Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

For the past month, I have lived by a grid telling me what to do each day. For Type B people, this may seem ludicrous. But since graduating from college, I’ve been winging it and have almost nothing to show except one long suffering manuscript and no progress on other endeavors. I wasted two years that I could have been building my film portfolio. Two years I could have been freelancing my graphics skills. Two years I could have been writing and publishing short fiction.

I’m not wasting time anymore.

But a schedule means nothing without discipline, and that discipline is something I have to grow. I don’t meet all my goals every week. I barely meet my goals every month. But I do reach 70-80% of them, and it gets easier every day. By the end of 2015, I hope these goals will instead be habits. And since the point of this blog is to share both my progress and philosophies so that they may help other writers, here are a few tips to transform ideals into real habits:

Multiple projects. I wasn’t always a supporter of this, mostly because one project tends to overwhelm my brain at a time, leaving no inspiration for other things. In some ways, this remains true – I still can’t write two novels at once. But a novel and a short story? That’s okay. A short story and a website? That’s cool too. Spreading your projects across different mediums is a great brain hack, because I think we all have a set of muses instead of just one. You can fire all of them up at the same time and work steadily on everything, rather than burning out “the novel muse” before you’re even done with it.

Meditation. You know how the best ideas come to you in the shower, or on the ride to work, or as you’re about to fall asleep? There’s a reason – those moments are when your mind is most relaxed (assuming you’re not driving in D.C. traffic every day!) Stepping back and letting your mind wander is like instant inspiration. I swear, half the plot twists for Paradisa were born in the bathroom. You could try setting aside 15-30 minutes every day to physically meditate, but I personally haven’t made time for that yet. Instead, I harness my brain’s natural meditation cycles by keeping a small memo pad close by, and by using my smartphone’s voice recorder app. Like dreams, a lot of ideas and writing envisioned during this period can be fleeting, and I don’t want to forget them!

Schedules. Again, some more. Sorry, but they’re essential for me. I have road marks for all of my mediums going all the way through 2020! But some things, like my ambitious feature-length mocap project, actually take that much preparation. When you’re trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for something, you need the luxury of time and a multi-year game plan. And for anyone trying to be an indie anything, you need time to build a platform before you can expect to be successful.

Another thing about schedules – they ensure all months have a fairly even workload. I have allowed myself a hiatus on most things during months where I’ll draft a new novel. Similarly, during months where my novel is in beta, I focus more on non-novel things. I don’t want to reach March and realize all my deadlines have converged at once and I’ve given myself an impossible workload (only to be followed by a month where everything is slow and I’m basically wasting time).

Know your limits. In my prime, I could write 2000 words/hour. That seems like a fantasy now, because I no longer live alone and I have a much earlier bedtime. In fact, I didn’t really have a bedtime two years ago and constantly showed up to work bedraggled. In exchange for getting 8 hours of sleep every day, barely drinking caffeine, and being a decent live-in girlfriend, my maximum daily word count is about 1000 words.

When setting goals, don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not. Remember that sometimes you have sinus headaches, sometimes you want a nap, sometimes you have to work late, sometimes you want to marathon Lost on Netflix. If you schedule yourself like some kind of creative workhorse, you’ll burn yourself out if you meet your goals or you’ll be disappointed if you fail them. Or, like me, you’ll end up at the chiropractor for six months because being hunched over a laptop like a machine crippled your back. >.> Books like “How I Write 10,000 Words A Day” are tempting to emulate, but remember that those people are usually professional writers whose sole job 8 hours a day is to write fiction. For the rest of us working stiffs, especially those of us who want some semblance of a social life even if it’s just with our partner, that’s simply not realistic.

And even with a mere 800 words a day, I’m still writing more than I would have otherwise. It looks like I will complete Paradisa Draft 6 in two months, when it took me 7 months to do the same amount of work on Draft 5.

Priorities. Sleep is now a priority for me. Giving my partner attention is a priority. On the other end of the spectrum, I try to prioritize my art over playing video games and watching TV (which is a shame, because I love Fallout 3 and wish I had time to play it!) But now I’m talking about prioritizing your actual projects. Right now, Paradisa Draft 6 comes before anything else. It’s what I spend the top chunk of my energy on because if everything else fails, I still want a completed manuscript of this book to show for it.

Then there are bonus goals that do not have immediacy behind them, and do not have any particular external deadline (like an anthology reading period) or self-set deadline to meet. I work on these second.

