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September 22, 2011

Linda Steinberg asks: Are you a Horizontal Writer?

    Butt in Chair. Hands on Keyboard. We’ve all heard the advice, in countless workshops and articles. Seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? The only way to write is to write. Write crap now, and fix it later (or have your critique partners fix it). You can’t repair what’s not there.
     Who can argue with that? Workshop presenters usually offer disclaimers along the lines of, “This might not work for everybody. Take what you can use and discard the rest,” but I’ve never heard a disclaimer for BIC HOK. It’s so obvious, so basic. An essential first step.
     Except when it doesn’t work.

     I can’t think of anything more frustrating for myself as a writer than staring at a blank screen, fingers poised, when the words aren’t coming. Not only does BIC HOK not inspire or stimulate, it blocks my creative juices entirely. I think about my To Do list. A new restaurant I’ve been wanting to try. A TV show I meant to set my DVR for. But prodding my characters into revealing their next move? Nada. Zero. Zip.
     Sometimes it helps to get away from the computer and write in longhand. It’s much less intimidating to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, thoughts free to stray off in any direction. Scribbling down and marking through sentence after sentence, until, occasionally, finding the right one that inspires other sentences to follow, like imprinted little ducklings following Mama Duck.
     But I think best horizontally. (I stole that line from a character in my WIP). Usually I get my ideas or bits of prose when I’m stalling getting out of bed in the morning, or lying down ‘drying’ after a shower. Just resting, sometimes a plot element comes to me. Or a whole section of dialogue.
Horizontal writing works even better than the longhand/coffee technique when you’ve finished a scene and are stuck at beginning the next one. Instead of typing three pages which may ultimately be deleted I realize where the scene ‘really’ starts, I play the scene through in my mind until I come to it. You know, that sentence that appears in your head and you say to yourself, “That’s my opening line.” Once I have that magical line, it’s often all I need to get unstuck and start writing again.
     Several years ago, Catherine Spangler gave a wonderful DARA workshop on the Unconscious Writer. When she said that ideas come to her when she’s NOT writing, when she’s at the supermarket, or driving, or doing some other mundane task, I lit up. I got it. Some of us weren’t meant to Apply Butt to Chair as a prelude for writing. Some of us start writing in our minds, and only after our ideas have wrestled and tangled for a while, do they settle down enough for us to put to keyboard.
     Now here’s my disclaimer. This process doesn’t work for everyone. For some of you in-the-moment personalities, Butt in Chair is the only way. One of my critique partners, who writes a lot like me, mentioned that she’d gotten a new idea for her book while doing the laundry. The third CP raised a quizzical brow at that. We asked her, “What do you think about when you’re doing laundry?” She looked at us incredulously as if we’d just stepped off an alien spaceship. “The laundry,” she replied.
     So, which are you? Do you ever write horizontally or do you need to have that keyboard and screen in front of you? Either way, what techniques have you used to get the juices flowing again when they’re blocked?
     (I should add, most of this blog was written horizontally.)


chris keniston said...

well, I have to admit I got the flicker of an idea for my favorite book standing in the shower - so technically that disqualifies me-

BUT - since I wrote most of it semi horizontal- I think I take your blog to an extreme. : )

Even now as I speak - or type- I am reclining on my bed - propped up with my three favorite pillows, cup of tea at my bedside, netbook on my lap.

I write entire novels this way.

Occasionally I'll work on a book propped up on the living room sofa - but my bed is my favorite place to write.

When my laptop broke a couple of years ago and I was forced to write at a desk , sitting in a chair (BIC), I discovered I don't like holding up my own head up when I'm being creative - LOL. I prefer to just lay back and type!

As a pantser -I just start typing and am often amazed at what comes out - thinking too hard seems to mess up the product-LOL.

But I most certainly do agree with you on one thing - it's bad enough I have to DO laundry - the last thing I want is to ahve to THINK about it too!!

Candace said...

I'm a horizontal writer, too, and in recent months, also rediscovered the joy of writing with pen and paper--usually right after some horizontal writing...or picturing, perhaps. Horizontal picturing is what I do. It's when I hear my characters best. The quality of the writing when I use pen and paper is very different from when I'm BIC HOK writing. My critique group can tell.

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

Only think about laundry when doing laundry--No way! I'm a daydreamer and plot when driving, ironing, walking, cooking.

Good topic, Linda.

Pamela Stone said...

Right there with ya, Linda. Great post. Just to set the stage, I'm the CP who had an idea while doing the laundry. Seriously, laundry and household chores come so naturally, that my mind looks for something else to do and sometimes that works great for my WIP. Butt in chair does not work for me at all until I've fleshed out the scene in my mind.

