Writers are, in a sense, athletes. We hurtle the high walls of writer’s block, we tackle mountains of research, we sprint through rapid-fire action scenes, and sometimes we even manage to hit a home run or two. So what makes us think that, unlike physical athletes, we can force our brains into action without taking the time to warm up our creative muscles?
For years, it was my practice to rush to my computer the moment I finished work every evening. I would slam the door, throw myself into my chair, ram a soundtrack into my CD drive, and frantically click my way into my story file. Every minute of writing time was precious, and I had no intention of wasting even a millisecond. So, without hardly a pause to uncap my creative juices, I hurtled into story land. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that, in my haste, I was actually wasting both time and effort.
Then, in 2004, when I sold my two horses, I suddenly found myself luxuriating in an extra hour of free time every evening. Now that the need for speed had been mitigated, I allowed myself the luxury of a little less pressure and a little more preparation time. Instead of diving directly into my writing the moment I parked myself in my chair, I instead took the time to ease myself into my writing and to get my creativity flowing. Looking back, I can see how much both my writing experience and my writing itself has improved as a result.
Nowadays, I deliberately set aside the first half-hour of my writing time for the sole purpose of warming up. My own little ritual has evolved over the years, and although it is certainly a personalized ritual, I’ve outlined it below in hopes that you might glean some ideas of your own.
- Prayer: The first thing I do every time I sit down to write is to ask a blessing on my work. If I’m to find any gold in my dross by the end of the day, it’s only because the Lord chooses to bless my efforts. I’ve claimed Psalm 19:14 as my special plea for my writing: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Yahweh, my Rock and my Redeemer.” I pray that the words might flow freely, that my music may inspire instead of distract, and that I might enjoy every minute of it.
- Journaling: As I noted in the post “Journaling and Conquering Monsters,” I’ve found keeping a writing journal to be one of the most beneficial tricks in my bag of writing magic. Not only do I get to vent about problems, but I also have the opportunity to gather my thoughts about my characters, my pacing, and the scene I’m about to write. Instead of diving unprepared into my story and staring at the monitor, trying in vain to figure out where I want to go with a particular scene, I’m instead able to briefly sketch a basic scene plan in my notebook. I can’t even begin to tell how many false starts I’ve avoided with this method. Journaling allows me to gather my thoughts, to methodically put aside the outside world, and to ease my focus out of the intellectual and into the creative.
- Article: I’m a faithful subscriber to writing magazines, such as The Writer and Writer’s Digest. For years, I’ve been clipping articles and filing them away. But because articles that just sit in the filing cabinet aren’t worth the staples that hold them together, I’ve made it a practice to cycle through my files by reading one article every day before I begin writing. Sometimes the information I read has a direct bearing on the scene I’m about to write; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, I’m continually adding to and bolstering my knowledge of the craft in a directly applicable way.
- Character Notes: During my outlining process, I write detailed “sketches” of my characters (see “Interviewing Your Characters” below). To remind myself of interesting quirks or angles, I read a few of these notes, usually focusing on a major character in my current scene.
- Research Notes: For most of my stories, I collect pages upon pages of research material, most of which my sometimes sporadic memory couldn’t hope to remember. Even though I’m able to look up important details as they become necessary in the story, so many interesting facts still get lost in the giant crack between the research phase and the actual writing phase. To help combat that inevitability, I divide my notes into categories, and each day, before writing, I try to read one of these categories. Not only does this keep the important facts fresh in my mind, but it has also spurred some very interesting and unexpected plot twists.
- Proofreading: Probably the most important element of my warm-up is reading over what I wrote in my previous writing session. Beyond just allowing me to correct typos and beautify ugly phrases, this immerses me in the world of my story. Usually, before I’m even done reading, I’m ready to start typing the next words.
- Music Video: Finally, as a sort of cherry on the top of my warm-up session, I google a video. YouTube is crawling with fan-made music videos of nearly every movie ever produced. I choose a movie that will have images and themes that resound in my own work, and I spend an extra five minutes, letting the dramatic visuals and music put me in the mood to craft some drama of my own.
And after all that, my brain having been stimulated and encouraged, I simply dive in. Other authors, of course, have their own methods of warming up. Some people recommend reading a passage from a classic author; still others suggest actually writing out that same passage, in hopes that you’ll be able to learn from that author’s style. (Personally, I’ve never felt I benefited from this. More often than not, it got me thinking about the classic author’s story instead of my own). Others swear by journal prompts or a brief stream-of-consciousness writing session.
So hunt around, experiment, and discover which exercises put you in the best frame of mind for writing your story. Just keep in mind that sometimes the quickest way of writing your story is to take some extra time to warm up those brains cells.