How I learned to embrace little habits.

I am a terrible procrastinator.

I always I have been. I’m not sure why. I suffer from a terrible discordance between the person I’d like to be, and the person I am. In my mind, I am a true renaissance man. Artist, writer, pundit and politician. Thinker, doer, adventurer. Equally at home publishing his own fine collection of short stories or painting pretty little still-lifes for the whole world to enjoy. In reality,  I fight a never ending battle against my own laziness. I have some achievements under my belt, a few things I’ve done I’m pretty happy with and a few ongoing projects that I really think could become something. The problem is I’m just not one of those people who finds it hard to do nothing. Some people get itchy at the idea of doing nothing, the get bored and irritable, they need to work at all times. I wish I was one of those people. I have to rely on other tactics. (Mostly guilt.) I’ve said it before, there are lots of things I enjoy, lots of things I quite like to do. I love the feeling of having created, of being proud of something and being able to put it out there. There are some things I love the process of. I can become totally absorbed in art. Drawing and painting would be enormous time drains, if only they paid the rent.

But getting started? Getting up in the morning with a to-do list and happily working through it until the sun sets. Working without pining for a time when I can put it all away and vegetate in front of Netflix while my waistband steadily expands. Well. I’m not that person. And I’ve fought against it. As a child, society helped. Go to school, do your homework, don’t be late. I was kicked and shoved begrudgingly into something the resembled an organised life, but the older one gets. The longer we are left to our own devices, the less we can count on society to mould our lives into shape. When the plaster is removed, some of us turn out to be exquisitely sculpted clay, but I ended up as something squidgier. I’ve been trying to mould myself ever since.

The first failure was in trying to fix everything at once. I would have phases of firing on all cylinders all at once. For a while, the shape would stick. I would work hard, without stopping, on everything I wanted to achieve all at once, and tidy the house at the end of the day too. The results were predictable. My life would stop and start, I’d oscillate between moments of giddy, productive joy and utter, depressing mediocrity.

Things changed when I went into writing. At first I tried to do it all at once, I was going to write the greatest novel ever written, and I was going to do it in three months, self publish it and live off the fat cheques that followed. It didn’t work out like that. I got half way through the first draft, burned out and never returned to it. My next attempt wasn’t much better. Eventually I realised I just didn’t have the stamina to write what I wanted to write. I was like a Sunday jogger trying to run a marathon. I switched it up, I decided to go into training. I set myself a very modest goal of writing 500 words a day. The 500 words became 1000, then 2000 and eventually 3000. (Oh how I miss those days.) It changed the way I wrote, and it changed the way I saw my own progress. For once, I’d stuck with something and I actually felt like I was growing. It affected me in other ways too, just getting up in the morning and writing first thing put a different spin on my whole day. Of course, I still kicked and screamed my way through everything else I had to do, but I had one solid goal under my belt already that day. It was a step forward. Progress, if nothing else.

Since then, when taking to something new, I’ve always tried to break it down into little daily goals. Little habits to build. I find it much easier to approach everything I have to do if I take it one tiny decision at a time, and at the end of the day, I can look back and see what those decisions added up to. If I let it expand, if I try too hard to worry about the big picture, I get overwhelmed. I shut down. The lazy gland kicks in and I want to hide from my to-do list. Over time, however, if I keep working at these little decisions, they become habit. The brain heads to them without thinking, until you can almost work on autopilot. After a little while, I found I was one of those people who couldn’t go too long without writing before they started to get itchy feet.

I’m still a terrible procrastinator. I have to resist the tendency to slack off every day. I’ve had to learn that what I want, and what I think I want, aren’t always the same thing. I want to draw comics and read great books, I want to tell stories and make art and connect with people through these things. But most of the time, I think I want to crash in bed and watch TV. I know I don’t really want to do it, because if I give in to that temptation I end up hating myself for it. I don’t feel happy again until I can work closer to that goal. I’ve been in a slump with writing for a few months now, I haven’t written as much as I should. I’ve started lots of other projects, but they’re all easier, more comfortable. I’ve let the challenging things slip while I worry about leaving my job, and where to go moving forward. It has been a while since I worked on my little habits, but I know where I need to go from here.

A little writing every day, a little blogging every day, a little around the house, and the rest will take care of itself.

Five Habits New Writers Should Develop – About Writing: Part 3

Five Habits New Writers Should Develop:

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This is the third in my series About Writing. Check out Part 1 for a step-by-step guide to writing your first short story,  or Part 2 to learn more about planning.

In this part, I’m going to be talking about some really good habits new writers can develop. If you’re serious about writing for a living, it’s important to develop as a writer and develop a fitting work ethic. Read on to learn how!

1) Write every day.

Here it is, folks. Writing 101. Writing every day is one of the most important steps you can take on your path to becoming a writer. It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it doesn’t have to be much. But if you can carve a slot in your daily schedule to sit at your desk at the same time every day and write. Well, you’ll probably make it.

