The No. 1 Tip of Successful Writers

When I turned 50, I decided I’d procrastinated long enough.

I committed to write my first novel — you know the one, the story that’s wandered around in your mind for a decade or two.

I gave myself a deadline. I blocked some spare (yeah, right) time on my calendar. I pulled out a few notes I’d jotted through the years.

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Guest column by Judy Christie, who writes fiction with a Louisiana flavor. She’s the author of the Green Series (Abingdon Press), about a big-city journalist who winds up running a little newspaper in Geen, La., and “Wreath,” a young adult novel (Barbour Publishing). When she’s not writing, she likes to chat on her vintage green Kitchen Couch, which probably is itself a good topic for a novel. You can contact Judy at www.judychristie.com, on Facebook and @JudyChristie. For free weekly tips on writing and various and sundry other topics, check out her podcast on iTunes.
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What I didn’t know about writing a novel far outweighed what I did know. I wasn’t a scholar of the fine art of POV or pacing or tension on every page. I had no idea what head-hopping was, and I was clueless about word count.

But I had noticed bestselling authors had something in common. Despite differences in genre, style, voice, settings, or characters, they developed a writing habit.

After years of procrastination and fear, that lesson helped me write my first novel and five since.

When I flounder as a writer, it’s because I’m inconsistent with my daily writing discipline. When I produce my best stories, I rely on that basic lesson from the masters – words on the page.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that on my most rewarding and productive writing days, I use a kitchen timer, set for an hour at a time. I track how many hours I actually write — as opposed to time spent Tweeting, Facebooking or wandering around my friends’ blogs.

You’d think at age fifty-five I wouldn’t need such a trick, but, after all, it took me fifty years to write a novel.

About a year ago, I started keeping a separate calendar to track my writing hours and my word count each day. While my ego finds that somewhat insulting, those strategies keep me on track when I’m tempted to fritter away my precious writing time. I find I have little tolerance for the zero-word days.

For me, not writing has become harder than writing. Procrastination saps my energy and creativity. I say “no” to certain things to say “yes” to these stories I want to tell.

Whether you are twenty-five or fifty-five, a full-time best-selling author or a frazzled writer on the side, there’s apparently only way to be a successful writer:

Sit down and write.

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19 thoughts on “The No. 1 Tip of Successful Writers

  1. writercassandra

    Thank you for the great article above. Procrastination is a beast for me. It’s funny, when I produce, I really produce, but when those lulls come, it’s really a challenge to get back on point. The above is inspiring — and nothing wrong with the kitchen timer. 🙂 Again, thank you. Cassandra

  2. dkeymel

    I am 72. I am now focused. I want to see something in print before I die! Ha. Everyday I work at my book knowing I have limited time. But it’s a great way to spend my time. I have more ideas bubbling up. Thank you for your insight.

  3. writingitout

    How well that resonates with me! You can have all these grand ideas floating around your head for years, but until you make a writing plan, those ideas are going nowhere fast. I have finally become disciplined in this task. Every day, I make sure to set aside time to write. I don’t so much set a time limit, but a page limit on myself. Then, I’ll also have a rule during that period. Something like “I can’t check my email until I write x paragraphs or x pages.”

  4. TerryDassow

    I really like your use of a calendar devoted to tracking word count and writing hours. That’s really cool. When writing, sometimes it feels like I’m not getting anywhere. By tracking my small, word by word, progress each day, then I can see it and not have to feel like my life is getting in the way too much. It’s also a great reminder.
    I’m going to set myself up with one and put it on my fridge!

  5. Niagara

    Great, insightful article…and the true golden nugget of the whole article is for writers to write. Today, too may writers spend unfruitful time Tweeting and Facebooking …is any of that really paying off for you?

    1. HuffmanHanni

      I’ve wondered that, too. I’m not entirely convinced an author, or most people for that matter, need to have a blog, website, Tweet account, and a Facebook account. It’s just too much noise and not enough people listening or reading what’s truly important and that is the author’s work.

      1. Niagara

        Exactly… writer’s can drive themselves crazy wondering if they’re doing enough “socializing” online. I’m a full-time freelance writer. I don’t have a website, a blog, a Facebook or a Twitter account. What I do have – from spending time writing – is regular paychecks from my business and other writing.

        Facebook and Twitter both are highly overrated but everyone thinks they need to be on these sites because the hype is that everyone says you should be on these sites. Think for yourself – you know what’s best for you!

  6. JM75

    Dear Mr. Klems,
    I was just wondering, Weird Al Yankovich made a name for himself doing song parodies. Does Writer’s Digest do book parody competitions? Are there writers that have parodied Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” with something like “The Raisin” or parodied EL James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” with something like, “Fifty Shades of Silver”?

  7. HuffmanHanni

    This is quite reassuring to read an article by someone who has been pounding away at this for decades and years but who instead, took decades and years to get over that fear. I’m 32 years old and have recently discovered what I think secretly lurked all along and was waiting for me discover it, was that I enjoy writing and should try my hand at creative writing. It’s been such a freeing experience and has lit a fire in me that I didn’t know existed.

