Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing’s really hard. I don’t mean it’s hard to create something good, I mean it’s difficult to sit down and start writing. That may sound like lip-service, but the fact is that writing – especially writing a book – goes against every rule of self-motivation there is.
Generally, it’s not done to order, meaning that goals and deadlines are self-set and easy to break. It’s also rarely done in a focused, dedicated environment – even those lucky enough to have an office or dedicated writing space probably use it for other things, and utilize a device that’s also a primary source of leisure: imagine trying to do paperwork in your local pub or aquarium (we haven’t met, so I’m not sure what you like doing in your spare time). Finally, it’s ill-defined – ‘How long is a book?’ is the same question as ‘How long is a piece of string?’, but it applies to every quality of a finished work. How polished does your book have to be? How realistic should the dialogue feel? How many characters is too many, or enough?
These issues combine into a task that’s almost designed to not get done. Authors begin the writing process with no goals or parameters except ‘make a book’. What even is a book? Answers differ.
So how do we end up with bookshelves stacked with genius? How are eReaders quickly becoming must-have technology? How come nine librarians are lost every year to book avalanches? The answer is that some freakish, superhuman creatures find a way through all that. They construct a series of mechanisms that allow them to write, they find the time to put one word after another and then switch them around and then delete one, they decide on what their book will look like and somehow know when they’re finished…
While these people may well be alien plants or the next stage of evolution, many of them are also good enough to share how they work. That means that by studying their habits, copying their techniques and applying their wisdom, we mere mortals stand a chance of getting something done.
That’s why in this article I’ll be presenting an eight-step writing plan that will get you off your seat and into a different seat that’s in front of a keyboard. This may sound difficult, and it will be, but follow this advice and your book will go from dream to reality.
Step 1 – Set hard rules
The first step of the process is to accept that you’re going to need hard rules. Our brains can be our worst enemies – they’re exactly as smart as us and, often, they’re trying to talk us into something we already want to do. That means that there’ll be times when you’re writing where you honestly believe it’s a good idea to go against beneficial behaviour.
Accepting this idea is probably the most important part of the process: You cannot trust your future self. They’re not a bad person, but at some point they’re going to let you down. With a regular job, outside forces act against this: you can’t ignore paperwork because you’ll look like an idiot at your next meeting, you can’t get drunk the night before a project because if you turn up hungover then you’ll get fired, but with writing, it’s unlikely anyone else will even know. The temptation will be too strong and, without hard rules in place, you’ll give in.You can’t trust your future self to be productive – if you want to create, set rules.Click To Tweet
Hard rules can stop this behaviour, or at least lessen it. The ‘hard’ in ‘hard rules’ means that you set limits you’ll never break. Leave your future self leeway and eventually you’ll regret it, even if you have a good reason. Why? Author Terry Pratchett said it best in his book Thud! In it, a character tears across the city to read his son a book at exactly six o’clock. He’s terrified of being late, not because it will change anything about the situation, but because it will break his own hard rule.
Would a minute have mattered? No, probably not, although his young son appeared to have a very accurate internal clock. Possibly even two minutes would be okay. Three minutes, even. You could go to five minutes, perhaps. But that was just it. If you could go for five minutes, then you’d go to ten, then half an hour, a couple of hours… and not see your son all evening. So that was that. Six o’clock, prompt. Every day. Read to young Sam. No excuses. He’d promised himself that. No excuses. No excuses at all. Once you had a good excuse, you opened the door to bad excuses.
– Terry Pratchett, Thud!
That final sentence says it all. No matter how good an excuse you have for breaking a rule, the act of breaking it changes the system. Human minds are good at absolutes, and a rule that’s never been broken is a far, far stronger influence than a rule that’s ‘only’ been broken once.
Hand-in-hand with this goes the responsibility to make sensible rules. If you make rules that you’ll eventually have to break then you make them with an expiry date. If you have a busy life, factor that into your decision making. I’ll touch on the types of rules you should make in step three, but keep in mind that they have to be based around what you can manage. Yes, you should push yourself, but writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.
There may come a time when something genuinely unexpected or time-consuming crops up and gets in the way of your hard rule. Life can throw up situations that are worth losing such a tool over, but when deciding how to handle this, remember that you can never repair that hard rule. Choosing to break it means choosing to lose it forever, and that’s an understanding that should dictate the rules on which you settle and the conditions under which you’ll break them.
