mark toland

The Best Writing Process Ever

It took a while, but I’ve found the best writing process. I do it every day as part of my morning routine. It goes something like this:

6:00am - Wake up.

6:10am - Coffee.

6:20am - Head out for a run along the lake. (I think about my current writing project while I’m running.)

7:00am - Shower, eat breakfast, and get ready for the day.

7:30am - Sit down at my desk. (The top is clean, except for my typewriter. All other devices are turned off. The door is closed and the only light in the room comes from the south-facing windows.) I start writing and don’t stop until I hit roughly 1,500-2,000 words.

10:00am - After reaching my word count I start the rest of my day: e-mails, video editing, etc.

That’s how I write every single day, no matter what. After years of trial and error I genuinely believe that this is the single best writing process. It’s the only real way to get better and keep finishing writing projects in a timely manner.

If you’re looking to be a good writer or have always wanted to write a book, this how to do it. Or, maybe you’re like me and you just really enjoy writing for the sake of it. This is the best way to do it.

Trust me.

Okay…not really. I’m full of crap. I don’t believe any of that at all. What kind of pretentious, self-aggrandizing person would say “My process is the best and you need to be doing it, too!”

My writing process is more like this:

I wake up early (or late) and get right to work (or don’t). I write as many words as possible (hopefully 0-100 if I’m lucky) without any devices on (or sometimes while watching Netflix or listening to music).

I usually write on my typewriter (unless I’m using my computer) unless I’m on the road and have to resort to writing by hand in a notebook - always a moleskine (or whatever else I can find like a yellow legal pad, composition notebook, hotel stationary, or back of a napkin).

I always write in the morning (except when it’s more convenient to write at a different time) at the same place (not a chance) in the same way (yeah, right).

It’s a simple process. (Not true.)

I’ve read a ton of books on writing. (If you’re interested, start with this one. Also, check out this one or this one. For creative inspiration, you can’t beat this one. And then you can get into niche territory with books like this, that, this one, or maybe even this one.) They all talk about writing processes, word counts, your general writing environment, and more. They give you bench marks for word counts or total number of pages or a timeframe in which to finish your book. I’ve experimented with many of these approaches.

I tried Morning Pages and stuck with it for maybe two months.

I tried 10 pages a day and made it two or three days.

I’ve tried writing in the morning, writing late at night, phone reminders, timers, typewriters, computers, iPad apps, storyboards, notebooks - you name it - but I was never able to stick with any single approach for very long.

Over time, I started to get discouraged that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Since I didn’t have a process like the writers I admired I was worried that my ideas would never amount to anything.

See, I’m not necessarily trying to write a novel or a feature-length film or a memoir. For me writing is almost like therapy. It’s a way to confront my ideas and transmit them to you. It’s a way to get thoughts out of my head so I can understand them and make room for more. When I write it’s to work on my show or brainstorm new ideas or finish one of these essays. Sometimes I work on a screenplay, other times I write poetry. It’s just one more way to express myself, even if most of it will never be published.

But I still want to be better. That’s why I read those books and study my favorite authors. That’s why I watch TED Talks and take classes. That’s why I keep trying to find a writing process that I can stick with. I just haven’t found something that works for me.

I told my wife once, “I should work harder. I don’t really write or rehearse. Am I being lazy? Or, is it just not something I’m good at?” I expected her to agree with me and encourage me to make changes to my daily routine. But that’s not what happened at all.

She surprised me with, as usual, a thoughtful observation, “That’s not true at all. I think you work really hard. You’re always writing. Every time I wake up or come home or get back from the studio, you’re working on a project. And I always hear you working on your show - on the phone, in the shower, in the car. You’re always working on something new.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was absolutely right. I am constantly working on something new. It could be a script or a show or a blog post or a book, but I’m always hard at work trying to create something. I just don’t have a set way of doing it.

My writing process is never the same. And that’s okay.

Sometimes I write out loud in the shower, sometimes I write in my head on a run. Sometimes I talk out loud in the car and other times I need it to be perfectly quiet so I can get it just right. Sometimes I’ll sit at my desk all day and other times (like writing this post) I’ll move around constantly and sit on every chair/stool/couch in my apartment. It always changes.

Thinking you can study someone’s process and copy it exactly is ridiculous. What works for someone else will never work perfectly for you. You’ll try it on and it’ll fit as well as a hand-me-down outfit you found at the GoodWill. So you take the elements that suit you and discard the rest. Then you repeat, ad nauseam, until you find the right combination for your style and your life.

