Writers Writing About Writing

Common knowledge is an interesting thing.  One person does something that works well for them.  They are followed by ten more people.  Eventually that uniform approach becomes the accepted norm.  It becomes the common knowledge; part of the language of the field.

Take writing for example.   Do you want to make it as a writer?  Well then you need a website; a platform to build your “brand” from.  You’ve got to have an email list.  And a social media account or two.  You need to engage with your followers, tribe, thousand-true-fans, frequently so they don’t fall out of love with you.  Make infographics, pdf files and listicles to give away.  Start a podcast.   Oh, and don’t forget to write something.  This is what you need to do, it’s common knowledge, duh.

Except when it isn’t.

What is the End Game?

Like anybody who enjoys writing I also enjoy reading about writing.  There are valuable lessons to be learned from those who have went before us.  Shoulders of giants and all that.  But my tastes tend to gravitate towards those who do not have those commonly accepted requirements of success.  Take a look at Lee Childs website for example.  Amazing writer, almost non-existent online presence.  Cal Newport is another, and he goes further to take a stand against social media, arguing that it is a colossal waste of time that could be better spent actually writing something.  You know he’s right.

By no means am I disparaging writers that write about writing.  I’m just making the observation that it can be easy to lose oneself down the rabbit hole of “must-do” items so it is important to be crystal clear about what your goals are.  Do you want to help others be better writers or do you want to be a published author?  Often times it seems like the goal is to be published, but the time spent sharing online outweighs the time spent writing.

Authority

“Authority” is another blogosphere brand-building catchphrase.  “Who gives you the right to tell me about this?”,  ”Well I’ve sold XYZ books or been published at ABC!”  The point being that you need to do something before having something to (over)share.  And there is some really, really good stuff out there.  2k to 10k comes to mind.  But the majority of what writers write, when writing about writing is too often regurgitated lists, inspirational quotes, diatribes on various subjects (such as this one!), and other such “common knowledge”.  I think this is because we tend to read in the same circles, rather than as wide and deep as we could.

The flip side argument is that no matter what level you are at, there will always be somebody out there that knows less about it than you do.  People are hungry for info.  They want to know.  So give the people what they want.  An example of this is Pareto’s Principle; otherwise known as the 80/20 rule.  Everybody knows what that is right?  Common knowledge.  Except when I speak to somebody who has never heard of it before.  So although I’m only retelling something that was retold to me, it has value to them.

First Things First

The point is to decide what kind of writer you want to be.  There are many paths to the same destination. Do you want to be a scholar on the act of writing and writers?  A big publishing house author?  Self-published indie ass kicker?  You can do any and all of these things, but mind your main goal and make sure that your actions support that.  Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Work on your work first.  Take care of marketing and brand building and self-promotion later; say sixth or seventh.  By then there will be a new standard of what is common knowledge and you won’t have wasted your time learning the old common before having something to say.

Developing the Writing Habit

It was my practice to be at my table every day at 05:30 a.m.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. Anthony Trollop

Anthony Trollope is considered the most prolific writer of the Victorian era, having written 47 novels over a period of 35 years.  During this time he wrote for three hours each day, requiring 250 words every 15 minutes.  Upon finishing one project it is said that he would take a fresh page and immediately begin the next until his three hours were up.  He considered the task of writing to be “as is his common work to the common laborer.  No gigantic efforts will then be necessary.”

We love to hear of the writing habits of famous authors.  From books and websites, to witty quotes posted on our feeds, advice and encouragement on becoming as prolific as our hero’s is freely available.  We’ve learned that a daily word count of 2,000 will yield a decent sized draft in three months, and this is considered the appropriate amount of time to complete it by many famous authors; from Stephen King to John Grisham.  We have ebooks from indie authors sharing their success stories of writing 10,000 words a day, or selling one million ebooks.  We’ve seen Ted talks from breakout authors, watched Ray Bradbury’s excellent lecture on the Hygiene of Writing, and listened to author interviews on podcasts, all speaking on their workflows.

Yet we write little and publish less.

At their core, the books and talks and podcasts all tell us the same thing; that the way of the writer is to write. It is as simple as that.  Write, publish, repeat every day.

But how does one develop the habit of writing, and how to make it stick? Having consistently weekly articles on my website for the past two years I can offer some insight on how to get started, staying consistent, and publishing when done.

Getting Started

If it is important, do it every day. Or else not at all. – Gable

Make no bones about it; writing can be a lonely, thankless job. You publish your articles online to receive only a handful of likes.  Rejection slips come in faster than your work goes out.  Subscriptions to your newsletter hover at just under 100 for over a year (true story!).

It can also be incredibly rewarding, especially when something you write really resonates with people. Or a single sentence comes out so perfectly that you aren’t sure where exactly it came from.

Because of this it is important to first ask Why? Why do I write?  What do I hope to receive in return for my efforts?  Personally, I write because I have a powerful need to create things.  I enjoy building things with my hands, and do so whenever I can.  I also travel a lot; mostly for work, though also for enjoyment.  Hobbies that require tools or equipment can never be done consistently enough for me to really excel at them.

But my laptop never leaves my side.

Having recognized this I resolved years ago that writing would become my craft; it would be the creative outlet that I could return to each day without fail. And I resolved to do so without any expectation of praise or glory.  I write for myself first and foremost.

Start by considering the Why of things. Any reason is good enough, or even no reason at all.  Don’t make it into a big deal; nothing wrong with trying something new on for size.  But a strong Why – that is what will carry you through the dark days of the dip and help you come out on the other side with a finished piece of work in your hands.

A Time and Place For Everything

Results come when you work at your craft every day. Consistency is everything.  Those who are the best in the world, at any task, have become so due to a singularity of purpose.

The morning is when I write, and the ritual is always the same. I wake up, turn on the coffee, sit down, and begin.  Because of its portability I can do this anywhere; at home or away.  Typically I write for 30 to 45 minutes and produce anywhere from 300 to 700 words.  Certainly not a prodigal output, but it is enough to ensure a new article is published each week, with another piece or two in the works.  Small actions lead to big results.

My morning writing time is set in stone, only missed if I have an early flight to catch or jobsite to attend. And then I try to make it up later.

When choosing your time to write it is best to choose one that starts right after you open your eyes in the morning. Can people that identify as night-owls do great work, late into the evening?  Sure.  But I strongly feel that your writing should be first each day, for the following reasons:

  1. You are more creative upon waking, and your mind is less distracted by external input.
  2. If left later into the day there will always be something more urgent to push it aside. By doing it first, you ensure it gets done.

In the beginning especially it is important to return to the desk again and again. The only surefire way I know to guarantee you won’t get bogged down with something else is to do so first thing.  Set your alarm thirty minutes earlier, get to sleep on time, wake up and write.

Keep in mind that I am writing this for those who write in addition to their day job. This writing must take place outside the confines of the workday.  If I were a full-time professional author then I would probably start my writing at 8 a.m. and go through noon.  But as that is a luxury I cannot affortd, instead I write in short, charged spurts before the rest of the house is awake.

As to where you should write, it matters not. Choose a spot and keep it consistent.  When home I write at the dining room table.  When traveling I write at the desk in my room or on the tray table of an airplane.  I typically stay at the same hotel chain so the rooms usually look the same, which helps the routine.

Would I like to have a home office, stuffed with books and interesting bric-a-brac from my travels, ala Ray Bradbury? Or an office shed in the yard where I can retreat to find the silience writing requires?  Sure I would.  But these type of fantasies are not about the writing, they are about you.  Stephen King says it best in his memoir, On Writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Too Small to Fail

You have a time to write and a place to do so. Now what?

