Now that I’ve spent the previous parts being negative and telling you all about the myths concerning writing, let’s focus on the things you can use to make it work. The first and in my opinion foremost key to success is the mental aspect, what goes on inside your skull. There are two components to this: Dealing with yourself and dealing with others.
- Writing means being alone. This is perhaps the single most underestimated aspect of it. To write professionally, you spend most of the day alone, in front of your computer. And you do that for weeks, months, years on end. It takes a particular mindset to be comfortable with this aspect. I’m fortunate that I like being alone, always have. Hell, I can be in a room full of people and talk to nobody all night. I just turn inside and am alone with my thoughts, perfectly at ease. Not everybody is like that but that doesn’t mean you can’t write. Some ideas:
- Take frequent breaks from writing. Either set a goal to write for a specific amount of time (one, maybe two hours), set a page limit (five pages before you can break) or anything else that you can think of (until the dog gets hungry, whatever.) When it’s break time, do something else, something involving contact with people.
- Run some errands. It may not be that much fun to do, but it brings you in touch with people by default. Get the groceries, go to city hall to get those frikkin’ official documents signed, bring back the lawnmower to your neighbor’s house, and so on. Not only do you have inter-personal contact, you also do things that need doing. Things that you’ll otherwise put off because “you’re too busy writing.” Oh, and your significant other will put up more easily with your dreams of literary greatness if you’re on the case.
- Fill your social calendar. Pick up a hobby involving others people, play team sports, go to parties and family gatherings, visit friends, hang out with your crew. It doesn’t matter what you do, just force yourself to interact with other people. Life isn’t about writing, as the saying goes. It’s the other way around, so do some living.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of this. It’s easy to get stuck in your own head, trying to get everything that’s in there on paper. After a while, you can become isolated from society and feel like you don’t fit in. The more you experience that, the more you’ll avoid socializing and you’ll fit in even less. Hello, vicious circle! Becoming a hermit will not improve your writing, no matter what anybody says.
I usually have private training sessions with clients or do workshops in companies every day. It’s work but it also gives plenty of social interaction. On days when I don’t have appointments, I usually get the groceries and do the shopping for dinner. As I live close to all the stores, it’s convenient to do this and it gets me away form the computer screen at the same time.
- Discipline is your friend. No matter how good it feels to chat on line, check your status on Amazon or watch the latest football game, it won’t help you put one word on paper. You need to be committed to your writing and discipline yourself to stick by that commitment. The hard part is that nobody will do it for you, you’re on your own there: nobody but you will care if you fail. Here are some tricks that might help:
- Focus. You need a good reason to write. Money isn’t a good one, I’ll cover that later. Before you set yourself to getting published, think hard about why you want it so bad. If it’s for the right reasons, you’ll have an easier time staying on track.
- Re-focus daily. Every time you begin writing, take a moment to remember why you’re doing it. Hopefully, because you enjoy it but it can also be a way to express your opinion, accomplish a childhood dream of getting published or to share your experience. Whatever it is, think about it before you start banging on the keyboard. Rekindle the flame a bit every day.
- Use the discipline you have elsewhere. It doesn’t happen naturally for most folks but you can do this, if perhaps a little at a time at first. You might be all gung ho about keeping your car clean and shiny year round. It’s important to you. Make writing just as important. Place it on equal footing. If equal doesn’t work, make it second in line. Use the same discipline you have in your car polishing for your writing. I’m extremely disciplined about my training, freakishly so. I’m not disciplined about other things (housekeeping, doing paperwork, etc). When I notice I’m lacking on those fronts, I draw from the discipline I have for my training to take charge of those other areas. It’s not easy and it definitely takes time and effort. But it works. The same goes for your writing. Draw from other areas of your life to make sure you stick to your daily writing schedule.
Discipline is easy to talk about but hard to implement on a daily basis. As with many things, it’s mostly a habit. You bring yourself to do something and after awhile, you don’t think about it anymore; you just do it. Which brings us to the next point.
- Consistency is discipline’s best friend. Consistency is discipline on a regular basis. It means you have to get in some sort of regular schedule of writing and stick to it. I’ve found that every time my schedule gets erratic, I lose some of my writing skills; it just becomes a little harder to put my thoughts on paper next time. This is what I do to avoid that:
- Set goals. Another classic but it works. Set long, medium and short term goals. As mentioned before, this can be about how long you’ll write or how many pages you want to finish every day. Or you could set deadlines for chapters.
- Find out what works for you. When do you do your best work? Are you a morning or evening person? Where is your “writing space”? By the desk or in the garden? Do you write better on your desktop or on your laptop? These are all little writing habits that are different for everybody.
- Don’t get hung up on that ideal. If your preferred laptop is broken, try to write on your desktop anyway. Don’t think that because you’re not in a perfect environment to write, you just have to give up for the day. I’ve written almost an entire chapter in a hospital in Portugal at 2AM, sitting on a small chair in a crowd of about fifty athletes, all of them angry at having to do their medical check up then and there. It certainly wasn’t my ideal writing environment, but it worked that time and the chapter turned out well enough.