My writing process is a little sporadic. Sometimes I write these essays on a Friday afternoon and schedule them for the following Thursday. Other times, I write them Thursday morning and post them soon after. It doesn’t matter, I just try to fit them in when I can.

I really don’t rehearse my show in the traditional sense, but I think about it constantly. I outline it in my notebook, storyboard it, write a few parts out in full, but mainly I just say it out loud. Then I go onstage and pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t. I learn from my mistakes, get better, and keep improving show to show. That’s the best process - for me.

When I got back from spending six weeks in Pittsburgh this summer I flipped through my notebook from the start of the year. I had diagrammed out a show and never really gone back to it. But everything was there: the intention, the message, the character development, the goals, the peaks and valleys, the dramatic structure. I had accomplished everything I had set out to months ago, without even realizing it.

Here’s the best tips I’ve found, no matter what you want to do:

Consistency - If you want to get better at something you need to do it a lot. I may not write at the same time every day but I do think about it all the time. And I try to write as much as possible. Whatever you want to do, do it as much as you possibly can.

Self-Imposed Deadlines - Posting every Thursday helps me stay on track. I’m always thinking about ideas and trying to turn them into blog posts. Give yourself a timeframe so you have to keep making progress.

Prioritize - Remove other distractions from your life so you can focus on what matters. Making time for your dreams will help you find a way to turn them into a reality.

You may not want to be a writer or a mind reader or anything that even remotely resembles that. But, whatever you want to do, today’s world is full of people constantly telling you that they have it all figured out and if you would only do it exactly how they do it, then you could have a perfectly happy existence just like they do!

I’m here to tell you the opposite. What works for those people, won’t work for you. No one can tell you how to be the next great so-and-so. No one’s process will be 100% perfect for you. So, why waste your time trying to do something the way someone else does?

Go out and experiment. Make mistakes and learn from them. Try all the ways to do something until you find your favorite. There are a million ways to do something but the best process is the one that works for you.


Other Thoughts:

  • Summer is nearly over - can you believe it? That means it’s time for college shows around the country. Check out this cool 360 pic from my first college of the semester - California State University, East Bay:

  • Sign up so you never miss a Thursday Thoughts post.

  • I’m coming back to headline at the Chicago Magic Lounge next month. See here for all upcoming shows and ticket info!

No, but...

Here’s a crazy thought:

I realized this week that I’m coming up on a decade of being a full-time, professional entertainer. A decade! TEN FREAKING YEARS.

I never had another option or a backup plan; it was always going to be what I’m doing now or some form of it. So I set out ten years ago with no real plan - just grit and the desire to get paid for doing something that I’m passionate about.

It took maybe 6 or 7 of those years to even feel like I’d made any progress. Then, I started getting more creative with the show, taking risks, and exploring more outlets for performing like producing my own shows or doing fringe festivals. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to tell people I’m a professional entertainer and really believe it myself.

I didn’t really know what I was doing back in 2009, so I just started saying “yes” to everything. I figured being the person who always made stuff happen would lead to good things.

Them: “Can you do a show outdoors on the side of a hill?”
Me: “Absolutely.”

Them: “Can you do a show during halftime of a basketball game?”
Me: “No problem at all.”

Them: “Can you put a different show together for us by next week?”
Me: “Yes, of course!”

Over the past ten years I’ve said “yes” to more things then I can remember. I’ve moved across the country for jobs, driven overnight, lost money, lost sleep, and given more than I’ve received. But somehow I was convinced I would eventually get something out of it.

Many years ago I started changing my approach. I changed my answer from “yes” to “no, but…”. And suddenly, things started getting better. I started enjoying my work more and people started to take notice.

I had said “yes” to a job at the Disney World resorts but what I thought was going to be a full-time gig ended up being only a fill-in, part-time gig. After a year of being on-call and seizing every opportunity, I decided I didn’t really like a) performing outdoors and b) performing for children/families. I decided I would stop doing both of those things moving forward, so when Disney called to offer me the full-time position I thought they’d given me a year before I turned down the offer and moved back to Chicago a month later.

Disney: “Do you want to go on full-time at the BoardWalk next year?”
Me: “No, I don’t think it’s for me…but I know someone who would do a great job for you.”

I haven’t done a single gig for children/families since then and only a handful of outdoor gigs - but always on my terms. It was life-changing.

“No, but…” are real-life magic words. They get you out of things you don’t want to do. They keep you sane. They help you make decisions that will benefit you long-term.

The key is to give an emphatic “no”, then follow it up with a “but…” where you offer a detailed explanation or offer to help in some other capacity.

