Sometimes, as a writer, it’s difficult to think about large, overarching goals when you’re working on a project or planning to start on something new. Thinking, “I’m going to write a novel and have it completed by XX date,” is ambitious. And maybe it’s too much of a reach.
Instead, develop a plan. Write in chunks. Write sections of your novel or story that you find more interesting than others. Challenge yourself, but make your goals and expectations reasonable and attainable, because it will make the payoff satisfying.
Below is an excerpt from our go-to guide, Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction. The selected portion will help you develop a plan to start writing immediately and turn writing into a habit, rather than a chore or an exercise. The entire book will assist you with whatever you’re currently writing: flash fiction, a short story, a novel, or an epic trilogy. It features advice and instruction from best-selling authors and writing experts like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Hallie Ephron, N.M. Kelby, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass, plus a foreword by James Scott Bell.
Are you writing or putting the finishing touches on a short story? Consider entering it into Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Story Competition, where the winner will receive $3,000 in cash and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference! This year, all entrants will also receive a special pass to attend a live webinar conducted by award-winning author Jacob Appel. Hurry, though: The deadline is December 15!
“So, what do you do?” asks the fellow dad at the soccer match, glancing over at you while he keeps an eye on his daughter, the star forward.
“I’m a writer,” you announce proudly.
“That’s fascinating! Anything I would recognize?” he asks, while you both cheer a save by your team’s goalie.
“Not yet,” you admit. “I haven’t had much luck yet in getting published.” There is a pause while he makes a sympathetic-sounding cluck. “Actually, I haven’t been writing much lately at all,” you continue. “Being home with the kids takes so much of my energy that by the time they’re in bed at the end of the day all I want to do is watch television. Plus, writing is so discouraging when you can’t get someone to even look at your work.”
There is a beat while he processes this. “But, you’re a writer, right? How can you be a writer without actually writing?”
This scene may cause you to chuckle with recognition or possibly to hang your head in shame. Real writers write. Successful writers find the time every day to hone their craft and meet their writing obligations—whether those obligations are external (from editors) or internal (from an incontestable desire to write). What usually separates good writers from bad ones (and often, published writers from unpublished ones) is a strong work habit. That’s it. That’s the big secret. Real writers work hard. In fact, most work ridiculously hard.
Professional writers know there’s nothing like a looming deadline to make them focus on their work. In fact, the real problem for beginning writers is usually not scrambling to meet a deadline, but simply organizing their time efficiently enough to find time to write at a productive pace. All writers feel this way from time to time. As other commitments encroach on our days, writing is often pushed aside like an unpleasant chore.
Accomplishing your writing goals requires making a writing plan, which is a time schedule that lists what you need to do and when.
Choose to Write
Everybody on the planet has the same amount of time every day. How we choose to use that time makes some of us writers and others of us short-order cooks. If you are a short-order cook who wants to write, however, you should probably take a bit of time to think about how you use your time.
Sandra Felton, who has written more than a dozen books on how to get organized, including Neat Mom, Messie Kids, and The New Messies Manual, points to prioritizing and dedication as helpful organizational tools for writers. “I think the whole answer is focus,” she says. “I think what focus means is you have to decide what you want to do and lob off other stuff that you also want to do. Because you want to write more.”
Note that the choice is not between writing and doing something else that you don’t want to do. The choice is among a nearly overwhelming array of things that seem appealing: checking in with your friends on Facebook, reading for pleasure, or having people over for dinner. Then there’s going to movies and the theater and the opera and family get-togethers and on trips and watching way too much television. Sometimes people would even rather do laundry and dishes than write. (All writers have days like that, but if that’s your constant M.O., you may wish to rethink a literary vocation.) Faced with so many options, people tend to choose too many and feel like they’re short of time.
Some people actually can use stray snippets of free time to write, penning novels on the back of envelopes while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. If they have ten minutes between helping a child with homework and driving her to flute lessons, they use those ten precious minutes to write or polish a small chunk of prose. Such people are the envy of the rest of us. For the rest of us, writing for publication requires larger pieces of time to research, ponder, draft, rewrite, and polish.
Make Writing a Habit
Finding writing time requires a modicum of organization, but using it productively demands dedication. The theme of virtually every article about getting organized to write is straightforward: Just do it. Wanting to write and writing itself are cousins, not identical twins. Psychological research indicates that writing every day, whether your muse is whispering in your ear or has deserted you, produces not only more writing but also more ideas for future writing.