So, what? You decide on a few rules for yourself and then start writing? Will that really create enough boundaries to get some work done? Well, it’ll help, but we’re not finished yet…
Step 2 – Appoint a guardian
As I mentioned above, your future self cannot be trusted. No matter how iron your will currently is, you won’t be there to keep them in line. Trusting that they’ll remember how serious you were is all well and good, but you can do more.
Hard rules are useful because they exist outside of our changing moods and thought processes. They can be referred to as constants and, because that’s the case, it can help to even further untangle them from your faulty human mind.
The Oatmeal is a popular webcomic by Matthew Inman. In ‘Running’, he explains a thought tool he uses to encourage healthy behaviour (running and not overeating). Having found the runner’s metaphor of ‘the wall’ unhelpful, Inman created the Blerch, an evil, overweight fairy who represents his base desire to eat and stay inside.
– Matthew Inman, ‘Running’
By bundling these desires into a character, he is given something to fight against, and his efforts to engage in beneficial behaviour become something more. Now it’s about his personal agency, and his intent to do something for himself is bolstered by defiance and the desire to triumph over an enemy.
The Blerch has proved so effective that it’s even spawned a series of ‘Beat the Blerch’ marathons, and the logic behind it is a similar godsend for writers. It can be utilized in two ways, which can work separately or together depending on the way you think.
1. Appoint a guardian
A guardian is the opposite of the Blerch – an external, fictional figure who wants you to write the book. They’re the embodiment of your hard rules, and their ultimate goal is for you to get some writing done.
It may seem silly to create this character, but really it’s just an exercise in logic that allows you to consider your rules outside of context. You know why your good or bad reason means you get to break the rule, but your guardian doesn’t. They’ll need it explained to them – they’ll need to be persuaded – but they don’t have the same priorities, and it’ll be harder to talk them around. Obviously, they can’t stop you, but take a few minutes to properly imagine this character and their opinion will start to matter. It’s hard to argue ‘this doesn’t really count’ when you know your guardian is furious.
For your guardian to be really effective, it’s helpful to flesh them out. Give them a unique voice, a look, maybe a funny hat. It can be useful to base your guardian on a family member or friend – it will make them realer, and help you keep in mind that they’re looking out for your best interests, even when they’re railing against something you really want to do.
2. Appoint a gremlin
A Blerch by any other name is just as useful. The gremlin is the opposite of your guardian – a devil on your shoulder, acting as a mouthpiece for every bit of behaviour that breaks your hard rules. Again, this helps you take an objective look at your decisions and process. When a slithery, mean little character is backing you up, your fleeting belief that it’s okay to come in under word count will feel a lot less valid. As with the guardian, a detailed character will be more effective (you could even imagine the villain of your story trying to avoid their comeuppance, or a rival author whose audience will prefer your book once it’s written).
The gremlin and guardian work well together, as externalizing the argument over your behaviour will help you make rational decisions that give proper weight to long-term gains. Of course, we’re all different, and it may be that you don’t want a negative character in your head, or you think it’ll be more effective to take on your gremlin alone. It’s also possible that this line of thinking won’t work for you, but in the interests of progress, give it a try before you decide against it.
Steps 1 and 2 deal with the idea of hard rules and how to give them proper impact, but we still haven’t talked about what those rules should be.
Step 3 – Write something anything
Writing because you’re inspired is great, but it seldom produces a book. First of all, writing even when you’re not inspired is the only guarantee that when the muse does arrive, you’ll be ready for her. Second, inspiration isn’t actually manna from heaven – it’s a mode of thought, and you can make your brain more prone to it by putting it in situations where that mode is appropriate.
In other words, you need to train your brain. The only way to do that is to write. It’s the first thing any creative writing course will tell you, but it’s true – you need to be writing. Even when nothing comes to mind, even when it doesn’t seem any good, you need to be writing on a very regular basis. The good news is that it will get easier as you go along. Like any skill, getting into the writing headspace needs to be learned. The first time you tell your brain it’s time to write, it may well freak out and give you nothing. The hundredth time, it knows the drill and how to snap from everyday operation to writing mode. The five-hundredth time, it knew the switch was coming, and it’s been saving some things you observed throughout the day to use as fuel for your art.Writing leads to writing – the only way to improve your craft is to work at it.Click To Tweet
This concept is the key to setting your hard rules. In the steps to follow, I’ll go over some of the ideas that are most useful in deciding on your personal rules, but this is what they’re all about: writing leads to writing, so put yourself in a position where you’re doing a lot of it. Writing five pages a day is beneficial, even if you don’t end up using any of them, because it’s part of a longer process. Wait, did I just say ‘a day’? Well, yeah, here’s the thing…
Step 4 – Write every day
For many authors, the writing process is idealized as waking from a vivid dream and penning sixty-thousand words as the sun rises and sets on a masterpiece. Some people work that way (especially if they’ve trained their brains), but for the rest of us, it’s about incremental progress. Stephen King says:
This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon, or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.
