TLDR; Find what works for you and just do it.
My twins are fifteen, and they’ve spent the last year doing their school online. I see every day the struggles they have getting their work done. These are the same struggles I have getting the work done, only I don’t have a me to stand next to me to offer encouragement and motivation and—let’s face it—mild wrath.
A twitter friend asked yesterday: “What the shortest time it’s taken you to write the first draft a novel.” People were saying, “Three weeks (but it was a mess)!” and “Two weeks, but I crashed after.” My answer? Five months. There’s a number of reasons for this, but let me say I was one of the few who said longer than a month.
This can be disheartening, but you’ll see it takes me this long below.
So here are my tips for showing up on the page and getting the work done. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said many times before, but this is what works for me and for my writing friends.
Just Get Started. The hardest part is getting started. The hardest part for me anyway. Sitting down at the desk and getting my head in the game. Typing those first words. But that’s not the hardest getting started for me. There’s getting started for the day, and then there’s getting a writing wave started. If I’m writing every day, a writing wave, it’s so much easier to get started each day. To get that writing wave going, though, like getting up on step in a motorboat, takes a lot of effort. I have to trick myself and force myself and do all the things to get that first day or two of productivity. Once I’m on a wave, I try really hard to not miss a day because I know how hard it’s going to be to get going again. And I used to be someone who poo-poo’d the idea of a daily writing schedule, but only because I couldn’t get myself to do it. You know, back before I actually wrote.
Have a Ritual to Get Started Each Day. I do the same thing ever day to start writing. It’s like having a bedtime ritual. It tells your mind, “Okay, now we’re going to write.” What works for me is to make coffee, bring up my computer, light a candle, and start my music. I don’t take a shower till after I’m done writing.
Write First Thing. One of those truisms for me is that you have to put the most important things first in the day. If I want to get writing done, I need to do it first thing. By evening, my brain is fried and motivation is zero. I’ll go through streaks where I go to bed at 6 or 8 in the evening and get up at 2 or 3 or 4, but that doesn’t happen that often. What I’ve had the most luck with is making sure I’m sitting at my desk at 7 a.m. and writing for an hour or two. I’m working from home now, but when I was working at my office, I would go into the office early. I have twins, and my husband would drop them off at school. Writing first thing takes advantage of the half-dreaming mind. It’s easier to get into the flow.
Write at the Same Time Every Day, or Go on Writing Binges, or Both. Find out what works for you. For me and many people, writing every day ensures I’m as productive as I can be. It’s easier to get started, and I get more done and avoid less. In fact, when I’m in it I live in that world more than in the real world. The real world fades to gray and my writing world is a glorious technicolor. But maybe that doesn’t work for you, either because it’s not your thing or your schedule doesn’t allow it. Go on writing binges then. Take a weekend and submerge yourself. Write for 8 or 12 hours. Do a sprint. Or, if you’re like me, you may do both. On a good week, I’ll try for 10,000 words, getting a 1,000 words each weekday, but then sprinting on Saturday and Sunday for another 5,000 words. This does not happen very often.
Know Your Avoidance Tricks. You know what you do. You can see your own tricks coming a mile down the pike. But sometimes you don’t look them squarely in the face. One trick I use is make sure to notice them and then call them out. I’ll stop myself mid-impulse. I’ll question myself: “Am I really hungry?” as I walk toward the kitchen. If the answer is no, I stop and say, “You’re not hungry. You’re just avoiding.” Same thing for getting on the internet. I’ll click off my work and onto a browser and start to browse, but I’ll notice it and stop and tell myself, “You know exactly what you’re doing. You’re avoiding trying to figure out this character’s reaction to that event, and if you go down that hole, you won’t get anything done.” Then I turn back to what I was doing. “It’ll only take a little bit to get over this hurdle,” I say. I’m a big avoider.
Give Yourself Quick Breaks. That said, do give yourself breaks as a reward, but make sure to set limits so they don’t turn into avoidance. For example, you might say, “If I get these two pages written, I’ll let myself have two squares of chocolate.” Or “If I figure out this plot point, I’ll play a half hour of Subnautica.” But make sure to set limits and stick to them. They’re not an excuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Know Yourself. You know what works for you. Do that. Even if it’s hard. And if you’re not sure what works, try a couple of things, and if it works, stick with it. And realize that it changes from time to time and from book to book. People’s advice is only what works for them. For example, I know that I get writer’s block about halfway through and then right before I finish something. The first is because it’s the middle of a slog and the second is fear of success. I know these things and have to use extra effort to get past it.
Have a Writing Process. This is after you’ve gotten started for the day. How do you approach your work? Some people just headlong into it, writing as quickly as they can, a shitty first draft. This is how people can write a novel in three weeks. My process doesn’t work like this. The first thing I do is go through the previous scene or two, editing as I go and getting my head in the game, and then I put the editor away and I write, extending through another scene or two. I try to get 1,000 words. This way, by the time I finish I novel, I’ve edited each chapter many times, and it’s in really polished shape. I’ll go back and craft it more, of course, but it tends to be fairly final.
Know Where You’re Going the Next Day. One thing Hemingway would do would be to quit his writing for the day before he’d completed what he knew he wanted to write—before finishing a scene. Often he’d quite in the middle of a sentence. That way, the next day when he started he’d know exactly where he was going. He would not be facing a blank page, so to speak.
Do What Works. Along those lines, actually do what works. I’m a big self-sabotager, and I’m marvelously devious in the ways that I make sure I fail. If it seems like I’m going to succeed, I’ll pull back or pull out or something. I’ll freak out and not eat well and not sleep well to ensure I fail. Because I’m aware of this, I’m working very hard to counteract it. I also know that I tend to resist things, and so when people give me advice, I try to keep an open mind and try it, and if it works I try to keep doing it. Other people have figured this out, and if we don’t learn from their mistakes then we have to make those mistakes too.
Do What Works for THIS Novel. Not every novel is the same, and what works for one novel will not work for another. Each novel teaches you how to write it, just as you teach your readers how to read it. All this to say, be open to doing things differently each time. If you reach a point where you’re stuck, change it up. Write at a different time of day, or switch from typing on a computer to handwriting in a notebook, or read something that you love to inspire yourself.
Carrots and Sticks. Just like we do for our kids, we have to provide ourselves with both guardrails and encouragement. Be kind to yourself but firm. If your inner monolog is busy destroying you, you won’t have the motivation, but also if all you do is hope for the best, you won’t have the chutzpah to move forward.
Set a Goal. Set minigoals, like mine is to write 1,000 words a day. Set midrange goals, and I try for 10,000 words a week. Set long-range goals—I try to get a novel done in five months. But also forgive yourself when you don’t meet them. I don’t often get 10,000 words a week. Goals are just that—something you’re trying to achieve. If you don’t make it, don’t use it as an excuse to castigate yourself and give up. Adjust and move on. That’s how life works. Try to figure out what went wrong and do better, and realize there are times when life gets in the way.
Write One Page, or Set Reasonable Goals. I once attended a writer’s workshop with a wonderful and productive children’s author. We were all lamenting about how to get the work done. “I try for ten pages,” one person said, and another said, “I try to write a novel in two weeks.” The wonderful writer said, “Just write one page a day.” People objected, but she said, “Are you reaching those other goals? No? No. If you set these lofty goals, you then avoid it and don’t get any writing done. But if you just try to write one page a day and then actually write that page, after a year you’ll have 365 pages—more than you’re writing now.”
Set a Timer. One trick that really works for me is setting a timer. I used to have an app on my desktop, but now I just use Chrome’s timer. I use this for productivity not just for my writing but also for my day job. I set the timer for an hour, say, and for that period of time I give a good faith effort at writing. I don’t open social media and I don’t do anything else. That’s usually enough to get started, and unless I have to switch to something else for some reason, I’ll reset the timer at the end of the hour and keep going.
Play Music. Whatever motivates you. Some people like classical. Some people like blues. Some like electronica. I tend to have a Spotify playlist (not my own, one that I found) for each book I write. For example, the playlist for The Language of Corpses was the soundtrack to the game Borderlands. But you do you. When I’m doing my day job, I can’t listen to words because I’m writing and editing words, and so I listen to space music, again a Spotify playlist.
Trick Yourself. Sometimes you can approach things head-on. And some people always do straightforward. I don’t understand them. I have to trick myself. This list is full of the tricks I use to get myself started every day and on a writing wave.
Let It All Fall Away. I’m an overthinker. I wrap myself into knots feeling guilty and shameful and thinking of my to do list and all the people who I owe emails and their expectations and how other writers get things done. However you can do it, let this stuff fall away. You need some of it for motivation, but you also need to let some of it go or you’ll never let yourself get in the frame of mind to get the work done.
Kick Out the Editor. We all have an editor in our heads and she’s very necessary. She’s the one who allows us to take our work from shitty to great—or at least good. However, she’d a wicked taskmaster, and she’ll freeze us in our tracks. If you’re trying to write with the editor in your head talking to you, you’ll get writers block. There are a lot of writers who can’t move on until they get a sentence perfect. I don’t know how they get anything done. Give yourself permission to write crap. Write a shitty first draft. Two things are likely to happen if you do. You’ll actually get something written, and most likely it won’t be as shitty as you think it would be. Tell that editor to go to her room, that you’ll call her when you need her.
Shoot Your Critic. Ever read Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain”? It’s fantasizing about a critic getting shot in the head. Wish fulfillment, much? This point is a corollary to the last one. If you’re listening to what you think critics are going to say and anticipating how your parents are going to react, you won’t get any writing done. Simple as that. You are not writing for your critics and your parents (most likely). Right now, you’re just playing, getting it on the page. Nobody has to see it. You can choose not to show it to anyone. Thinking this way should give you the room to get words on the page. Later you can decide whether you want to show it to anyone.
Great Is the Enemy of Done. A corollary to the last point. If your goal is to write the next Great American Novel, you most likely will fail. Trying to write “great” brings the critic right up there next to you yelling at you for how shitty your writing is. Which causes writers block. Which means the book will not get done. Trying to write a great novel makes it hard to get your work done. Don’t write great. Write your novel. It’s someone else’s job to decide what’s great.
Put the Spoiled Child in Time Out. You also have a spoiled child in your head. All he wants to do is sit on the couch, eat ice cream, and play videogames. He throws a temper tantrum when you try to force him to do things. He’s the kid in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment who stuffed the marshmallow into his mouth before the investigator left the room. He’s also the one who would rather read the latest sci fi novel than get his own novel written. You need to gently—or not so gently—tell him to go clean his room. He will not help you. You need your responsible guy now, the responsible one who puts the work in and plans for the future.
Play. Don’t get rid of your inner kid all the way, though. Open your heart and open your mind. Get down in the dirt. Writing is play! Writing is fun! To get the writing done, you need to bring out that part of yourself who absolutely loves science fiction or whatever you’re writing. It’s their playground! Let them doodle and explore and see how cool the world is and the world your creating is. Get excited! Go for it!
Let Your Kid Recharge. Along with the last point, if you’re running from one end of your day to the other, you will have no energy left. You won’t be able to connect to the creative taproot. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a such a great book for writer’s block, and one thing she suggests is to give yourself a weekly writer’s date. This is an hour or two where you just play and recharge. Let out your inner kid. You can go for a walk. You can do finger painting. You can take a bubble bath. You can do whatever you want, but it needs to be something that recharges you, not something you “should” do, preferably by yourself.
An Accountability Friend or Writer’s Group. Find a writer friend or join a writer’s group and make an agreement between everyone to have a certain amount of work done every so often. Being accountable to someone else is a good motivator. Not only that, but some of the best and most productive writing has come out of groups where there’s a sense of support but also competition. Think Algonquin Round Table, Bloomsbury Group, science fiction conventions.
Set an Artificial Deadline. You can set your own deadlines, but they can be artificial and you don’t hold yourself to them. You can also set a deadline to enter a contest or to submit during an open reading period or go to a conference. These deadlines are artificial too, set by you, but they can be motivating. You can also set deadlines like, “I will write a short story a week over the summer” or “I will finish this book this year.”
Go on a Writer’s Retreat or to a Conference. Seriously. Find a writing retreat or conference and apply. Save up the money. Apply for a grant. There are real barriers to this—full time job, family obligations, money—but sometimes those barriers are set within ourselves and are not actual barriers. You have to give yourself permission. I find I leave these kinds of things so motivated and refreshed and exhausted and exhilarated! Having time just to write or being with a whole bunch of other people who are just as passionate about writing as you are. What a trip!
Create Your Own Writer’s Retreat. If you can’t go on a “real” writer’s retreat, why not make your own? It can be anything from taking two days off work for a long weekend of writing to renting a bed and breakfast or cabin in the woods to just write. When you do this, you have to set good boundaries and enforce them because, as wonderful as our families are, they want you to be doing what they want you to do, what you’ve always done. And you’ll want to do it too—it’s easier.
Good Boundaries. The world doesn’t care if you’re a writer. It sounds harsh, but it’s so true. It not only doesn’t care—it actively tries to undermine your writing. It wants you to do what it wants you to do. To be a creative, you have to make good boundaries. You have to tell the people you love very much to go away, to leave you alone. You have to say you’re working and mean it. When your partner asks you to take the dog to the vet and your kids need cookies for school, you have to say no or buy cookies at the store. Seriously. I cannot stress this enough. The world will eat you alive—your creative impulses and your time.
Crazymakers. There are people in your life who you love very much but they will destroy your art. They don’t mean to, not really, but they will. This is what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls crazymakers or cramped creatives. They’re narcissists. If they aren’t the center of attention, they find ways to draw you in, to make you drop whatever you’re working on. A “great artist” will often be a crazymaker too and will surround themselves with cramped creatives and enablers. Those people around them cannot have their own art. These people are in your life, and they are powerful. You have to resist them, or you will never have the time or energy to write. Heck, you may be one of them.
Recharge. Do you know Maslow’s Hierarchy? Writing is up there with self-actualization, and you cannot write if you’re so wrung out all you can think about is sleep. You need to satisfy your lower-order needs in order to have the energy to fulfill your higher-order needs. Sometimes, rather than forcing yourself to write, you may just need to take a day and sleep, read, watch a movie, hang out with friends.
Be Healthy. One of the ways I self-sabotage is by denying basic things like eating and sleeping. It’s something my family does. However, if you do that, you’re just making it harder to succeed—which, of course, with my family was part of the point. Don’t do that. Keep a schedule. Eat well. Get good sleep. Exercise. Have a healthy social life. You’re an Olympic athlete training for competition. Act like it.
Reconnect with Those Books You Love. Nothing inspires me more than reading a great book. I immediately start imagining ways I would take the ideas in it. I want to be that author. And sometimes I’ll reread books I love because it reconnects me with the written word, to the taproot of creativity. And, let’s face it, sometimes it’s just for comfort. Sometimes, like 2020, the world sucks and you just need a book hug.
Be Persistent. The only success I’ve had in life has come from my pigheadedness. Seriously. The only way I got an agent (though we’ve since parted ways) was by submitting to literally hundreds of agents over the course of 11 years, two books written and rewritten. I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of rejections. Sometimes it seems like it takes me way longer for anything, and I have to find alternate avenues to success. So when you get a rejection, give yourself some time to grieve and heal, then dust yourself off and get back on that horse.
Follow Your Inspiration. You know how you’ll be working on something and it’ll seem dull and uninspired and along will come this shiny new idea? Well, if you’re like me, you can’t always follow it because I get ideas every day. But sometimes you do need to follow it. Sometimes you need to work on the thing that excites you. Completion is a good thing, but sometimes you have to say fuck it and go with that whatever you just fell in love with.
Know When to Quit. By this I mean, sometimes a novel has taught you all it can teach you and you have to break up with it—painfully, tearful text messages late at night—and to move on. It’s now a stumbling block, not a draw. You’ve outgrown it. But realize that it will carry forward and contribute to your future work. Nothing is wasted. You may come back to it one day, or maybe not, but it was necessary for your journey.
Forgive Yourself. Nothing is set in stone. Forgive yourself for your weaknesses, your failings, the carcasses of manuscripts you’ve left in your wake. Forgive yourself for not being superman, doing all the things, not being a successful novelist at 23, for offending that famous author with a clumsy tweet. Forgive yourself and move forward. All you can control is the work.
Give Yourself Permission. And above all, give yourself permission. If you want to write a clown novel set on a moon of Tau Ceti e that is Game of Thrones meets The Wizard of Oz, just do it. Don’t wait for other people to give you permission for things. If you want to start your own small press or do a zine, reserve a website today and start asking for submissions. If you want to speak in front of a group about your writing, contact your local library today and talk to your university or a community college. Whatever it is you want to do, give yourself permission and do something about it—today.
Now, go and write. Good luck and godspeed. May the Force be with you. Live long and prosper.
And, just so you know, I’m avoiding working on the novel by writing this blog.