6. Create accountability
Whether you’re writing with a group or entering your daily word count on an organization’s website, you’re creating accountability – a powerful motivator, according to Chugh. Last January, she started an online community with other professors in her fields; they do a Pomodoro, then chat for five minutes, and then do two more. It became so popular that they set up a Google Calendar.
“And now, on any given day, there’s usually at least three different ‘retreats,” as we call them. They make us accountable,” she explains. “It’s so easy to be pulled into everyone else’s priorities. But here you are showing up for this thing on your schedule. We usually type in the chatbox at the beginning what our goal is for that retreat. It’s very light accountability. Nobody goes back and says, ‘Well, did you accomplish your goal?’”
Another way to create accountability, she notes, is to pay for the privilege of writing in a group. Though the retreats she’s established are free, she sees the wisdom of charging a small amount to participate, as Perhach and Dávila have done with A Very Important Meeting.
“You’ve invested something. You’ve committed, and you’ve gone through some mental exercise to say, ‘This hour is worth my money,’” Chugh explains. “You feel like you want to get your money’s worth because you paid the five dollars for this very important meeting, and so you’re going to show up and focus.”
If this technique doesn’t jumpstart your writing, she suggests a site like Stickk.com, which capitalizes on the fear of financial loss by asking people to choose a goal and sign a commitment contract. Participants provide a credit card number and choose what the organizers behind Stickk call an “anti-charity,” defined as “any organization whose views you strongly oppose, or one which promotes values that are contrary to your own.”
“So maybe you commit to writing 250 words a day,” Chugh says. “But here’s the catch. If you don’t meet your commitment, the money goes to your anti-charity. You meet your goal because you’ll die before you give your enemies a penny.”
7. Prompt success
But what happens if you’ve meditated and chosen a place to write and a goal, when you’ve identified a reward and a community, but you sit down at the laptop and find yourself overcome with writer’s block? Hope Lyda is the author of My Unedited Writing Year: 365 Invitations to Free Your Creativity and the Writer Within. It’s a book of writing prompts, including suggestions to “write a brief announcement describing your morning as if it were breaking news” and “go ahead, confess something.”
“Writing to a new prompt each day is an opportunity to tell your inner critic you don’t need their services for a simple 10-minute writing exercise,” Lyda explains. “And while the inner critic is perusing the Food Network or ordering crimson red pens online, you can enjoy expressing yourself unhindered on the page.” She explains that a daily prompt practice can translate directly into a larger body of work. “For example, a prompt centered on the senses will inspire a greater dimensional lens when you shift to your essay or book manuscript. An invitation to describe your favorite hideout as a fifth-grader can usher in the warmth of nostalgia and an affinity for keen detail recall. A fiction or poetry prompt can breathe new rhythm and language into your nonfiction endeavor.”
The people who run National Novel Writing Month send out prompts to participants, with the goal of helping them to start or finish a book or to break them out of writer’s block. “We looove writing prompts at NaNoWriMo,” Brennan told me via email. “On the Young Writers Program website, we have something called the Dare Machine. Each time a writer clicks it, they get a different dare, or prompt, like ‘have a character wake up with a mysterious accent,’ or ‘your character scuffs the dirt and discovers something mysterious.’”
Organizers encourage young writers to use dares if they’re feeling stuck in their stories. “They can be a great way to spark a new idea, explore different directions, or go further along a path they’ve already started. They’re also a great way to boost word counts,” Brennan says.
The NaNoWriMo site for adults doesn’t feature a Dare Machine, but organizers pair prompts with what they term a “Word Sprint.” “The goal of a Word Sprint is to let go of trying to make your story perfect, or even make perfect sense, and just write as much as you can in a set period of time – usually five to 10 minutes,” Brennan notes. “Limits can often be really inspiring; for some reason, it’s easier to write for 10 minutes trying to use the words goblin, rollicking, and marshmallow versus if you’re just trying to write about anything for an indeterminate amount of time.”
They also use craft-based prompts in their materials. They offer plot-based prompts to help authors construct complex story outlines – suggestions like “introduce a new character or characters who will eventually help the protagonist learn their life lesson” and “show your character at their lowest possible point.”
Honor your sacred minimum
With so many resources available to help writers create or resurrect a regular practice, there’s almost no excuse to do otherwise. Whether you choose to write alone with intention and a thoughtful reward or with a community in a coffee shop or online, adopt the process that works for you with an open heart and an open mind. In the midst of whatever new chaos life throws your way, commit to honoring your “sacred minimum” with an open mind and an open heart.
—Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: Five Hundred Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.