Daily writing has a few key benefits. Firstly, if you’re working on a long piece like a blockbuster novel, you’re going to finish your first draft a lot sooner. Secondly, If you’re between projects or suffering from writers’ block, writing every day will train up your brain so that you get better at writing on command. Our brains are adaptive, they learn, they develop new patterns and ways of thinking, but conditioning your brain this way relies upon routine. If you’re the kind of person who does NaNoWriMo every year that’s great, but if you don’t sit at the keyboard for the other eleven months it’s going to be slow progress.

If you’re new to it, start small. A couple of hundred words a day is enough to get started, work your way up to a thousand if you can. 365 Thousand words written in a year is enough for anyone to make a career out of (with a little practice.) Doesn’t matter if you write fiction, non-fiction, or just want to writing an amazing blog. The practice will help you all round.

Writing every day doesn’t just produce a lot of work, it makes you think and feel like a writer. It makes you better at spotting good writing opportunities, and getting your thoughts from brain to page more clearly. You don’t have to share, or even keep, everything you write, but the experience gained is invaluable.

2) Finish your first drafts.

A lot of new writers have trouble bringing pieces to completion. I had this problem for years and it stopped me from ever trying to write anything really meaty. Too often I would look back on the things I had written and feel like they didn’t come up to scratch. In longer stories, I’d get tied in knots and lose motivation. I didn’t realise at the time how much difference a good plan and rewrite would make for a story.

This can really knock your motivation. You want to move forward, but you’re sitting on piles of unfinished stories. Worse still, you’ve never gone through the process start to finish, you don’t really have much experience with anything but starting first drafts. You need finished stories to work with, and you need the practice bringing those stories to completion.

When you’re writing your first draft, give yourself a loose idea of where your story is going and just write it. Don’t worry about the quality, and don’t worry about fixing mistakes. Think of it like building a house, trying to rewrite during your first draft is like picking out carpets before building the roof. Even if you’re hitting stumbling blocks, push through and finish the draft. You’d be surprised how much you can sort out later.

3) Enjoy reading.

I know this one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t really read. None of us reads as much as we’d like, I’m sure. It’s hard to find the time, or a book that really grabs us. There are stories to finish, jobs to do, and when it comes to spare time, the TV is much more passive and inviting. However, reading is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the more you get out of it.

Reading regularly is one of the best ways to develop a natural, confident writing style, and it happens without too much conscious effort from the writer. Reading great books gives you a feel for a well constructed sentence, and brain that is more comfortable with the written word. Books aren’t paced like films, or TV. Absorbing yourself in them with give you a better sense of how a written narrative unfolds. You’ll get a good eye for the type of writing you like, and the chances are someone else will too.

4) Keep rewriting

Rewriting is the real craft of writing.

Writing a first draft is the fun, it’s like doodling or strumming out a song on the guitar. It’s loose, it’s freeing, and it’s all about exploring every opportunity you can. Rewriting is harder. It’s slower work, and it’s all about being tough on yourself. Every does it differently, but the goal is the same. Take your first draft and smooth it out, preserve your strengths, your style, but make the hand of the author invisible. Iron out the creases so that when someone reads your book, it feels right.

It can be tough to sit at your computer and be so harsh on yourself. Worse still, it usually takes multiple passes. Building a strong approach to rewriting is a great skill. Try to separate yourself from your role as the author, look at your text as though it were written by a stranger. Read it and every time you hit a hurdle, smooth it out. Rewrite. Cut and compress. Turn it into a pleasurable activity, read for fun, say the words, find out sentences and make fun of yourself. Be daring, cut entire paragraphs into oblivion if it’ll help your book. Just keep doing it.

If you can be tough on yourself, if you can learn to go back to your book over and over again, writing and rewriting until there’s nothing you can fix, your books will benefit, and so will you.

5) Let your work settle.

If you’ve mastered the previous four habits, then this next one might be a bit of a struggle for you.

This is a recent problem for me. You see, I am an inefficient workaholic. I don’t get as much done as I would if I used my time better, but I really have trouble letting go of jobs. If I post a book freebie, or add something to the blog, I can stop peeping at stats. If I write a story and I’ve really got myself into a rewriting state of mind, I tweak and I tweak. And even when I convince myself to leave it, I think about it and dwell on my mistakes.

There comes a time when you need to let a piece settle. Sometimes it’s easy to know when. If you’ve just finished the first draft of a novel, go away. Leave the book, start something new. Just leave it. If you’re rewriting? That can be trickier, you might need to repeat and repeat the rewriting process until all the kinks are out, but you can get too close too. Sometimes a piece of writing just doesn’t work until you can separate yourself from it. That means stepping back and letting yourself forget about it for a bit.

If you’re having trouble with a piece that just won’t sort itself out, step back. Forget your wrote it, write something else or get away from writing completely for a few days. Give it as long as it needs, it’ll still be there when you get back, and the chances are it won’t be so bad.


 

That’s all for now. If this was useful to you, check out some more articles about writing. Pop your email address in the box on the right hand side of the page to be notified when new posts arrive here. If you’d like to read some of my work, check out my author page on Amazon.