First and Foremost I must give credit to the idea of “chain smoking” to Austin Kleon in his book Show Your Work. In the book he discusses the importance of chain smoking (in relation to writing) and gives examples of writers who practice it. Now that’s out of the way, I’m going to Steal Like an Artist and write like the idea were my own.
Chain smokers go through multiple packs of cigarettes a day. As of 2013, the average adult aged smoker went through almost 22 cigarettes each day. In order to continually be smoking without a break, they often will light one cigarette with the butt of another.
Can we, as writers, identify ourselves as chain smokers? Not in the (albeit unhealthy and honestly gross) habitual way of literally inhaling the smoke of cigarettes, but in how we write. Are we going through multiple pages a day? How many writing hours are we averaging a day? Do you light the beginning of one story with the end of another? I believe we should all strive to be chain smoking writers. I know I do. And In no way am I saying writers have to write 22 pages every day, but continuing forward without a writing hiatus is more beneficial than we may give it credit.
When I sit down to start a new story or novel, I end up staring at my computer screen for twenty minutes, refilling my coffee four times, talking to someone for an hour, buying a new dog, memorizing all the cities in Russia, and typing random letters on the keyboard before I ever actually start writing. I type out one sentence and delete it. I explain the setting and delete it. I start with dialogue and delete it. I go through the same routine every time I have to start a new chapter or blog post. Sometimes I hit a stroke of luck and I can skip five steps, but usually I struggle a bit before I start writing. I don’t know why, but I think it’s safe to assume that other writers have the same issue as me.
The wonderful thing, though, is that once I begin I can usually write without pausing for a while. Once that first paragraph is out, I’m able to lose myself in the story for hours on end.
And then the chain smoking starts. If you put out that first cigarette and walk away, then the next time you sit down to write weeks or months or years later, then you have to go through the routine of beginning all over again. You have to pick up the craft of writing fresh and jump out of a new airplane.
That’s why you never stop falling. Use the butt of one cigarette, the ending of one story, and light the next one. Keep Going. If you finish a novel and say “Whew, that was hard. I deserve a three month break,” then you’ve essentially screwed yourself. If you never stop writing, then you’ll never have to start again.
I was on a cruise once and the “captain” said this: “If you never stop drinking, you’ll never get a hangover.”
I’m mixing analogies here, but you get the point. This isn’t to say that breaks aren’t good, because they are, but too many, too long, and too often will only harm you. Use transportation to let your mind take a breather. Choose one night a week you aren’t allowed to look at your manuscript. Find your rest moments, but don’t walk away from the craft for too long because it’ll be harder to come back.
Often when I’m nearing the end of one story, be it a novel or a short story, the emotions, characters, and themes will fill me with a new idea or desire. I use that to start the next one. I don’t take breaks between them because the urgency to keep going is stronger than the desire for a month long nap. I use the butt of one cigarette to light the next one so I can keep smoking. Similarly, when I’m done writing for the day, I stop in the middle of a sentence so I know where to begin when I return the next day. Stopping at the end of the paragraph punishes my future self to thirty minutes of trying to start the next chapter tomorrow.
Learn how to Chain Smoke. It’ll make your writing healthier.