Recently, I had the honor of being a guest on Don Smith’s radio show at my alma mater, Wright State University. Afterward, I accompanied Don to a capstone creative writing course he was taking, and I had the privilege of answering questions from the students and teachers for an hour or so. Unknown to any of them – at least, I hope it was unknown – I had a splitting headache and wouldn’t have minded if one of the students had pulled out a 9mm, pressed the muzzle against my head, pulled the trigger, and put me out of my misery. I managed to soldier on and hopefully make at least a modicum of sense as I answered questions, but for all I know, I might have been speaking in tongues.
One of the students asked me how I
managed to write so much, so fast. (There are plenty of days when I don’t feel
like a fast writer, and days when I don’t write at all – usually because I’m
grading papers for a class – but I did my best to answer the question.)
“I’m good at making decisions,” I
I went on to explain that, in a
sense, you can view writing as nothing more than a series of decisions. This
idea, not that idea. This word, not that word. (At least, I’m good at making
writing decisions. When I’m looking at the menu at the Cheesecake Factory,
that’s a different story.) Later, after my time with the class was over and I’d
swallowed some Extra-Strength Tylenol I’d found at the college bookstore, I
started thinking. What if a lot of the difficulties people have with writing
are actually problems with decision-making?
A couple months earlier, I’d read
an interesting article on CNN.com about something called decision fatigue.
Stated simply, after an individual makes a number of decisions over time – say
during the course of a workday – the quality of those decisions deteriorates.
Have you heard the story of how Albert Einstein wore the same kind of clothes
every day so he wouldn’t have to expend any mental energy deciding what to wear
each morning? Albert understood decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue can affect writers
in a number of ways. If you’re writing over a long period of time – say four or
five hours – you may find yourself having difficulty getting the words to keep
coming. Or maybe you keep writing, but you’re making what, in retrospect, are
questionable plot and character choices. Or maybe your brain seizes up and
refuses to produce any more text at all.
Most writers have a day job. (I’m a
college writing professor.) And if you’ve been making decisions at your job all
day – many of which might have been mentally or emotionally taxing – it’s
difficult to come home, sit down at your computer, and start making more decisions as you write. So
difficult, that maybe you can’t write at all. And the next thing you know, you
think you have writer’s block.
So here are some tips to help you
head off decision fatigue or deal with it when it rears its ugly head.
Before You Need to Make Non-Writing Decisions
This might mean writing before you
head off for your day job in the morning or before you decide to work on your
home-improvement project or head off to the grocery to stock up on supplies. In
my case, it could be all of the above, as well as writing before I sit down to
grade papers. The fewer decisions you have to make before you write, the
in Smaller Chunks of Time and Take Breaks
Instead of writing in marathon
sessions lasting several hours, write in one or two hour chunks with thirty
minute breaks in between. Studies have shown that even short breaks can help
combat decision fatigue. Whatever you do during your break, keep it as decision-free
as possible. Don’t shift gears and start working on a different project, don’t
answer emails, don’t hop on social media (you’ll end up making decisions about
what to post in response to some idiot who’s said something stupid to piss you
off.) And take your break away from your writing space, so your mind’s not tempted
to keep thinking about your story.
Character and Setting Descriptions Before You Write
If you don’t have a clear notion
who your characters are or what settings they live in and move though, you’ll
have to make decisions about those aspects when you reach them in your story
and fabricate details as you write. But if you write character profiles and
setting descriptions, you’ll have details like a character’s eye color, the car
he or she drives, and what his or her office at work looks like in hand before
you sit down to compose text. You’ll have a wealth of decisions pre-made so you
won’t have to waste mental energy as you write scenes.
Before You Write
Even if you’re normally averse to
outlining, consider it as a way of avoiding decision fatigue. You can have a
full outline that details every story beat or a more general outline that only
gives the story’s basic events. Either approach will help reduce the number of
decisions you have to make while actively composing text. I use outlines like
this all the time, but I also use smaller, simpler outlines that I create
before it’s time to compose a particular scene. That way, I am focused on
writing the scene without having to stop and try to figure out what happens next.
We need to create a writing space
for ourselves, and I’m not just talking about physical space. We need mental
and emotional space, and we need time, the most precious and hard-to-come by
commodity of all. We need our minds to be at their most creative and productive,
and learning how to avoid or at least decrease decision fatigue can go a long
way toward making that happen.
And it’s not a bad idea to keep
some Tylenol on hand, too. Just in case.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My latest novel out is Dream Stalkers, the sequel to Night Terrors, is out from Angry Robot
Books. Audra Hawthorne and her psychotic clown partner Mr. Jinx are back
battling nightmares made flesh, fighting to save both the waking and dream
worlds, and trying not to kill each other in the process.
My first short story collection All Too Surreal is now available for the
first time as an ebook from Crossroad Press. My other two collections – in case
you’re curious – are Broken Shadows
and Bone Whispers, and of course they’re
still available, too.
My young adult horror novel Dark Art is still out from Past Curfew
Press. A young artist’s anger fuels his drawings, bringing them to dangerous life
– and none is more deadly than the being called Shrike.
Too Surreal: http://www.amazon.com/All-Too-Surreal-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B00UCGXOXM/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428789868&sr=1-2&keywords=tim+waggoner