Horizontal writing - I love it, but these days I spend so little time horizontally and it comes at such a late hour after a long day, my brain is typically dead by the time I'm horizontal. But one of these years I'll hopefully get back to that.

Pamela Stone said...

Oh, and one more thing. At the risk of everyone thinking I'm nuts, do your characters go places with you? When I'm grocery shopping, sometimes I take my characters along and try to determine how they would handle the mundane chore. How they would react to the rude guy who jumps in front of you in line. Am I the only writer who does that? It really helps get a handle on how that character handles life.

PamnTX said...

Oh my gosh, I never thought of it as being a horizontal writer. When I go to bed, I play our scenes in my head. Sometimes I jump out of bed and write for hours before I can go back to sleep. I also get ideas in the shower. My last inspiration came while I was at a funeral.

Great post, Linda. Thank you.

Pam Stone: Great idea about taking your characters with you while you do mundane chores and run errands. Thanks!

Diana Layne said...

Definitely a horizontal writer, 90 percent of my fresh writing is done lying on the bed, writing in longhand. I do get a lot of ideas while doing mundane things too, like cooking, which is why my family doesn't think food is done unless it's burned, lol. Oh, and Catherine Spangler and I were once CP's--brilliant lady!

Liz Lipperman said...

I am definitely a horizontal writer--and a card-carrying plotter. I also write everything longhand before it goes on the computer. I am so intimidated by the blinking cursor on the screen.

My favorite place to write is in the living room in the Lazy
Boy with a gigantic glass of water at my side. (That guarantees I'll take breaks!!)

Great post, Linda.

chris keniston said...

Liz If I had a lazy boy I'd be right there beside ya!!

Couldn't write longhand - one I can't read my own writing and two I can't write as fast as I can type!!

Maybe I need to replace my midcentury reading chair in my bedroom (the one that always has so much stuff on it no one can actually sit) with a recliner - wouldn't that be fun!!

Patricia said...

Hi Vicki! It's taken me awhile to realize that most of my best ideas come when I'm in bed right after I wake up in the morning and I still have about an hour of quiet time while my husband gets ready for work. I think about where my story is going and what should come next or whatever and invariably something comes to me. I don't need to write it down. It's there and grabs me and I relax, happy that I have my next idea.
Horizontal writing - YAY!

Sylvia said...

Hi Linda,
Great know I'm an anal plotter, but I also try to spend chunks of time at the computer, sitting at a desk. I've also written riding in the car, with a kid hanging over the seat asking me, 'what cha doing? Are we there yet?' Hubby hates it, but whenever we travel, the little computer goes with us and I write. Fifteen minutes and I'm a much happier person.

That doesn't mean I don't get ideas when I'm away from my desk. I've taken to keeping a tape recorder in my purse and when I get an idea, I tell the tape recorder. So many times, I would get a great idea to put in my current WIP and then I'd forget it. So now I carry a tape recorder. I'm the weird one driving down the road talking into the tape recorder, or in the grocery store or wherever. An idea comes and it goes on tape.

Great topic ladies!

Linda Steinberg said...

Hi, Ladies. Thanks for stopping by.

Chris, you are such an impressive multi-tasker it would surprise me if you didn't write in the shower or while doing other things.

Candace, I wrote a lot of my first book longhand, because I didn't have access to a computer, but I've had to give that up, because, like Chris, I can't read my own writing anymore.

Pam, you live with your characters more than anyone I know. They are so real to you that sometimes it's hard to convince you that everything that happened in their backstory didn't necessarily have to have happened. It is fiction, CP. But sometimes we believe our own imaginations and that's when it's the most fun.

I'm so thrilled to hear from so many horizontal writers. I thought I was pretty much the only one who didn't think BIC HOK was the be-all, end-all.

Anne E. Johnson said...

I write horizontally, vertically, by outlining, by pantsing, on screen, by hand in a journal, while laundering, walking the halls between teaching classes, on the subway, in a coffee shop, watching a bad movie, reading a terrific book.

I am always writing in one way or another. If I were stuck with one approach, my productivity would plummet.

Linda Steinberg said...

Cool thought, Anne.

When I was teaching, I used to view every experience as something I might bring back to my second graders. I guess writing is the same way.

Kathy Ivan said...

I usually come up with a lot of my suspense plot while I'm laying in bed trying to go to sleep. I can close my eyes and see the scene start to play out in my head. But if I try to get up and write it down, then I can pretty much forget about getting any sleep that night!

