All writers dream of knocking out thousands of words a day, publishing multiple books a year and seeing them all skyrocket to the top of the bestseller lists across the country. We dream because it’s a difficult task and not everyone has the drive to take the right steps. But of the people who do, they generally have instituted these 10 habits into their writing life to make sure that they are giving themselves the best chance to write something great. Here are the good habits you should develop and add in your writing life if you want to find success.
This guest post is by Robert Blake Whitehill. Whitehill is a classically trained actor, a critically acclaimed novelist, and an award-winning screenwriter. He has earned film festival wins at the Hudson Valley Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival, and has written many highly rated episodes of the Discovery-Times Channel’s “The New Detectives,” “Daring Capers” and “The Bureau.” He lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife and son, and when not cruising on the Chesapeake, or knocking around the sky over Tangier Island in a Cessna 152, Whitehill blogs and posts on Twitter about his home waters, and has crafted a number of articles for Chesapeake Bay Magazine. For more information, please visit robertblakewhitehill.com.
Yes, this really is about writing. So, I mean it. Read everything. Authors can get so swept up in our core writing, feeding the ravenous social media beastie, and schlepping hither and yon for signings, that the window for reading narrows into a gunslit blocking all but a ray or two of literary sunlight. Focus on your subject area, but also broaden your tastes. You’ll have a deeper reservoir of tropes and details in which to dip your quill. Refreshing your inner author with invigorating reading will help prevent your style from becoming stale. The evocative power of reading is what inspired you to write in the first place, isn’t it? Stay connected to that wellspring of fresh ideas.
2. MANAGE TIME
When will you write? Before work, or after? On the weekends, or during the week? One hour-long session each week? Longer? More often? Be very specific with yourself, especially starting out, about the time you will commit to writing. Log and track your hours if you need to. Act like your own unreasonable boss. A few weeks of practicing mindful diligence will teach you how many pages you can produce in a given time period, and help you understand how to set and meet your goals. One thing effective, productive writers do not do is wait for inspiration. They go looking for it on a schedule, usually finding it very close by their computers or tablets.
3. SET GOALS
You somehow knew that was coming, didn’t you? Set goals you can easily achieve. Set the bar low, then lower it even more, so you always step away from your writing session with a success, with a win, with progress. Whether you commit to two pages a week, or to twenty-five, as I do, make sure you get your pages done. If work, family, or any other facet of life glints you into distraction, stay up a little later that night, or get up a little earlier next day, so your goal is achieved. Fast or slow, stay on track like a freight train.
4. MANAGE SPACE
What kind of writing space do you need to be productive? In the past, I sometimes wrote in busy cafes. For a time, I wrote between calls in the map room of the Montclair Ambulance Unit where I served as an EMT. Later I rented an office at C3 Workplace, where the only sick people were the characters in my head. Now I happily work in my home. Find or create the right space, the feng shui, the décor, and the soundscape that helps you do the work before you.
5. SET BOUNDARIES
Family and friends must get used to the idea that your writing is important to you. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] It requires time apart from the folks you love best, and who love you dearly. Repeat as kindly, and as firmly as you can that whatever else your roles in life might be, you are also a writer. Writing is not your hobby. It is not something to do to pass the time while waiting for folks to be available to distract you. Honor your calling. Honor your loved ones. Demonstrate a passionate devotion required by this consuming commitment to your people, and to yourself. They might grumble now and then, but they will get used to it. They will also share in your pride of accomplishment down the road.
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Complete your drafts! Don’t be the writer with that over-edited first chapter that’s been spun into absolute gold, but has nothing readable following it. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] I had a chance to hear Professor Charles Stegeman tell his Haverford College painting students over and over again to cover the whole canvas right away, then go back to polish the details. Was I painting then? No, I was modeling for the class, naked as a jaybird, and still as a stone, so I heard this exhortation plenty. By the end of every class, I also saw the wonderful results. Some days, yes, I warm up for writing by rereading the last couple of pages from the day before. Sure, I might toss in an easy edit or two. Then my daily goal beckons me forward into mysterious new territory, ever onward to completion of the draft. Now please stop thinking about me naked. That was many cheeseburgers ago.
