This is an excerpted chapter from my latest book, How To Make a Living with Your Writing.
And while writing may seem easy to some and it has its fun moments, it’s actually really hard work!
I think it’s the best job in the world (for me) but it’s certainly not for everyone. Here are my tips on getting the words out.
(1) Sort out your routine and writing habits
Every writer is different but every professional writer also has some kind of routine to get the words onto the page. You can call this discipline if you like, but it’s better to think of it as a habit.
Habits are things you do without having to debate whether to do them or not. Like brushing your teeth, which you likely do at the same time every day and miss if you don’t do.
In my first four years of writing books and blogging, I also had a demanding day job as an IT consultant. Because I was drained by the end of the day, I would get up at 5am and write before going to work and also set aside a bigger chunk of time to write on the weekends. In the evenings I worked on my website, blog, podcast and social media, connecting with other authors and building my online platform. I wrote several non-fiction books and also my first three novels this way.
In many ways, it’s easier to write when you have a day job.
Your time is restricted so you have to make the most of the time you have and you’re driven to achieve in that period. The financial side is also taken care of so you have less pressure. But of course, you’re likely reading this because you want to switch!
I switched to being a full time author entrepreneur in September 2011 and in the first year, it was very hard to find a routine. After 13 years of commuting and office work, it was difficult to adapt to working from home alone. I solved this problem by joining a library and taking the train into town with my husband, then working “office hours” and taking lunch or coffee breaks with other author friends, most of whom I met on Twitter.
You’ll need to play around with what works for you, but here’s what I’ve found for my own routine:
- I’m a morning person so I need to write fiction in the morning and then do marketing/running the business activities after 2pm. I can also write non-fiction or blog posts/articles in the afternoon, but then I wind down in the evenings. Work out when your most creative time is and use it for first draft material.
- Creating things is tiring. Writing fiction in particular can really take it out of you, so getting enough sleep is critical. I usually get 8 hours a night and sometimes I’ll sleep 10 hours after a big writing day. Our brains pay the bills so we need to look after them.
- I need to write new words away from my home desk, because I also use that for podcasting, accounting and other things. So I write in libraries or cafes and I always plug in my headphones, listen to rain and thunderstorms album on repeat, turn up the volume and start to write.
- Diarize your time and make slots for your writing as you would for any other appointment. If you think you don’t have enough time, then look at what to eliminate to make the time. You’ll find a way if you really want to write. It’s all about where you choose to spend your energy. You get what you focus on.
(2) Get the right tools for the job
We are super lucky as authors because the tools we need are minimal and cheap compared to other businesses. I used to run
a scuba diving business in New Zealand – we had a boat and loads of dive gear, not to mention the costs of fuel, insurance, wages etc.
Now all I need is a laptop and an internet connection!
I have a MacBook Pro and I use it for writing as well as making videos, podcasting and emails, etc. Pro writer Dean Wesley Smith recommends having a separate computer for writing so you can get into focus without distraction, but I’ve managed this by changing location.
However, if you can’t escape the addictive pull of the internet during writing sessions, then maybe getting something basic to write on and disabling the internet on that is a good idea.
The other tool I couldn’t do without is Scrivener software. I use it to plot and (roughly) outline as well as write, organize and manage my books. I also use the Compile option to create my ebook files for Kindle and ePub formats. It’s incredibly powerful software and if you want to maximize your usage, I recommend the Learn Scrivener Fast training course.
You can also watch a 36 min video here where I talk you through my writing tips as well as how I use Scrivener for fiction and non-fiction.
(3) Understand first draft writing vs editing/redrafting
Words do not stream from a writer’s fingertips perfectly in order, each word exactly as it will be in the final draft.
Writers will usually create a first draft, a splurge of words and ideas that definitely will NOT be seen by others. They will then spend time rewriting, editing and polishing until the manuscript is ready for public consumption. I’ve also found this is true for blog posts and articles as much as books.
Yes, there are some exceptions but understanding this freed me up enough to write books. I recommend you read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird where she talks about this saying, “Write shitty first drafts.” Then clean them up!
Remember, you can’t edit a blank page. So just get black on white and work through edits later.
(4) Fill the creative well and then trust emergence
If you want to write for a living, you need to have a consistent flow of ideas that can be used in whatever you’re writing next. I still remember when this seemed impossible to me but once you start the flow, ideas will never be a problem again. The problem will be turning those ideas into words and finished products.
So how do you start the flow of ideas?
For me, it’s all about research – this can be online or through books, but I also like to go visit places, immerse myself in new experiences and give synchronicity a chance.
I often find things in museums that end up in my books, or I am at an event and get an idea, or I’m watching TV or a film and something springs to mind. For example, I was watching a documentary on sharks and wondered how biohacking could be used to make human skin more like a shark’s. I just write stuff like that down. I don’t have to do anything with it now, just log it and I trust that I will come back to it another time. Or not, it doesn’t matter. But just getting used to the process of noticing ideas and writing them down will prime the pump.
Trust those impulses and write them down.
I use the Things app on the iPhone which syncs to my Mac and I have a special folder for ideas where I just log a line or two per idea. You can use a notebook or any other app, but definitely have some way to note them down.
When I write, ideas filter up from my subconscious, often from things I saw or experienced years ago. In Gates of Hell, I ended up writing about Safed, a little town in Israel that I visited way back in 1990. It emerged in the story somehow and my memories of it came back, aided by Google, of course!
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a symptom of letting the creative well run dry. Go fill it up, get excited about things again and then come back to the page.
(5) Find your voice by writing lots
Here’s a question for you to consider.
If someone writes 10 books, which book will be the best? Number 1 or number 10?
Hopefully the answer is obvious, because practice and experience result in better everything.
But so many writers get obsessed over their first book, spending years writing, editing and polishing it without moving on to the next. We all have self-doubt, we all suffer from fear of failure, fear of judgment. That never stops, even for the most experienced writers from what I’ve heard.
Work with a professional editor on every book, learning from their experience. Read loads and loads and learn from other writers. Practice technique as you write, focusing on different aspects per book.
Also, relax into it and have fun.
I used to take myself so seriously, but these days, I try to bring joy into my writing. This is not war and peace. No one is going to die (except in your stories!).
Focus on entertaining, educating or inspiring your readers and just write more.
This is an excerpted chapter from How to Make a Living with your Writing, available in ebook formats.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons: alarm clock by H is for Home.