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Morning pages and writing for the long haul

I’ve been talking about morning pages on Twitter all month, and some days it makes for long threads. Yesterday’s was particularly long, and I know today will be long as well, so I’m parking the content here instead. On Twitter, I’ve talked about “how” we might do morning pages as well as “why”; I’ve offered lots of ways in to the practice and given prompts for how to use them more creatively, to generate and develop new ideas. Morning pages are a big part of my writing life, particularly when I’m working on long-form projects – work you have to try to sustain over months. And sometimes it can be hard to keep a piece of writing going, particularly when your life and your head are very busy. So I’m particularly invested in this process of using morning pages to break long-form writing down into morning-sized chunks, because it’s how I’m going to have to work for a little while. Maybe it’s how you’ll have to work too, once we turn the page into September and new sets of priorities and challenges beckon.

Here’s what I do. As I start a project – or another draft – I use one set of morning pages to tell myself the story. I just type out what happens, however much or little I know at the time. In a first draft, I might just be telling myself what the big story is – who my characters are and what they want and what happens to them to make them respond – to change. (I try to remember to focus on how the story develops “because” something happened, rather than just “and then this happens. Once I’ve written that very rough version of what I think the story is, I cut and paste it into a new document. I use Scrivener, but you might use anything else you prefer.

Whenever I have the headspace, I start to break that story down into smaller chunks – scenes, if you will. This is easy to navigate in Scrivener, as you can have as many documents in a folder as you like – and it’s an easy place to cut and paste into – but Word will work as well. From that scrappy document, I use morning pages to approach each chunk, each scene, one morning (or whenever I can manage it) at a time. In 750 words I can flesh each scene or each idea out, cut and paste it into its own new document, and get on with my to-do list and whatever the day requires. Later – or when I have headspace – I open the scene and find what feels like a very rough draft or a treatment of a scene, but it’s enough to get me writing – to flesh it out, to finish it off. Those first 750 words might be scene setting, using sensory details that I think are there but also ones that affect me as I’m writing, but there’s usually emotional temperature there as well. I’m usually writing with a sense of where characters have been and where they need to get to. This also means that, in a first draft anyway, I don’t have to work logically or in a linear fashion. I can jump around. And sometimes that jumping imposes itself on the structure of the story I’ll tell – in a good way – as I’m following the heat.

To the right is a screenshot of how my scenes look in their binder in the first draft. Right now, I’m rewriting a rough first draft banged out during lockdown. I am looking at the structure and order of what I wrote and jettisoning a lot that I don’t like. That’s OK. I’m approaching the rewrite in morning pages, telling myself the story again, as it has evolved, and then I start the process again in Scrivener, breaking the story into bite-sized scene-chunks, using a print out from my rough first draft as a guide for setting, time, emotional temperature etc., but writing with a clearer sense of what’s going on and what’s at stake. Building on these little steps of words means I rarely face a blank page and it reassures me that I am making progress, even when it feels slow. It will organise my thoughts and what I have to accomplish, with a goal to finish the rewrite by the end of half-term. Can I do it? Watch this space, as they say.

If you struggle to stay on top of longer projects, why not change your tools? Using software, time, planning and morning pages might just make a difference. Whatever keeps you writing – write on.

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