If you’ve spent more time reading about writing than actually writing (guilty!) then you have already soaked up a load of advice on outlining novels in detail, hitting a daily word count, starting with freeform pages, and more. While it is well intentioned, none of this advice is for you.

Those same lessons will be learned over time through direct experience. And your experience will be similar to that of others.  But in the beginning there is only one thing that matters; getting words onto the page every day.

I started running eighteen months ago. Like writing, there is endless advice available on running; programs to follow, equipment to buy.  But in the end it is just putting one foot in front of the other.  Following my instinct I began to run every day.  First just once around the block, then more blocks, then more miles.  Today I’m running twenty-five miles a week with eyes on my first marathon.  The distance and my proficiency increased organically over time until only by looking back do I realize how far I’ve come.

I started writing the same way, setting my goals small; too small to fail. One sentence a day was all that I required of myself in order to tick “writing” off my list for the day.  As I kept coming back to the desk that one sentence turned into two, then into paragraphs and pages.  Having written consistently now for almost two years I can look back and see the progress, but because my capacity has increased so slowly, today it is just my new normal.

With writing, as with any new skill, you must take the long view. Focus not on the end result, but on the process.  On the daily practice.  Each word counts.

What To Write?

Write whatever you want.

If you have the desire to write, and you either have it or you don’t, then you already know deep down what you want to create. You don’t need permission from anyone so just go for it.

But a word of caution.

Of the many skills that writing involves – narration, dialogue, creating and resolving tension, grammar – there is one skill that must be considered above all others:

The skill of finishing.

Finishing your work is vitally important. An unfinished work is never read.  Finishing your work and letting it loose into the world for praise, criticism, or indifference is the final step.  Otherwise you are just journaling.

And finishing things is hard, especially in the beginning. But if you never finish anything you will never find your voice.  I am approaching my one hundredth article published on my website and am only starting to figure out what I am trying to say.  It is a process that takes time, and it takes new efforts, with the last effort brought full circle.

Ray Bradbury famously advises writers to start by writing a short story each week for exactly this reason. It gets you into the habit of finishing things.  And because nobody can write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.  Explaining further, he makes the case for why it is a bad idea for new writers to start with novels.  While stories of breakout authors certainly exist, the fact is that your early work will likely suck.  So get that load of garbage out of your system and learn the early lessons without committing to the long effort that is a novel.

Writers are readers, and the beginning writer is unconsciously regurgitating what they have previously read, either in style or in content. There is a lot of that stuff buried inside that needs to be expunged before your authentic voice shines through.  The only way to do so is to write every day, and finish what you start on a regular basis.

Overcoming the fear and just going for it

Writing is a unique pursuit. Jotting words on a page could not be simpler, and the tools required to do so can be had for pennies.  Yet at the same time it can feel like the most difficult thing imaginable.

Or to quote Hemingway; “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at the page and bleed.”

Resistance and fear sit on the corner of every writer’s desk. Fear of failure, of judgement.  Fear of success.  It is for this reason that it is so important to publish your work.  If writing is a process then releasing your words to the world is the final step. Without it you will never benefit from feedback; be it good, bad, or indifferent.  Publishing is something that needs practice too.

Writers block is another common fear touted in writing circles. Here is the thing about that; it doesn’t exist.  That is just another excuse to not do your work.  If you wait for divine inspiration each day you’ll never get anything written.  With a strong habit built of sitting down to write each morning the fear of the blank page becomes a non-issue.  The key again is to just keep sitting down to your work each day, and demand of yourself only a single line of text.  With that done, your daily goal is complete and anything you choose to do in addition is bonus time.

The last fear is that of not writing well. Of not getting the words out just so.  Of nobody liking your work, or thinking it’s stupid. This can result in obsessive self-editing while you are trying to write, which slows things down.

Sometimes the words come perfectly, sometimes they do not. The only thing that matters is to keep them coming.  Don’t treat each word like a diamond, carefully placing them on the page. Rather, think of them like grains of sand on the beach.  They are waiting for you there, infinite in number.  Use them freely and with no regard to volume.  Cast them all over the page and eventually, something brilliant will shine through.