7. NO SHOPPING
I learned this from my father, short-story author, and novelist, Joseph Whitehill. Do not shop your story ideas. Tell not a soul. Keep your thoughts secret. Say nothing until that first draft is complete. Don’t fear your idea will be lifted and plagiarized. That is possible, but unlikely. There is another kind of thief much closer to home. If you try to beguile and fascinate your family, friends, or lovers with the precious coin of your creativity too soon, it’s possible you will vitiate and squander that soul-twisting impetus to get it all down on paper. Ignoring my father’s advice, I regaled this friend, or that object of my desire, with some very juicy plots. Didn’t I have to justify calling myself a writer somehow? These cool plots were ample proof I was the genuine article, right? Wrong. It had the opposite effect on my output, and on my self-esteem. On more than one occasion I awoke the next day to discover that I could not even remember what my grand idea was. It was gone, leaving only a smoky, taunting wisp of a notion behind, like a half-forgotten dream receding into oblivion. To make matters worse, no one to whom I blabbed ever asked how that idea I confided had turned out, or when it would be published. Sit with that agonizing hot clinker of story burning in your gut until you’ve written it all down. Then, tell your friends. Hell, tell the world, because now you’ve earned the right.
8. CULTIVATE YOUR TEAM
In addition to helping your loved ones understand how important writing is to you, you will need a few folks in your corner with specific roles beyond missing your face while you are holed up at your work. Your committed listener will field your emails or calls about how you are sticking to your page count goals every week, or even every day. Your editor, as Richard Marek (Robert Ludlum’s editor on the Bourne series) did for me, will tell you the truth about your work, and offer suggestions on how to make it better. Your proofreader will give your manuscript that polished, professional look, as Suzanne Dorf Hall does for my stuff. You will need a cover artist to make your book leap off the shelf into a reader’s hands, as Studio042 does for my work. Perhaps you need an agent, or a manager, like my indispensable friend and confidant, Liza Moore Ledford. Whether you opt for independent publishing, or a legacy publishing deal, you will need a brash, dazzling PR team to help the world find you. For that, I go with Shelton Interactive every time. Find the people, the companies, who understand your work, and who are committed to your success not only as a writer, but as an author.
9. LOVE YOUR READERS
I don’t mean that you necessarily should have warm feelings for your readers. Real love is not just a feeling. It’s a job description. For the sake of argument, let us imagine a reader can comfortably tackle one page of a book every two minutes. This imaginary reader has an average heart rate of 70 beats per minute (except during the riveting parts of the story where that rate better shoot up. A lot.) So, that 400-page book will take about 800 minutes to read, or around fourteen hours for those of you playing the home version of our game. More to the point, that means your reader expends at least 56,000 irretrievable heartbeats on your work, out of a finite allotment of 2.25 billion lub-dubs. Put that way, you can see this is a truly enormous commitment. Honor and appreciate your readers’ investment by doing your very best work. It cannot be about the money for you. Be sure that your readers’ time feels well-spent, and not a pointless sacrifice.
Be available to your readers. Give them an email address where they can reach you, confident of your eventual reply. In addition to doing your best work, this is how you build a community of devoted readers. It may sound tedious, but after writing my first book alone for so long, I found that meeting and hearing from readers—my very own readers—made it all worthwhile, far outweighing a considerable financial return. Some writers might believe that good work is all that’s due and owing to one’s public. Now you know I disagree. In addition to hearing from readers, you might find yourself fielding questions from other writers in need of advice. This is a great compliment. Offer what thoughts you can. Be the author you wished you could talk to when you were starting out. As evidence of my sincerity, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. It would be a pleasure to hear what you think of my Ben Blackshaw Series, or to answer any questions that come to mind.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.