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?

Clocked In

Hey all, I’m going to start off this year’s tip posts with a simple technique that’s so far helped me keep my own writing habit resolutions.

For 2019, I resolved to work (as in write, edit, outline, or market) for at least two, two-hour-long sessions each weekday. This way, I’m putting proper part-time work hours into my writing. The hardest part of this has been making the mindset shift. The best way to make that shift? Actually treating my writing career like any other job.

In order to keep myself accountable and get myself into the head space for work, I’ve been using a clock in app whenever I sit down at my desk. A quick search on any app store will lead to many apps to choose from, but I personally like Clock Punch, as it works well for just one person and lets me track what I’m focusing on for each shift. This way, I can set individual hourly goals for certain tasks when the need arises.

When I report to work, I act just as I would if I were at a salaried position. While clocked in, I don’t allow myself to check social media, play games, or do anything else I wouldn’t do if I had a manager to report to. I still do have one, in fact – my manager is myself. Anything outside of writing can wait.

After all, I’m on the clock.

If you give this technique a try yourself, let me know how it goes! What are your writing resolutions this year? Have you found any tools that help you make them happen?

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

The GDD

One topic that comes up a lot during discussions of game design is the value, or potential lack thereof, of the Game Design Document. This living document, which can be used to guide and define the design of a game during both its planning and production phases, is a tool used by most major game studios, but it’s usefulness to a solo developer or small indie or academic team is more debatable. What exactly this document should contain is another point for debate.

So, what exactly is found in the usual GDD? That varies. This document, essentially an outline of a game project, is often tailored to fit the project and studio using it, but for those unfamiliar with the concept, some common examples of content might include:

  • Basic technical information about the project:
    • What engine will be used for development?
    • What platforms will it be released on?
    • What is the latest stable version of the game?
    • When is the projected release date?
  • Project goals and general design notes:
    • How could the game be described in one paragraph?
    • What are the game’s major gameplay and narrative genres?
    • What target audience is this game designed for?
    • What is the target gameplay length of the final game?
    • What are the game’s major selling points – why would players choose this game over the countless others they could be playing?
  • A mechanical overview:
    • What are the game’s major mechanics?
    • How will these mechanics be implemented?
    • How will players learn these mechanics?
    • Are there multiplayer modes or other optional gameplay modes?
  • A level/world/environment design overview:
    • How many levels/dungeons/towns/etc will there be?
    • What locations can the player visit?
    • Does the game feature shops or currency?
    • What are the designs of these levels or other locations?
  • A narrative overview:
    • Who is the character that players control?
    • What NPC characters are present in the game?
    • What is the game’s central premise or theme?
    • In what narrative setting does the game take place?
    • How does the player advance the story?
    • Does the game feature dialogue?
    • How does the story relate to the mechanics?
  • An overview of the User Interface:
    • How will the controls and camera work?
    • What menus can they player navigate?
    • What controls will they use to access and navigate these menus?
    • How do players save and resume progress?
  • An art design overview:
    • What is the overall atmosphere of the game?
    • What style should be used for the character designs?
    • How should the menus look and feel?
  • A sound design overview:
    • What atmosphere should the audio portray?
    • What style of music should be used?
    • What player actions will require sound effects?

Of course, this is only an example of a few game design basics that may, or may not be, present in any given GDD. Another thing that varies is the level of detail provided on any given subject. For instance, many game design documents also serve as technical documents, with specifications about how the mechanics, menus, and modes will be implemented in terms of programming and scripting, but others focus primarily on the design aspects themselves, without getting too deep into how these aspects will actually be implemented into the game. The genre of the game also naturally changes what should be present in the GDD. A highly story driven game, for example, might feature a full narrative outline or game script, whereas a more arcade style game may forgo the narrative design section nearly all together. Actual sketches, demos, or screenshots of level designs and other game environments may also be present or not in the GDD – it all depends on the amount of detail a developer desires to have in this single document, or in the case of some major companies, the amount of detail publishers require.

