Staring at Blank Pages, Swearing

Much like my journey to the Land of Productive and Useful Outlines, the story of how I’ve established a decent and reliable writing habit stretches back into the misty haze of the past. It also features more than its fair share of speed bumps and roadblocks.

I say more than its fair share. At least my writing habit uses a pretty bangin’ desktop computer to subsist rather than a reed stylus for impressing cuneiform characters into tablets of soft clay. Those Assyrian writers had it fuckin’ rough, yo.

Cuneiform script tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection in the Library of Congress. From Year 6 in the reign from Amar-Suena/Amar-Sin between 2041 and 2040 BC.
“Guys I wrote a full tablet today. …I have no idea what my fucking word count is.”

Basically, I’ve not ever had a writing habit until a little less than a year ago. Like some kind of starveling beast, I wrote when and where I could—at lunch, in the evening if I had the energy, while I was traveling, etc. Bits and pieces of prose and outline here and there, unreliable at best and sketchy as a south OKC strip joint at worst.

The first NaNoWriMo where I really gave a damn, back in 2011, was my first attempt at establishing a regular writing schedule. I would get home in the evening and, first thing, hammer out my requisite words before permitting myself to go about my other business. This lasted until maybe a little over halfway into November, when it all collapsed in a green, bloody sinus infection that sapped my will to live, not to mention write.

For many years, NaNoWriMo was the closest thing I had to any gestures towards a regular writing schedule. Then, in 2015, shortly after creating this blog, I attempted my “1k a day” experiment, where I just had to write a thousand words per day. That got me through March and April (Camp NaNoWriMo) of that year, cranking up the novel I started in March to a bit over 60k by the end of Camp. And then I collapsed from raw, unadulterated burnout after April spun down. That was clearly too much.

NaNoWriMo 2015 was another bust, which brings us to 2016.

I learned a lot of things about myself in 2016. One was that I really, unequivocally didn’t like the job I was at. So I got a new one. The next was that I really wanted to be able to game and write at a proper desktop computer, not a laptop or a Chromebook. Luckily, the new job allowed me to get the dosh together to build one.

The magic didn’t really kick in, though, until I had two realizations.

One occurred during a game of Call of Cthulhu that will eventually be uploaded to Roll to Dodge: I really liked Trader Joe’s Breakfast Blend coffee, dished up by grinding the beans as necessary for brewing in my French press.

Trader Joe's Breakfast Blend Coffee
My precious.

The second occurred to me at work, as I was contemplating the fact that I always work better on problems before lunch rather than after lunch: I do all my best thinking in the morning, when I’m fresh and cognizant and haven’t had the energy sucked out of me by the rest of the day. So clearly, my writing time needed to happen in the morning.

The confluence of these events and realizations led me to waking up at 5 AM—an ungodly hour for me at the time—brewing a cuppa, fixing some eggs, and sitting down at my new desktop computer to write.

That first day, between the time I sat down in the chair and the time 6:30 rolled around and I needed to get ready for work, I banged out about a thousand words. This shit worked.

And I stuck with this magic formula—wake up, fix coffee, make the words go—all the way through the end of the novel I completed last year, The Magician’s Ghost, and through November, where I won NaNoWriMo for the first time ever.

You may recall, however, that something distressing happened in early November, something that made it very hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. I speak, naturally, of the fact that we voted into office, as Senator Daylin Leach of Pennsylvania stated most eloquently, a “fascist, loofa-faced shit-gibbon”. The sheer momentum of NaNoWriMo kept me going, in the end, but it was hard. Hard enough that when December landed I barely wrote a damn word.

The habit, which I had cultivated so carefully over all those previous months, crumbled utterly. I still tried to get up early to write, but most of the time I couldn’t. When I could get up early, I would spend my time on Pinterest instead of writing. It was a bad show, and it was almost certainly due to the loving cocktail of depression and anxiety I’m treated for on the reg being exacerbated by the aforementioned shit-gibbon’s rise to power in conjunction with hard NaNoWriMo burnout.

Fast forward two and a half unproductive months to February 11, 2017. I had a party to go to that evening, which I typically welcome as an excuse to slither moistly out of my calcified shell of introversion to socialize with other human creatures of whom I am fond. However, after pounding the pavement at a craft fair for several hours (buying some delightful handmade soaps) and then getting fitted for a suit rental, I realized that I had a blistering migraine and that I really needed to just have about a twelve-hour lie-down to make the throbbing pain behind my eyes go on its merry way. No party for me, sadly.

It was while half-asleep and hunting for a mobile game on Google Play that I discovered LifeRPG—an app that subjects all that crap that you want and need to do in real life to the wonderful magic of gamification. Vaguely delirious and enchanted by its elegant interface, I downloaded the app and set up a mission for every morning of the week.

A screenshot of the Android app LifeRPG

This simple mission has kept me delightfully on-track ever since, regardless of what fresh madness bubbles up out of the news every day. I’ve, at minimum, plugged some words into Novlr every morning since I downloaded this app. I’ve also used it to track a ton of other stuff to make sure that I stay both healthy and sane (or as sane as a writer can manage), both of which are vitally important to the continued maintenance of my mortal coil and my ability to keep making stories happen.

So! Long story short, I had a good solid run of consistent writing last year that went to hell in a hand-basket after the election, but now I’m back in the word mines every morning like clockwork thanks to an app on my phone holding my feet to the fire with the promise of XP and rewards because I’m a complete slut for video games.

How about you guys? What sort of routines do you have? Do you have any tools you use to keep you honest? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Staring at Blank Pages, Swearing

  1. Firstly, dude. You are not the only one who became a worthless pile of used-to-be writer after the shit gibbon rose to power. I’m STRUGGLING.

    Also, I love that you’re gamifying your writing. That’s the Jamesest thing. I’ve used Epic Win, a productivity app that gives you gold and new character mods when you level up, and OU is actually giving students incentives for using Habitica to track their writing. Habitica is cool, but the throwback graphics DRIVE ME INSANE.

    I like the idea of waking up and writing first thing. And when I was most productive, that’s what I was doing. Generally, I need to get up and workout, then write. But I could definitely enjoy a cup of coffee and writing first thing.

    Thank you for this post. Wonderful fodder! I need to get my butt in gear. But I also kind of just want to sit on the couch, binge some Netflix, and slowly let my brain drain out of my ears.


    1. I feel terrible, because I only just discovered a couple of days ago that my blog just straight-up ate this comment, and there’s so much for me to love in it!

      I used to think that gamification was complete horseshit–most likely due to that magical place we both worked at and its increased focus on gamification as time went on. But when I realized I needed to do something to get my ducks in a row, I just went “well, what the hell.”

      I love that OU is actually offering incentives for using Habitica. That’s amazing. I don’t really need any sorta graphics for myself, though. I basically need a glorified checklist that will reward me for completion and scourge me mercilessly for failure.



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