We set out with such good intentions for our writing every New Year.
We make writing resolutions that we truly do intend to follow through on.
We make commitments to change our lives, to realize the full potential of our artistic selves and to emerge into the role that we want to play in the world.
We make these writing resolutions with total seriousness. We’re not joking around when we make a New Year’s resolution.
But for most writers, it’s easy to start the year off really strong with your writing, and then a couple months down the road, find yourself back where you started.
Why does this happen?
We fail to keep our New Year’s writing resolutions for a couple of reasons, but the biggest reason is what I call the Flash Flood Principle.
Here’s the Flash Flood Principle: If you go to a barren desert, and suddenly there’s a giant rainstorm, you don’t end up with a beautiful river that’s going to feed the fields and transform that desert into a lush garden.
What you get instead is a flash flood.
You get all this rain pouring down with nowhere to go. It erupts over everything, it knocks a bunch of stuff out, and then the sand just reabsorbs the moisture. It disappears as if it had never been there.
It’s my belief that when a lot of writers make their New Year’s resolutions, they’re actually making flash flood resolutions. They’re trying to change everything about their writing at once in such a big way that it’s actually not sustainable.
In the desert of their creativity, they’ve brought a giant rainstorm of writing, but there’s nowhere to channel all that energy because the landscape has not been prepared for all the rain.
For so many writers, creativity is like an out of control storm in the desert. It comes out of nowhere in a torrential downpour, and just as quickly disappears, having made no meaningful change upon the landscape.
Whereas if you just turn on a little drop of water into a desert, and you just allow those drops to keep coming in a little concentrated place, eventually you get a little rivulet.
If you turn on a little bit more water, eventually that little rivulet is going to become a little stream.
If you turn on a little bit more water, eventually that stream is going to become a brook.
If you just keep that brook coming, it’s going to be a mighty river.
At that point, if you send a giant thunderstorm, the water has somewhere to go. It all ends up channeling into that river, allowing that river to flow with even more force and power.
As you’re making your New Year’s resolutions this year for writing, I want you to ask yourself, Am I making a flash flood resolution? Or am I building a riverbed?
Let’s talk about how you build that riverbed for your writing.
The answer for most writers is not to lock yourself in a room for a weekend of non-stop writing.
You might be able to sustain that kind of writing commitment for one weekend, but can you really write like that every weekend? The chances are, your life isn’t going to suddenly change overnight so that all your weekends become available just for writing, which means as wonderful as such a weekend could be, it’s not going to help you build the rhythm you need to create a new habit.
Furthermore, you probably don’t have the skills or stamina as a writer yet to sustain that kind of intense weekend where all you do is write.
You probably don’t have the support system you need to sustain that kind of writing. Your family, your partner, your kids, your friends: they’re not necessarily going to understand why you suddenly disappeared from the world and plan to disappear from the world every single weekend.
And even if you did overcome all those obstacles, you probably don’t have the structural ability as a writer yet to sustain that kind of writing. Suddenly you’re going to find yourself generating a lot of pages, but you might not yet have the structural skills as a writer to know what to do with all of them. How do you build all those pages into a cohesive draft?
All these things end up stacking up to create a feeling of overwhelm that comes even if you are successful in keeping your New Year’s writing goals.
It’s usually that feeling of overwhelm, that feeling that you can’t keep this up, that feeling that this is just too much, that leads us to eventually give up.
Ideally, we want to get you to a place where you can write every day, if you choose.
If writing is your goal, if writing is your dream, then we want to get you to a place where, if you were in a writers’ room, you could deliver three scripts in a week if you needed to.
If you were on a write-for-hire project, you could turn around a draft in 12 weeks or less.
If you got hired on multiple amazing film or TV projects, all at the same time, you could actually hit your deadlines and deliver.
That’s the goal.
To help you succeed at and sustain your New Year’s resolutions for your writing, we have to talk about how to build the kind of riverbed you need to channel the power of the flash floods when they come.
How do we build the foundation? How do we build the support system? How do we build the skills so that, when you arrive at your goal, you are fully prepared?
I’ll tell you a little secret about myself. Every once in a while I make a crappy resolution.
My crappy resolution is almost always about getting in shape. It’s a goal for me, it’s something that really matters to me, so I will decide, You know what? I’m gonna work out today.
This seems like a really good goal. It seems like a simple, simple, simple goal. I want to work out today. Nothing bad could possibly come out of that.
But because I’m such an overachiever, instead of doing a simple workout, I’ll end up working out for three hours. I work my biceps, I work my triceps, I run. I push my body to the extreme.
When I wake up, the next morning, my arms won’t straighten. I can’t move my arms, I can’t walk, and even if I could move my body, I’m too tired to show up for my next workout.
That’s just another example of a flash flood resolution, rather than a riverbed resolution.
