If I had to pick the one thing that nearly prevented me from starting to write, I’d have to say it was actually sitting down to write. Obtuse, yes? Now whenever I talk to my writing-enthusiastic buddies about grinding out my fourth manuscript, I can see the stymied frustration as the topic inevitably shifts towards the real reason they haven’t written that novel they’ve been playtesting in their heads for the last five years: it sucks to sit down and actually do it.
I haven’t forgotten the days of planning and plotting, only to stare at my laptop across the room and feel the inertia settle over me. I wanted to write, I planned to write, but when I thought about it there was just so much WORK involved. I was too tired or there was no way I could cordon off enough of my day to do it properly. I needed to feel it, to feel excitement creep over my brain and take it hostage– then, and only then, could I devote the next four hours to hammering out gold.
Oh, yes. I remember those days of bullshit.
The reality was that by not writing, I wasn’t producing anything of any quality. You can’t fix what you don’t write. My need to feel good about it while I was doing it, to feel like I could see the value of my effort immediately, was my biggest problem. The truth is (cue the shocked and outraged gasps): it’s okay for writing to feel like a chore.
I know, I know. Look at most writing sites and you’re hammered with diatribes about passion being the only way you’ll survive as a writer, how inspiration is so amazing, how you should ‘just know’ or have something ‘suddenly click’, etc, etc. Those things are true for most writers I’ve spoken with but only for some of the time. Most of your time writing will likely be spent researching annoying details, stumbling your way through awkward dialogue, and resorting to painfully bad exposition in order to move on from point A to point B in your rough draft.
It’s not glamorous and, if you’re like me, it’s hard to see the value in your efforts.
If you want to be a writer you have to accept that it is a job. An unconventional one that’s great for non-conventional types, but still a job that requires craft and skill. Like all things, you get better the more you practice, even if you’re not having a great time and even if you’re not trying your absolute hardest to pick the perfect words every time. As a writer, you will produce many things in your lifetime, many of which will be small projects that you will never seek to publish and that needs to be okay.
Accepting this can feel scummy in a “death-of-idealism” kind of way, but it personally set me free: suddenly it was okay for my writing to suck because it wasn’t going to be the best I could do and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last. The majority of published authors don’t publish the first book they wrote– it’s likely going to be book number four or five by the time they’ve mastered structure, character, and editing well enough to catch an agent’s eye. To be a writer means to be in it for the long haul. Those moments of inspiration and writing genius are the small flickers of reward flaring out of the dour coals of work. Trust me, they are not standard-operating procedure.
Anyhow, I’ll stop abusing metaphors now and get to the pragmatic part of this post.
How To Build Your Writing Habits
Goals are super important
Sure, it feels great to just put your fingers to your keyboard and let the artistry flow unrestrained, but in all practicality, we’re all creatures of minimum standards. On our worst weeks, we all check off just enough boxes at work to avoid getting fired and then curl up on the couch for a nap. Understanding this about yourself is key to comprehending the need for goals and deadlines.
My recommendation is to pick either a target word count or page count then set a date by which it’s “due”. You’ll put it off at first until the last minute but in the end it’ll still get accomplished. After a few frustrating all-nighters, you’ll probably find yourself spacing out the workload until you’ve established a routine.
Orienting your target around page counts is great for beginning writers. It’s a gentler version of goal setting– after all, all it takes is some rapid back and forth dialogue to continue creating enough line breaks to blaze through your assignment. For example:
“What are you doing,” Random Character asked him.
Other Random Character didn’t look up. “What does it look like?”
“I can’t tell. That’s why I asked.”
“Well,” he said, glaring at her. “Maybe if you left me alone I could get it done!”
“Get what done?” Random Character demanded. “That’s what I’m asking!”
See? Absolutely no planning required and I just knocked out half a page.
However, after a few months you may find it too easy to abuse (think of all the takeout menus your characters can read aloud!) at which point I suggest you switch to a target word count. Word counts are a bit trickier since you can cram it full of snappy back-and-forth dialogue and still not break 500 words. Doing this will force you to focus on the parts of your novel with a bit more substance.
Have a separate, relatively uncontaminated location
Lots of professional authors have offices, either at home or at some trendy office building we all secretly envy them for having. Starting out, you’ll probably have neither. In any case, try not to write at your home or school if you can absolutely help it.
The reason for this is simple– these locations are contaminated by alternative purposes. Distraction abounds. Laundry to do, dishes to clean, that repair project you’ve been putting off, that professor you need to talk to really quickly. Don’t bog yourself down like that– almost by necessity, writing requires a somewhat wandering mind and you don’t want to give yours something to latch onto that’s important or relevant enough to switch tasks.
Pick a place that you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Coffee shops are nice, but so are fast food joints with unlimited refills on diet coke or libraries with shitty browsing options. If you have no other reason to be there, there’s less to prevent you from staying on task. Being tired or wanting to go home is a bonus here: it can spur you on to hammering out enough words to appease your guilt and GTFO.
3. Don’t limit yourself to a set time
Setting a time to write, such as getting up at 5AM and pounding something out before work (*eyebrow waggle*), works really well for some people. They already know who they are. Good for them. The rest of us use scheduling as a barrier for entry: “Well, I just don’t have a two hour chunk of time. Maybe next week.”
This is an excuse. Don’t do that.
Instead, it can help to think of it like an errand you have to do some time today. Maybe you don’t know how long it will take but you’ve got a guess. I’ve noticed people tend to cushion these types of errands with time buffers in order to sneak them into unobtrusive spots in their day. For example, if you have to run to the store to pick out a new pair of shoes, you’re likely to assume it’ll take more time than walking in, grabbing the first pair of shoes, and taking them to the register. By treating your writing the same way, you increase the likelihood of getting something accomplished even if you’re interrupted a half hour in and finish up later that night.
This sounds like a lie, but it’s all fine for your writing to be sporadic, despite all the bloggers screaming WRITE EVERY DAY ON A FIXED SCHEDULE, so long as you’re keeping to your goals consistently.
Much like the thought of unemployment can spur people on to accomplish a steady bare minimum amount of progress, the thought of fallout can keep you cranking out mediocre word counts on a set schedule. There’s lots of writing sites such as writeordie.com which will punish you for failing your word counts with startling images and noises (great if you’re a Pavlovian type of human). You can also schedule passive aggressive reminders in your phone that imply you’re a bad person if you haven’t earned the right to disable it by achieving your word count. You can even get more creative.
My personal favorite involves outside participation. Contact your youngest, most bitter sibling (or that one friend who hates you and you personally can’t remember why you haven’t poured bleach in their coffee yet) and recruit them to keep you on task. The more creative and mean-spirited they are, the better: there’s nothing like having to swallow a live goldfish at the end of the week to keep your word count on point.
Why are you still reading this? Go write. Like, right now.