The rest can be cut during editing.

Nobody will like everything you write, just like everybody isn’t going to be your best friend. If you are pissing off an equal amount of people as you please, I’d say you are doing a good job.

The cure for self-doubt is to write fast, never looking back. When I learned to touch-type back in primary school we were taught to just keep moving; never correct anything until you are done, then go back through the work.  I write the same way.  What comes forth will never be perfect the first time.  Editing styles and needs vary, but it is sure that you will need at least a minor edit before publishing, so don’t let unreasonable fears stop you from getting those words onto the page.  There will be time to polish and revise after but the raw material must be there first.

And the only way to get over the fear of not being loved is to remember who you are doing this for. Write for yourself, keep coming to the table every day, and keep publishing every week.  Don’t obsess over likes or stats or reviews.  Just keep working.

We only have a right to our labors, not the fruit that it bears. Forget the fruit and go back to the work each day because it gives you something, makes you greater than the day before.  Embrace the process and return to it each morning.

Great things are built one word at a time. Look back every now and then to be amazed at what you’ve already accomplished, and look forward once in a while to consider where you want to go.  But spend most of your time looking down at your work and keep your focus in the present, because this is where the magic is.

Just write! You have to turn on the tap if you want the water to flow.

 

 

The Perfect Day Itinerary – PDI

It  can be hard to find enough time to do everything we want to do.  We all have things we want to accomplish.  Goals that we have set for ourselves.  Secret dreams we have never shared with the world.

The trouble comes in trying to find enough time to dedicate towards achieving those dreams on a regular basis.  Prior obligations (work, family) and commitments (school, the gym) leave our time stretched and have us feeling exhausted at the end of the day.  So we end up binge watching the latest show on TV, or playing on our phones, and finish the day having made no progress towards that which will make us truly happy, and ultimately fulfilled.

I wake up early each day in order to write.  It works for me.  But this may be too prescriptive for others, so rather than advise everyone to wake up early I will encourage everyone instead to set aside some time and create their own perfect day itinerary.

The Perfect Day Itinerary

Lewis Howes provided the inspiration for this in his book The School of Greatness.

The Perfect Day Itinerary (PDI) is an exercise of what your perfect day would look like.  The day where you jump out of bed in the morning and crush all of your goals before falling into bed in the evening.  It helps you become proactive about what spare time you have available, and realistic about the time needed to manage your obligations.

The PDI provides a shining benchmark to aim for.  Or it will show you, as you work towards living it, that perhaps some of your aspirations are misplaced.  Trial and error is how we evolve as people, but we’ve got to start trialing if we are going to make those errors.

Defining Your Perfect Day

It all starts with What.

  • What do you want to accomplish in life?
  • What are your previous commitments?
  • What activities are non-negotiable to you?

Take out a legal pad (you keep those on hand right?) and start by listing your dreams and goals.  Make them big.  Want to become a published author?  Finish your degree?   Complete a triathlon?  Write it all down.

Big accomplishments are reached through small tasks, performed repeatedly each day.  Identifying what those small tasks are is a simple process.  To become a published author you must write every day.  Getting your degree takes study.  Completing the triathlon means you must train.  Don’t over-complicate things.  It isn’t rocket surgery.

Next, continue by listing everything that you do on a typical day.  Not a vacation day, or a weekend, but a standard run of the mill day.  Note the hours you are at work.  Your commute time.   How much time you take for lunch.  How much time you spend at the gym.  And so on.

With these two lists in hand the final thing to do is write what time you wake up at the top of the page, and what time you go to sleep at the bottom.  Write them boldly, encapsulating the day.

Now start a new page.

Getting Realistic

On the blank page start writing the time down the left hand side.  Begin with your usual waking time, or better yet an hour earlier.  Double space the lines so that each constitutes a 30 minute block.  Continue on through bedtime.

