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Benefits of a Writing Routine: Honor the Pages

By David Willis · March 9, 2013

Screenwriters are drawn to the people-watching aspects of the city. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or any metropolis between, writers find themselves attracted to heavily populated areas teeming with interesting characters and dramatic situations. The city offers a landscape of adventure and discovery. Unfortunately, it is sometimes at the cost of the solitude one needs to do the work of screenwriting.

Some of us have adapted to the “privacy in public” way of living, allowing the city to ebb and flow around us. However, this is not an option for all of us. For many years writing will be your hobby, perhaps your addiction, but it will not be your occupation from day one. For this reason, a writer must give the best part of his or her day to the craft. If you don’t seize that time, you may be setting yourself up for frustration.

My fight for a writing schedule has been a long one, but I’ve been able to work out the kinks and honor the time that works for me. So for what it’s worth, here’s a play-by-play of my writing routine:

A hand hits my chest. Then the noise, a phone alarm, ringing long enough to wake her first. My wife will remind me of this later. I will apologize. She will make that face. I will try harder to wake up next time. She grumbles as I jump out of bed, the phone left out of reach intentionally to make hitting snooze impossible.

I stumble to the bathroom. It feels as though my eyes will never adjust to the light. On the counter is a stack of clothes laid out the night before. I brush my teeth in the shower, convinced it will save time somehow. It is all to make it easy. If I hesitate for a moment I will convince myself I am too tired, too overworked, that I deserve the sleep. From alarm to shower has to be less than a minute. If I so much as forget the socks I will sit on the bed as I sift through the sock drawer. Sitting will feel good. It will lead to lying down again. Just for a few more minutes. Then my eyes will open and my wife will be shouting for me to wake up, upset that she had been woken up before dawn for nothing. This is not an option, so I move quickly.

Sometimes I make it out the door so fast I have to hold the railing on the way down the stairs. My equilibrium is slow to adjust. I reach the car and load up a screenwriting podcast for the short drive. Then I concentrate. Ten mornings out of one hundred I hit the wall with the rear bumper, still probably too groggy to drive. One out of those ten times my wife notices a new scratch, a paint chip, evidence that I deny vehemently. This morning I do not hit the wall.

I drive a few miles from my apartment. The sun is still down. There is rarely another car in sight. Occasionally there is an avid jogger, decked out in reflective gear. Morning joggers are the only people crazier than morning writers. I reach the parking lot and have to wait for the street cleaner to do its final pass before I can turn into the spot.

I enter the coffee shop, surrounded by that signature green merchandising. It’s not so bad when it’s early, when it’s empty. A few baristas know my name. I can’t remember theirs. Some just know me by drink. “Iced coffee, right?” they say. I nod in aggreance. My name is not as important as my coffee at this hour. I pay and take my seat, the large table near the window. All the others are too short. They hurt my back and make it hard to concentrate.

As I set up, I dream about having an office. A real one. Actually, it’s more like a fake one. Something over-done like the Hunter Thompson’s office in Where the Buffalo Roam. A large desk, inspiring trinkets, photographs, books. All the writerly things. Then I tell myself it’s just about the words and the pages. An office doesn’t matter. They call my name, “Iced Coffee”. I grab it and sit.

All this preparation and still my mind fights me. Maybe I should look for a better job. Just a few minutes online. I could check my email. I fight back. I put on some music, blocking out what little life fills the room. I open the previous days pages. Sometimes it’s an outline. In either case I read what I wrote before and ask myself why I do this. It all seems like it’s not working. The words read like stereo instructions. I skim my own writing and fall into self-doubt. I remind myself that “the first draft of anything is shit,” which I am always only sixty percent sure was Hemingway. I think about starting something new, but I don’t. I somehow convince myself that if I cross the finish line I can move on, but until then I am stuck with this story, these characters. I have to see it through.

The words fight their way through my fingers to the keys. None of them are easy at first. I write what feels like pure garbage until something pops. A line of description, a clever piece of dialogue, something that gives me an ounce of hope. I continue. It still feels like it’s not working, but it has to get better. Then the coffee hits. My brain finally starts to make connections. I remember my intentions the day before. I remember my characters and their world. I remember why I started the story in the first place. I remember how it all needs to end and right around the time the sun comes up I find a way to take the next step.

I write furiously. When the sun rises, I know I have less than a few hours before I have to go to work. The day job is not writing, at least not yet. The frustration of getting in the zone is immediately replaced by the sheer dread of having to stop. I hate to walk away from an incomplete thought. You can’t get back to that place. You can get somewhere similar, but it is never the same. If I am going to realize my intention, it has to be right now. The time eventually comes, and I pack up. Even if I didn’t have to work, it would be time to leave this place. The horde has arrived. I squeeze my way to the door, looking back briefly. The empty seat is quickly snatched up by someone from a smaller table.

I will go to work. I will do that job, but they cannot have the best part of my day. I give that to this process. I reserve it for myself and my writing. Tomorrow I will look at these pages, and I will feel the self-doubt. I will think it is all pointless. Then I will remind myself what really matters. The day job means nothing. The routine means nothing, but I have to cross the finish line. All that matters is the pages.