Persuading yourself to write is like pulling off a long con. You play the parts of both the mark and the convincer. The mark has something you want, time and dedication. Neither you, nor they, want to give those things up willingly. Time scheduled is time spent, and you want to keep your options open. You’ve got a Netflix queue that isn’t going to watch itself. Dedication requires persistence, and you already have enough on your plate. No one wants to feel like they’re clocking into a second job.
You’ll have to swindle the time and dedication out of yourself. You’ll have to get yourself to write without realizing that you’re doing it.
Don’t spend too much time on foundation work, or you’ll get wise to what you’re up to. You’ll see all of those character biographies and get nervous about meeting new people. You’ll see the settings mapped out and your agoraphobia will kick in. You’ll see the scene list and imagine your calendar filling up with X’s. If you let yourself realize how daunting the task of writing can be, you won’t want to do it.
Approach your mark with your writing utensils behind your back. This isn’t the time to worry about word counts and deadlines. You need to plant a seed in your imagination. Something so small your conscious mind won’t even notice. You need to control the path your mind wanders down. You need trick yourself into thinking that you’re daydreaming when you’re really plotting.
One way to trick yourself is to let your imagination play in someone else’s sand box. There’s no need to erect a small town when there’s a perfectly good Twin Peaks to go to. There’s no need to train federal agents when Mulder and Scully are waiting at the bureau. There’s no need to orphan another sad loner. Look to the gargoyles and you’ll find a perfectly good Batman. These characters still have some milage in them. Just think where you could take them.
You need to believe that you’re a quiet observer, a bystander on the set. Not the chump stuck directing the entire production.
Fan fiction can flex your imagination’s muscles without making it feel like a work out. The trick is to take the characters you’re borrowing out of their element, to someplace they don’t want to go, someplace their makers would never dream to bring them.
Don’t worry. You’re not plotting, you’re just imagining what would happen if Harry Potter was back in the time of witch trials. You’re not building a universe. You’re just sending the crew of Serenity back to earth-that-was to find it littered with damn dirty apes.
You’re not setting up a tragedy. You’re imagining what would happen if a clone of Emperor Palpatine appeared to Luke Skywalker’s daughter as a younger, more attractive, Sith lord.
This is where you inner editor has to sneak in, like a thief in the night, and cut around those copyrighted elements, and leave you with what’s left. Your inner editor has to whisper into your ear, “What if this story wasn’t the plot for the next Silent Hill video game? What if it took place in another small town, one you had far more control over? What if you kept the parts that are yours and discarded the rest?”
Fan fiction is one way trick to your imagination into working without realizing it, having your own expanded universe is another.
Expanded universes are great, because you don’t have to waste time scouting locations, or casting leads. You’ve already established the setting. You’ve already developed the characters. The only thing left to create is a situation. An expanded universe is your sandbox. You can scoop out as many grains as you want. You can dig up one element of your universe and discard the rest.
Stephen King often draws fresh works from his Dark Tower universe. The Dark Tower series takes place in a futuristic ruin-scape filled with doors to other dimensions. Each of King’s stories lives behind one of these doors. Elements pass through the key holes all the time. Cursed objects roll from the sand to the floorboards of haunted houses. Characters leap from one door to the next. Randall Flagg wanders out of medieval times to plague ridden Las Vegas.
The Dark Tower is a springboard for all of King’s ideas to bounce off of. It’s his secret weapon to fight off writer’s block. Set aside some mental real estate and start building your own Dark Tower, and you’ll find stories are much easier to start.
Dialogue is another great way to get your imagination working without it realizing it. Imagine two distinct voices arguing. Create a banter where two characters let loose on each other with no restraint. They could be an elderly couple who waited until their eighties to have the divorce talk. They could be a pair of army buddies, arguing religious tolerance, as they attempt to defuse a bomb. They could be a pair of psychics arguing over the fate of one of their customers.
Come up with an absurd scenario to justify bickering. Make the characters feel righteous in their rudeness. Let the conversation play out until you get to a line of dialogue that makes you laugh out loud. If it makes the people around you look at you funny, then you have to write that line down. Now you have to write a rebuttal for the other character.
Before long you’ve written a scene without realizing it. If you like what you’ve written so far, just imagine how much more you’d like it within context. You’ll have a short story before you realize it.
