Okay, so here’s the absolute crux of my writing advice, the most important thing I have to say on the matter (regardless of whether or not you asked me to say it): Write every single day, even when you don’t feel like writing.
I don’t spare myself too many emotions when it comes to this practice, and that’s a good thing because I tend inarguably towards the dramatic in every other aspect of my life. But when it comes to writing, this is what I do, without fail: I sit down in front of my laptop every single day and I write. If I’m in a first draft phase, it’s 800 words. If I’m rewriting, it’s at least an hour. I do it, and it either feels great and easy, or it feels difficult and strained. No cozy middle ground, just a wild and unpredictable vacillation between two extremes. Ah, the writing life!
When I was 25, suffering the first of a series of quarter life crises that have defined my life since then, I committed to my 800-word-a-day maxim (and I mean every day, regardless of circumstance: I’ve written in hospitals, on airplanes, in a tent in the middle of a Hawaiian jungle, fevered and barfing in the my bathroom, on the way to parties, on lunch breaks in my car, everywhere). It was a huge break through for me. I am tempted to say that it is the best decision I ever made. But, you know, I’ve made a lot of really top notch decisions, so. (You don’t know me, so you can’t tell I’m being facetious.)
You too can make this excellent decision!
Although my ability to adhere to an absolute schedule regardless of circumstances seems inextricably bound to the increasing intensity of my OCD, I don’t think you need to be mentally ill to do this. In fact, any competent psychiatrists out there are most likely nodding their heads vigorously in support of you not developing a disorder in order to write.
If you are not curse/bless-ed with stringency, you can still make writing a habit. It might be more than enough to talk to a friend or a family member who will keep you accountable. Kind of like having a gym buddy except it has nothing to do with fitness, they won’t be with you while you’re writing, and there is no expensive membership at stake. It’s just important to have that sense of accountability, either to yourself or to others, that you will write. On the good days and the bad.
Because yes, there will be good days (sunny, bright, red-golden fall leaves drifting from a bright blue sky) and there will be bad days (August, hot, muggy, your body is a breeding ground for sweat, bacteria, and literally mosquitoes). I mentioned before that I have no in-between feelings when it comes to my writing. What I mean by that is that I’m either completely on or utterly off. I’m either skating like Michelle Kwan or I’m skidding around the ice like a four year old boy with a hockey helmet who’s crashing from a sugar overdose.
When it’s good, it’s real good. The words flow. The descriptions come naturally, easily, as though I’m existing in the exact place my characters are. I’m walking alongside them in the world that they’ve drawn me into, and I’m really just following their lead as to plot, characterization, description, setting, and theme. It’s easy. My 800 words (or, currently, my chapter rewrites) seem to write themselves in this flow state (hark the Wikipedia description: “flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”)
Yeah, so some golden-gilded days, I get to flow in my fiction.
Other times, though, I’m bog-slogging over here. I’m in muck boots knee deep in viscous tar sand just trying to get to the other side. There are hobgoblins dangling from my braids whispering treason into my ears. I see the light, but it’s not the light of success or fame or even a good 800 words: it’s just the goddamn light of completion. The end of the tar pit. If I reach the light, regardless of how utterly degrading the process was to my psyche, I will feel awash with a sense of relief and yes, some pride.
That’s integral to the process: feel good about your bad work. If you have to write 800 words (this is arbitrary, btw. 300 is fine. 2,000 is great if you’re a Stephen King-esque writing monster) a day, and you actually complete that goal every-single-day, that is a rare accomplishment. That means that if you are writing a novel, in three months you would have written 72,000 words. That’s the length of a novel. If you’re writing short stories, in a month you might have completed four short stories of 6,000 words each.
If you do this, you are writing more than most people write. You should be proud of yourself!
I hate myself for using an exclamation mark at the end of the preceding sentence, but I refuse to edit it out because it’s true and because I feel quite sentimental about this particular concept. I highly doubt there is a single writer out there who feels good and creative every time he or she sits down to get through their word count of the day. I know I don’t. But the fact that you do it, every day, is absolutely worth celebrating.
Since I’ve committed to this writing schedule, I’ve written three 100,000 + books in my Teen Fantasy/Sci-Fi series. Did you hear that? I’ve completed a trilogy (I mean, not really. Because of all the rewriting and whatnot). And I’m not bragging. Indeed, there’s nothing to brag about. Because I write every single day regardless of divine or even regular inspiration, my books are…uneven. A lot of it is absolute piddle.
The reason I was able to complete these first drafts that I’m proud of (shut up, I’m proud, I am, eat my socks), is because I clung to two interconnected tenants: Write Every Day, and Write Every Day Even If It Sucks. If you are feeling stuck or uninspired, that’s a shame and I’m sorry. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there most days. But you just have to slog through it. If you haven’t started a worthwhile project for a while, try to find writing prompts online. I have some here on this blog at the ends of my reviews, but I’ve recently realized they’re more like exercises than prompts, so whatever.
Really, just get started and never stop. Some days are harder than others, but those golden days of inspiration will carry you through the rest, as will the sense of accomplishment that you WILL achieve having stayed true to your goals.
Because that’s the thing about being an unpublished writer, or even a “failed” writer as I affectionately dub myself. Rewards are few. Compensation is nil. Acknowledgment is non-existent. I am not trying to suggest that you remain content with failure, with lack of acknowledgment or compensation. I’m suggesting that despite that, and knowing all the hard work you have in store, you need to write every day even if it’s hard.
That is how you remain plugged in to your goals. That is how you maintain your connection to the mysterious realms of inspiration with which writers commune. That is how you practice and hone your skills as a writer, getting better and better every day. That is how you become disciplined, principled, and earnest in your intentions. That is how you get to feel really, truly proud.