Essay: The Discipline of Writing

So you have an idea for a book. A great idea for a book. It’s a sure-fire winner, destined for the New York Times bestseller list. Everyone you’ve told about it agrees. Even your mother, who doesn’t like reading fantasy novels in the first place, thinks it’s a wonderful idea. You’re a genius.

But there’s a hard truth that must be faced, whether you’re writing fantasy, romance, mystery or suspense: ideas are cheap. Everyone has an idea for a book. The hard part is not having an idea. The hard part is sitting yourself down in the chair and writing the book. To me, it’s very much like going to the gym. It’s not weight-lifting that’s hard: it’s actually getting to the gym. Once you’re there, heck, you might as well lift weights. Likewise, once you’re in the chair, you might as well write. It’s getting into the chair that can be hard.

So how do you do it? How do you get yourself into the chair and at the keyboard to produce your words? The frustrating answer to that is, “You have to just do it,” which is true! But there are at least some ways you can motivate yourself into climbing into the writing chair even when you don’t want to.

I’m fortunate in that I’m now a full-time writer, but for years, like most of us, I had to juggle the day job with getting the words written. It was absolutely critical that I take a certain amount of time a day, be it an hour or just ten minutes, to write. URBAN SHAMAN was written almost entirely during my train commute, over the course of about a year. I had a laptop and 45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time twice a day.

When I no longer had the train commute, I found myself changing my writing time to accomodate the rest of my life. For the better part of one year, I just made myself get up an hour earlier in the morning so that I could write before going to work. It wasn’t much fun–who wants to give up an hour’s sleep?–but it got the books written. When my husband’s schedule changed so he wasn’t getting up as early, I found myself tending to write more in the evenings, or on lunch break. When isn’t so important. What’s important is carving out that little chunk of time and making it yours and yours alone for writing.

That can be hard to accomplish, especially if you have small children or a spouse who isn’t fully supportive of your writing. But family can be trained to respect that writing time, though you’ll have to be adamant! Remember that your time and goals are just as important as anyone else’s.

Now that I’m a full-time writer, I have some pretty solid rules set for myself. My writing computer isn’t connected to the internet, because I have the self-control of a gnat. I can always find something mindless and time-wasting to do online, so I don’t allow myself that option at all.

I set a quota for myself: 1100 words a day. I don’t get to check email, read websites, do much of anything, before I’ve gotten those 1100 words written.

And when I really, truly don’t feel like writing, I play mind games with myself. I start with small numbers: you just have to write 110 words. That’s 10% of what you need to do. Just 110 words. And then usually I’ll go over that, and heck, if I’ve written 125, I’d better go on to 150. And then I’m almost at two hundred, so I should keep going… It doesn’t take so terribly long to reach my quota that way, even on a bad day!

The funny thing is how well this works. It’s not like it’s a secret that I’m playing mind tricks on myself, but it’s startlingly effective.

Other things that work for me–bribes! As I said, I don’t write on a computer connected to the internet, so one of my rewards for hitting my daily quota is that I can go check my email and say hello to people online once I’ve reached that magic number.

As a correllary to that, I’ve found that I really need time away from the computer. I’ve read that an integral part of writing is indistinguishable from staring vacantly out the window, sometimes for hours on end. For me, that often turns into walks with my dog or bike rides: things that get me out of the house, out of my head, and into my body. It’s very easy for a writer to neglect her physical well-being, but even just a quick walk around the block can really shake things loose, as well as make you feel better. Stretching your legs a little makes sitting back down at the keyboard much more palatable, and getting to go for a walk can be used as a reward as well.

And there are always deadlines. A deadline doesn’t have to be set by a publisher or an editor. You can set it yourself, or choose a contest to enter, which provides an external deadline. I have, more than once, taken days off work to meet a deadline that I set for myself, because I believe the deadlines I set are just as important as any other kind: I’ve made a promise to myself, and I want to keep that promise. The only person you cheat by letting a self-imposed deadline go by is yourself, after all.

There are probably a thousand other ways to motivate yourself to write, and to build the discipline necessary to sit down and do the job every day. Perhaps now you’re a little better armed than you were before–so now it’s time to go write!