– Stephen King, On Writing
Of course, this is easy to say for professional writers. I said in the opening paragraph that writing is hard, but so is life. Many people don’t have time to dedicate to writing a chapter every day, but that’s where crafting your own realistic hard rules comes into play.
If you can’t write page after page every day then write a few hundred words. If you can’t write every day then write every other day, but make sure you stick to it. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote 500 words a day, but he did it day after day until he’d made real progress. That’s what it takes.
There’s some harsh advice lurking under all of this, and I don’t want to be the one to give it. To help me out, I’ll invite a single-use gremlin onto the stage. He’s a squat, blue-skinned elephant with luminous green eyebrows, a stained vest and a battered backpack, and he says, ‘You do have time to write every day.’
He adds, ‘Maybe it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s a matter of priorities. No-one in the world is telling you that you have to write a book, and no-one is judging you if you don’t. If, however, it’s what you want more than anything, then the time is out there. Write a hundred words on the bus, a hundred at lunch, a hundred before bed. Snatch at that time and it’s there. That’s not to say there isn’t a cost – you might not enjoy your sandwich, you might not get the respite that makes life easier – but the question there isn’t whether you’re able to pay it, it’s whether you’re willing.’ Then he explodes into a thousand goldfish that all fly off in different directions. Good riddance.
Of course, I disagree with the absolutism of the departed gremlin; sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. With that as a given, try to stick to the spirit of ‘write every day’ as closely as you can. Every three days is really the maximum time that you can get away with and still be training your brain for success. Look at your life, really think about what’s possible, and then set a hard rule that sets you on the road to publication.
Step 5 – Don’t empty the well
Ernest Hemingway was brimming with great writing advice, and step 5 is a paraphrase of one of his most effective recommendations.
I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
– Ernest Hemingway
Here, Hemingway recommends that you make sure to stop writing when you still have that passionate knowledge of what comes next – while you still want to write. It’s an incredibly effective technique that multiplies enthusiasm.Stop writing when you still WANT to write – the feeling will grow and fuel you later.Click To Tweet
We’ve all had that feeling when a story ‘runs out’, when we started off writing a passage we were passionate about and then ran out of steam. Hemingway suggests consciously leaving some of what you want to write unfinished. All fired up, your subconscious and conscious minds will keep thinking about what happens next, and that enthusiasm you had for the next 100 words will grow to fuel the next 400.
So how does this fit together with ‘write every day’? Quite simply, I didn’t say to write a lot. I’ve already mentioned how little Hemingway wrote, but now we can see that he wasn’t just forcing himself to write, he was also rationing his energy and allowing it to multiply.
That still leaves a situation where your hard-rule word count means you have 300 words left to write but only the enthusiasm for the next 100. Is this a case where one rule bends for another? No. That’s the great thing about hard rules – they always stay the same. In this case, start writing another section, or even write something else entirely. A continuous writing process is much, much more valuable than constantly working on one story, and writing those 100 enthusiasm-powered words isn’t going to help you in the long run.
There’s one final thing that puts the ‘write every day’ concept into context…
Step 6 – Compartmentalize your writing
When trying to make real progress, however, they can both do equal damage. That’s because both get in the way of writing. Perhaps the number one cause of writers never finishing their stories is that they get lost in the plotting. It’s really, really fun to plot a story – it’s like telling yourself a story, and every development is fresh and new – and it’s easy to convince yourself that you have to do it before putting pen to paper (or finger to key). Editing, on the other hand, can be a drag, but it knows exactly how to pounce on an author’s attention. They’ll be typing away when, suddenly, they realize they’re not sure how to phrase something. They’ll draft and redraft the sentence, desperate to find the right word, while the fire that was keeping them going quietly dies in the background.
