Five For Thirty

The other critical part of this method is that you must commit to following it for 30 days straight before you evaluate or reconsider it or debate with yourself about the value of it. Since it takes a while to get used to and since the goal is to accumulate momentum, the only time you'll be able to see the results and possibilities is after you've done 30 days. So you must make a nonnegotiable contract with yourself to do them. Just do them. Thirty days. Keep your mouth shut. Don't evaluate. Don't discuss it. Keep a record.

Then, after 30 days, look back and see what you've accomplished. You'll be surprised at how much you've done and how much you're in the swing of the whole thing.

The 5 minutes a day will in themselves help you to make progress, but they will also keep your imagination stirred up, start things moving in the deeper levels of your mind and keep them moving, so when you do get more time, you'll be ready to go.

Deeper levels of your mind? What does that mean? The subconscious—the place where most of your mind and your imagination lives (or hides out) when you're not using them. No one has the final answers to how the mind works, but it's easy to see how it works for our purposes. I'm sure that you've had trouble trying to remember something, racked your brain, then finally given up, only to have it jump into your head hours later when you're doing some totally unrelated activity. That's the subconscious. Ask, and you will receive. Believe it or not, you can learn to use the subconscious and depend on it to help you write—even when you're doing something else.

Now, that's pretty far-out, and I don't want to give you the impression that you're going to write an entire novel subconsciously. But your subconscious is your best friend in all of this. It keeps things warm, primed, and ready to go when the time comes. But you must make daily contact with it in order to keep it focused and working.

How much can your mind do, on its own, without your conscious direction? Well, we know it can retrieve a forgotten name. How much actual work it does varies with the person, but it can do a significant amount for everyone. After you get into this 5-minute routine, you'll often find ideas and solutions waiting for you when you go there. That's because your subconscious doesn't stop just because you do. It goes on for some time after you leave. How long? Who knows? No one knows the mind that well, but you'll often find chunks of your story (character, scene, plot) popping up the moment you turn your attention to it.

The most extreme example of this is the famous poet John Milton (Paradise Lost), who had a photographic memory. He'd so internalized the process of creating poetry that he dreamt poetry written on a page, remembered it when he woke up, and then copied it down. His subconscious was serving up completed poetry. Consciously, he was totally absent.

Milton is the extreme. If you had that kind of brilliance, you'd know it by now. But, in principle, that's how the mind works in all of us. And it's the steady, regular, daily practice that makes it happen. When you internalize the craft, more and more ideas pop out of you fully formed, without your having to bang away at yourself all the time. That's when it gets a lot easier and a lot more fulfilling.

Unfortunately, many writers quit long before they master the craft and experience this kind of excitement. And they quit not because they lack ability, but because they believe they lack ability and blame themselves for the inevitable troubles every writer has to overcome. So, sticking with it until you master the process, until it becomes part of you, is the key. And the first step is to write or make contact with your writing for 5 minutes every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No days off. No 5-minute vacations.

One caution: easy as these 5-minute periods seem, you must plan ahead for them. If you have a busy schedule, you can't count on remembering, in the midst of the flurry, to do your 5 minutes. If you have the kind of life that allows for 5 minutes and little more, your chances of thinking of it during the day are slim. If you just leave it to chance, you may find yourself in bed at night ready to drop off, realizing that you didn't do your 5 minutes. By then it's too late and too difficult to try to do it. You must take steps ahead of time to get it done.

Even though it's just 5 minutes, you have to plan ahead for how you're going to work it in. These basic 5 minutes a day are so important that, at the risk of going overboard, I'm even going to give you some tricks to ensure you remember to do them. Here they are: Put a note on your dashboard, and do 5 minutes before you take off in the morning. If you take the bus or train, wrap a note around your pass or ticket or your money so that as you get on the train, you're reminded to do 5 minutes on the train. Put a note on your desk if you want to do them first thing at work. A trick I use when I need to remember something important is to write it on a three-by-five card. OK, but where do I put the card so it'll remind me? I crumple it up into a wad and put it in my pants pocket with my keys and change. (A flat card is too smooth and easy to miss. I know. I've tried it.) That way, I run into this crumpled, out-of-place lump several times during the day. A whole sheet of paper crumpled in your pocket is even bigger and might be the size wad you need. Wacky as it seems, this is the kind of trivia you have to attend to, and this is the kind of determination you have to have. One writer I know puts his watch on backwards to remind himself to do his 5 minutes. (If you're worried about remembering why your watch is on backwards, put a note in your pocket that tells you why your watch is backwards.) Putting messages on your own voice-mail is another method.