I'm usually pretty good about remembering what I've plotted out the next day so I can get it down or continue to expound further into the developments. I then talk the scene out with my sister which continues to help flesh it out.

I also tend to get very creative when I'm driving. So of course, I have no way of writing it down then!

Great blog, Linda.

Linda Steinberg said...

Thanks, Kathy

I too, lay awake at night plotting--or 'scening' as it should probably be called. And I probably should get up and write the scene down, because I don't get much sleep anyway. My problem is, though I remember the gist of the scene the next morning, what usually plays in my head is the dialogue, and I just can't remember that snappy retort the way it came to me horizontally!

Juliet Burns said...

Well, I'm the odd woman out here today. When I'm horizontal nowdays, I'm asleep in 5 minutes. I used to read horizontally before I was a writer, in my younger days. But now when I try that, I fall asleep. I'm that "in-the-moment" weirdo who, when I'm cooking or grocery shopping or doing laundry, that's what I'm thinking about. I don't "live in my head". which is bad for a writer. But pretty cool for just living. I feel really present when I'm with someone, or during really special moments, family gatherings, sunsets at the beach, I feel I'm so THERE, enjoying the moment, and that I'll remember that moment forever. (not that you "head" people don't, but maybe have to work harder at it??) Like I have to work harder at getting to know my characters (or rely on my CPs--ahem, Linda and Pam) It makes it harder to be a writer, since I have to spend more time with my Butt in the chair to get ANY work done on my characters, plot, scenes, anything. Lord, if I had to write in a recliner by longhand? Forget it. it wouldn't get done. Too many distractions. I'm like that dog in UP. Squirrel!

thelmaz said...

I write both ways. Congratulations and welcome to the blogging world. Check out SheWrites. It's a great place to meet other writer/bloggers.

Linda Steinberg said...

Yep, Juliet, you're the laundry-thinker I was talking about. As you pointed out, being in-the-moment has its non-writing advantages. For example, you don't get caught having that deer in the headlights look when somebody asks you a question and you realize that their previous comment sparked an idea for your character's backstory and your mind has been running off chasing it. Thanks for stopping by today. Now I have two words for you. WIP: Squirrel.

Thanks, Thelma for the welcome. Love your quote and your blog this week too. You know how much I enjoy traveling. For those of you who, like me are widows, or just facing a paradigm shift in your life, visit Thelma's inspirational and entertaining blog WidowSphere: a Circle of Hope at

Karen A Smith said...

You are in good company--

The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes.
Agatha Christie

I often come up with ideas while on my walk, so I installed Inkpad to my Droid to jot it down before the crowded brain forgets.

Phyllis said...

I use to get most my ideas from lying down on the sofa, earphones blocking out the world and to get away from the stresses of the day and work by daydreaming. The music put me in a mood and I daydreamed about ‘whatever’. My ‘whatever’ daydream would ultimately become a story.

I have a lot of trouble, like you,with BOC HOK. That only works AFTER I’ve done the above. BTW, my daydreams come to me like movies and the music is like the movie soundtrack. So, yes, I am very horizontal!


Phyllis said...

Pam, I never thought of taking my characters with me. I'll have to take them shopping long as I don't start testing out the dialoque aloud. Someone might think me an escapee from the mental ward!

Great post, Linda. You stirred my memories of my early writing years when I was much more prolific.


Unknown said...

Yes, yes, yes!!! THIS is how I write! Ohhhhhhh this is such a wonderful topic. So glad I stopped by, Linda. You've made me smile from ear to ear because some of my best scenes have been "written" while washing dishes, folding laundry, or driving to work. Horizontal writing ... I love it!

Linda Steinberg said...

The votes are in.

There are as many horizontal writers out there as there are people who hate doing laundry.

Thanks to everyone who posted for sharing your thoughts and writing tips.

I am currently stuck in the middle of writing a scene--the love scene, no less--so I guess I'll go lie down and see if the characters will enlighten me.

Cynthia D'Alba said...

Yep. I am a horizontal writer..I do my very best plotting in bed. Now if any I can invent a device that connects to my head that moves those excellent scenes directly from my mind to my fingers to my computer page. But unfortunately, between my "plot center" and my finger tips is a lot a space. Sigh.

I have been known to type with my eyes shut so my internal editor didn't get a chance to correct things.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I just assumed everyone was. How can you turn your brain off just because you're not at the keyboard. But what distresses me is if something brilliant comes to me in the early hours and by the time I do find a pencil or my laptop, it's gone.

That hurts.