Habits of Highly Successful Writers
Thanks to bensound.com for our intro and outro music
NEW BI-WEEKLY FORMAT. Firsts in Fiction will now cast every other week as opposed to every week. Our next cast will be on January 17th, 2016.
ASK THE AUTHOR: From Dennis Lee Bates Jr. via Facebook: What is a suggestion to writers who hit a roadblock in their project? Basically, writer’s block. Any suggestions on getting past that? Myself? I’ve found that simply stepping away for a while and taking a break helps.
AARON: Another excellent question. The first thing I’ll do here is reference the cast we did on this some time ago. You can find it here: http://aarongansky.com/turning-writers-block-into-building-blocks/
Now, with that said, there are several ways to handle this. Really, you can attack it head on and continue writing, knowing that what you produce won’t be great right away, but can be refined into something great later. Otherwise, you may need to take some time off. Sometimes a break can help your brain naturally find solutions. What do you do while you’re taking a break? Read a book. See a movie. Work out. Pay bills. Make sure, while you’re doing this, that there’s a tendril of consciousness devoted to finding your next step in your project. If you’d like some more details, check out our previous cast.
POPS: I’m not sure who said it first, but this phrase rings true for me. FEAR = False Expectation About Reality. Of course there are real fears, but many of the things that frighten us exist because we allow them room to play in our mind. Writers fear losing momentum or not being able to finish a scene. They then obsess over that problem. Professional writers deny writer’s block. They have to produce, so they do. Some days are better than others, but they plow ahead.
Change the question up a little. Have you ever heard of a mechanic’s block, or surgeon’s block? Sometimes we artist think we face unique problems. Professionals make things happen, they do not wait on things to happen.
Never worry about a rough patch in your first draft. Just keep going. Make a note: “Return to this and flesh out the scene,” then skip to the next scene you can write. Sometimes the answer is found in later in the book. No one’s going to read your first draft, feel free to skip stuff. Also, stepping away, changing location, going to a movie, and the like can free up the brain.
MJ: I talk to my characters. I ask, and expect them to answer, questions such as: Why isn’t this working? What else could you do instead? I’ll ask them how they would handle a different character’s situation. If they insist on remaining quiet for a bit, I’ll walk away and do some of what Aaron suggests. I’ve honestly found a small glass of wine and yelling at the computer/manuscript allows my brain to release a bit of tension which often helps break the block.
Firsts in Fiction
10 HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL WRITERS
It’s January now, which means a brand new year, and New Year’s Resolutions. For many of you, one of those resolutions is “to finish your novel.” For some of you it may be “to finally land a contract and publish something.” For others, it might be “to finally meet a deadline” or “to finish two novels” or to finish “my NEXT novel.” While we may not be able to help you lose weight or maintain a workout regimen, we can help you with all your writing-related goals. Tonight, we look at the habits of highly successful writers.
- Commit to the dream: You want to be a writer. You want to finish your novel. You want to get published. The only way it will ever get done is for you to do it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXsQAXx_ao0). What this means is simple: write (or edit) every day whether you want to or not. Without self-discipline, you can never achieve your goals.
- Take “aspiring” out of your vocabulary. You’re a writer. Own it. This doesn’t mean you have to write for hours each day. Although it’s recommended you write at least one to two hours daily, many of us can’t consistently set aside one solid block of time like that. So on the days you can’t, keep notes. Leave yourself voice memos to process later. Don’t burden yourself with a specific word or page count, but do whatever it takes to get something on the page/computer that leaves you with a higher word count than you started with. That alone sets you apart from the dreamers.
- Tony Gwynn played for the San Diego Padres for 20 years. He managed to get 3000 hits. Do you know how he managed that? He watched film of the pitcher he was going to face, and film of the team he was going to play against, but most of all he studied him. If he had a great hit, he would analyze how he got it; if he struck out, he wanted to know why. Successful writers learn their strengths and weakness. The face the weakness and they add to their strengths. That means sticking with it.
- Also, people tend to let emotion dictate their action. Emotions are blind and therefore should not be allowed to sit behind the wheel of your life. Decide on the dream and get busy. The emotions will take care of themselves. There comes a time when you have to stop feeling and start doing. (Another of Al’s Axioms.)
- Build a support team: The best way to ensure success is to confide in your closest friends and family. Tell them your dreams and goals, and request their help in encouraging you and holding you accountable. Few of us have the willpower to see a major project through to the end without a little help. Having friends and family encourage and assist you (by helping you make time/space to write, by not distracting you, etc.) is often enough to help most new writers to complete their projects and meet their goals.
- Accountability is not pressure. Make sure your people know the difference, and feel free to tell them when you feel pressured instead of encouraged.
- It’s nice to know other writers. You can watch them fighting forward and glean some much needed inspiration. This is why a good writers conference is important. You get to see that you’re not the only weird person on the planet, and see that others struggle, too. If they stay the course, you can stay the course.
- Tune out the naysayers: Having a team to build you up when the naysayers get you down is also of benefit to you. But the first, most important thing you can do, is to learn to tune those voices out. Those who say, “you’ll never make it,” “writing a novel is hard,” “writing is pointless,” “you’ll never get published,” “no one cares about what you’re writing,” etc. Often times, the worst naysayer is our own subconscious fear. We have to learn to tell ourselves to shut-up, too.
- You will have people you can’t avoid who aren’t as supportive. Politely remind them that as long as you’re keeping up with your responsibilities (paying bills, time with family, etc.), it’s not their decision what you do with your extra time.
