Last week I drew out a very long analogy to demonstrate why having a professional writing routine before publication is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills you can develop as an unpublished author. I claimed that, “Having a predictable, productive, and sustainable approach to your writing is just as important as writing well.”
Now, if I’m going to claim that predictability, productivity and sustainability are the three keys of professional writing, I should probably define what I mean by those terms.
Key 1. PREDICTABILITY
I work analogous to a lot of women who, on top of writing, carry the majority of the domestic duties in their home, such as parenting, childcare, cooking meals, keeping house, and supporting their other family members’ careers, hobbies, educations, interests and pursuits. Some of them also have their own full-time or part-time jobs on top of those responsibilities. Because these responsibilities are constant, pressing, and relatively important, it’s easy for writing to get put at the bottom of the stack. When writing time becomes contingent upon these unpredictable factors, it becomes unpredictable itself. There’s no way of knowing when the next writing session will come, how long it will be, or whether or not that time will be interrupted.
Predictable writing time comes from prioritized writing time. I know that’s a tall order. We all come from different families and situations. But remember, I’m comparing the development of a professional writing method to the development of a professional manuscript. It’s okay if it takes just as long to evolve.
Personally, I’ve found my most useful method of predictability is writing at the same time every day. Last year I had to break my writing time into three blocks throughout the day. Other options might include having a designated writing day of the week, a few days every month, or otherwise basing your writing time off of something you know you can count on. Think of it this way: it’s better to make your writing time rely on the position of the sun rather than everything under it.
Key 2. PRODUCTIVITY
Blocking off time to write is the first step, but actually writing within that predictable period is just as important. Some authors create a quota for themselves, whether its hourly, weekly, or monthly. Some use websites and applications like Write or Die, a terrifying, seat-of-your-pants application that “punishes” you when you don’t write fast enough, or Written Kitten, a much pleasanter website that shows you pictures of kittens as you meet certain benchmarks. Googling “productivity methods for writers” will provide you with plenty of fun and effective ideas. My personal productivity method is a combination of a 600-word daily quota, using the Self Control application, and Victoria Schwab’s “calendar trick” or “sticker method.”
Finding the productivity method that’s right for you can be just as challenging as honing in on a predictable writing time. Be patient with yourself and experiment with different techniques.
Key 3. SUSTAINABILITY
Once you’ve found a predictable, productive writing routine, it’s time to focus on making sure it stays balanced with the rest of your life, and is something that you can maintain over long periods of time. Methods that work during NaNoWriMo, for instance, might wreck your life if you try to apply them every other month of the year. What is more, your definition of sustainability may change — like when your baby who took a nap for two hours every day becomes a toddler who doesn’t like naps at all — in which case, your ability to adapt may become the secret to sustainability. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, learning when to be flexible and when to make exceptions, is a key component to consistency. Rigidity and austerity may carry you for a time, but their uphill-nature is doomed to burnout. Sustainability means working to balance your predictability and productivity, while also nurturing your inner and outer life. Find a method that feeds your soul.
For me, the trick to creating a sustainable writing practice has been not only making my writing predictable and productive, but making my domestic life predictable and productive as well. When I have a time designated to make dinner, for instance, I don’t have to multitask. I don’t carry my entire mental load every hour of every day, I just carry one thing at a time. I know when I’m supposed to be writing and when I’m supposed to be making dinner, so there’s no inner battle about what should be taking precedence at any point in the day.
So, there you have it. A non-professional writer’s definition of a professional writing routine. I suppose only time will tell how effective my three keys are. In the meanwhile, thank you for coming on this journey with me.
p.s. Next week, I’ll share the exact schedule I used last year to get six hours of writing time in every day — with two hours to make dinner and limited screen time for my kiddos. It’s kinda magical, so stay tuned.
Imagine you have a horse, a newborn foal, fresh out of the caul and at first it can’t even stand on four legs. It learns to walk, awkwardly, and you fall in love. Let’s say there’s a parade coming up in a few years with a prize for the best horse, and you believe in your horse and want to get that prize. So you feed your horse and give it water. Sometimes you give it treats — apples and carrots — and it nuzzles you and oh, isn’t everything just wonderful?