What would happen if instead, I set a resolution like: I’m gonna work out for 15 minutes today?
Rather than incapacitating myself to the point where I can’t work out again for two weeks, I would probably leave myself wanting a little bit more.
I would probably leave myself excited to get back to working out the next day.
If I could keep that workout small enough that I still wanted more, I would start to develop a longing and a desire for working out.
Instead of having to make the same resolution again next year, working out would just become a natural part of my life.
How do you do that with your writing?
There are a couple of simple ways that you can refocus yourself and get yourself away from flash flood resolutions, and towards riverbed resolutions.
NEW YEAR’S WRITING RESOLUTION TIP #1: Make your writing resolutions small.
Make your writing resolutions so small that there is no risk of your arms ending up like my arms when I work out.
Make your writing resolutions so small they leave you wanting more rather than too exhausted to continue.
Make your writing resolutions so small that you can’t talk yourself out of them.
It’s important to make your writing resolutions small because the human mind is always resistant to change.
That resistance is normal. It grows from the natural pressure in every human being’s psychology, the pressure between the holdfast ego and the nascent ego.
The nascent ego wants to change. We all share that desire. We all want to expand. We all want to be our full selves.
We all know as writers that we have something we want to say, and that there’s a journey we need to go on to say it.
But we also have this other part of us called the holdfast ego, and the holdfast ego wants things to stay the same.
Both parts of the ego are very important.
Without the nascent ego, without the desire for change, we would all sit in place all the time. No one would do anything new. Nothing would ever change. We would just do whatever was easiest at any given moment.
Without the holdfast ego, there would be no stability. There would be chaos. One day, you would be a postal worker. And then the next day you’d decide you wanted to be an engineer. And then the next day you’d decide you wanted to be a ballerina.
It would never stop. You would be all over the place.
If you didn’t have a holdfast ego, you’d have no routine. People couldn’t depend on you to be the way you were a moment before.
We all have these two different parts of us, the nascent ego and the holdfast ego, and when it comes to our dreams for our writing, those two parts of the ego are always at war with each other.
When you’re in a holdfast state, you can feel the nascent ego saying, You’ve got to do something different! You’ve got to change! You’ve got to expand! You’ve got to explore! Don’t you feel a little bored? Aren’t you capable of more than this? Isn’t there a bigger dream that you need to be chasing?
When you’re in a nascent state, you will hear the holdfast ego saying things like, I’m tired. Can’t we do it tomorrow? We really need to check Facebook. This doesn’t feel right yet. It’s not the right time. You know what? Let’s just watch TV tonight, and we’ll think about it tomorrow. Your friends are all going out to do the thing that they do every year. Don’t you want to be a part of that?
The holdfast ego is going to do everything it can to keep you from achieving your writing goals, the nascent ego is going to do everything that it can to inspire you to achieve them, and you’re going to feel those two parts become loud at times when change is happening.
It’s important to not get angry at yourself for having those two parts.
Everybody in the whole world has those two parts. Those two parts are really important!
In fact, when we build structure, one of the things we talk about in Write Your Screenplay is that our job as writers is actually very simple. We first incite the nascent ego, so the character wants to change, and then we hit the character with the holdfast ego.
We’re always kind of balancing those two parts of our character, just like we’re balancing those two parts of ourselves.
Both parts are important. The resistance isn’t bad. The dream isn’t bad.
Both of these parts are necessary parts to being a human being. We just need to learn how to deal with them.
We know there’s going to be resistance from the holdfast ego. So even if the superobjective is big – to win an Academy Award, to make your own movie, to get staffed in a writers’ room – we need to make each writing goal along the way small, because we know that there’s always going to be resistance.
Even if the big goal is huge, we want to make sure that on any given day, in any given scene in your life, the goal is so small that you can’t actually talk yourself out of it.
We want the goal to be something like, I’m going to write for seven minutes.
I’m going to write one page.
I’m going to write half a page.
Something that’s so small that when the holdfast ego says, Do you really have it in you today? Is today the right day? Are you inspired? Maybe you’d be more inspired tomorrow – you can respond by saying, Dude. It’s seven minutes. It’s half a page. I can do that so quickly, it doesn’t matter how tired I am. Let me just get it done.
That’s that drip of water that will one day become a rivulet, and then a brook, and then a mighty river.
When you’ve made your goal writing small enough, it becomes easier to allow that one little drip to become a consistent drip.
Without a consistent drip, you don’t get a rivulet. You get a hole in the ground.
We want to get the water slowly flowing.
We want to build a consistent writing schedule. We want to build it in little tiny chunks, where every little writing scene is easy to accomplish.
Later, once we’ve got a river flowing, we can start to grow the size of the goal, but at the beginning, we want to keep that goal really small.