    The kitchen timer thing is an intriguing idea. I think given my personality, I would go crazy and would stare at the timer instead of actually thinking. I do try to write everyday or at least do something connected with writing. I’m doing research for historical fiction novel so a good chunk of the week is devoted to that. One thing that has helped me is setting up a schedule in my e-mail and setting up reminders of what to work on that day. I was starting to get overwhelmed and lost as to what to do and that so far has been the best way of keeping me sane. I need structure but one thing I’ve learned so far, at least a little bit, is that with writing or any art, is that you need to just allow yourself to create and not worry about being perfect.

  8. RedHeadedViking

    Thank you, Judy! Your column is EXACTLY what I needed.

    I fell in love with creative writing in high school and always wanted to try my hand at it. However, perfectionist that I am, I talked myself out of it for 30 years. What if I wasn’t good enough? Finally, two and a half years ago, I discovered the world of fanfiction and threw myself in whole-heartedly. In the process, I discovered my true passion – writing! I also, quite by accident, developed the habit of setting aside time to write every day. Do I actually get to write every day? No. Life sometimes gets in the way. But, I work through those times and get back to my regular writing time as soon as possible.

    I will be 50 this year and am currently working on revisions to my first novel with several other story ideas waiting in the wings. I have spent my whole life trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. After only 48 years, I did!

    If you can do it, so can I! 😉

  9. Will Lutwick

    That used to be true for writing success, but in the world of book publishing circa 2012, that’s a luxury only the previously very successful can afford. If you’re not J.K. Rowling, most of your time on the “success” part of the book will be taken up with publishing it and then promoting it. For my critically acclaimed memoir, “Dodging Machetes,” I spent two years writing it, 1.5 years publishing it, and the past four months promoting it most of my waking hours. So four years in, and I’ve spent about 50% of my time writing it, but I’ll probably need to keep promoting it full time for another year for it to have much chance for success and even then it’s a longshot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still glad I did it.

    But it’s a shame, because the quality of writing, IMHO, is dropping precipitously even with best-sellers as writers write less and promote more, competing with millions of other books for attention. The publishing industry cares about your platform not the story you wrote. “Fifty Shades of Grey” deserves all those sales, because of quality writing? I don’t think so.

    1. Roarin1

      I recently got a chance to talk with a best-selling author about this topic. He said that his best piece of advice would be, “Learn to work with interruptions, because life is going to happen, and there’s no way to avoid it.” I would think that promoting your material is part of life, so writing would need to happen on the road, in fits and bursts. The main goal is to give the new material as much time as you can, while expecting to be constantly interrupted by a million bits of miscellany. Quality is up to the writer, and will be developed in time. I’ve heard several people say that the first book in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series is poorly written, but decently plotted, and the final book is much better on all fronts.

  10. Ardent Muse

    Wow… I can resonate with THAT! In the mid 90s, 2 very creative children’s book ideas came to me, so I resolved to eventually, one day, sit myself down and actually start constructing the stories (on my DOS-BASED computer, no less!) I battled with that almost paralyzing fear that comes over you when you make your attempt at doing so – the fear of failure, and surprisingly, even the fear of success I soon learned. I’d always been a pretty good writer, and continually put it off over the years, the actual possibility of making a real career out of it.

    Well circumstances today have brought me right back to that inner tug that’s always existed, even as a child of 6, to take writing seriously once again. In the past few months, I’ve been struck by inspiration to write not only song lyrics, but have at least 3 solid children’s story lines, with at least 15 other book titles in the wings prompting me on to produce more. I want to get them published, and can even envision them being made into Disney movies. I’m 47 – and yes.. I too, have procrastinated long enough and have decided to forge full on into making this a reality for me this time.. “I WILL Be A Professional Writer – An Author – A Highly Successful One!” ( I say to myself, to Declare it with conviction and SPEAK it into existance! ) I agree.. to bust through that writer’s block, the simple solution is to just take the time to write EVERY SINGLE DAY! It Works! It actually disolves that boulder into dust and before you know it, you’ve got ideas bursting into your head faster than you can get them down on paper (ok, computer screen)!

    Yay Writing! What fun it is to Create! 😀

    1. aroseforarose

      Hello Ardent Muse…
      I too am a 47-year old writer who likewise have been procrastinating for a looooooong time. I too have writen a Childrens Stage-Play which I later thought it better to be a Childrens book, I also wrote song Lyrics, (For Alicia Keys actually) and I have over 86.000 words in one novel and over 25.000 in another. My thing is I get so far in my writing and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why, I can’t seem to move any further. !!!!!! UGH! I hate this! 🙂
      I Decree & Declare! I too WILL BE successful writer! A Successful Best Seller! in every genre that I so choose to write. Continued sucess Ardent. Keep writing. 🙂

      1. Ardent Muse

        Thanks, “Man”! (hee) 😀

        Hey, .. how do you go about getting someone to “employ” your lyrics?
        I’m not a professional musician ~ [merely a meager piano player, trained by poor teachers who taught me ZIP about composition, so] I’m a bit of a mute when it comes to writing the musical side of things. But I’ve come up with some pretty clever lyrics that I envision married to music written by a few of my favorite bands. I’ve contacted them, but it didn’t really produce any results, [unfortunately…and well, almost expectedly…] But… I’m still hopeful,..and believe, given the right connection, my words will come alive with “dance” one day ~ Got any advice?

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