It comes time to train the horse, which you thought would be easy, since you and your horse had always gotten along so well, but now it’s bucking and butting and you’re yelling its name like an expletive and you’re yelling its name and expletives, and part of you still loves it, and part of you is starting to hate it, and part of you wonders why you ever thought you could raise a horse and train it. Eventually, though, you and the horse learn to cooperate with each other. You give it more food and water, more apples and carrots, but most of all, you give it sweat and tears, and somehow that results in you loving the horse more than ever.
After what should have been an inspiring four-minute musical montage, but actually ends up being a grueling decade spent mostly in isolation and the somewhat-disturbing throes of obsession, your horse is full-grown, a purebred champion with a shining coat. Tada! You take it to the horse-parade. Your wildest dreams come true, and your horse gets first place. Everyone is so excited about your horse they want it right at the very front of the parade and you are so, so proud. You have arrived.
And then the parade starts.
And you realize something terrible.
You don’t know how to ride a horse.
You, however, are tied to your horse, and now this parade is moving. There’s no stopping the parade and there’s no stopping your horse. There’s no saddle and no stirrups. You can try and get on the horse now, or you can try to keep up. Heaven forbid you lose your footing, or get tired, or burn out and end up dragged along by the horse and trampled by the parade. Morbid? Certainly. And suddenly, this dream-come-true has turned into a complete nightmare.
The horse is your book. The parade is publishing.
Here’s a thought I’ve had a lot lately. It can take years, sometimes decades, for an author to get a book published. I work with a lot of writers, I share their hopes and dreams, and I get a lot of advice from people who have “made it.” Most of that advice has to do with writing a really good book. Everyone is obsessed with writing the most amazing book they possibly can. And almost everything I read and hear about how to do that has to do with writing craftsmanship. How to craft wonderful prose and compelling dialogue and believable characters and worlds and magic systems that work. How to write a synopsis, and a query, and a pitch. The idea, of course, is that if you produce a marvelously-written book, and a marvelously written pitch, you’re going to get published. Your awesome horse is going to be in the big parade. And that seems to be the focus 99.9% of the time. Because what matters more than the sheer awesomeness of your horse?
Well, you. And your ability to ride it.
So. How do you learn to…ride a book? What’s the equivalent here?
You learn to “ride” your book by refining your riding process — I mean, your writing process. Having a predictable, productive, and sustainable approach to your writing is just as important as writing well. Learning to organize yourself, to create a schedule or a quota, is just as crucial to a writing career as the material you produce. Think for a moment about some of your favorite (living) authors. Do they appear to be riding on top of their horse, or does it look like they’re being dragged behind? Because the truth is, you can get a book published without knowing how to keep a deadline, or without knowing how to keep yourself healthy — mentally and physically. Just like you can get a horse in a parade without knowing how to ride it. The difference is going to be whether you’ll be able to enjoy that success, or feel trampled by it.
Consistency and organization are learned skills. They don’t come automatically, at least not to me. People who meet me in my adult life often assume I’m a “Type-A” personality and I’ve always had my ducks in a row, was probably class valedictorian etc. Which is hilarious, because I didn’t walk with my class and barely graduated high school, but that’s another story for another day. The fact is, I’m advocating for a healthy method of writing because I’ve struggled to find a healthy method of writing. And after almost ten years of writing every day, I can finally say I’ve hit my stride. I’ve cracked the code on my own productivity, and, frankly, happiness in my work.
This isn’t an article about putting your “butt in chair, hands on keyboard,” or “writing every day.” It’s about realizing the value of a method that feels as professional and polished as the manuscript you’ve been slaving over. My writing advice? Make your method match your manuscript.
Today, I just wanted to convince you it’s important.
Next week, I’ll break down what makes a method professional — before publication.
And the week after that, I’ll tell you what works for me.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me.