Even if you have the instinct to grow it, don’t grow it. Keep it small. Keep yourself wanting to write more. Keep yourself yearning to write longer.
We want to build that habit, that Pavlovian repetition.
NEW YEARS WRITING RESOLUTION TIP #2: create a sacred place for your writing.
This doesn’t have to cost you any money.
Find a different seat at your kitchen table that you only use for writing.
Use a different desk or a different chair that you sit in.
Throw on a mask and go to a coffee shop, if that’s your thing.
Or, if you have the resources, rent yourself an office.
But find a place where the only thing you do is write.
You don’t check bills there.
You don’t even bring your cell phone there. Turn your cell phone off.
(There’s a wonderful app called Freedom that will allow you to turn your internet off so you can’t search the web.)
If you need to do one of those things, say, you need to make a phone call, don’t do it in that chair… at that coffee shop… in that office. Get up and do it somewhere else.
When you sit down at your sacred place, the only thing you do is write.
All this repetition causes an association, and just like Pavlov’s dog, you will find that your creative mind starts to salivate when you sit down at that sacred writing place.
Soon, when you show up at your sacred place, you won’t even need to get inspired.
The Muse will come for you because the Muse knows that you’re in your writing place right now.
The Muse knows that this is what you do there, whether you’re feeling inspired or not.
NEW YEAR’S WRITING RESOLUTION TIP #3: schedule the actual times that you are going to achieve your writing goal.
Ideally, you’re gonna make it a recurring time.
For example: I write Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for seven minutes starting at 9am.
You want to be that specific.
You want to put your writing time on your calendar, so you can’t avoid it.
You want to schedule your writing time in stone.
You want to treat your writing time like a meeting with Martin Scorsese, like a meeting with an interview for your dream write for hire project, like something you would never dream of being late for, like something you would never dream of putting off.
You want to treat your writing time as sacredly as you treat your sacred writing space.
You want to schedule the exact time.
I’m going to write on Tuesday, isn’t going to do it. I’m going to write from 9:00am -9:07am on Tuesday will.
You want to show up on time, and when you show up, the only thing you do is write until you have achieved your goal.
NEW YEAR’S WRITING RESOLUTION TIP #4: when you fail to meet your writing goal (and you will because you’re human) the answer is not to punish yourself. The answer is to fix it now.
This is the mistake that so many writers make. They hit their stride. They’re so proud of themselves, I’m a writer, I’m doing it!
Then they skip one day.
They didn’t show up one day.
They went out one day.
They got scared one day.
They hit more resistance than they knew what to do with one day.
They felt blocked one day.
And they say to themselves…
Well, I guess I didn’t really want to be a writer after all.
They give up.
If you’re a vegetarian, and you accidentally took a bite out of a hamburger, you wouldn’t say, Well, I guess I don’t want to be a vegetarian.
No! You’d say, Oh, I messed up! I bit into a burger. But that’s okay. It’s cool. I’m still a vegetarian.
For some reason writers get crazy about failure. It’s like writing becomes this all or nothing scenario, again, a flash flood that comes all at once, as opposed to the riverbed that grows over time.
Or even worse, as writers, we’ll try to punish ourselves… which is crazy.
If you’ve done any research into punishment, if you know anything about our prison system, you know that punishment doesn’t work.
If you think about your own childhood, when you misbehaved and were punished, and then you never misbehaved again… well, you probably know that’s not true.
In fact, writers, like most artists, tend to have a rebellious side in us. When you punish a rebel, the rebel rebels, and then the rebel doesn’t want to play with you anymore.
Do not punish yourself.
(I should mention, for everybody, that sometimes punishment doesn’t sound like punishment, but it’s still punishment).
Sometimes punishment sounds like, Okay, I didn’t write for seven minutes today. So tomorrow, I’m going to write for 14 minutes.
Then we miss it tomorrow and we say, Okay, no problem. Wednesday, I’m going to write for 21 minutes.
Then we miss it on Wednesday, and we say, Okay, I didn’t write for 21 minutes Wednesday. This weekend I’m going to write for the whole day, and I’m going to finish Act One.
Then somehow you end up really drunk on eggnog over the weekend.
How did that happen? It’s Monday, and you’re like, I guess I don’t want to be a writer after all.
NO! It’s not that you don’t want it!
It’s that if you didn’t have the courage, or the skills, or the strength, or the support, or the riverbed to write for seven minutes on Monday, then you certainly don’t have the strength, support, riverbed, etc., to write for 14 minutes on Tuesday, for 21 minutes on Wednesday, or for the whole weekend.
What we want to do in order to achieve and sustain our New Year’s writing resolutions is minimize resistance.
We don’t want to get into that battle with resistance. The holdfast ego is always going to be there. We’re not going to change that, so we have to accept it.
