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Forming the writing habit

Last week, when I was preparing for a birthday and a house guest, my friend Kethry asked for advice on how to get in the habit of writing stories, and I promised her I’d try to give some. And now the birthday has passed and the house guest has gone home and I am completely full of head cold, and I am trying to wade through my to-do list, and here we are. So.

1. Figure out what you want to do. I suppose it’s possible some people manage to write consistently and successfully–where by “successfully” I mostly mean “to their own satisfaction”–without having any idea what they want to write. But one of the most common problems I see among new writers who aren’t writing is that they don’t really know where they’re going. Occasionally you can wander into something interesting without knowing what it is, but on a day-to-day basis it helps if you have some idea what you want.

So: Do you want to finish something you’ve already started, or start something new? Do you want to write a novel? A short story? A new short story every week? Do you want to write for submission to professional editors? Fanfic forums? Your own website? Your own desk drawer? What elements would you like to have featured in your writing?

That last question, what elements, can be a very useful one to attack from whatever angle appeals to you. You can freewrite about it, or talk it through with a trusted friend, or just think about it while you’re brushing your teeth, but be as concrete as you can. If you’re a setting person, think hard about what kind of setting appeals to you; ditto for character or plot. If you start thinking, “I want to write about a 15-year-old girl…no, wait, a bunch of 15-year-old girls…who are in their high school’s marching band…”, that’s a very different direction to start that story than if you ended that with “who are drawn together by their experiences with a ghost” or “who live in the Black Hills”–and very different altogether if you put in all three. And “I want to write a scene in which A can say X to B and have it be devastating” gives you all sorts of variables to work into the rest of the scenes.

2. Figure out where you’re stopping. Not writing as much as one wants is a pretty common problem through all walks of writing life. Are you just not writing anything at all? Are you starting ten million stories and not finishing any? Are you drafting stories but not revising and polishing them? The change in habits needed for someone who never picks up the pen or touches the keyboard is very different than for someone who writes their head off and never revises. I’ve seen lots of journeyman writers having to readjust their habits and their ideas of success because they had fixated on raw word count as the signifier of success, and now they need to revise and polish, and that doesn’t have the same milestones. And the remedy for “I tend to wander off and read the internet instead of putting words down” is far different than the remedy for “I write 500 words and can’t go further.”

3. Try to make it not hurt. Of course there is the literal version of this–ruining your wrists with a non-ergonomic setup is not conducive to anyone’s goals. But also it’s easier to keep a good habit if the only “painful” parts are the parts inherent to the thing. If you want to try scheduling the same time every day to write, don’t make it 5 a.m. if you’re a night owl or midnight if you’re a lark. If you love the feel of a fountain pen on paper or the convenience of typing title ideas and story notes into your phone, do that. Writing good fiction is hard enough without making it externally harder.

4. Know your own tendencies. I’m a list maker. Earlier this week I had an item on my (general to-do) list that involved making another list. The list I made had another set of three sub-lists. I love me some lists, and they are incredibly useful for me in getting myself together. But at least two people dear to me find lists counterproductive. The way their brains work means that making a list will interfere with them getting stuff done. It’s best to roll with this kind of thing, not fight it.

Similarly, I know that I work best in the morning and right after meals. But not everyone works that way. A lot of people apparently do well with promising themselves food “rewards” for getting writing done, and good for them! It gets them a banana and something written! Me, I work on fuel, not rewards. I say to myself, “We’d better have this banana so that we’ll have good energy to write well.” And for me that works.

A lot of people also seem to find “accountability” useful: they make writing dates, either in person or online, with writer-friends. Do not ask me to do this with you, because it will make me resent every hair and eyelash on your head. If you want to get together and drink tea and talk about our projects, grand, but the only way I could get through a writing date of that kind is by telling myself that my real work-time is some other time that day. (I’m like this with workouts also. Workout buddy my sweet patoot. Leave me alone and let me do what I’ve got to do.)

Another trick that is good for non-me people is the writing every day strategy. I write six days a week. I don’t write seven. Writing may or may not be your main job, but it is in fact work. You will need to not do work on some days of your life. Some people work best in spurts, so they’ll write every day for a month or two before crashing out; some people work best steadily. But having a regular writing time, whether it’s daily or not, is really helpful for a lot of writers.

The nice thing about asking yourself what you want here is that not only do you have a means of going forward by thinking about it in more detail, you also have a means of evaluation as to whether the different ideas are working for you. Because that’s the thing about writing: there’s no one thing that works, there’s just what works for you–and it helps to be able to evaluate concretely and say, “Okay, I got a novel and two short stories written since I started trying this, I’m going to call that a win,” or “Hmm, I got half a story written, but I also had mono, so let’s keep taking data,” or, “Ugh, this was miserable and did not work, let’s try something else.”

A lot of writing habit advice online seems to be geared for the idea that you want to do this full-time as a professional. Many of us do. Some of you don’t. It’s okay not to. It’s okay to write part-time. It’s okay if the habits you form are the habits for you to write one or two short stories a year, if that’s what you want and can fit in with the rest of what you want. It’s also okay if the habits you form are letting you write multiple novels per year. You get to be the judge here.

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