With that in place begin to block in your workday.  If you stay at home with the kids this will be their schedule.  Include driving times, lunch time, and breaks.  Add what time you arrive at home, and the time it takes to have dinner and clean up after.

With those items in place take a look at your list to find the areas of free time.  These will typically be at the beginning, the end, and some smaller times in the middle.

Now comes the hard part.  Go back to the list you’ve created with all of the extra things you would like to get done, and start crossing items out.

Getting more done and accomplishing goals is a matter of subtraction; removing the unnecessary in order to focus on what is important.  You need to say no to more than you say yes to.  People overestimate what they can do in a month, but underestimate what they will accomplish over a year.

Choose your most important goal and slot time to work on it into your list during your highest energy time of day.  For some that is first thing, for the night owls it is much later.  Working on this task early is always a good idea as you will rarely have a day spin out of your control first thing in the morning.

If first thing in the morning are your ‘A’ items, after work and the end of the day are good times to schedule ‘B’ items.  For me this tends to be a project in the garage or around the house; something that gets me out from behind a computer.

The last areas to examine are your inbetween times; daily travel time, lunch break, etc.  It is amazing what you can accomplish in only 15 minutes each day (especially if performed consistenly!  Notice a trend here?).  For example, the first time I get into the car every day, I immediately put on a Spanish audio lesson that lasts about 15 minutes.  After seven months of this I can see a vast improvement, and in another seven I’ll be that much better.

Applying focus to a small number of tasks consistently will yield greater results than if you try to do everything all at once.  Commit to a task or activity for a full year and you will go far with it.

Fine Tuning

No two days are the same.  Things get in the way and practice sessions get missed.  The key is to get back on track quickly, and logging your progress is the best way to manage this.

Marking an ‘X’ each day on the calendar, or writing a line in a notebook; how you track progress is up to you.  But having a record of your progress is invaluable, both for motivation and in order to recognize how far you’ve come.  It allows you to see what is working and make adjustments for what is not.

I use a Bullet Journal, with a monthly agenda handwritten into a notebook.  This has dates down the left side, with daily tasks along the top.  When I complete a task that day I’ll mark an ‘X’ in the box for that date.  If I hit all tasks for the day I feel great!  If I am lax in keeping my book updated I feel bad.  It is a powerful form of self-motivation.

Normally I have four “must-do” tasks; Writing, Running, Training (weights, etc.) and Spanish.  Certain months I will add a fifth line and try to incorporate something else that I am trying to get done.  Some times this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if I test it for a month then I can figure out if it is a good fit and I’ll have data to back it up.

The Final Point

The final point to consider on your PDI is the starting and stopping times.  Are they realistic?  Have you separated them by eight hours for a good night sleep?

I went through a phase where I was getting up at 04:45 a.m. each day, in order to be working by 0500.  Trouble with that is I would need to go to bed at 09:00 p.m. to get enough sleep, which is a non-starter.  Over time I’ve adjusted my wake up time to 05:45 a.m. which means lights out at 10:00 p.m.  This fits my lifestyle much better and because I’m well rested, many days I’ll wake up before my alarm which buys a little extra time.

You like to stay up later?  That’s fine.  If you can use those night hours to get your training in and your projects completed then good.  But if you are staying up past 11:00 p.m. watching Netflix, dragging ass the next morning, then complaining you have “no time” to dedicate towards your goals and dreams, then I encourage you to reevaluate your priorities and change up your routine.

Putting down your Perfect Day on paper is a great way to start.  Imagine getting every single thing done that you set out to do today!  It is an empowering feeling.  With the PDI as a base, track your progress and modify until you come up with something that works for you.  Then resolve to live that day just once, hitting each mark as written.  Accomplish this once and you’ll be able to do it any day you choose.

Do you tend to have a rigid daily schedule?  Do you work on certain tasks at the same time every day, or do you let things happen as they may?  Where do you find the best results?