We have to find other ways around it.
We find a way around it is to fix it by minimizing resistance.
If you scheduled your writing goal, and if your goal can actually be done in seven minutes, then the moment you realize you messed up, choose to fix it.
You know what? I didn’t write for my seven minutes this morning. At 9:00am I somehow ended up reading an email. It was 3:00pm before I ended up out of it. No problem. It’s 3:37pm. I am going to go write my pages right now. I owe myself seven minutes. I’ll be back at 3:44.
Seven minutes is a long trip to the bathroom! You’re not gonna get fired if you step out of your office for seven minutes. Your partner is not going to leave you if you leave the room for seven minutes.
You’re not going to disappoint anyone in seven minutes.
That’s why it’s so important to keep the writing goal so small that you can actually make the choice to fix it right then and there.
When you realize you messed up, no matter how tired you are, no matter how exhausted you are, fix it.
And if for some inexplicable reason you fail to fix it, or choose not to fix it. Again, don’t punish yourself. Don’t double it. Don’t beat yourself up.
Just let it go. You weren’t a writer today. Guess what? That’s okay.
Tomorrow, the important thing is to be a writer and to keep that goal nice and small so that you get those drops of water flowing into what will soon be your riverbed.
We now understand
#1- You are going to keep your writing goals small.
#2- You are going to create a sacred writing space.
#3- You are going to schedule the exact times that you write toward your goals.
#4- When you fall short, you are not going to punish yourself. Instead, you are going to fix it.
Tip number five is the most important, though.
Our goal is to grow our riverbed, but often our desire to make it happen faster, to have the rain fall now, the desire to be where we want to get to rather than taking the journey, is often what actually gets in the way of going on the journey.
That’s often what overwhelms us to a point where the holdfast ego kicks the nascent ego’s buttt.
Suddenly it’s another year, and you haven’t become a writer.
This is the most important part. How do you deepen the river bed? How do you grow the goal?
NEW YEAR’S WRITING RESOLUTION TIP #5: Before you grow your writing goal, see what happens if you grow the time around the writing goal.
If you made it your goal to write for seven minutes, instead of giving yourself seven minutes to write for seven minutes, see what happens if you give yourself half an hour to write for seven minutes or an hour to write for seven minutes.
I owe myself seven minutes, so I’m going to write from 9am to 10am.
If you have a page goal, I owe myself half a page. I know normally I can do that in seven minutes. Instead, I get a half an hour to write one page. Or, I get an hour to write one page.
Expand the time around the goal without expanding the actual goal.
Here’s what that will allow you to do.
On great writing days, when you catch the wave, you’ll be able to start with that seven minutes and keep going. Maybe you go for 15 minutes, maybe you go for 40 minutes, maybe you go for an hour.
On days when you’re having a rough writing day, and you can barely stand to look at they keyboard, all you have to do is write for seven minutes and then close your laptop.
Either way, you were a writer today.
If you scheduled an hour, and had a bad writing day, give yourself a pat on the back for making it through. You now have a 53 minute reward to do whatever you want. Read a book, hang out with your friends, do something fun, do a little dance, watch a TV show. You earned yourself that extra time. You built that extra time around you so you could have it when you need it.
You’ll know it’s time to grow the goal when almost every time you write, you don’t just write for seven minutes; you write for 15 minutes, you write for 20 minutes, you write for the full hour, you write for the full hour and you want more.
That’s when you know it’s time to grow the goal.
Now we have a deeper riverbed.
We can make the goal a little bit bigger.
We can repeat the same five steps, and then we can add more water. Repeat the same five steps and add more water.
That process will allow you to develop the skills, the craft, and the support system, not overnight, but over time.
That process will allow the life around you to gently evolve to fit your writing, rather than being shaken up by a flash flood.
That process will allow the people around you to support you, because they understand the way you work and your dedication, and they’ll grow their flexibility and their support for you until you have the support system you’ve always needed around you.
Most importantly, that process will allow you to grow your skills over time so that you have the foundations and the skills underneath you to support your writing.
If you want help with that part of the writing process, then that’s what we’re here for as well.
We have a free class every Thursday night called Thursday Night Writes.
If you’re ready to take your writing resolution to the next level, to develop your skills, your craft and your art as a writer, then check out our foundation classes in Screenwriting, TV Writing, Playwriting, and Comic Book Writing.
If you’ve got those foundations laid, if you’ve got your rhythm built, and you’re ready to take things to the professional level, then we have our ProTrack Mentorship Program that pairs you one-on-one with a professional writer who will read every page you write and every draft you finish, and my Master Class that gives you a film school-level experience in just one Sunday a month.
In the meantime, have a fabulous holiday, have a wonderful New Year, and grow your riverbed.
*edited for length and clarity