Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

This ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel or some quantifiable end. As I am between books right now and in search of the next story I want to pursue, this notion is both highly relevant and influential to me. In the last week, and in the last few days especially, I’ve been thinking a lot on what one can do for one’s book– before one is actively writing it. Or even planning it. Because believe me: as difficult as writing a novel can be, for a writer, not writing one (or rather, not even outlining one because you haven’t found your next true spark yet) is worse!

So here are some ideas for nourishing your next book before it comes into focus:

1. Read. A given for all writers at all stages. Reading improves your writing as well as your storytelling ability while exposing you to the stories/tropes already out there. Plus, it’s FUN!

2. Write every day. This should be another given for writers, but let me go a little further and advise committing to some kind of daily practice, like freewriting for 30 minutes each day. There might be a format that calls to you– letters, sonnets, journaling– but as a writer of fiction, it’s especially helpful to practice crafting scenes propelled by goals and conflict and tension. You can quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t, and you might even find something you want to draw out or use later. (The Brainstormer is one great source for prompts.)

3. Examine books that have resonated with you.  Ask why? Begin to see devices, formats, stylistic choices, outside-the-box thinking you admire. Even if it doesn’t directly feed into your next book, observation will get you thinking about something you might do– or do differently.

4. Create/refer to a list of things that capture your interest. Then pursue items on it through research, mind mapping, free association– and of course good old-fashioned experience (see below)! Try pairing items from the file together. Turning them on their head. Asking what you can do to reimagine or incorporate them into a narrative.

5. Get out. Try something new or go somewhere you’ve never been before. Give yourself more to draw from by broadening your experience in the world. Incidentally: new settings are great places to freewrite!

6. Study concepts. Have you ever coveted another book for its original idea? Writers often hear the term “high concept” to refer to ideas that are easily pitched, and often unique. (Two that I deeply admire: Logan’s Run, where people are only allowed to live to 21, and Delirium, where love is classified as a disease.)  Examining concepts gives one not only an appreciation for what has been done before (as well as a healthy reminder of how hard it can be to do something new), but a sense of the sort of things that might be done, and thus opens the way to broader thinking.

7. Study tropes, archetypes, motivations, etc. Not without significance are the smaller details that make every story what it is. Study the masters. Learn the parts. Then emulate and reinvent. Experiment and improve.

What do you do when not actively writing?

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8 thoughts on “Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

  1. Great post ~ I employ a lot of these when I get stuck too. One thing I recently did is re-watch some of my favorite TV shows to find out what about the story really drew me in: was it the plot? the characters? the interaction? the emotion? Once I figure out what it is I really love, I can focus on that when I sit down to write. I know a lot of writers place more emphasis on how books make them feel, but after all, movies and television are written too!

  2. Excellent advice Julie, though I confess that, when not writing, I’m usually doing something entirely unconnected like running, going to watch a rugby match or a gig, or even doing my day job. It’s probably too late for me to become a student of writing.
    Sonnets though, there’s an idea. ‘Shall I compare thee to a loaf of bread’ sort of thing. I might try it out 🙂

    • On the contrary, non-writing things are an important part of writing, too–experience fuels the fire, and usually its when our mind is relaxed/not engaged in writing that ideas come to us 🙂

      And I would love to hear that sonnet!

  3. I am stuck on editing, I love to write (the first draft). I can’t seem to move forward when it is time to edit (like now). It is time to edit when I want to take some steps towards publishing. If I had an interested publisher I’d be editing!! Any wild ideas???

    • I feel ya– it’s definitely easier to pour hard work into a project we know is actually going to go somewhere. But that is the catch 22: A manuscript must be SHINING (i.e., revised multiple times, with critical feedback from readers besides the author, revised, revised again, and polished and revised) before it stands a chance of interesting somebody in the industry. So that does mean a lot of time, patience, persistence, and hard work. The good news: That hard work is very, very doable (although it may be less wild than you were hoping for ;)).

      Let me ask you a question. How do you write when you write the first draft? Do you sit down at the same time every day, or just put in the time when you have it, or write 500 words a day or for 1 hour at a time? If you REALLY want it– to edit– can you not also apply the same discipline to your revisions? I believe it is doable. It’s just a matter of committing to the task and figuring out what works for you.

      One last idea. If first draft writing is what you get most excited about, why not alternate writing the first draft of something with revising the first draft of something else? You could revise Project A one day, write Project B the next. Do the hard thing to get to the fun thing 🙂

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