Another technique to con a story out of your imagination is to get obsessed with something outside of yourself. It could be a major news story: a political scandal, a well publicized trial, or an advancement in technology. Imagine an extreme version of one of these developments. How much worse could the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal have gotten? What if you were on trial for the death of your own child and the court of public opinion had already rendered a verdict? What if Google Glass could use facial recognition technology? Scratch that last one, I already used it.
Exaggerate these events into something unrecognizable. Highlight the moral questions that they pose and discard the rest. It doesn’t matter which state the senator who flashed girls online came from, what matters is what he did. Spin that event into something that is entirely yours to play with. What if the senator wasn’t married? What if the photos were sent upon request? How does that change the conversation? What if they were unsolicited? What if he was sending them anonymously? How does that change the conversation?
Imagine the person on the receiving end of those dick picts. Humanize them into someone we can all relate to, someone who is as confused about social media as we all are. Let them be flattered, appalled, curious, and embarrassed. Let them feel lust or disgust. Do they keep the senator’s secret or do they broadcast it to the world? How could you twist the story even further?
Here are you stacking bricks for the fun of it, not realizing you’ve laid the foundations for a story.
Sometimes it’s hard to get your thoughts under control. Sometimes you can’t write because your imagination is already occupied. Another obsession has taken up residence. Its on the couch in its boxer shorts, flipping through old memories, while you need the space to write. It’s lining the walls with polaroids of ex-girlfriends, blasting The Cure’s “Pictures of You,” while you need peace and quiet to think. I say, put your obsessions to work.
So you can’t stop dwelling on a relationship that has gone sour, fine. So there’s no distraction that can push it out of your mind, fine. Use it. I’m giving you permission to dwell on what could have been. Fantasize about the extreme lengths you’d go through to fix it, and when I say, “Fantasize” I mean fantasize. I’m not talking about winning anyone back with flowers and a night of dancing, sorry Bruno Mars, you’re going to need to dig a little deeper to woo us. I’m talking about fantasy here. Use time travel to win your ex back. Fight off your past self, so you can take his place. Lock him in a storm cellar with a wall of canned goods. What happens when he breaks out? Now you’ve got a story.
You could fantasize about your ex playing the damsel in distress. You could be the ripped sleeved hulk who kicks down the door in time to save her, (excuse me while I yawn) or you could imagine a scenario where you were programmed to love someone by agents of the government. What tactical gain would they have to manipulate your feelings for someone? What could you do to break their subliminal spell? Would you ever trust your feelings again?
Now there’s a story.
You’re not starting your writing ritual just yet. You need to believe that you still have writer’s block and what you’re doing isn’t writing. It’s tinkering. Writing rituals make the act feel sacred. The more sacred something feels the more formal it gets. If your ritual is too formal you’ll only do it under certain conditions. You’ll only write at a certain time of day, with the right ambiance, mood music, and wine. The preparation for the ritual is an investment in itself.
When you jot your ideas, on your phone at a party, there’s no ritual. When you write on a bar napkin, you’re not editing as you go. When you type from a park bench, you’re playing fast and loose. You don’t know what you have yet. So you’re not worrying about it.
That’s where the long con comes in.
Raise a fear in yourself that you will forget the story if you don’t write down everything you have. Don’t worry, you’re not writing your novel now. You’re just prepping some notes for the future you to dig through. Make sure the notes are as flushed out as possible. You don’t want to find pot holes on memory lane. Do your best to make your notes resemble scenes. Don’t worry about naming your characters. Their names might as well be X and Y and other random variables. You can “Find” and “Replace” the names later.
This is the point in the con where, the players each put some of their own money in. The problem is that you’re playing both the convincer and the mark. You’ll have to get a little creative. You need to trick yourself into living your story. You’ll want to slack off and watch a movie. You need to make sure that the movie engages the part of your imagination that your story lives in. When you feel like scouring the net for new music, use it as an excuse to create a soundtrack for your writing. Your media should reenforce your inspiration. You should see a reminder of your story everywhere you turn.
With your mark on the hook, it’s time to give yourself the brush off. It’s time for a sobering wake up call. It’s time to realize that you’ve been had. Look at your notes. They’re not notes, are they? They’re scenes.
It turns out, you’ve been writing the entire time. The con is complete.