Is it time to consider writing professionally, at least part-time?
Writing professionally means writing as though you need to pay the rent – tomorrow. You need to devote time to your craft. You need to develop effective habits. Remember the old adage, Practice Makes Perfect? It’s wrong – practice makes improvement. Developing a good writing habit will help you improve, hopefully to the point of becoming a paid, published author.
The habits I outline work for me. They may not specifically work for you, but feel free to use them as a guideline to build your own good ones.
First, set aside a specific block of time. Consider this just like going to work, because you are. The good news is you don’t have to drive through bad weather to get there. You can pick any time, and any period of time; just make sure you won’t be disturbed. Explain to your family and housemates that this time is important to you, and ask them to get on your case if you play hooky. Start acting professionally, and after a while, this block of time will become a routine. Everyone will slowly adjust around your new schedule.
I set aside two hours in the morning, after my kids are on the bus and my wife heads off to work. I typically switch between two novels-in-progress and my short stories, depending on what mood I’m in.
There will be times when you don’t feel like writing. This is okay; spend the time doing research or developing your characters. These little ‘housekeeping chores’ are part of the published author path. Every bit gets you closer to that goal. Start a Book Bible, something you can refer back to as you develop your novel. I use a Microsoft Access database that I created specifically for the development of my characters. Every detail, from physical characteristics to habits and traits, is stored for easy referral. I even include a photograph or a drawing by my oldest daughter, just to look into their eyes. It works wonders for me; your mileage may vary. When writer’s block hits, I develop new characters. Sometimes, these characters develop their own stories, and I forget I had writer’s block.
Don’t do anything not directly related to your writing. Read other novels and writing magazines on your own time. You wouldn’t sit in a meeting at your current paying job and read, would you? Respect your professional writing environment, just like you respect the rules of your job.
The biggest response to setting a block of time aside is, “I don’t have time to do that!” The answer is yes, you actually do. It’s your current routine that needs adjustment. Make a conscious decision, stick with it, and you’ll discover you’ll fall into your new habits within a week.
Now that you have a time to write, you need a place to perform your magic.
Some books recommend setting aside a room or corner to keep your writing stuff within easy reach. If you can do this, that’s great. It works. I don’t have the space at home, so I sit on the couch with my laptop, a cup of fresh coffee, and a fat yellow dog, who lies on my feet to keep them warm. I believe the secret is to have a place you feel comfortable. Writing while stressed can be difficult, and writing with constant distractions is almost impossible. Relax, and let your muse guide you.
If your creative juices flow with Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries, then by all means, set up some background music. Need a little bit of background chatter? Tune your television to C-SPAN (the government channel), or even a station broadcasting a language you don’t speak. Don’t tune it to something you’d watch, because you’ll watch it instead of working on your craft. Keep the volume down, unless you actually work better with a noisy environment.
Having a time and place to work will help you improve, and to build life-long good habits. If you’re writing, and you’re ‘on a roll’, keep on writing. Consider it overtime, and expect to get ