In the midst of my daily jaunts into Social Media Land for inspiration, networking, continuing to build a following, etc., one of my regular tasks is to check in with the various writing and other relevant groups we follow on Facebook for anything that might be worthy. Of course, within the groups dedicated to new and aspiring authors, we see many of the same sorts of questions. Some that are repeated regularly are:
1. How do I get over writer’s block?
2. How do I finish my first draft?
3. How do I fight the urge to clean the house every time I sit down to write?
4. How long should it take me to finish my manuscript?
5. Does anyone else find a new series to binge every time they try to write?
The list goes on, but you get the idea I’m sure. And if you think about it there’s a common theme here. It’s discipline, or rather a lack of discipline. No, not the schoolteacher-with-a-ruler kind, more of the sticking-to-a-plan kind.
Sticking to a plan requires first having one, and ensuring it is well thought through. You may have heard of the acronym S.M.A.R.T. for planning, well, pretty much any kind of project. In case you haven’t let me introduce it.
(S)PECIFIC – What is it exactly you want to accomplish? (M)EASURABLE – How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? (A)TTAINABLE - Is your goal truly and reasonably within reach? (R)EALISTIC – Is your goal feasible within your current environment? (T)IME-BOUND – When have you determined you want to reach your goal?
These elements are essential, and they are applicable to anything you want to accomplish in life, whether it’s to write and publish your book, or lose 30 pounds, or get that diploma. If you want to succeed, you need a plan that meets the above elements. For example, if you set a goal that isn’t specific, well that’s a party waiting for procrastination to happen. Likewise if the goals within your plan aren’t attainable. And when I speak of realistic, what I’m really putting my metaphorical finger on is your endurance. Can you stick to your plan day after day, month after month, perhaps book after book, until you reach your goal? If you can’t imagine that working out, then it’s time to revamp your plan, or make some other life changes to ensure you succeed.
What I’m really talking about here is a plan-based routine. Something that may feel foreign to you until you do it for a while, then it starts to feel okay, and then eventually you do it without even really thinking about it. Let me give you an example.
I recently decided to start making sourdough bread. It’s a journey I’ve attempted before, involving reading up on it, making up my first starter dough (just equal weights of water and flour, really), and then discarding a portion of it and feeding it daily for a week or two until the natural wee beasties in the flour and the air take over and build up a proper population of yeast and bacteria. The first few days I only had to do this once per day, which was a little bit of a chore. New clean jar, new portions of ingredients, weighing everything, cleaning up afterward, etc. It was awkward, it was a little time consuming, and I did wonder if it would ever become a routine for me. Then after a week I began doing it twice a day, because that’s what you do. Just when I started to get a rhythm going, I had to change it. I had figured out the mechanics, though, and simplified my process, so doing it twice a day takes now about the same time and effort I used to spend doing it only once in the beginning. The reward, though, is worth it, and I now have a strong starter culture with a daily routine (morning and evening) that takes about 5 minutes per session. No biggie. And I don’t even have to set an alarm or leave myself a note anymore, because it’s a habit now. A routine.
You probably have routines in your own life you aren’t consciously aware of. When you get up in the morning, what do you do without even thinking about it? Brush your teeth? Shamble into the kitchen to get the coffee started? Flick on the TV to catch some news? Sure you do. So how do you leverage this routine to help you with what you want to do, but don’t have the best success at doing? You could build an entirely new plan. Or you could make it part of an already-established routine. That’s what I did.
Every morning, my alarm goes off nice and early (I’m a bit of a morning person). I put on something comfy, head downstairs for coffee and to refresh my sourdough starter, and then I sit at my computer for a writing session. Early morning works best for me (‘reasonable’, ‘attainable’). The house is quiet, free of distractions, I’m not really hungry yet so the nibbles don’t lure me away as much, and my mind is fresh. I review my materials for the scene I’m working on, and then get to work. Sometimes it’s free-writing, sometimes it’s researching so I can get my hands on that “seed” that the scene will grow around, and sometimes it’s a bit of world building. Whatever I need. Then once I start writing, I’m a 1000-word guy. I don’t stop until I have 1000 words banged out, that’s my ‘measureable.’ It’s not as huge a goal as you might think; the first 100 are really the hardest part. Plus if you can manage 1000 words a day, 5 days a week, that’s 20,000 words a month, and an 80,000 word draft in four (hmmm…that sounds like ‘time-bound’). Not to mention, if you hit 1000 you’re already on a roll (I usually am at that point) so I usually go well beyond that, and those cumulative little victories get me to my completed draft a lot sooner.
