The following article is the second in a five-part series of articles by Jennifer Haupt. In this installment, she asks four successful authors about their daily writing habits that help them stay motivated and moving on their works in progress.
After my novel was rejected by 35 editors, year four eleven for my WIP, it became clear that publication wasn't as close as I had dreamed. I was committed to this story, to making it better, to having it published — eventually. But being in it for the long-haul meant retooling my definition of success from publication to continual forward motion.
I needed to find kernels of success in my daily writing life. It helped me, and hopefully it will also help you, to learn that I wasn’t alone. Here are five daily writing habits successful authors have used to keep making progress on their WIP:
1. Set some rules about being online—and enforce them!
“Online rules are imperative,” says Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, as well as numerous novels and memoirs. “It’s too easy, with one click, to be somewhere more distracting, more fun, less challenging than whatever work I’m trying to untangle on the page. One click, and suddenly I can be shopping for boots.”
Dani is a fan of the Freedom app, which shuts down your Wi-Fi connection for the amount of time you choose. Sometimes, it only takes a 15-minute for a mind-shift to take place. “Making that commitment changes my relationship to my work, and to the sacred time of getting it done,” she says.
2. Making Your WIP a Priority
Let’s face it: If you don’t make your WIP a priority, it is guaranteed to slide down your “to do” list. “Mondays and Tuesdays are totally devoted to writing my next book, 7 a.m. until midnight,” says Anna Quinn, author of The Night Child. “I begin each writing session with a meditation and a free-write to loosen my imagination. I free-write through my senses in the moment — what I see, hear, touch, taste, and feel. Afterwards, I’m ready to move into my manuscript.”
Anna doesn’t completely forget about her WIP the rest of the week, when she’s running a bookshop and writing workshop. She devotes an hour each morning to staying in touch with her characters.
3. Structure Your Story
“I live and die by story structure,” says Caroline Leavitt, author of Cruel Beautiful World, who works from a 40 page synopsis. “Each day, I circle the section I’m working on in red. That way, I'm not overwhelmed by my own novel.”
Whether you use a series of bullets for each chapter or write out a long-form synopsis of your book, you need something to provide cairns to follow. A document with the basics — on your computer or in a notebook — that you can edit as your story changes over time. “Even when you think you know where a book is going, it always takes detours,” Leavitt says.
4. Give Yourself Time
I asked Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, how he makes writing fun. His response: “Digging ditches is fun. Working in a steel mill is fun. Writing is not fun — at least not that first draft.”
Stein sets a timer for 30 minutes and writes gibberish if he has to. “At the end, maybe I’ve written nothing but garbage,” he says. Then I throw it away and do something else for a bit. But maybe I have a kernel of something, and maybe I want to keep going.”
Stein compares writing a first draft to mining for gold. “Usually, you hack away at that mountain and get nothing but rock dust for a long time,” he says. “You sift that rock dust, and hopefully you’ve found a vein. If you work at it long enough, you can gather together all the gold dust you’ve sifted out of the rubble and you have a lovely sack of gold. THEN writing becomes fun.”