Taking A Day Off. Unfortunately, I did not design a day off into my schedule, which has so far been a terrible idea (as a side point, I’d like to stress that schedules and goals are organic things. Too many people see organization as a prison. It’s not. It’s entirely in your control, and you can make the variables be whatever suits you). When I get the chance to reorient things, I am definitely leaving Saturdays free of responsibility. I never accomplish anything on Saturdays as it is, and I need a day to recharge from the combination of my full time job and the creative work. It’s tempting to shove all your creative projects onto the weekends, but personally, I get a surprising amount done on weeknights. Which leads me to…

Treat writing like it’s your job. Ideally, I will treat Sundays as if I’m a work-from-home writer. Austin works on Sundays, so I have the whole house to myself. I rarely have responsibilities on Sunday aside from household chores and making dinner. So that leaves me 7-8 hours to sit in my office and, for one day every week, pretend like this is my job. I’ve yet to do such a thing – probably because I haven’t given myself Saturdays off yet ;) This is my ultimate goal by the end of the year though, because imagine how productive one could be if they devoted a whole day to writing and creating?

Hope this helps some of you who struggle to find the time or motivation to complete your projects. One of the most admirable methods of creativity that we don’t utilize enough in America is focusing on what you can do with the resources you have rather than aspiring towards goals that are beyond your scale. Time is a resource. Energy is a resource. Find out how much you have of both and work within those limits rather than pretending you have more of either. If you simply commit to working on something – anything – it’s pretty amazing what you can build.

Writing With Heart or Mind?

I’m a pisces, but I only inherited the creative flake side of that zodiac sign. I did not inherit the over-emotional weepy side, or much semblance of emotional depth at all. I’m logic-oriented, which strikes most people as being cold, aloof, or even clueless about human interaction. For example, people wonder how I could consider something like a pre-nup, or why I always add the “if we broke up” caveat when I talk about my relationship. To an emotional person, my caution to trust my finances and future with my partner of four years means that “I don’t really love/trust him.”

Bollocks. It’s got nothing to do with love or trust. When I consider marriage, all I see is the 50% fail rate. Both my parents have been divorced twice and I’m not naive enough to think it can’t happen to me.  But with all aspects of my life, I always have a Plan B. I don’t trust life to go right the first time. And because I hold others to high standards when it comes to their life choices (as in, not making dumb mistakes), I expect myself to do the same.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well, my logical objectivist mind doesn’t seem like a great conduit for creativity, does it? As I said yesterday, empathy is necessary for an author. To make readers have an emotional response, we must know how that response should feel. We must know what makes US feel that response. What makes us cry? What makes us angry? What makes us feel beauty?

I struggle with this sometimes. It’s not my nature to write from the heart. I write a web of plot from my mind. My characters are designed logically, featuring personality traits meant to manipulate the audience into liking and relating to them. I do try to create high emotional climaxes, as well as emotional depth in my characters, but it often misses the mark. Either betas don’t “get” that I was going for their heartstrings, or I made the characters emotional to the point of being whiny.

But emotions do inspire me. They might not result in full-length books, but they do result in ideas. My revulsion upon visiting Space X, and my fear for any future astronaut friends, is what inspired me to write my short story Goliath. When I was in a long-distance relationship, I wanted to write a story about longing. About being in a relationship that was very far apart, but perhaps not by physical distance (this turned into a plot bunny where one member of the couple slowly goes blind over the course of their life. The eventual lack of shared sight becomes a distance that creates longing). Fear is one of my most powerful emotions to draw from, because fear and anxiety are the two emotions of which I’m most capable. I rarely get angry or ecstatic. I rarely get melancholy. But I’m a worrier. And it’s the things I worry about that inspire pretty good stories for me. Many of my story ideas have a sense of “uhgh, hope that never happens to me…”

And don’t underestimate the emotion of caring. I love the projects I work on. I care about them deeply. That’s certainly an emotion, and I hope it’s obvious that my book is a labor of love. Perhaps it’s not an overt emotion on the page, but that love is subtext beneath the print. Most of my favorite works of fiction have an obvious amount of love put into them (Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent example) and it’s amazing how much quality that gives a story.

So I don’t think you need to be a bleeding heart in order to write good stories. If you have enough emotion to care about what you’re writing, that’s all the reader will see in the end.