- Adapt. Sometimes you won’t be able to make your daily writing goal. Things will get in the way: you’ll get sick, your wife or kid will get sick, you’ll have emergencies, the list doesn’t stop. It’s called life. But just because you don’t have the time to write for two hours like you usually do, doesn’t mean you get a pass for that day. Write for one hour, half an hour, fifteen minutes, it doesn’t matter. Just do it. If you don’t, it’ll be easier to find an excuse next time. And the time after that. And suddenly you’ve been working on the same chapter for six months, final draft further away than ever.
Nothing is set in stone, everybody writes best in a different way. The trick is to find out how you work best. And you will do just that in the end. It may take lots of trial and error but you’ll get there. The real irony is that it’ll change constantly. I used to write at night because I’m an evening person. Because of several reasons, I no longer burn the midnight oil. It’s taken me years to adapt to a new writing time but I’m finally getting to where it’s comfortable.
When it concerns writing, I’ve found that you aren’t your own worst enemy but other people are. They make it hard for you to write in a number of different ways. Sometimes it’s right in your face, other times Machiavelli would have been proud of their subterfuge. Either way, your environment can sabotage your writing in worse ways than you can. In a nutshell, “People just don’t understand” and can leech away your energy and motivation by the way they talk or act towards you:
- You’re wasting your time. They rightfully point out that only a handful of writers make a living form their pens. Then they use that as an excuse to hack into your desire to publish your work. Now they’re probably right that you won’t get financial independence from your writing but what if that isn’t your goal? Many people seem unable to comprehend that you’re not in it for the money and therefore don’t support you in your efforts, on the contrary.
- You enjoy it so it’s not work and therefore not real. This one came as a surprise to me but I’ve encountered it too often to ignore it. I think it comes from jealousy: they resent that you love your job while they’re stuck in a (a lot) less pleasant professional environment. In their logic, that makes what they do “Real Work” and what you do just “fun”. Because fun is never real, your writing is suddenly not a “real job”. This then gives them an excuse to put you down, make you cut down on your writing, put a guilt trip on you and more of such crap. The worst part is this: if you’re successful with your books, they resent you even more.
- They have misconceptions about writing. There’s a story about a Japanese emperor (or nobleman, I forget) asking a famous monk for a calligraphy painting of a cat (or something like that). The monk agrees to deliver it, sets a high price and asks the emperor to come back to the monk’s place in a month. When he does, the monk just sits down, grabs paper and ink, draws the character in a couple of smooth brush strokes and is done. It takes only a few seconds and it looks utterly perfect. When he asks for his payment, the emperor gets mad. How dare he ask so much money for something that was so easy and took only a couple of seconds?! In his fury, he bangs his fist against the closest, which falls open. Thousands of practice drawings of the painting spill into the room…
- Writing is just like that: people only see the finished book but not what you had to do in order to get it there. They don’t know how hard you work because they’ve never written anything.
- I’ve even had reactions in the line of “But you just sit there, typing words!” as if that’s all it takes. Any monkey can do that, as we all know. But why don’t we have a gazillion books by monkey-authors then? Because it just isn’t that easy! Writing is a skill, a craft. You have to hone it every day, even (perhaps especially) if you have talent. It’s hard, daily work to make it look like the words come naturally, just like the monk with his calligraphy.
- The romantic image of a writer is alive and well. People still believe it’s true. Combine that with jealousy and you get a wicked cocktail. Some people will even look down upon you because you write books. Or they feel they can disturb you when you’re working because, well, you’re “only” writing…
These are all reactions you can get from perfect strangers when they find out you’re a writer. But it hurts the most when you get them from friends, family and significant others. I don’t think you can be spared of these bad experiences but you can try to minimize the damage:
- Be discreet. I don’t say I’m a writer because I have a day job. If people ask what I do, that’s the job I talk about. I’m not ashamed about the books I’ve written with Loren. On the contrary. I just don’t feel it’s all that important. Writing is not who I am, it’s one of the things I enjoy doing. Like eating chocolate cake or watching a good horror movie. It’s no more important than those things so why go on about it?
- Be humble. When I talk about my books, I usually mention they’re co-written. Then I explain how Loren’s written over 40 books and is considered a leading author in his field. It takes away the focus from me and avoids all kind of nasty or stupid comments.
- Play it down. When pressed, I explain that writing is just a hobby that got a bit out of hand. Or that I’ve been fortunate that publishers wanted to put my stuff in print. These are all true statements and again, they take the focus away from me.
- Expect trouble. If you come out as a writer, you will get called upon it. Sooner or later, it will happen. Be ready to let it go or have a pat answer ready if that’s your style. Just don’t be surprised; you should anticipate it.
- Pick your friends. You’re stuck with family but choose your friends wisely. If one of them constantly snipes at your writing, maybe he’s no real friend of yours. If it continues after you confront him with it, what sort of friend is he anyway?
The thing about writing is that it’s a long journey, just like martial arts. There are dangers and dead-ends along the way, things that make you give up. The mental aspects I mentioned here are what I consider the most important. No matter how great your writing, if you sabotage yourself or let others derail you, you won’t get far. But if you have clear goals and reasons for taking up the pen, it can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of your life. Even with the bad stuff that inevitably comes with it.
That’s it for part three. In the next part, I’ll discuss some tools and resources for your writing.