Step six to starting and finishing your book is therefore to compartmentalize the writing process. ‘Write every day’ means just that – write new words. Editing can wait until you have something long enough to merit it, and plotting can be done in dedicated time or in the moments where you can’t be writing. These are the things that you can do weekly or monthly, setting aside evenings or even entire days for the precise mechanisms of improving what you’ve written down.Don’t get hung up on plotting and editing. They’re no substitute for words on the page. Click To Tweet
They’re both important processes, but they also both run on words. Plotting evolves with a story and editing makes it better, but in both cases you only benefit by writing. The difficult truth is that you’ll end up throwing away a lot of what you write, but that’s all in service of identifying and building on what works. Write every day, think about your plot, edit frequently, but consider them different activities.
Step 7 – Set, measure and alter targets
I said in my introduction that writing is almost designed to stop authors making progress. Part of that was having no set process (which we’ve covered), and part of it was having no external authority (which we’ve tried to create), but one of the biggest obstacles for an author is not having any concrete goals.
Unless you’re writing on commission, or you’re a successful author trying to start their next bestseller, it’s likely that you’re going to have to set these goals yourself. As with everything we’ve discussed so far, this makes them inherently malleable, and the answer is to try and create something outside your own head that you can use to motivate (even pressure) your untrustworthy future self.
Goals come in many forms – they might be about word count, or reaching a specific part of your story, or not breaking any soft rules that you invented to motivate yourself (‘write on an evening’, for example). They’re useful because they contextualize your writing – 500 words a day can be tiring, but if it’s in the context of 14,000 words in a month, then every day you’re getting closer to a fixed point.
They’re no replacement for hard rules – setting out to write 14,000 words in a month is not the same thing as setting out to write 500 a day – but they can help you decide what those rules should be. It’s especially useful to have a physical manifestation of your goals – a thermometer drawn on a few pieces of paper, with different word counts written up the side and red coloring filled in as you meet them, can be surprisingly effective as motivation, and there’s plenty of software on a similar theme. Again, it’s about using the way your brain works to make it do what you want.
This kind of physical representation gives you an easy quantification for success and failure. When you write, you see the reward, and the part of your brain that understands progress is satisfied, and will urge you on in future. When you decide not to write, what you’ve lost is right there. Maybe it won’t stop you shirking one night’s writing, but looking at that thermometer, knowing that the read-out should already be higher, might stop you shirking the next.
The final part of setting goals is to update them as you progress. Fulfilling a goal is great, but don’t let that be it. It’s easy to back-peddle or stagnate. As I’ve said before, writing is hard – it requires effort to keep going. The gremlin will try to trick you, holding up one accomplishment as a reason to give yourself the day off, but back your guardian up when they fight back. Never be without a goal, and make them long-term. Your hard rules will cover you for the day-to-day stuff, but your brain needs something a little further away to strive for.
This is the one failing of the otherwise useful National Novel Writing Month – during that month, participants are super-charged to get things done, but the resultant work often lies dormant for a year until the event comes round again. Don’t let this be you – create measures of your goals that will bug you to keep going. It’ll be a struggle, you might even resent it, but you’ll get a book out of it sooner than you think.
Taking the first step…
I’ve presented the rules above in a pretty direct manner, and that’s because it’s the attitude which is most likely to benefit you in your writing. Art is art – it’s subjective and mercurial and about emotions – but creating it is a matter of labor. Writer and comedian Ricky Gervais has said repeatedly that ‘with art you have to be a complete fascist’, and there’s an element of truth to this. If writing provides none of the usual mechanisms that drive us to complete a task, then writers have to create that discipline for themselves.
I say this because my final piece of advice is going to be the hardest of all: Start now.
Step 8 – Start writing now
When we decide to do something inconvenient, it’s often because we’re projecting that inconvenience onto a future self. The problem is that they’re almost always going to do the same thing (have I mentioned that you can’t trust them?)
If you’re having trouble beginning or continuing a project then the steps above will help, but the surest way to change the situation is to take on the responsibility as who you are now. It’s a shot in the arm to start something straight away, and it means that if your future self is reluctant to do their share, they’ll have to choose to let you down – to break the chain – rather than just copying you and leaving it until tomorrow.
If you want to read more about the writing process, then you can check out 40 Exercises and Resources Every Author Needs for everything you need to get started, but you shouldn’t. Instead, start writing, and if you’re struggling, visit our writing prompt database for ready-made ideas that you can take for a spin.
Got 500 words under your belt? Drop me a line in the comments to tell me how you found it, or just to describe your personal gremlin.