I get random calls all the time. People want to pay me less than I’m worth. People want me to work for free or for (oh-fuck-off) exposure. People (usually friend or family) want a favor and expect it of me.

I respond with a “No, but…” and explain my rate or my schedule or my value or why I can’t just fly across the country for a freebie. Then, I put them in touch with a friend who can do it or help them brainstorm some other options. I do about a hundred shows a year and I probably turn down about twice as many. Not every gig is for me and realizing which ones are has made all the difference. The truth is, my best opportunities have come from saying “no” to things, not from saying “yes”.

I’ve been slowly eliminating things I don’t want to do from my life the past few years and I’m nearly there. 2020 is about to be the year of saying “no” to as much as possible.

This isn’t advice only for performers. “No, but…” (or perhaps “No, because…”) works in any situation.

Your friends want you to go out for a late night bar crawl, even though they know you’re training for a half marathon? (“No, because I have to wake up early…”)

People keep taking advantage of your expertise but refusing to pay you? (“No, because I have bills to pay and can’t keep offering my services for free.”)

People want you to do a thing you don’t want to do at a certain time at a stupid place? (“No, but maybe next time.” while you’re actually thinking “No, because it doesn’t make me happy.”)

The irony of preaching “No, but…” in the city of “Yes, and…” is not lost on me. But I stand by it. Saying “no” to things you don’t want to do is the secret to having time for the things you want to be doing.


Other Thoughts:

  • Warren Buffett seems to agree with me.

  • I’ve been enjoying this lately. You probably will, too.

  • Have you joined my Thursday Thoughts mailing list? I won’t be on social media much longer so sign up so you’ll never miss a post.

  • The banner photo is from my appearance last month on Pittsburgh Today Live. Watch it here:

Transaction

In the past week alone I’ve had to ask three people to put their phones away during my show. And that’s just the past seven days. This is an all too common occurrence at my performances but people should know better.

First of all, it’s simple theatre etiquette. When you see a show you’re supposed to arrive early, silence your phones, and be respectful of the performer. Common. Freakin’. Sense.

Plus, there’s a big announcement at the beginning that strictly prohibits photos and videos during the performance. It’s not a voiceover recording - it’s a human person that literally says “There are no photos or videos allowed during the show, so please take a moment to silence and put away all electronic devices.”

But somehow, people still feel the need to take out their phones and try to record a part of my show. It’s usually when their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife is onstage. I see them reach into their pocket or purse and can sense that they’re about to start filming my act. Some of them try to be secretive (which means they know they aren’t supposed to be filming!) and others just hold it up in front of their face without even trying to hide it.

I’m not polite about it. I don’t say “Oh, excuse me - hahaha - if you don’t mind, would you please put your phone away!” No way. I make it weird.

I stop everything I’m doing and put all attention on the person. I say “Put your phone away. No videos or photos. Didn’t you hear the announcement earlier?”

Then I wait. I watch in silence as the audience member has to turn it off in front of everyone and put the phone down.

Then I usually tack something on like “Isn’t it enough to be here right now? This is for us! Can’t we just enjoy this together?” and let it linger in the awkward silence I’ve created.

I don’t think people expect me to confront them, let alone to create such an uncomfortable energy in the theater. But I love it. I have no problem leaning into that strange feeling and forcing people to reckon with their actions.

I know some performers who encourage people to take photos/videos during the show and share them far and wide. “Don’t forget to tag me!” they say, forgetting that the immediacy of live theatre is better than any post, hashtag, blurry photo, or shaky video could ever be.

Maybe those performers are better self-promoters than me, but all I care about is my show. I’m only interested in what’s happening in this space right now, with the audience that came to see me on any given evening. I’m not asking you to leave a like, subscribe, buy my merch, or more - I’m just asking you to hold up your end of the deal.

You come to my show to make a simple transaction. You pay your hard earned money for a ticket and give me your time and attention, and I’ll give you a night you’ll always remember. Those are the terms of our arrangement and I will always uphold them.

You deserve the show you came to see and if that means making it weird or eliminating distractions as I see fit, then so be it. But I’m not here to mess around - I’m here to hold up my half of the bargain.

What about you?



Other Thoughts:

  • I’m deleting all social media soon. If you want to keep up with this blog, join my Thursday Thoughts Mailing List.

  • I’m in my final week of shows at Liberty Magic in Pittsburgh. Only five shows to go and there’s just a handful of tickets remaining.

  • I did some mind reading on the radio in Pittsburgh last week. Check out a live performance here: