Writing Warm-ups

“Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”

— Michael Crichton

15 Ways to Jump-start Your Day

In a candlelit garret, William Shakespeare spins in a circle, rubs a quill between his hands, then spits over his shoulder before sitting down to put plume to parchment.

That scene from 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” is played for laughs, but in today’s world of deadlines and day jobs, warm-up rituals are no joke. A warm-up routine can help you banish distractions, loosen “cold” creative muscles, and get down to the serious business of putting words on pages.

I recently asked the most prolific writers I know—the members of Romance Writers of America—to reveal how they jump-start their writing each day. Here, they share 15 fresh ways to get beyond the “blank page” stage as quickly as possible.

  • Create a routine. Become a creature of habit. “I arise at 6 a.m., read the newspaper and take a short swim,” says Virginia Henley (The Border Hostage, Dell). “Once I’ve begun step one of the ritual, I can’t turn back, and therefore I turn on that computer and start work at the same time every day.” Take note: All of the New York Times bestselling authors who responded to the survey stressed this point.
  • Don’t use e-mail or the Internet as a warm-up. Going online is the fastest way to make your writing time vanish without a trace. “I smack my hand when it tries to push the Outlook Express button first thing,” says Kathleen Eagle (Once Upon a Wedding, William Morrow). Reward yourself with Net surfing at the end of your writing session, after you’ve met your daily goal.
  • Set a limit on warm-up time. A warm-up ritual is meant to improve your productivity, not give you another excuse to procrastinate. As you read this list, circle two or three ideas that appeal to you, then weave them into a daily routine that lasts about 10 to 20 minutes. If you find yourself overdoing it, set a timer.
  • Relocate. Take your show on the road: Pack up your laptop and head for the nearest dining room, coffee shop, park or beach. One New York Times bestselling author starts every day far from her office: After waking up and making a quick pit stop, “I hop right back under the covers with my laptop,” says Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Breathing Room, William Morrow). “I like to write this way for about an hour before I go downstairs and tend to everything else. Two hours later, when I finally get resettled in front of the computer, I already have something to show for my day.”
  • List. If you’re nagged by thoughts of errands to run and groceries to buy, banish your distractions by jotting a quick to-do list. Put a star next to anything that needs to be done today (just as soon as you’re finished writing). Now set the list aside and focus on your book.
  • Dictate. If you find the “blank page” stage too daunting, turn off your computer and dictate the rough draft of your scene into a digital recorder. Use a portable model and jump-start your writing in the car, at your daughter’s soccer game or anywhere that’s convenient.
  • Type. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type whatever pops into your head: random phrases, a description of the weather, the room where the scene takes place—anything that will move you into the story. “I know I can delete these ramblings, and I often do,” says Victoria Hinshaw (The Fountainebleu Fan, Zebra Regency). “I’m sometimes surprised, however, to find a new insight or even a worthwhile sentence or two.”
  • Plot. Take a moment to think about what you want this scene to accomplish: Who are the focal characters? What are their motivations? What conflicts will they encounter? What action might take place? What’s the emotional tone? How will this scene move the story forward? Brainstorm 10 or 20 quick ideas and dive in.
  • Skim. “If I’m stalled, I often go back and speed-read through the entire manuscript,” says Robin Lee Hatcher (Firstborn, Tyndale House). “Major procrastination usually indicates that I’m missing motivation for one of my characters. This helps me find the answer.”
  • Journey. If you’re a historical author, take a time-traveling journey into the era you’re writing about: Look at letters, diaries, prints or other material from the period. While writing The Exiles (Zebra), Nita Abrams started her day by tracing her characters’ movements on a map of 1813 Vienna.
  • Spark. Decorate your writing space with pictures that instantly spark your creativity. In her “Poof, It’s a Book!” workshop, Susan Wiggs (Passing Through Paradise, Warner) suggests making a collage with clippings from magazines. The collage for my current novel-in-progress features photos of Alaskan scenery, a helicopter, Mel Gibson, a blonde in a slinky red dress and phrases like “Strong & Beautiful.”
  • Believe. Create a folder filled with self-esteem boosters: inspiring quotes, praise from contest judges or critique partners, award certificates—anything that helps you believe in yourself and your talent. Spend a moment looking through it before you start your day.
  • Relax. A few minutes of guided relaxation can quiet your mind and awaken your creative spirit. Step-by-step instruction is available on DVD or audio CD. Try “Yoga Journal’s Yoga Practice for Relaxation” (DVD) or “The Theta Meditation System” by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson (CD), both available at Amazon.com, or “Ten Minutes to Relax” by The Relaxation Company (CD, available at www.therelaxationcompany.com).
  • At the end of today’s writing session, try one of these tips and you’ll find it easier to get started tomorrow:
    • Ask a question. Before leaving the keyboard, ask yourself a question about tomorrow’s scene: What’s the heroine feeling at this point? Or, How are they going to get out of this alive? Write it down and sleep on it. Your subconscious might provide a surprising answer.
    • Blaze a trail. Type a few quick sentences to be continued. “I try to always end my workday by beginning a new strand of action or adventure—just enough to draw me into the next day’s work with a bit more ease,” says Ruth Ryan Langan, author of more than 70 novels (His Father’s Son, Silhouette).

Experiment a bit until you find the warm-up that meets your needs. If any part of your routine causes you trouble, change it. “What will motivate one writer may not work for another,” says Tina St. John (White Lion’s Lady, Ballantine). “It’s important to look for the things that inspire you, then use them shamelessly.”

USA Today bestselling author Shelly Thacker has earned lavish praise from Publishers Weekly, Locus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Detroit Free Press and booksellers who have called her “a virtuoso beyond compare.” A two-time RWA RITA Finalist, she has won numerous other honors for her fiction, including a National Readers’ Choice Award and many Romantic Times Certificates of Excellence. There are more than one million copies of her novels in print.

Published in Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Forum magazine, Winter 2005 © Shelly Thacker. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted for individual writers to print one copy of this article for personal use. Any other reproduction by any means, print or electronic, is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author.


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