The disciplined writing life

Those of you who have been around here for a while know that I don’t have particularly romantic notions of writing. It is a career like any other, and while it gives one what I find a more satisfactory output than, perhaps, auditing tax returns, that is my opinion. There are lots of ways to pay the bills. Writing — crazily enough — turns out to be one of them.

I have some literary dreams, though. I’d like to tackle longer creative non-fiction projects, and I also want to write a novel. Finishing a novel draft is one of next year’s big goals. I have much of a plot. I have half the story written. I just need to finish the darn thing. I should be able to do this. I have, in fact, “completed” three other novels. They’re just not as good as I want, and so I’m going to try again.

Which brings us to the topic of discipline. Writing is not about waiting for the muse. Writing is about discipline. Writing is about putting yourself in front of a computer (or quill and paper, or stone tablet) when it is time to write, and cranking out a certain volume of words, and then doing it again at the next appointed writing time. You can wait for inspiration, but inspiration seems to strike when you’re thinking about a problem a lot. People are sometimes fooled by the fact that it strikes when you step away from the work briefly (going for a run, taking a shower, riding the bus somewhere). But it strikes because you’ve spent so much time thinking and writing that your subconscious is still working on knitting everything together even as your conscious brain is shampooing your hair.

I need a plan, come January 1, to be disciplined about writing fiction. So I was intrigued when the operation behind Money Saving Mom sent me a copy of Crystal Paine’s new ebook, 21 Days to a More Disciplined Life. (Note: That link takes you to her website. I do not have an affiliate account and don’t do affiliate sales in general — just not my thing). Paine did a 21-post blog series earlier this year on how she builds habits like getting up early in the morning to work and write. The posts went through edits and formatting and emerged as this ebook with 21 action items and instructions on how to break a big goal into 21 steps.

There’s some good advice in here. Day 16 encourages readers to do the hardest things first. I know if I want to write fiction I should write it first thing in the morning, before I tackle anything else (even this beloved blog!) If something has to happen, it has to happen first. One option would be to get up at 6 and write until 7. Right now, my baby isn’t always sleeping until 7, but I have high hopes for January. Days 10-11 talk about finding an accountability partner. I’d like to find someone or someones specific (any other writers out there tackling a big project next year?) and I could also check in at this blog every day with an update. The upside of this updating would be that my blog readers would become invested in the novel as well. And books need readers! Having written several other novels that are now sitting in a drawer (and/or in computer memory) I particularly need Day 7: “Resist negative thought patterns.” I am not going to try to write a novel. I will write a novel. Better yet: I am a novelist. It’s a done deal, now I’m just following through.

So what other motivational tricks can I use? Alas, for me, day 13 becomes a bit circular: “Read motivating books.” One of the three suggested books on discipline is…168 Hours. I’m not sure that will help me but at least I have a copy!

What habits have you adopted to become more disciplined in your life? Any suggestions on how I should tackle my novel writing project?    

28 thoughts on “The disciplined writing life

  1. This is just what I need to hear! Lately my writing is lagging because I am just not quite feeling the “muse.” An actual scheduled hour of writing sounds brilliant. And hard. But mostly brilliant.

  2. I actually got that ebook yesterday (though haven’t started reading)–actually I was quite disciplined and went to bed really early last night so I could get up refreshed. I definitely need more discipline in my life…sounds like you are already doing pretty well (writing, running) but I guess everyone can use a kick in the pants about a particular project!

  3. I have to play little tricks with myself.Since my favorite thing in the world to do is read, I have to force myself to write FIRST and then I GET to read.

    For instance right now – I’m only reading your blog post because I’ve already written an article for one of my blogs. 😉

  4. I forgot to mention that I fell in love with Anthony Trollope’s quote about a daily task being more powerful than Herculean effort. This led me to research more about him and his life. He managed to write 47 novels plus several other books all while holding a full time job at the post office… he wrote for 3 hours a day and paid his butler to wake him with coffee early each morning.

    So funny because sometimes if I know I’ll be tempted to sleep in (with a 10 week old I certainly have a good excuse!), I’ll ask my husband to bring me coffee to get me up.

    But yes I totally agree that writing is just work like anything else and the more you do the better/more prolific you are.

    1. @Carrie- Trollope definitely employed the volume strategy, which seems to have some things going for it, if you believe that chapter on 10,000 hours in Outliers. Some of Trollope’s work is not that great, but if you do enough of something you tend to get good stuff too. I keep a draft file of lots of stuff I’m writing in the course of a month of so. I’m at 25,000 words from Sept 27, and that’s not counting another 30,000-word project I turned in Sept 30 or so, or the weekend ebook at 10,000 words turned in Oct 5. So I guess I’m aiming for volume too.

    1. @Karen – that thought occurred to me this morning, shortly after this went up. Maybe I should. I’m not sure it’s doable in that I’m also contractually obligated to write some other things involving a lot of words during November so an additional 50,000 seems like a lot. But it might be good to just get it down on paper. I’ll think about it. Are you doing it? Is anyone else here?