As with nearly anything, there are pros and cons to creating and maintaining a GDD for your game project. The discussion actually reminds me quite a bit of the classic ‘pantsing’ versus ‘planning’ debate for traditional writers – that is, whether or not to outline a novel or other writing project before actually writing it. As with a GDD, a ‘planner’ often writes the outline before beginning the novel and tweaks their notes as they go along and progress with their project. However, where game design documents differ from novel outlines is that a game has many more aspects to take into account, aside from narrative alone. A game design document can be very useful for combining the gameplay, narrative, audio, and artistic ideas a designer might have into one cohesive vision of a game. It can also help a designer remember some of the aspects of the design that might perhaps be slightly less exciting, such as the User Inferface and some of the technical details. After all, a game isn’t made from any one aspect – not the gameplay, the story, the art, nor the music. Instead, it’s the sum of its parts.

Personally, I tend to believe that game design documents are a very useful tool in the design process, even for a solo developer or small team, because they help the designers and the developers ascertain that all of their disjointed ideas really come together to form a complete and satisfying product in the end. However, there does come a point where the simple chore of recording and updating every detail of the game becomes a bit excessive or just another distraction from actually getting the development done.

Here is my personal take on the pros on the cons of the GDD:

Pros:

  • They are definitely useful for teams, and they help make sure that every team member is united in their vision and knows what they need to be working on.
  • They help a designer work through the small details of the game, from saving and loading to the gameplay camera.
  • They help designers ascertain that all of their disjointed concepts for the various components of game design – the gameplay, the narrative, the art, the audio, etc – all really do come together to form a cohesive whole.
  • The road map they provide, and their encouragement to plan out contingencies and details in advance, help designers attempt a project they might be more likely to actually finish.

Cons:

  • Game design documents must be constantly updated throughout the design and development process to remain useful, as the design of the game is always shifting as features are actually implemented, stories are edited, and resources are composed.
  • They take time away from actual implementation, and can lead to a slower start for a project. This is especially true for solo developers, who don’t have team members also working on and relying on the GDD.
  • They sometimes have a tendency to lead to either overscoping or underscoping. That is, they can encourage either feature creep or over simplification. After all, it’s easy to add a new feature to the design when all you have to do is write it down, and it’s also easy to be so intimidated by the road map that the nerves can cause a designer to play it safe.
  • They can turn into a distraction in and of themselves, if a designer becomes too focused on the accuracy and detail of the GDD.

For these reasons, when it comes to solo projects or small teams, I would tend to recommend GDDs more to those designers who might also outline a novel before writing one. For those who would simply sit down and start writing, forcing themselves to plan out and update a GDD might only hinder their progress on the project, itself, and they may find it easier to simply take less formal notes as they carve out their progress from nothing but the ideas in their head. I also find that game design documents tend to be more important for mechanical or gameplay oriented games. If a game is more story-driven, even if it’s otherwise fairly long or complex, it often seems to be more crucial to focus on nailing down the details of the plot, instead. The value of a GDD really does depend on the type of designer you are, and on the type of game you are making.

Regardless of the genre or situation, however, I personally find it most useful to write a GDD that focuses on the actual design of the game, not on the technical specifications of how that design will be implemented. In other words, I find it more useful to focus on concepts such as why anyone would want to play this game, how the gameplay and narrative connect, what the overall atmosphere should be, and how the difficulty curve should feel, instead of how any given feature will be programmed. I believe that a GDD should be about vision – it should be about turning your ideas into a cohesive experience that you are truly excited about creating, and it should be about why this experience will matter to the people who might one day play it.


 

If you are interested in creating a GDD for your project, a simple Google search will offer plenty of ideas and examples. If you would like something to start from, you can also download and edit the GDD template that I generally use for my projects here. (Some of the terms and concepts used in my usual GDD, such as engagement types and micro and macro arcs, come from terms used specifically at my school. They’re fairly self explanatory, but you can find definitions of those terms here.)

Regardless of what type of GDD you choose, it is important to tailor the document to suit your own personal style and the needs of your game concept.

 

Denying Distractions

I’d wager that most authors would name distractions as productivity’s biggest enemy, particularly the siren song of the internet. Here are a few tips, and some helpful resources, to help combat common distractions:

Distraction-Free Word Processors

There are some pretty complex, fully-featured options out there as far as word processors go. Programs like Scrivener and Liquid Story Binder offer a ton of powerful features that not only help you write your words, but outline the story, do you research, search through dictionaries and thesauruses, check your spelling, mark-up your edits, and organize and format everything. Even Microsoft Word and comparable office suites come with a slew of features. While these features are great when its time to outline and edit, I sometimes find that these features can be distracting, in and of themselves, during the drafting process. They also bring out the perfectionist in me, and I sometimes spend as much time organizing and cross-checking everything with my notes and research as I do actually pounding words out of the keyboard.

If you have similar tendencies, I’d highly suggest trying out a simple, dedicated word processor, just for the drafting process. There are plenty of options out there that are purposely minimal – designed to put as little buffer as possible between you and the page, staying out of the way and leaving you alone with your words.

My personal favorite right now is Dark Room. It’s a simple, free, full-screen word processor with just the right amount of features. You can set your margins, the color and font of the background and text to fit your preferences or your story (it’s styled like an old electronic typewriter by default, which I kind of love, since that was originally what I used when I first started writing – on those things, you had nothing to do but write), and, fortunately for us Wrimos, it still has a word counter! It’s immersive and distraction-free. Other options are the similar WriteRoom (for Mac), the meditative Ommwriter, or the slightly more complex WriteMonkey.

I was surprised how much using such minimalist software actually helped me focus. I don’t think it’s just that it removes the common word-processor distractions, so much as that it somehow makes the drafting process itself much more engrossing, and hence helps soften the call of other, outside distractions, as well.

Internet/Distraction Blockers

Most of the time, however, the biggest distractions don’t come from inside the word software, but from all the other temptations floating around inside our computers. The internet. Games. Videos. Email. Social media. If you need a little extra willpower when it comes to resisting these things, internet and distraction blockers can help.

One program tailored towards writers is Stop Procrastinating, a desktop app that lets you choose whether to block only specific websites, or your internet connection entirely for a certain amount of time. It also lets you set goals, and track how you did. This software isn’t free, but it’s what I typically use, and I’ve found it to be quite helpful on those days when I just don’t have the willpower to leave the internet alone. There are also some free tools out there, as well.

Another interesting option is the free Writer’s Block. A minimalist, full-screen word-processor like those described earlier, Writer’s Block also blocks not just the internet, but the rest of the programs on your computer, and literally will not quit until you’ve either written a set amount of words, or for a set amount of time, which you choose at the start of each session. It clings to your desktop and leaves you with no choice but to complete your goals to get rid of it. It won’t even let you trick it by copy and pasting! It’s a militaristic tool that could work perfectly for those times when you’ve just got to hit a certain daily quota.

Music and Sound

There are also distractions that come from outside the computer entirely. In particular, other people.

I used to prefer writing in silence, without music, but given that I live with other people, silence is a pretty scarce resource. I’ve recently found that it often works much better to put on some noise-blocking headphones and drown out the world with background music. Personally, I find lyrics distracting, so I stick entirely with instrumental pieces, usually electronica or classical. Spotify, and its playlists, are a great free resource for this.

If you absolutely cannot concentrate with music on, though, there are also plenty of free background noise generators out there, offering nature sounds, rain, or simply white noise.

Physical Prevention

One often overlooked method of avoiding distractions is also perhaps the most straightforward: make it physically impossible for them to reach you. If the internet is your downfall, then take a laptop, or even a paper notebook, and go sit outside somewhere, where there is no Wi-Fi, or simply disconnect your router all together for a while. If computer programs and games in general are a problem, have one device that you use only for writing, and absolutely nothing else (I have one old netbook that is such a piece of crap that I couldn’t use it for anything but writing even if I wanted to…and it’s actually a great productivity tool!). If there are too many people around or too much ambient noise, then move somewhere else, where you can be alone. If the weather outside is simply too nice to stay indoors, then go ahead and sit in the sun with your draft. Coffee shops and parks are also great places to hide from the typical distractions of the home. Besides, I often find that changing the scene helps generate some fresh inspiration.

Anyway, I hope that someone finds these tips and tools useful for Camp NaNoWriMo this month, and beyond. Feel free to chime in with any techniques or resources of your own in the comments section!