The writing habit, like the exercise habit, is its own reward. When you don’t do it, you feel as if you’re cheating yourself. Real writers don’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike before they put fingers to keyboard; they put fingers to keyboard and know that somewhere during those hours they will discover small nuggets of inspiration. The fingers-to-keyboard, butt-in-the-chair pose is like exercise for the writer. In a way, this is just like real runners who pound the pavement or the treadmill in all weather, whether they are busy with work or on vacation. Like physical exercise, writing is often not enjoyable while you’re doing it, though occasionally an endorphin or two will spark and the serotonin does its thing. Most of the time, though, writing is just a matter of discipline, plain and simple. Discipline comes more easily to some people than to others, but it is certainly a skill that can be cultivated.
“The only thing I can tell you I do that’s inviolate is when I have to write, I get up in the morning and literally go straight to the typewriter,” says Stephanie Culp, who has written books on organization and time management. “Any little distraction that takes me away from my desk kills it. When I’m writing something large, it takes about three fitful days, and then I’m in the rhythm of it, and I write it. I can still write a book in three weeks.”
Here are some tips for getting into a writing habit.
- Start by setting aside an hour or a half hour every day to write.
- Or make a goal to write a set number of words each day.
- Try to write at the same time every day so it will feel peculiar to do something else at that time.
- Write even if you feel uninspired, even if you don’t feel ready to write. If you want to be a writer, you must write.
Your Writing Plan
Often, getting started on a writing project is the hardest part. Most writing jobs, however, can be viewed as a sequence of doable tasks that follow the same general path from beginning to end. If you accomplish each task in order, you can follow the plan to a finished piece. The more you write, the more you will be able to anticipate how much time a particular project will take you.
The planning guidelines below help you break your book project into smaller tasks. Start with individual chapters, and break down the chapters into component parts. Schedule your writing project into your day at specific times, and, with a little luck but more hard work, you’ll finish your pieces on time.
If you’re a person who resents and resists scheduling, remember that creating a writing plan is intended to help you, not restrict you. The goal is to relieve some stress, organize your life, and make your writing process more efficient. Meeting even mini deadlines can lift your spirits and bolster your confidence. Simply crossing items off to-do lists feels so good that the act in itself becomes a reward and keeps you writing.
Take a look at the following guidelines, which will help you better organize your writing time and, in turn, finish your projects.
- Set reasonable, measurable goals. Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub the toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.
- Divide and conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal. You’re likelier to accomplish smaller tasks in the near future than a vague goal in the abstract faraway. The tasks help you reach that distant goal step-by-step.
- Create a plan of ordered tasks. Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the niggling details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.
- Select dates and stick to them. “Someday, I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, an entire chocolate cake, or what have you. Enlist other people to hold you accountable.
- Work backward. The most important step in planning the time for your writing project is this one: On your calendar, mark the story’s final due date. (If you don’t have a deadline from a publisher, give yourself a reasonable one.) Then figure out when each of the specific items, in reverse order, must be completed if you are to meet that deadline. Allow a little wiggle room in your calendar for the delays that inevitably happen: an interviewee gets the flu and has to postpone by a few days, the computer crashes, etc.
Next to each item on your list, write the time you think it will take to accomplish it and the deadline for completing it. People commonly put far too many items on their to-do list and, as a result, feel defeated when they have to copy uncompleted items from day to day. As William James once wrote, “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” So jot down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in a day. Some people have success using online organizational websites to help them stay on track. For example, on www.Toodledo.com, users can create goals for themselves, color code them, assign themselves deadlines, prioritize the tasks in a “hotlist,” and keep track of the time spent on each project. There are other similar sites as well, including many that are compatible with PDAs and smart phones. (Of course, the old-fashioned system of a pen and a sticky note works fine, too.)
‘Tis the season … of short stories! Contests and journals are currently calling for submissions; to be selected, your story must stand out. By building strongly defined characters, a rich backstory, and the perfect pace and momentum, you can ensure your work makes the cut. Write & Sell Superior Short Stories is a kit that guides you through every phase of writing your short story, from gathering ideas to publishing your completed work. With creative writing prompts, advice from writing experts, and step-by-step guides to constructing scenes, choosing the right narrative and more, this kit will help you compose short stories that readers love and publishers can’t resist. Includes: Crafting Novels & Short Stories, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?, Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict, 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and much more!
Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.