There are a million guides out there from people infinitely more prolific and rich than I on how to hone your craft, finish the book, and stay focused.
But let’s be realistic. We’re not Stephen King. We’re not Brandon Sanderson. They are icons, jewels, squad goals. They are hardly people I’d call average. I may even lovingly call them abnormal freaks who make the rest of us look bad. With so much love. Please keep writing, gentlemen.
So where does that leave us? Us, with the day jobs and families and a need to eat and binge watch things as they come out? Us, with the yogurt-crusted laptops which double as writing machines and entertainment device?
First, I think you have to know what you’re getting into. They say in athletics, the stars aren’t the people who love playing and winning. It’s the people who love the process who go far. There’s a lot more practice and conditioning in football than there are games. And though I apologize for bringing sports into this, I think it’s the same in writing. People think it looks like this:
Step 1: Spend a furious month writing the perfect story
Step 2: Send to a publisher
Step 3: Next JK Rowling
When really it’s more like this:
Step 1: Doggedly pursue your story for months or years
Step 2: Ruthlessly edit your story for months or years.
Step 3: Have other people ruthlessly edit your story for months
Step 4: Revise for months
Step 5: Search for an agent for months
Step 6: Self-publish or wait months or years for a publisher
There’s debate about whether or not books are like babies, but I think for this purpose, it’s apt. You’re making something to which you have a responsibility, and it will not grow or move out unless you coach it the entire way.
I prefer editing to writing. Writing takes the most out of me, unless I hit flow–that sweet moment where everything clicks and you feel like you’re just a conduit for your work. But I love editing. It’s all so much clearer when I can see where I was going and where I ended. Tearing apart the words I crafted and welding them back into a better form is endlessly satisfying to me.
Once you’re sure you like writing and not just publishing, it’s the same as anything else you put your mind to. Have a plan. Set goals. Stick to it. Forgive yourself when the plan falters, but don’t let yourself off the hook.
How do you commit best? Do you need dedicated time and space? Do you need a buddy and accountability? How much time do you have to give to writing? Be honest with yourself. It’s possible that coffee shop culture or a library will be your best friend every weekend. Maybe you’ll benefit from an adult ed weekly (or daily) seminar that pulls you out and focuses you more directly. Maybe right now life is too chaotic, and you can only write a weekend at a time when you book a cabin and leave the kids, the laundry, and the phone for someone else. Maybe you suffer from graphomania and can’t actually stop writing, but what you need is to impose structure on your time so that you focus on one project at a time. Size yourself up. Tailor something to the person you see in the mirror.
Make these concrete and measurable. A word count per day. A chapter finished a week. A readthrough by your birthday. Whatever it is, set it and gauge off of the plan how well you’re doing. This not only helps focus you, but gives you the small moments of accomplishment we need to stay engaged. We love checking things off the To Do list. Same deal. Gauge and re-calibrate the plan as need be, but don’t set the bar too low. You know yourself best. Are you competitive? Aim high. Are you easily discouraged? Pick something safe but still noticeable: two pages a day. A chapter a month. Don’t let yourself out of the work, no matter what though. Nothing ever comes from nothing.
STICK TO IT
You were honest with yourself, right? You knew this was going to be work, you looked at your schedule and made something realistic for your personal quirks and timelines. This is where you learn whether or not you love the game or the work. Can you stick to it? If not, but you do love the work, then something was off with your plan. Things change, and that’s okay. Revise your plan or the things that get in the way of your plan. No excuses. You can’t be a writer if you don’t finish writing.
FORGIVE YOURSELF–BUT FOCUS
Oy. This one is the killer. Raise your hand if you’ve blown your new eating plan/diet because someone offers you one treat, and you figure that since today is now apparently a cheat day, you might as well enjoy a The Purge style frenzy of hedonism.
The cookie wasn’t what ruined the plan. Have a damn cookie. Take a break in your scheduled time to catch up with a friend or to work on another project. Writing, like all endeavors, is best seen as a life change rather than an austerity measure. But know what you’re signing up for, and then account for it. If you know you’re busy this writing day, see if you can bang out an extra couple hundred words every day for a week before, or a week after. Maybe come home and edit a chapter instead of adding something new, or keep part of your schedule today but allow yourself to cut back today’s goals.
Enjoy the marathon! I’d love to hear your plans and goals, or how you stick to them!