Writing Consistently

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I have a friend who is toying with the idea of writing a novel. He is reading books about the craft. He’s even typed a few pages. The problem is, he admitted, there’s no time. Where and when do I find time for the daunting task of chipping away at a 60k word count?

I can identify with my friend’s feelings. I’ve also heard from other friends about their desires to write something, often coupled with gripes about not having the time for it. There is, in addition to the time factor, the worries that accompany such a drawn-out endeavor: Will my story suck? Will anyone even read it? Will I ever get a publisher, a literary agent, or sell a single copy? The process of writing a book carries with it all these questions. I’ll take it as a given that anyone who wants to write a novel probably loves telling stories. The good news is–as experience has taught me–that the ability to not only finish a book, but to be downright prolific, pretty much boils down to making a choice.

“I choose to write consistently.”  

It was my greatest strength once I seriously committed to realizing my writing career: consistency. Before, when I was young and existed in nebulous uncertainty about when and how I would finally get started with my lifelong dream of becoming a novelist, I wrote sporadically–here and there, dabbling only when the muse lifted me.

The inspiration that finally moved me toward actualizing my goal can be traced to two coinciding occurrences: a colleague telling me about self-publishing, and a film called Indie Game the Movie that I stumbled upon. After I learned I could self-publish, I put my first book up for sale. It was a surprisingly easy process. I was glad to put off the daunting tasks of querying agents and submitting to publishers. And then, I watched Indie Game the Movie. It followed two guys who worked obsessively on an independent video game. They worked their asses off without knowing if they would ever reap any reward for their efforts. But you could tell they loved what they were doing. They maintained a playful, optimistic attitude about success. At the end of the film, they launch their game and find overwhelming success. Their story was so inspiring that I went online to check my book’s sales. It had been up for a few months, but had only sold a handful of copies. When I logged in, I found that Amazon had triggered a free giveaway, and about 400 people had downloaded my book. After seeing those numbers (astronomically high to me at the time), I decided I would add the missing ingredient: writing consistently.

From that point on, I wrote just about every night. There was no more of the when I feel like I’m motivated bullshit that used to determine if I’d write or not. The film had charged me with a sense of discipline and commitment that I needed to apply to my writing. These guys in the movie had treated their game creation like the all-in endeavor of their lives, and I wanted to do the same with my writing career. I hit the keys each night whether I felt like it or not. The biggest secret I unlocked about myself was that, even on nights when I didn’t feel like writing, I would be totally immersed in the story by the end of my session. Something changes, I learned, after about ten minutes of writing. It was nothing for me to write three or four thousand words after coming to the desk with little or no motivation. The greatest nights would find me surprising myself both with the way my characters seemed to direct themselves, and with how good the writing felt in contrast to the idea-poor state I’d come to the keyboard in.

The thing I used to find difficult about writing a book–in comparison with other creative projects I would do, such as writing a poem, recording a song, or drawing a picture–is that you don’t get a finished product for a long time. Not after the first week, not after the first month. Sometimes, not even after three months. Or a year. In all the other kinds of artwork I’d done over the years, I had become used to the instant gratification of having something in my hands, or ready to listen to, after just a day. Maybe two at the most. That isn’t to say that those other art forms can’t take as long as writing a book, but my experience had been that I could finish any one of those things in one, zoned-out, caffeine-addled session. Forget about trying to do that with a novel.

Thus comes the discipline. A serious commitment to a (super) delayed gratification. It falls along the lines of combatting this feeling: So what have I actually done tonight? I carried my story on for another two thousand words, so what? Have I actually made any real progress? Sometimes it may not feel like it. And then, if a few days go by without writing, it’s easy to slide out of the routine (don’t we all share this experience with going to the gym?). Turning on the TV is easier than sitting hunched over a keyboard. You can rationalize that your book project is so big that it will take a really long time, so what’s the difference if you skip a few nights? It isn’t a big a deal.

I’m here to tell you it is a big deal. If you plan on being a full-time writer one day, getting better with each one of your books, then you have to get used to forcing yourself to write. Some people will get more satisfaction out of their writing sessions than others. For me, the real thing I’m after is hearing how my writing affects people. You don’t get any of that until after you’ve completed the thing, polished it, tried to find readers, and then had readers finish your book and get back to you about the experience. Getting to that point, when you hear the thoughts of other people who have read your book, can seem impossibly far away when you’re grinding out a couple thousand words a night, desperately trying to complete a first draft. But I’ll tell you, it gets easier after the first book. Just knowing that you have one out there as you write the next. You’ll probably have feedback slowly start to roll in. It’s a great feeling, and it’s the whole point of doing this–to share our stories with other people. If you write only for yourself, or for the money, I can’t really relate. I write because I enjoy it, and I enjoy earning money from it, but what I really want is to share my stories. There is hardly a better feeling than getting an email from a reader telling you not only that they loved your story, but the specific ways that it affected them. This is the lifeblood of writing for me–the connection between readers and writers. You’ll also reach amazing pain this way–that first scathing review will sting for a couple days. But then, you realize that some of those criticisms are your teachers, and the rest can be ignored. A book, after all, has its audience. There is no objectively great book, and there are no great books that escape criticism.