- I find it better not to talk about writing with non writers. For some new writers want to tell everyone they’re writing. I advise against that. Just write. When you’re finished you can talk about the book, or story you wrote. Let me be frank (I’ll be Henry next time), if you tell everyone you’re trying to write a book, then you might be more in love with praise than with the craft. Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about the critic not counting should be memorized by every up and coming writer. Successful writers listen to the voices who know what they’re talking about, not those who don’t. Many are they who are willing to share their ignorance. Hang with those who share from experience.
- Develop a schedule: Perhaps the most practical advice we can give you. Make a time to write daily. Early in the morning or late at night or on your lunch break. Then, protect that time. It’s important. It’s vital. Without it, you will never accomplish your goals.
- It can sound oxymoronic to schedule time to be creative, but it’s definitely worth it. When you approach it as setting an appointment with yourself, I think there’s a subconscious part of your brain that will respect that and get out of your own way to allow the creativity to happen. Maybe not all the time, but once the habit develops, you’ll find it easier.
- Find what works for you. I know writers who get up very early to write before going to work; I know writers who don’t started until the late evening. Follow what works for you.
- Develop a work space: Where you write can often be as important as when you write. Protect your space. Find somewhere to be alone. Decorate it with inspirational quotes or do-dads that inspire you. Make sure you can close the door and keep the outside world out.
- For me, this also includes setting up what I call a “trigger environment.” I write on my laptop, and am often at different locations, even in my own house. Whether it’s my comfy chair, writer’s desk, Mom’s house, lunch at the office or Starbucks, I set up my workspace specifically to trigger my creative muse. I always have my coffee, a snack, and certain music playing, among other things. Having a portable workspace, for me, is highly beneficial.
- Truman Capote wrote in bed. Woody Allen writes with a typewriter on his bed. Tolkien wrote in an attic. Ray Bradbury sometimes wrote in a library. I started in the corner of a bedroom. I know some bestselling authors who set aside a space and computer that is free from the phone and the internet. Make a writing nest that works for you.
- Develop realistic, achievable goals: It’s always fun to shoot for the moon. “This year, I’m going to write seven novels!” However, unrealistic goals are generally unreachable, and the lack of significant progress toward these goals can inadvertently cause frustration and encourage you to give up altogether. Instead, start small. If you finish your novel in August instead of December, awesome! Start the next one. But if you start to fall behind, it’s much easier to give up. Therefore, set reasonable goals and create a schedule you can follow to ensure success. And celebrate when you accomplish your goals and hit major milestones. This system of positive rewards can be powerful.
- Agreed! I would say this is where your support group is valuable. Ask them if they feel you’re on track or out of your mind. They can/will keep you accountable, but only so far as is reasonable.
- I’m not big on support groups. I’m tougher on myself than others would be with me. That and I’m a loner. In addition to setting goals, free yourself to adjust your goals based on your performance. I can set a goal to run five miles a day. Not a bad goal, but if I tried that today, I’d need an ambulance to take me the next four miles. Goals are flexible. Did you set too big a goal? No big deal, revise it. Too easy a goal? Then revise that.
- Get used to saying “no”: Once you’re committed to writing, and you call yourself a writer, you’ll be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork to ask for your time. Sometimes it’s innocent (“Let’s go see a movie!”). Sometimes it’s work related (“I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday,” or “You’re the natural choice to head up this new project”). Sometimes it’s writing related (“Can you read my novel? Will you edit this story? Can you tell me what you think of my story idea? Will you endorse my book? Will you be on my podcast?”). Sometimes the best answer is, “I can’t. Sorry.”
- This is a hard one. We want to be successful writers without giving up our social life. However, saying “no” isn’t a rejection. It’s saying “yes” to believing in yourself. We also want to give back to our supporters, but we can’t realistically finish our own writing if we’re always helping everyone else with theirs.
- This is also why I think it is ill advise to tell anyone outside of the family that you’re working on a book. I know several writers who consider their schedule as an appointment. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that for you, I have an appointment.” There is only so much of you to go around. Don’t get sidetrack by the requests of others.
- Read: There’s no getting around this one. We shouldn’t have to convince you that reading is a worthy spending of your time. The great news is, there’s no “assigned” reading. You choose what you love, and you read it. We suggest picking something in the genre in which you’re writing. This doubles as “research” and I’m pretty sure you can use your expenditures on books as tax write-offs, but don’t quote me on that.
- Don’t make excuses. I used to say “I’m too busy writing to read” and my writing suffered because of it. Reading lets you find solutions to your own story, different character voices, and helps your writing move forward by examples of what works or doesn’t work for you.
- Continue your education: Read craft books. Do one a month, or every other month. Alternate reading novels and craft books if you have to. Listen to podcasts (like this one). Go to Writers Conferences. Take some classes at your local community college. Whatever it takes, make sure you continue to learn the craft and improve.
- Aaron has recommended several books on the craft of writing, as well. Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are two he had me read, and they were, basically, life changing as a serious writer. I also recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.
- We live in a remarkable age. Information is just a few keystrokes away. Still, the best education is experience. Put words on the page.
- Communicate with your readers: If you’ve got an established readership or fan-base, make sure you’re available to them via a website, blog, social media, etc. Answer a few letters if you get them. If you get a ton of letters, choose a few to respond to. Develop a form response for those you can’t get to. The more available you are to them, the more they’ll support you when you release new books.
- I created a private Facebook group for my family and friends where I update them with my writing progress. This includes letting them know when I’m blocked, and when it’s moving forward. It’s a community, and I like seeing them connect with each other on the posts.