A law in physics states that “an object in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by an equal and opposite force.” This is true of human actions as well. 40% of your daily activities consists of habitual routines. Things that once required concentration are now automatic. Like tying your shoes, making coffee, driving a car, or setting the time on your VCR (okay admittedly VCRs went out of fashion before I nailed that one). These routines develop through a simple process loop – Cue – action – reward. These processes become so predictable that over time – as demonstrated by brain scans – there is no higher brain activity during the process. As long as the Cue remains the same, the action occurs on autopilot. This is as true for simple things (like brushing your teeth) as it is for complex activities (like driving a car). Remember when you first learned to type? Hunt and peck, look at the board “where is that darn z key.” Over time your fingers just “knew” where to go. Today many can type 40 words per minute with just their thumbs on a virtual keyboard. It’s all just habit.
Cues are like signposts and they are critical to the development of habits. Athletes, actors, politicians, public speakers for example use little ceremony “cues” to prepare for the “big” speech, or game or scene. These preparations put them in the proper mind-set for maximum performance. Humans (and cockroaches) suffer from a condition called Dominant Response. During periods of stress (say in front of an audience or during the Big Game) we respond or fall back to our average performance. If on average you only make half your shots in basketball practice then on game day, when the pressure is high, you will do a little worse than your average. Through practice however you can improve your “average” and increase the likelihood of success when the big shot presents itself. If your writing average time is low, then in times of stress or distraction (what I call “most days”) you probably won’t write. That is why practice even in writing makes perfection. Not only because your skills improve, but also because the habit – and thus ease – increases.
So little ceremonial rituals are used as a cue, they create the correct mindset to enact the dominant response mechanism. But these are for special and critical moments. It would be terribly inefficient if we required 50 jumping jacks to successfully prepare to brush our teeth each morning. You don’t have time enough to write, so you hardly can afford to add some large ritual to prepare for writing. You need cues for your writing habit but they need to be subtle and common to your environment. What is required is the proper atmosphere. (and you thought I was going to suggest something boring like “write 500 words a day”). But can atmosphere really improve your writing production?
The psychologist Edwin Guthrie developed a theory of One Trial Learning. He contended that through a complex series of associations, the environment will act as stimuli to a behavior and when in that environment we will repeat that behavior on cue. (Guthrie would have suggested that athletes conduct all their practices in front of an audience of 100,000 fans to achieve maximum performance.) I used one of his famous study to “train” my children to “clean up” after themselves (it didn’t completely stick). In his study an agitated mother complained that each day her child walked into the house and dropped her coat on the floor. Mom would then scold the child and make her hang the coat on the proper hook. The mother complained that although they had gone through this routine hundreds of times, her daughter continued to enter the house and drop the coat on the floor and no amount of punishment corrected the problem.
Guthrie suggested a new approach. In his reasoning, the habit could not be undone because “walking in the house” was a cue for “dropping coat.” The mother’s intervention came after the cue and therefore did not impact the cue-action cycle (which is an argument against negative reinforcement). Guthrie had the mom change the cycle. When the child dropped the coat, Mom instructed her to pick it up, put it on, go back outside, come in and then hang the coat properly. It took only a few trials and the child’s habit changed from “dropping the coat” upon entry to “hanging the coat.” The habit changed because the cue was realigned. (For children in the developmental years – under 10 – “parental attention” is a reward and often they do not differentiate between positive or negative attention.)
An important part of Righting your Novel is to create cues that make the writing automatic. Cues that become connected and thus inspire a reaction of “when I am here, I write.” Ray Bradbury was known to fill his office with little knick knacks he used as story ideas. I am fortunate to have an office that I decorated with the right colors, filled with books and poster size framed pics of my first two novels and magazines covers where I am published. You may not have that type of space, but it doesn’t matter. You just need to create “your” writing space. Someplace that becomes a comfortable cue to “write.” A place that will become the “texture” of your story.
One of the strongest cues is scent. The brain’s olfactory senses are the only ones tied directly to the memory areas of the brain. No other sense can stir up memories quicker or stronger than smell. Scent is one of my favorite writing cues and very cost-effective. The Creepers Saga smells like Dragon’s Blood. That’s an incense for those of you who just thought I spend my weekends slaying fire-breathing lizards. Incense are cheap and the smell lingers. When I smell Dragon’s Blood it is immediately associated with my Creepers Saga. It puts me in the mindset to write about that place and those characters. So here are some tips on Righting Your Space so you can Right Your Novel.
1. Choose a Place – if you already have one then change it around a bit or add something new so there is a new writing cue. Don’t go to an “old” place and try something different – go to a new place to start something different.
2. Choose a Time – I like writing at different times, but between 11p.m. and 1 a.m. is my favorite. The time should be related to the atmosphere that inspires either you or your story. The early morning warm sun on the floor, the darkness pressing at the window, or the surreal shadows of dusk.
3. Decorate – Paint the room or hang pictures or use knickknacks to create a writing world that becomes your place and your cue to write.
4. Ambiance – candles or holiday lights or different color light bulbs can change the feel of a room. If you don’t have a special place to write, use lighting to change the feel of the room from its “regular” look to the writing mood.
So give some thought to creating a writing environment. Within that environment set up a routine. In a short time those cues will make the writing focus automatic. Provided of course your story has the one critical element necessary to inspire you…
Part 5: Emotion in Motion
Categories: Right the Novel!