By Chris Mandeville
One of my favorite tools is the kitchen timer. It’s so simple yet has so many uses in everyday life as well as in writing. In the kitchen it lets you know when the pasta is done and when to take the cake out of the oven. Outside the kitchen it’s great for putting the kids on “time out” and alerting you when to pull your laundry from the dryer. In school it’s used to speed-test multiplication tables, and to see how many sit-ups you can do in a minute. On a grander scale it signals when to let the hockey player out of the penalty box. But when it’s used as a tool by the working writer, that’s when it really shines. Here are fifteen ways you can use it to increase your creativity and productivity.
Most writers tell me they partake in social media to stay connected with fans and friends, as well as for marketing. The biggest complaint is that it’s all-too-easy to lose track of time, to the detriment of everything else, particularly writing. If this applies to you, setting a timer can be your saving grace. Decide how much time you will allow yourself to waste, err, I mean spend, then when the timer “dings,” log out. Whether that’s limiting yourself to ten minutes each hour or each day is up to you.
The timer can help us take care of necessary tasks we don’t enjoy. I don’t enjoy marketing, but I know I need to do it if I want to sell books, and the timer helps it feel less daunting. I suggest making a list of bite-sized marketing tasks, then each day set the timer for twenty minutes and tackle one of them. By the end of the week you’ll have accomplished seven things that can help you sell your books, and you’ll hardly have noticed the time you invested.
Another task many writers find unpleasant is dealing with email. If you ignore it, the mail piles up and becomes overwhelming. On the flip side, if you handle mail as it comes in, it can keep you away from your writing all day. The timer can push you to deal with your in-box quickly. Take it as a challenge: how many emails can you get through in fifteen minutes? If you receive a lot of unwanted mail, once a week take fifteen minutes to “unsubscribe” from as many as possible.
If you contribute to a blog, you know the feeling of being torn between writing your blog and writing your novel. Whether you have a hard time making yourself blog, or have a hard time tearing yourself away from it, setting a timer can help you limit the time you spend and make that time more focused. Depending on your process, you can allow yourself twenty minutes to brainstorm and/or outline. Likewise use the timer for twenty minutes of “rough draft sprinting” and see if you can get through the entire article. Repeat for revising and proofing. Setting the timer for each phase helps apply the pressure to make those blocks of time as productive as possible. Before you know it, your post is done and you can get back to Facebook your novel.
“Rough draft sprinting” isn’t just for blog posts. In fact, one of my favorite uses of the timer is for “word sprints” on my novel. I often do this in concert (okay, competition) with one of my critique partners. We set the timer for twenty or thirty minutes and see who can write the most. Granted, some of the output is crap, but isn’t that true of a first draft no matter how much time you spend on it? Sprinting is a great way to bang out scenes quickly. You’ll be surprised how much you can produce when you’re forced to ignore your “inner editor” and write all-out. It’s also a great way to make use of what might otherwise be an unproductive chunk of time.
My last post was about the “rabbit hole” of naming, with tips and tools to help you get in and get out quickly so you don’t spend a lot of time away from your story. Setting a timer for ten minutes to choose a name is a great way to prevent spending hours wandering the rabbit warren.
Even if you don’t put a lot of effort into naming, you may find yourself so immersed in other research that you forget you’re supposed to be writing. I’m not saying you don’t need to ferret out what diseases were prominent in Fourteenth century China or which of Einstein’s theories relates to time travel. But if you tend to get lost in research, the timer can be your tether to the present. If you must break away from writing to research something, set the timer for ten minutes, make the most of that time, then get back to writing. If a topic requires more time, you can always go back to it “after hours.”
Perhaps you don’t lose yourself in research or naming, but instead you disappear for hours inside your head brainstorming plot or building characters. While this isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t increase your writing productivity if you don’t put words on the page. The timer can serve to remind you when to stop dreaming your story and start writing it.
When You’re Stuck
It happens to all writers at one time or another—we get stuck. This doesn’t necessarily mean “writer’s block.” It can mean we’re not sure whether the plot should take a left turn or a right, whether the character should live or die, or whether the story itself is worth writing. When you’re feeling stuck, take out a pen and paper, set your timer for fifteen minutes, and do “free association” writing. Make a choice and play it out, or list all the pros and cons of one decision versus the other. Give yourself a “what if” scenario to try. Or write a scene where something literally destroys the current state of affairs (e.g. fire, flood, death, apocalypse). More times than not, when the timer “dings” you’ll have a fresh perspective. But if you’re still stuck, spend another fifteen minutes on a different approach. If you do this repeatedly, you’ll eventually get unstuck, even if it’s only because writing your story becomes more appealing than continuing this exercise!
Speaking of exercise, physical exercise is something many writers don’t do enough of. We get so involved in our stories we neglect to move (fingers on keyboard don’t really count). Setting a timer for a twenty-minute walk can get your blood flowing, which can also make your story flow. In addition, the timer can remind you to stand and stretch every hour.
Writing can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Sometimes it’s helpful to step away and take a “time out.” When you feel fatigued, set your timer for fifteen minutes and partake in an unrelated activity: grab a snack, throw the ball for your dog, dance to some favorite songs, or take a power nap. When time is up, you can return to your writing renewed and ready to work.
Let’s face it—not every day is a good day. Sometimes it’s difficult to write because we feel like crap. Maybe we’ve just gotten a rejection letter, or we have a general feeling of “I suck as a writer,” or maybe it has nothing to do with writing. When this happens for me, I try to embrace it. Yes, embrace it, but only for ten minutes. I set the timer and fully wallow in my malaise. When the timer “dings,” I’m usually able to set those feelings aside and get to work.
The Quick Tidy
Sometimes my physical world gets in the way of my story-world, like when my desk is so messy I can’t find my computer. If your writing space is infringing on your creativity and/or productivity, it’s time for a quick tidy. Set your timer for twenty minutes and start cleaning like mad. The short amount of time necessitates that you work fast and focus only on what’s essential. If after twenty minutes you’re still in the weeds, grab your laptop or notepad and head for the library or coffee shop.
The “To Do” List
I have to admit, sometimes I can’t write because my brain won’t let go of my real-life responsibilities. When I try to focus on my story, my subconscious interrupts with questions like “Did you pay the electric bill?” or “Are we out of dog food?” When this occurs, I set my timer and bang out a “to do” list of the real-world miscellanea clogging my brain. Usually the act of writing it down allows me to let it go long enough to get some writing done. Of course if one of the questions is “Did I leave the stove on?” I take care of that before diving into my story!
My name is Chris and I’m a procrastinator. I often put tasks off until the last minute, allowing the urgency of the time-crunch to propel me into action. This can be a problem with long-term writing deadlines: if my novel isn’t due for three months, surely I can goof off this morning, right? When I catch myself procrastinating, you know what I do: I grab that handy kitchen timer and set it for fifteen minutes. Then I procrastinate. For fifteen minutes. Usually I’m done after ten minutes because being acutely aware that I’m procrastinating makes me feel acutely guilty about it. I’d rather write than feel guilty, so I stop procrastinating and get to work. Are you procrastinating right now? Right on! Set the timer and “enjoy” it, then get to writing!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com
Some really good advice. Thank you.
Thanks, April! Let us know here if you try any of my suggestions or if you find any other uses for your handy-dandy timer.
I love it! Fabulous advice, Chris. I particularly like the use of a timer for ‘wallowing’ and shall be adopting this tactic immediately – not just for my writing! 😉
Thanks for commenting, Shelley. Hopefully you don’t need to use the timer for wallowing too often, but when you do feel the need, I hope the timer helps you to get through it quickly and get back to writing!