So, once you remember and take the time out, the first step is to settle in and get comfortable with your daily 5-minute sessions. Once you've done that, you take the next step, which is to approach the issue of a story. If you're up to it or in the mood, you can get into this right away, in your very first 5 minutes. But don't rush it.

Now I don't know what stage you'll be at when you begin the 5 minutes. Whether you've written a lot or never written doesn't matter. If you're starting cold and have no story or no idea what to do, that's where you start. If you have something in mind, you work with that. Wherever you are is fine.

You begin by simply thinking about what you might like to write about. Mull it over—no pressure, no straining to accomplish anything. Explore whatever comes into your head. You may not even be able to stay on the topic. Your mind may wander. You may not be able to keep from thinking about what you need to get back to as soon as you've done your 5 minutes. That's fine—all of it. Even if you only have a thought or two about writing and then drift away for the rest of the time, you've done a good job as long as you've spent 5 minutes away from your other activities. For a while, a few days to a week, go with this low-pressure, explore-whatever-comes-up approach. If it goes well and you're making progress, making something take shape, stick with that.

Sooner or later, you're going to lose your way or get stuck, or you may not be able to get started in the first place without more direction. That's when you take the next step, which is to use the story work list. That list is at the end of this chapter. It's there and not here, because I want to give you the rest of the time plan before you get into the story part.

The next part of this system is making bedtime contact. What that means is that, each night before you drop off to sleep, you visit your writing in your mind. Just take a moment to check in and go over where you're at and where you want to go. That's all. Often, you'll find ideas coming out. When you're closer to your subconscious, as you are when you're near sleep, you have more access to your imagination.

The problem with the bedtime contact is that, if you get a good idea, you'll be torn between getting up to write it down and just dropping off, hoping you'll remember in the morning. You may remember, or you may not, but don't count on remembering. If you have an idea that you really like and fail to record it and then can't remember it the next day, you may start agonizing over it. Whether it really was a great idea or not doesn't matter. Forgetting it can drive you nuts either way. Pretty silly maybe, but that's part of the game. The whole idea of this system is to minimize trouble—all trouble, whether real, imagined, serious, trivial.

One solution is to have pen and paper at your bedside. It's possible to write in the dark if you have to. I've done it many times. Another method is to have a pocket tape recorder at your bedside so you can record your ideas. You can do it in a whisper if you have to. Again, as with the 5-minute sessions, you're making contact and keeping things moving and churning in the deeper levels of your mind and imagination.

With this bedtime contact you have to take steps to remember, just as you do with the 5 minutes. So put a note on the alarm clock, your pillow, your pajamas, etc., so you'll be reminded when you get into bed.

All right, so your daily routine is a 5-minute session plus a visit before going to sleep. Now, there are all kinds of times when your mind is free or unoccupied. I said that all of Einstein's great ideas just came to him, but where do you think they came to him? When he was working hard in his study on the very thing the great ideas were related to? No. He said all of his great ideas came to him in the shower when he was not thinking of his work. The lesson is that big ideas come to you when least expected. Also, believe it or not, many great ideas have occurred in the bathroom. You spend a good deal of time in the bathroom each day. It's also a place where you can get into the habit of checking in with your writing. A lot of reading is done in the bathroom—why not writing?

Ideas, insights, breakthroughs, inspirations often pop up after you've worked on something and then gone on to some repetitive, monotonous, mindless activity—such as taking a shower or doing laundry or raking leaves. Walking, cleaning house, washing the car, weeding the garden are also repetitive, monotonous, mindless activities—times when ideas jump out of you, times when the pressure to produce is off, when your conscious mind lets up and makes room for your imagination and creativity to come to the surface. It's no accident. It's the way your mind works.

So, if it's possible, if your life permits, plan to do some drudgery right after your 5 minutes and after your writing once you get into it.

Or you can do it the other way around. That is, do your 5 minutes right before you have to do some drudgery. And even if you don't plan for it, whenever you find yourself involved in humdrum activity, check in with your writing to see what's there. First, let your mind go without any pressure to do anything, then gently steer it into whatever you're working on in your 5-minute sessions. And carry something to write with or a pocket recorder at all times.

So, now you're doing 5 minutes a day, checking in at bedtime, and opening the door from time to time to see what's there when you're doing drudgery.

This 5-minute plan adds up to 35 minutes a week. Once you get going, you'll be able to do 2 or 3 pages a week, or 100 to 150 pages a year. Pretty good for someone who has no time to write. Plus, it's not just a matter of pages, but the progress you'll be making in developing your skills and improving your writing by keeping your hand and your mind/imagination in on a daily basis. Two old writing rules are relevant here. The first is "Gently but always." The other is "Not a day without a line."

Now, these 5 minutes plus bedtime are the first level. If you find you have more time and the desire to do more during the 30 days, you can move on to the next level.

The next level is 5 minutes plus one half hour a week. But what if even a half hour a week is too much? Sounds impossible, but let's assume it's too much to fit in your schedule. What are you going to do? You can't do two things at once. Right? Wrong!

You can ride the train or bus and write. That assumes you don't have to use that time for something else. Even if you do, you might be able to take 10 minutes out to write as much as you can. We're shooting for dashing off a full page of anything in that 10 minutes, but a paragraph or a few lines are fine. So, this level is

5 minutes a day and 10 minutes three times a week, however you can fit them in. When you write 10 minutes, it replaces the 5 minutes. So, if you did 10 minutes a day for 3 days, you would do 5 minutes for the other 4 days. If you got rolling and did 10 minutes three times in 1 day, you'd do 5 minutes for the other

6 days. At that rate, you'd be doing 50 to 60 minutes a week (2 to 6 pages-100 to 300 pages a year).

The next level to shoot for would be 10 minutes every day. That would be 70 minutes a week (2 to 7 pages-100 to 350 pages a year).

The main thing in all of this is to pick a plan you can manage, make a commitment, and stick to it for 30 days, before you reconsider or evaluate in any way. You will not be able to make an accurate judgment before that.

With this next level, I'm recommending finding as many 10-minute stretches of time as you can and shooting for a total of 20 minutes a day. It can be 2 10-minute stretches or 1 20-minute stretch. If you can't do 2 10-minute stretches on a particular day, just do 1. If you can't do 1 10-minute session, you must do your 5 minutes. That's your lifeline, your fallback position, always. You must do one or the other every day. With 20 minutes a day, you'll be doing two hours and 20 minutes a week (5 to 14 pages-250 to 700 pages a year).

Whether it's 1 10-minute stint or 2 or more 10-minute stints if possible, how do you manage to do them? Well, how about doing 10 minutes before you leave for work? If it's hectic in your home, get up 10 minutes early, and do your 10 minutes in the car before you pull away. If your family won't leave you alone sitting in the car, drive away and pull off the road. If you're taking the train or bus, get up 10 minutes early, and do the 10 minutes at the station or on the train. Writing on the train or bus is another possibility. Then, at the end of the line, in the train station or the parking lot, do 10 minutes before going into the office. Sneak away and take a 10-minute break during the morning (in the bathroom stall if you have to). Try for 10 minutes at lunch. Then do 10 minutes before going home (in the car, at the station, etc). Or if your workplace clears out near the end of the day and you have time, do 10 minutes at your desk. Do 10 minutes as soon as you get home, or, if you must, before getting out of the car. Ten minutes after dinner (in the bathroom again, if need be). Ten minutes in the bathroom again right before a bath. Ten minutes before bed. If you walk, jog, or do Stairmaster or treadmill, that's a great time to connect. Take a pocket tape recorder in a waist pouch. If you're shy about telling people that you're writing, tell them that you're dictating business.

Now, chances are, you're not going to do all those 10-minute stints. But from those possibilities and others you can find on your own (start looking around to see where you have useable time), try to put together 20 minutes a day. Again, if your life is that busy, you're going to have to plan ahead and take steps to remind yourself to do them, or you won't do them. In that little time, once you've gotten into the swing of it, you can write one to three drafts of a novel in one year. (One page a day is 365 pages, one novel. Two pages a day is over 700 pages.) You're not doing the 5 minutes anymore, but if they have time, many people do them as a meditative connection to their writing that helps them keep their balance.

If you can't do anything more than 5 minutes a day, try to make a deal with your wife (family, whomever) for 20 minutes on Saturday and 20 minutes on Sunday. Sounds simple, but it may not be possible. It might be easy enough to get everyone to agree to it, but when the time comes for taking the 20 minutes, they may not be there. Even if it is possible, it's a new thing for you and for your family, so it'll take some getting used to. The best thing is to give them plenty of notice and keep them aware that you need to do it. So, with the weekend plan, you'd be doing 5 minutes 5 days (25 minutes) and 2 20-minute stints over the weekend, 65 minutes total (2 to 6 pages a week-100 to 300 pages a year).

Sounds easy? Maybe, but at first it's going to hurt. The stop-start routine might drive you nuts. You'll probably feel jangled or fragmented or disconnected. But don't despair, and don't let that stop you. You'll get past that. (Remember: 30 days before you reconsider.) If you keep at it, these little stints will become not only a natural part of your day, but one of the more satisfying things you do.

And it's not as if you've never done this before. Did you ever have a hot idea about a project you were working on or a problem you were trying to solve, an idea that you couldn't wait to get down on paper and that you took time out to put down, and it took 10 minutes or more, and it was great? So, getting something significant done in 10 minutes isn't unusual. This is the same thing;-once you get the hang of it. Well, almost the same thing.

In the above example, the idea descended upon you. In your regular daily routine, you will be setting out without the surge of inspiration to carry you forward. Instead, you will often feel as if you're descending upon ideas, as if you're on an idea hunt, looking for something to pounce upon. But that's not the best way to think of it. What you're doing in all of this is simply setting the stage so that it can happen, opening the door, letting it happen as opposed to making it happen or forcing it to happen. Again, the relaxed approach is best. Accept whatever you get from yourself, and don't despair if it's not inspired. That's the attitude to cultivate, but I want to give you more to go on than attitude, since all of the story craft and technique applies to these short sessions.

These next issues are what you work on if you can't get started. They're also what you need to make your story move. You'll need to address them sooner or later—sooner if you're stuck or lost, later if your writing takes off. These elements may come to you in this order (you may think of a situation before you have a character), or they may come in some other order (you may have a character you like, but no situation). It doesn't matter where (or how) you start. Go over the list to get a feel for it, then find the element or elements (character, want, obstacle, action, etc.) that you need to start.

Again: If at any point you feel like writing, do it. You don't have to have everything (or anything) figured out to start. If the urge moves you, forget the list and go. When the momentum stops or when you get lost or blocked, come back to the list. Jumping around is fine. It's never an orderly process. Go where your urges take you. Come back to the list when you're stuck. Don't forget, writers get stuck a lot. So, in your 5-minute sessions, when nothing is happening or when you want to focus in on things, work from the following list. I'm going to give you a list with full explanations first, then some short versions that you can carry with you for when you do your 5 or 10 or 20 minutes.

First: Do you have an idea? If you don't and you can't think of one, go through the course and pick one that appeals to you. If you can't find any you like, take the one you dislike the least. If you still can't make up your mind, pick the third one you look at. Don't make it an ordeal. Whatever you pick will evolve into something that will work for you once you get into it. You may have a situation that interests you-a blind date, for example, or a cheating lover.

Second: Once you have an idea or a situation, you need to decide which character you want to write about in the situation. If you're not sure, pick one who wants something. If you want to write about a blind date, your character wants a lover. If you want to write about infidelity, your character is either the betrayed party and wants a loyal lover, revenge, etc., or your character is the cheating party and wants to have an affair without getting caught. So, character + want is what you need to find.

If you can't figure out what the character wants, ask: what could he want, what might he want, what should he want? until you figure something out. (Remember: You don't have to have quick answers. Mull it over, relax, explore what's in your head. Don't rush. Put in your 5 minutes, and don't worry about what you're getting done or not getting done.)

You may have a character in mind and know what that character wants. Or you may have a character who interests you, but you're not sure how to build a story around him. If that's the case, take the character trait you're interested in and frustrate/threaten it. That's want + obstacle, and they equal conflict, which is where a story starts. If your character is stingy, put him in a situation where he must be generous, where he must give up some wealth (want) or suffer a serious loss (his job, his family, his reputation, his lover, etc.). So his want is to protect his wealth. The obstacle is donate or suffer. Want + Obstacle = Conflict.

You can do this with any character trait. If you want to write about a compulsive neat freak, throw him in with a wild slob, and you have The Odd Couple. If you want to see an example of a serious, disastrous odd couple, read Somerset Maugham's short story "The Outstation." This setup was here long before Neil Simon used it with Felix and Oscar. People getting under each other's skin, rubbing each other the wrong way, for personal/temperamental reasons, and going to war over it is nothing new. It's also a story that can be told over and over. There's always room for one more. For you to tell it your way.

Third: Once you have the conflict established, the next step is action. What's the character going to do? If you have a true (dramatic) conflict, the obstacle is breathing down the neck of the character, and he must act to save himself. It's time for him to try to impress his blind date, regain his lover's loyalty (infidelity), or protect his wealth and reputation. He must be taking action in order to do that, in order to make something happen. He must be trying to change things, trying to get something from someone who is determined not to give it up. This taking action is confrontation and is done in scene.