      1. Yes, I am doing it. I decided to this week and signed up and have been reading the forums. My daughter did the young writers’ program last year. Her 7th grade English teacher had an after school club for interested kids. My daughter was one of the few kids who finished. She wrote 50,000 words, which I thought was very impressive for a 12-year-old. I messed around with writing something and tried to support her while she was doing it, but I didn’t come even close. I wasn’t very disciplined ;-). And, I was also working full-time then. Now that I’m on a break from full-time work for pay, this seems like the perfect time to give it a serious go. The writing every day part isn’t a big issue for me, but the organization and planning is where I get tripped up. Things like outlines and synopses are where I need the most discipline to actually do them.

      2. I’m doing NaNoWriMo as well. I participated last year and loved it! I was hoping to have my book edited and published by now but doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. The editor has given it back to me so that I can add more ‘stuff’.

  5. Sort of unrelated, but I have to say that for some reason, I’m glad to know that you’re not an affiliate. Somehow it makes you just a little more credible in my mind. The internet seems to be one big sales event these days …

    1. @Rebekah – there is a bit of the wild west element about the blogosphere. I’m all for people earning extra money — and blogging is a great way to do so — but it’s been fascinating to see the difference between blogging and journalism in terms of what one is allowed to do. Though, to be honest, journalism has never been as pure as people claim, and the blogosphere is growing while many traditional news publications are shutting down, so maybe the blog world is on to something. Personally, I just feel like if people are in an acquisitive mood while reading my blog, I want them buying my books! 🙂

  6. Hi! I am a big fan of 168 Hours and your blog. I am also a writer and runner, and I am in a similar place: trying to figure out
    how to realistically hit my goals in each of those areas while supporting myself (I’m a professional technical writer) and having a social life (I’m single).
    If you decide to do any kind of accountability partners or group, I am definitely interested. Thanks!

  7. The thing that has worked for me has been participating in a writer’s group. My group is composed of four serious, but as yet unpublished novelists. Our facilitator is a published novelist. We meet once a month to critique and discuss each other’s work. We don’t hang out with each other socially and we pay the facilitator of the group, this helps to add a bit of formality to things. This by far has been the most effective thing for me.

  8. I’m amazed at what great lengths I’ll go to for a check mark on a grid. I generally set several goals a month that require near-daily effort. I check off each day that I do them and generally reward myself for getting 20 or 25 check marks in a month. But, most of the time, it’s the check mark not the reward that is really motivating. This works well for me because it’s a flexible approach to discipline.

  9. I am looking forward to the debut of your novel. I can only imagine how awesome your novel will be. I want some advice and tips on self-discpline. Can you direct me to pertinent blogs or relevant books. Best of wishes

    1. @Michael – thanks! Many of the usual self-help books are ultimately about discipline: 7 Habits, for instance. I hope my novel is awesome too. But first I have to write it.

    2. I would recommend Hillary Rettig’s book “The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.” It’s a little bit of a different frame than a lot of these types of books, but I think it ultimately comes down to discipline. I think her attitude toward writing is quite similar to Laura’s in how practical it is. She writes about removing obstacles and blocks to getting writing done, and about changing perfectionist attitudes that are holding you back as a writer. She has a section about the problems with having an overly romantic view of writing.

      1. @Karen – perfectionism is deadly in writing. At least for me (but I don’t think many folks reading what I write would accuse me of it…) I was pondering this when reading one of John McPhee’s recent essays in the New Yorker about his career — he recalls an editor spending an incredible amount of time on one piece as the magazine hurtled toward the closing deadline. He asked how he could do that and the editor said “it takes as long as it takes.” I know what he’s getting at…but it can’t also take as long as it takes. Sometimes you do have to be done! I’m glad I learned to write in a newspaper context. You really, literally, did have to be done at 7 p.m. because otherwise there was going to be a blank spot on the page the next day.

  10. I had another thought: if you do decide to do something in the realm of accountability, either with a partner or group, it might be a fun side project to look at what current research or popular thought says about accountability versus what you might find works best.

  11. Laura, you and I are about the same age, I think. You are doing what I want to do: write for a living. I’ve talked about writing since I was 6 years old. I dabbled in writing for much of my youth. Now, I am a writing teacher. And I am 40,544 words into my first novel that I am forcing myself to finish. I’ve written poems, a short play, a few short stories, three zillion notes, and have never finished writing an entire book. My supportive spouse keeps telling me that if I could just finish this first book, then things would fall into place for me as a writer. I believe he is right.

    I read your posts for inspiration – as a writer, as a working mother.

    Keep writing and we’ll keep reading!

    Thank you,

    1. @Leah- thanks so much! I think it is important to finish one book, and then the next one will be easier to write and better. I’ve learned a lot from writing 4 novels that nothing has happened with. And over time, when one keeps writing, one’s audience grows and you’re better prepared to seize opportunities. Good luck with finishing! And then revising 🙂

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