This is an excerpted chapter from my latest book, How To Make a Living with Your Writing.
You can't make a living from your writing if you're not actually 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.
Here are some tips for getting that first draft done.
(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.
The best thing to do is to write that book, then write another, then another, then another.
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.
April Munday says
I avoid the distractions of the internet while writing by writing longhand on paper, so I’m nowhere near a laptop. That’s probably a bit slow by your standards, but it works for me. Because I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research, which in turn provides me with ideas.
this is a great idea. i do that write by hand. But i am being notice i am distacted lately by twitter. so i am going by your suggestion and writting by hand again 🙂 blessings
Cyd Madsen says
Terrific advice here. Years of working as a photographer trained me to wake up, without an alarm, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to catch the “golden hour.” It now serves me well with writing. After living this habit for so many years, I have no idea if that’s my most creative and productive time out of habit, or if it’s my rhythm. Whatever, I grab it and get my first 1,000 words in before the dogs get up and we go for a hike.
I’ve also started using a different laptop for my writing. It’s a tiny netbook with limited memory that doesn’t allow for much fiddling around outside of the work. And it’s pink! With stickers!
How to get ideas flowing? I’ve never understood that. I was raised as an only child on a lonely beach with imaginary friends, so I suppose I’d suggest people chose their childhoods carefully. It’s fantastic for a constant flow of stories and ideas. My problem is sticking with a project to the end and not trotting off towards something new and shiny that hasn’t been crumpled by running into a brick wall. That, too, is a habit, but one I’m still working on. I’m learning that I run to something new if the challenge isn’t tough enough or have what I consider significant meaning (laughter and entertaining are high on the list of significance). Self-knowledge often equates to self mastery, and my own book of life knowledge is one that keeps adding chapters with the years. It’s a constantly moving target and very annoying.
Love the new book. Both my husband and I are reading it as we face the launch of a project we’ve been testing for two years. The book couldn’t have come along at a better time.
Joanna Penn says
I’m glad it’s helpful, Cyd 🙂 I am considering the separate laptop thing too!
CJ Andrews says
Great advice on staying focused and forging ahead with writing my first novel. I can’t wait to read the rest of your book!
Mark Wayne McGinnis says
Funny, I do the same thing – blast the sounds of rainstorms (and thunderstorms) into my headphones)… this was a great post, Joanna. I teach a writing group for fellow indie writers once a week and this will be a great reference 🙂 – mark
Joanna Penn says
Glad to meet another rainy writer 🙂
Katarina West says
Thanks, Joanna! This really says it all.
THANKS BUNCHES JOANNA, this is a great article as usual. I need these kind of thing to read to put things into perspective. Also, I am new at this career and blogging. Thank you again. blessings to you and yours
Lady Jewels Diva says
When I write it’s longhand in A4 spiral bound notebooks with a blue pen. I did do a couple of non-fiction books in the last couple of years which were done straight on the pc as they sprouted from blog posts so I copied/pasted those into a Word Doc then ripped them to shreds to produce the books.
I’ve started writing children’s books under another name and they’re also in longhand so it looks like fiction is a pad and pen thing for me.
I prefer to write with no distractions, no tv, no radio, no interruptions, nothing. It’s better for me to concentrate and I get the book straight out. I have a table as a desk so it’s bigger but then my pc / notebook shares with my printer, pens and pencils.
I don’t think I could write in public, except for a quite place in the library, as I’d be to worried about people peering over my shoulder, being nosy or needing to run to the toilet. And what if you get so entrenched in the story that your mind disappears and you are no longer there….too much can happen in public so I’d rather not risk it. The home office is the place to go for me.
Elke Feuer says
‘Work out when your most creative time is.’ Spot on! I did this recently and I’m amazed. I love writing, but I also enjoy doing the business stuff and often missed my creative writing window. No more.
