Sit around and talk with enough writers, bloggers, and creative types and eventually someone is going to talk about free writing. For me, it always conjures up images of Stephen King’s The Shining and the endless iterations of, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Of course, tread in these waters long enough and sooner or later you will be getting drug advice from someone to, “Take your creativity to the next level man.” Well, I won’t be offering any drug advice today. Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the most common methods of free writing and give you all some pointers on what to focus on when taking advantage of this great creative tool.
Free writing is basically non-stop writing. You set a timer, begin handwriting or typing, and do not stop moving your hands/fingers until the timer sounds. You don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or even if what you are writing makes sense. What this does is connect your minds-eye to your medium and overrides the analytical part of your brain that wants things to be structured and tidy. Whatever thoughts come into your head go down on the paper or screen unfiltered.
The two most common types of free writing are structured and unstructured. We’ll begin with the latter.
Unstructured free writing is a way to generate new and fresh ideas. Maybe you just finished writing your last novel and are sitting down to begin the next. Maybe you are sitting down to write for the first time ever (good on you). Regardless, the cursor is waiting there, blinking, winking—by God it’s mocking you! No ideas manage to find their way to your fingers. Don’t freak out, go freestyle!
Set the timer for ten minutes (or whatever time your comfortable with) and just start writing, even if you are simply writing, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again. Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith, explains that,”…even if you keep writing, ‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ over and over, eventually you’ll tire of this and ask why can’t I? And then let the answer take you to a subject, which will the lead to another subject, and so on” (p. 47-48). He continues on to say, “Or you might cheat a little and look around and see an object – a tree, anything – and start writing about it.”
Structured free writing allows you to expand or build on an idea you already have. You have a great idea for a character, plot, world, or conflict; it just doesn’t have any depth yet. Fear not, the solution could be a few minutes away. The only difference between unstructured and structured is this time you have a jumping-off point. Exactly like in unstructured, you set a timer and begin writing. Again, don’t worry about spelling or if it’s making sense. Just run with it. Run with it until your stomach churns and you begin to vomit those words onto paper straight from the creative whirlpool of you mind.
It’s always easiest to start structured free writing by beginning with a character, conflict, or setting in mind. The reason for this is simple, for the most part, we enjoy stories because of the characters, conflicts, and settings. Is it any surprise these things are typically the most enjoyable to write about?
So here’s the premise. Take the rough image of the character you are thinking about creating, toss them into a situation, set the timer, and see where you two go together. Launch them into space; write their birth; write their death; write about what they do on the toilet; write about what they do between the sheets; write about their awkward teen years; write about that one time they ate a sandwich and got food poisoning—just write. Set the timer and don’t stop.
Will you get anything usable from this? Who knows. What it is doing is cementing in your mind who your characters are and what they are about. We all have that friend or family member we know so well we can pretty much guess what they are going to say or do in any given situation. If we want believable characters, then we should know them just as well (if not better).
Conflicts. Who doesn’t love a good conflict? So maybe you have an idea for a conflict and nothing more. No real characters or setting. No worries. Set the timer, start writing about the conflict and don’t stop.
Maybe they are in space/underwater and running out of air? Maybe they are mortally wounded? Maybe they are navigating a particularly annoying dinner party and one of the guests is a shape shifting, man stealing, Jezebel? Who cares? Pick a route and run with it. Don’t like it? Switch. There are no rules except that you don’t stop. When the timer is done check out what you have written. Chances are some characters might have wormed their way into existence and some imagery related to setting can be gleaned.
Many times the biggest issue stopping writers is self-doubt and being overly critical. We all have story to tell that is trapped away in our heads. Unfortunately, we stress about structure, grammar, and all those details that don’t really matter so much in the creative process (that’s why revision and editors exist). Free writing is the heart bypass that allows nutrient rich blood to flow through your creative veins. When you free write, you do so knowing it’s going to be choppy, sloppy, and insane—there’s no fear of judgement.
As this is a repost, I had some excellent input from past comments. Amanda, at Mind the Dog Writing Blog, was kind enough to recommend the website Life in 10 Minutes. Taking her suggestion, I visited the page and was greatly impressed with it. The page has links to workshops and examples of excerpts. If you wanted to browse some examples of what can be accomplished, this is a solid place to check out.
Have any of you had success with free writing? Have you heard of or developed different methods? I’d love to hear about it. It’s always interesting to see what materializes when I use this technique. If anything, it’s a nice departure from my normal analytical methods. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!