Fourth: Your first confrontation scene has your character trying (action) to get something he wants from someone who doesn't want to give it up (obstacle). There are a few critical elements that must be part of a dramatic scene. At the end of that scene, things must be worse than they were at the beginning. The scene ends in the mind of the character, with him stewing and trying to figure out what to do about this even bigger dilemma that now threatens him.

Your scene will have the same shape as a story, with want, obstacle, action, and resolution. The difference is the resolution is a scene resolution. In a scene resolution, things have settled down for the moment, but the worst is yet to come. Your character is licking his wounds, wondering and worrying about what to do to save himself. Besides trying to figure out what to do, the character will be trying to make sense of things (the new complication or set of troubling facts uncovered during the confrontation). And he will be trying to figure out why this is happening, what it might mean for him, what will happen if he loses the struggle, etc. His worries, fears, and hopes will be churning in him. You, the author need to ask what he's afraid will happen and what he hopes will be the outcome. His fantasies may be working overtime also.

Fifth: If you've gotten this far, your story should be up and running. You should be on your way to more confrontations (two or three, usually) and a dramatic final showdown that will result in the final resolution to the story-a win, a loss, or a mixed victory. If you're having trouble deciding what to do, remember your ongoing purpose is to reveal character. You do that by challenging and rechallenging your character-by raising the stakes, by making everything as difficult for everyone as you can, by letting nothing be easy for anyone-ever.

Push things to the limit, to the extreme. Stories are about extremes. And don't worry about going too far. At this stage your biggest problem is not going far enough. If you go too far, you can always cut back. Going too far and then cutting back is what writers do continually. Creating more trouble forces your characters to use more of themselves. In using more, they reveal more. When they reveal more, you, the author, and the reader have a deeper experience of the character-identification.

If what I'm telling you now still isn't helping, go to the chapter on rewriting and follow the steps for getting into your story and characters. Go through the motions, step-by-step, even if it feels stupid. If you're in that state (nothing is any good), the main thing is to keep moving along, following the plan, until it gets good again-which it will, always, if you keep at it.

OK, that's a pretty meaty list. It's a lot to be going over in a five-minute session, so I want to give you some abbreviated versions you can carry with you and refer to easily in your five-minute sessions, especially if nothing seems to be working. Here's one shorter list:

One: Do you have a situation (blind date, unfaithful lover, an enemy out to get the character, etc.)? If not, explore possibilities in yourself. If that doesn't work, pick an idea from the course.

Two: Who is the main character? (The main character is the one with the biggest problem-the most to lose.) What does he want? If you're not sure, make a list of possible wants (want list). Once you have a want or a want list, figure out what the obstacle is. If you can't decide, make a list of possible obstacles (obstacle list). If you're not sure, don't lock yourself into anything. You're just exploring possibilities-for five minutes a day and in free moments.

Three: Want + Obstacle = Conflict is what you've explored in the second step. Now it's time for the character to act, to assert himself to try to overcome the obstacle and satisfy his want. So, what can he do to win out? His action should be a direct attack upon the problem. Again, if you're not sure, make a list of possible actions (action list). This list should include the result, the resolution to the struggle between the character and the obstacle. The resolution is the outcome. You may not (and do not have to) know what it is until you write your way to it.

Four: Each scene ends in a scene resolution in which things are worse than they were at the beginning, and it ends in the mind of the character as he is stewing over the problem, trying to figure out what's going on and what he should do next to win out.

Five: Your story should have some momentum by now if you have want, obstacle, action working. If you don't or you're not sure, go to the chapter on rewriting and follow the steps for getting the most out of your story and characters.

Here's an even shorter pocket list:

1. Situation. Check course story ideas if you have none.

2. Character want + obstacle (conflict). J. Action (confrontation/struggle).

4. Resolution. Scene resolution. Things are worse at the end. End in character's mind.

5. If it's not working, go to the rewrite chapter and follow the steps.

Remember to analyze any scene or story to see what you've got. Always remember: Want: Who wants what? Where does the want first appear? Find it on the page. Do not work in your head. What does the character want? Could it appear sooner? How much does the character want it? Could he want it more? How? Obstacle: What's the obstacle? Where does it first appear? Find it on the page. Could it appear sooner? How threatening is it? Could it be more threatening? How? Action: Is the character taking direct action against the obstacle to defeat it and get what he wants? Where does the action first appear? Find it on the page. Could he act sooner? Is he doing his utmost? Could he do more? How?

Yes, it's WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION, over and over and over, until it's coming out of your ears. It may seem like I'm overdoing it, but these are your keys to creating compelling stories. It cannot be done without them.

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