Marilynn Byerly says
A friend had the same wrist problem as you do. She invested in a voice to text program, Dragon something or other, and she was very happy with the results.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Marilynn – I have a new sideways mouse which is definitely helping 🙂
Steven M. Moore says
Each writer must find a way to keep writing that suits her/him. But I thought you were going to emphasize the multiple-book aspect. I’ve been putting my prose out there for more than ten years, have eighteen books (one soon to be released), and still wouldn’t be called successful by most people’s definition.
But I always say, as long as each ebook entertains at least one reader, it’s a success. While I’d sure like to make enough to avoid running in the red, the indie paradigm allows me to write on a meager budget and pass on the savings to my readers. I can offer ebooks that I consider solid entertainment at a price less than a fast food meal here in the States.
It’s all about having fun from my point of view, for both readers and writers.
Joanna Penn says
Success is something we all have to define, Steven and it sounds like yours is a great definition 🙂
I do mention writing lots of books in order to make a living – but elsewhere in the book and on the blog – this excerpt is more focused on practice and process. Thanks!
Ester Shifren says
Joanna, you’ve once again delivered a gem, with so much encouraging information. I write at home, and have considered writing at the library to avoid the multitude of distractions. I just never get there! I believe you can switch most distractions off in Scrivener, and I’ll be applying myself to the study of that very soon so I can master it. Thanks to all the webinars you’ve promoted, I don’t find it so daunting anymore! I’m never phased by the blank page! I just write anything that comes to mind and it soon starts flowing magically. I love all your posts, thank you.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you found it useful, Ester – keep on writing 🙂
Jack Walden says
Oh! How I needed this post.
I finally self published a four book series, “Adoption Is How God Says I Love You” a few months ago. The books are about the masculine triad of adoption that links the father, son, and adoptive father forever.
Surprise, a baby came into our lives. Now the 10 to 12 am time period no longer works.
I’m two weeks into a new project where I write after taking him to daycare in the mornings.
It’s very different, but I have to keep on going.
I was afraid the daytime distractions would hinder my growing word count.
I’m adjusting. I use a computer that doesn’t connect to the net.
Thanks for a great post.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it – and happy writing and happy babies 🙂
Monica T. Rodriguez says
Hi Joanna! Great post as usual. You mentioned in the email you sent out your difficulties with RSI. Have you tried any speech-to-text software? I’ve used Dragon for several years now and find it’s great, and even hears my New York accent with no problem! And I think it’s faster than my typing. It is a bit different speaking your ideas rather than writing, but it may help out with the arm.
Joanna Penn says
I’ve got Dragon but haven’t taken to it – I can’t seem to think out loud 🙂 I did use it for the first draft of How to Make a Living with your Writing but ended up rewriting most of it. I have a new sideways mouse which is definitely helping! Thanks
I have tried the sideways mice but can’t get one to feel comfortable – what one did you eventually choose, Joanna? Maybe I need to look again. I hear technology has moved on – only last week I saw a man rolling down our little village street on some strange contraption. I have no idea how he stayed upright – it only had two wheels, one at the front and one at the back. I still need to figure out what he was doing with his legs – they kept going up and down like he was pumping his foot rests.
Joanna Penn says
I’m using an Evoluent mouse – handshake grip. It seems to be working.
Don’t forget the powerful DICTATION tool in the SYSTEM PREFERENCES of your Mac. It will allow you to speak directly into Scrivener and most Apple text based apps – the words appear as text on the page – pretty much at the rate you speak them. It is also a function of the IOS system that runs your iPhone or iPad.
It is Apple’s functional and free iteration of Dragon Dictate.
It is best to use a half-decent headphone microphone – there are many. I just use a Logitech of the shelf unit.
It is magic if you have any form of RSI and it means your first draft just flies.
NOT – “Logitech of the shelf unit”
But = “Logitech off the shelf unit”
Joanna Penn says
I have tried speech to text but find it difficult to think out loud. I seem to think through typing much more easily. Thanks for the suggestion though.