So, can you write every day? Yes. Besides the odd emergency, there is no excuse for not sitting at the keyboard for fifteen or thirty minutes. It really is like working out: when you get in the habit, it’s easier to go. When you start writing daily, it’s easier to start.

A lot of people tell me they get hung up on the first draft. This is another roadblock to consistency. Because a novice writer wants to write the best possible book, he or she can easily get a crippling case of analysis paralysis (AP). In other words, it follows from the undisciplined writer that if he or she feels uninspired, the writing will be crap. And if the writing will be crap, why write tonight? Why not wait? Relax tonight. Let the moment come when the writing will be good. Here’s why that’s a lie: Some of my best writing happens on nights when I don’t want to write. I’d rather get some vegan Ben & Jerry’s (fudge brownie) and curl up on the couch deadening my brain with a movie on HBO Go. There are two truths that pierce the armor of a first-drafter’s AP:

1. You will get better the more you write.

This means that every and any time you are writing, you are improving. Because you are getting in the practice of choosing to write, you’re getting out of the habit of writing only when you feel like it. Besides, each session gets you closer to the second draft, where you can care about making your manuscript clear, beautiful and engaging. Your choice to write daily will make a prolific writer out of you. And both readers and publishers like prolific writers. Keep in mind that your second book stands a good chance of being better than your first. You didn’t have a novel’s length of writing, revising, and editing experience under your belt when you wrote the first one.

2. The first draft is supposed to be mind vomit.

I mean that in as literal a sense as you can imagine. Even if you used an outline, you’re still just vomiting thoughts onto the page. There is a reason you don’t think about the second draft while you’re writing the first–because you will have all the time in the world to think about the second draft when you’re on the second draft! It’s coming, I promise.

Just don’t worry about how good your writing is. Focus on telling your story, letting it surprise you and take you in unexpected directions. Remember how hard it is to tell if writing is good anyway, even when it’s a finished product. Stephen King threw away Carrie because he felt uninspired. He thought he was faking everything, writing characters he couldn’t relate to. His wife found the manuscript in the trash and liked it, even though he clearly thought it was garbage. He finished it because good is in the eye of the beholder, in this case his wife’s. The book became the big break that allowed him to write full-time. How many books do you find polarized reviews for? The bottom line is that if–after you complete all the drafts and editing of your manuscript–some readers will like/love it and some will dislike/hate it, who are you to decide how good it might be when you’re struggling to push out the first draft? The only concern of importance you should have when writing the first draft is “did I write today?” As you get on to book two and three and four, you’ll find that the first draft becomes closer and closer to a final draft.

Over the past several months, since finishing my book Wipe, I’ve been writing regularly again. Heeding the advice about consistency given to me by successful authors. During the most recent weeks, it’s been every night. What an amazing feeling. To know that today, among the other positive things I did with my time (I went to the gym and even cleaned my dishes), I wrote. After all, my greatest aspiration is to be a great writer. It makes sense that neglecting my highest aspiration for long stretches of time would make me feel unhappy. I think of my overall goal, which might be similar to yours: in my lifetime, I want to write as many good stories as I can. I want my stories to touch upon the things in life I care about, issues that matter to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an endless supply of these stories. So what excuse do I have, given all this, to not write consistently? The opening lines from a John Keats poem hit home for me:

“When I have fears that I may cease to be /  Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain”

Though Keats died at 25, and his fears came true, he had an extremely prolific last few years. His commitment to writing in that brief span attained for him the status of being one of the great Romantic poets. I feel that if I don’t commit–discipline myself to writing nightly–then I might not quite wring everything from my imagination. This is a rather morbid kind of motivation, but you might relate to the thought. Whatever gets you to that keyboard. Whether you write five hundred words or five thousand words in your session, it really only matters that you did (or did not) make a writing session happen today.

Ask yourself how much you really want to tell your stories. If you’re doing it for fun, and self-joy, and the eventual sharing with readers, then it will be easy to develop the discipline. As soon as some people start reading your stuff, hitting you with the good, bad and ugly of it, you’ll find it hard to not keep going. Building that momentum that is so important to a writing career.

So if you’ve been in a rut, maybe not with writing but whatever your creative passion is, I’d like you to join me in getting back into the routine. Doing it a little bit every day. It can sometimes be necessary in the beginning to force your body through the motions. Most of the time, I find that the mind follows–if I just start typing, the ideas float to the surface, and the external world slowly leaves me behind.

Another point King makes in On Writing is that sometimes we have to go through the process of feeling like we’re “shoveling shit from a sitting position.” Don’t let your self-perceived mediocrity or lack of motivation and good ideas prevent you from sitting down for at least fifteen minutes every day.

So, have you written something today?

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