Kit

(Story Craft: Every 3rd week of the month, I’ll post writing/editing techniques that I’ve personally found useful.)

While we all experience it for different reasons, writer’s block is a universal experience for anyone who commits words to the page. Sometimes we might be unable to focus due to other events going on in our lives, sometimes we might be writing an emotional scene we’re not quite sure we’re ready for, and other times still we might simply be unsure about what plot developments should unfold next. There are countless reasons why we might put off putting down words, but regardless of where your blocks tend to come from, here are some techniques for breaking through them that I’ve personally found useful:

Capitalize on your Imagination for Inspiration

  • Deeply visualize the current scene using all of your senses. Walk through a few moments of life in that scene. Experience it.
  • Imagine you are a character within the current scene – how do you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally in the current moment?
  • Roleplay (even if just in your head) as one of your characters in your present moment – how do you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally in the current moment?
  • Imagine asking the characters what they want to do next, and their response.
  • Imagine what might happen between the scenes in your story – in the moments without conflict, when the characters are simply living their lives. What does this say about the characters and the world? Can any of these ideas inform existing scenes or start new ones?

Consider Story Structure/Brainstorm

  • Put yourself in your ideal reader’s place. What would they want to happen next? What would they expect? What would surprise them? What happens to each of these ideas when you subvert them to their opposite?
  • What narrative role does the current scene serve? What goals are you trying to accomplish by writing it? What is the most important thing a reader needs to take away from this scene? How can you emphasize this in the scene?
  • What goals does each character have in the scene? How can these goals drive the events?
  • Conflict moves plot. What internal or external obstacle, however minor, is your POV character trying to overcome in this specific scene? If there isn’t one, can you add more conflict to drive the events?
  • Sometimes a change in pacing is what the story needs to build momentum. If the story’s recent events have been low intensity, is there a way you can ramp up the intensity in this scene, or vice versa?

Free/Speed Write

  • Free write about the scene you’re stuck on, working through your worries and letting out whatever ideas pop into your head.
  • Free write about entertaining or interesting moments that take place in the unwritten spaces between the scenes in your story.
  • Free write about why you love the project you’re working on and why you want to finish it.
  • Try setting a timer for 5 minutes, and in that time, continue to write your scene without stopping, even if the words coming out are drivel. Think of it almost like an attack on the block. Move the plot forward no matter what it takes. There will be time to edit later. After the timer goes off, take a breather for at least 2 minutes, then if you’re still stuck, set it again and repeat the process. Software that forces you to write without stopping can help. It can also be fun to check how many words you wrote in each 5 minute session and jot down your “high score” – then try to beat it!
  • You can use a similar process to the above with the longer, more relaxed Pomodoro Technique, which uses 25 minute work sessions and 5 minute breaks. Sometimes the simple promise of a break can help ease the tension of working through a block.

Change up the Environment

  • Listen to different background music.
  • Meditate for 3 – 5 minutes.
  • Stand up for 1 – 3 minutes.
  • Grab a snack.
  • Move from your current position to a new environment. For example, if you’re writing at home, try taking off to a cafe or library to work, or perhaps sitting with a notebook in a park for a while. Even something as simple as moving from a couch to a desk, or vice versa, can help.

Take a Break!

  • Sometimes you’re simply overtired, burned out, need some time to think, or occupied by other responsibilities, and that’s okay. Write a few ideas in brackets at the place of the block if you can – even if they’re iffy – then take your mind off writing. Make sure to get some rest too: our minds mull over ideas subconsciously when they aren’t busy, so the new insight you need might just pop into your head when you least expect it, so long as you give your thoughts some breathing room.

Of course, there comes a point where if you want to break through a block, then all there is to it is to keep on writing. Release yourself not just from your inner editor, but from the imagined expectations of your future audience, and get the first draft done. Editing comes later. All you have to do now is tell yourself the story.

“It’s very hard to tell, at the end of your writing day, whether you’ve done great work or bad work. The quality of the writing is hard to judge until you’ve had some sleep and got some perspective on it. And the more I learn about the writing process, the more I suspect that there is no such thing as a bad day at the keyboard.

The good days are when you perform; the slow days are when you learn to perform better. The only bad days as a writer are the ones when you are too cowardly or too lazy to sit down at the keyboard and give it everything you have.”
— Chris Cleave