Full Disclosure: this isn’t my first blog. In December 2010 I created a blog that lasted almost exactly three years. I had 98 posts and 81,592 views. All things considered, that ain’t bad. So what went wrong? Why’d I quit? And why is the blog nowhere to be found? Well, as far as I can tell, I made five crucial mistakes.
1) I gave unqualified advice.
I talked a lot about things I had no experience in or real understanding of. I gave advice on how to write a query; I’d never written an actual query. I wrote about reducing your novel’s word count; I’d never finished a novel. I even had a series of posts where I helped a friend write her synopsis…you see where I’m going with this. Out of all the mistakes I made on my old blog, this was the one cringe-worthy enough to make me delete it.
2) I didn’t make it personal.
I thought writing blogs weren’t supposed to read like personal journals. So I didn’t talk about my family, my fears or my goals, I didn’t even talk about the book I was working on. I talked about writing, but not my writing. As a result, I missed out on a chance to chronicle a very exciting and formative time in my life. Out of all the authors whose books I love, only one of them has a blog I love. Patrick Rothfuss. I’ve read his entire archives (all eleven years’ worth) just for fun. Why? Because he’s figured out how to be real on the internet. He talks about his feelings, his family, and his writing too. It makes you feel like a ghostly traveling companion on the journey of his career.
3) I took myself way too seriously.
Okay, I admit it: this post took me a month to write because I still struggle with this. I spend way too much time hemming and hawing about the perfect thing to say instead of just settling on something good enough. I should relax and trust that, if I’m myself, people are going to like me. And if I’m sincere, they might even like what I have to say. I don’t have an issue with this in real life. Maybe it’s that writing something down makes it seem so definitive, sharing it on the internet makes it immortal, and whoa, hold on now, baby, I’m just not ready for that kind of a commitment! But perfect is the enemy of good (and done). And, as you can probably tell from reading this, that extra month didn’t serve to improve this post at all, now did it? Nope, it just made it take longer.
4) I posted too frequently, or not at all.
Consistency is key. That’s true for gaining any kind of social media following, as well as growing individually as an artist. Unfortunately, while I understood this maxim in 2010, it didn’t stop me from either posting obsessively every few days, or checking in every few months. If I’m being honest here, it’s something I still struggle with (I went to Morocco in March and still haven’t posted any YouTube videos about it. Oh. I mean, March of last year.) From here on out I’m planning on posting once a week, but if I can’t maintain that I’ll post once a month. Which leads me to the next thing I did wrong…
5) I didn’t adapt.
Instead of reviewing my progress and priorities and making appropriate adjustments, I quit. As nature’s law states: adapt or die. After running into these issues I didn’t give better advice, share something meaningful, or rethink my post schedule. I’ll admit, I have mixed feelings about this. Because I think it’s a very important truth that in order to be a successful writer, you need to write more than you talk about writing. Quitting my blog was a solution. But here’s where I went wrong: it wasn’t the only solution, and it wasn’t the best solution. Sometimes I wonder how much I would have learned by now, how much interesting content I would have created, had I adjusted my sights and trajectory and kept at it.
Now, my old blog wasn’t all bad. Some of the posts were really fun, or even excellent! You’ll see some of that material recycled here. But the best thing that ever came out of it, came because of the best move I’ve ever made in my writing career–and I’m gonna get real dopey on you here–in my adult life.
What I got right?
1) I used social media to make friends.
Specifically, I used my blog as a way of meeting people who were interested in the same things I was. I didn’t “establish an author’s platform.” I have some beef concerning that tack. I actually networked. I’d love to write a post in the near future on the difference between networking and creating a platform, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve met literally hundreds of people because of Blogger. I have critique partners, beta readers, and best friends because of it. What worked for me was using my blog as a landing spot for people to get to know me, and then reaching out to them through email, on the phone, at a conference, or planning a meet-up. I’m over thirty years old, married with two kids, and thanks to the “blogosphere,” I get to have sleepovers with my girlfriends. There’s Game of Thrones and popcorn and caramel cookie crunch Talenti involved. It’s pretty radical.
With all that in mind, I have a pretty good idea how I want to operate my blog from here on out.
Let’s be friends, eh?