Did you notice anything about my routine? Is it specific? Sure it is, for me. Totally. Is it attainable? Most days, yeah. Unless I had a rough/late night or something unavoidable came up. And is it reachable? Absolutely. Weekday or weekend, I’m up at about the same time doing the same thing. But also my routine is flexible. This is crucial. Life isn’t predictable. Something will always come up. Give yourself a break. If you need to change your routine, you can, and it’ll still be a routine as long as you stick to it! Really, why do any of us get into writing? Isn’t the autonomy a big part of it? The ability to call your own shots and not be beholden to the eight-to-five grind? Own that.
But beyond the daily routine are the long-range routines. What does your week look like? Your month? Your year? I’ve seen folks very successfully dedicate certain days of the week for certain activities, and the same with months, including days focused on writing, days focused on blogging or maintaining a connection with your fans, days dedicated to rest and family. All of these are healthy. Think about it like your health care. Do you exercise regularly? If you do, you don’t do it every day. Even the dedicated body builder has certain days dedicated to certain muscle groups, certain days dedicated to rest, etc. As authors we can do the same.
Still longer-range are routines that may involve some calendaring. Do you go to the dentist regularly? The doctor or chiropractor? Sure. Are there activities that will support your writing plan that you want to make sure you do every month? Every six months? Running ads or promotions? Posting new blogs? Researching your book’s performance in its categories and deciding if it’s still listed in the best ones? Revising the look of your website? Checking over all your media outlets to give them a fresh look? Sending out a mailing to your email group? You get it. These become a part of your routine as well, and need to be fitted within your weekly routine once in a while, too. The bonus with these is you can pepper them in to your normal daily/weekly plan to keep things fresh. It’s nice to take a break from the grind of writing sometimes, but still know you’re working on your overall success!
Now the hard part: sticking with your routine. Remember the “d” word I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that one. There’s a few ways to attack a lack of discipline. If you know you’re the type to get “squirrel”-ed by distractions, including snacking, flipping through Tik-Tok or Reddit or whatever your jam is, or inventing emergency household chores to do, there are ways to combat this. An obvious one is to remove distractions. Turning your phone on silent (even the vibratey part), and setting it well out of reach, is one that works well for me. The getting up early part helps me, again because everyone else is still asleep and the neighbor’s dog isn’t barking yet (usually). If snacking is an issue, schedule your writing session right after you have a small meal. Chores? Get them all done the night before (or whatever works for your schedule). Getting up to a clean house is a sure way to keep me from having a sudden obsession with the dishes.
And the big one, if the thing we all like to call “writer’s block” seems to be a problem, let me ask you a couple of questions:
1. How long have you sat there, before you decided you had the block? Really. Come on. Five minutes isn’t writer’s block.
2. Have you tried just typing whatever is in your head? No matter if it feels relevant or not? You are free to delete it later, but just try it and see what comes out. You might be surprised! Writing sprints are a thing you might try, too. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and just go!
3. Have you talked through your scene with another person? Sometimes this back and forth can really help you sharpen your ideas into a way to begin, and like I said once the first 100 words are out, the rest come down like a rockslide.
Bottom line, if you can discipline yourself to push into that nothingness for a while, you’ll find something. And often times it produces what I call the “seed” of the scene; the thing the whole scene grows out of. Once you find the seed, all of the sudden you’re cooking. And another little piece of advice…once you find your seed and your fingers are on fire, that is when you can take a break and get a snack or do a chore or whatever. Because you will be able to jump back in anytime you want, with no monstrous mental block in your way. I’ve written a whole blog post on just this phenomenon, so go check it out if this is a thing that haunts you.
Well, that’s it for today, kids! If I left something important out above, or you have some other ways routines have helped you, please be sure to include them in the comments below, or in the forum where you see this post! And you’d be doing us a huge solid by sending this on to anyone else who may benefit from it, writer’s groups, online forums, friends, followers. It would bless us hugely, and hopefully be of some encouragement to someone in need of it.
As always, thank you for reading, and please share by forwarding, reposting, retweeting, liking, subscribing, and recommending us to others! We couldn’t do this without you!
Jason (and Rose) – Legends of Cyrradon
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Goodreads: Jason Bishop / Rose Bishop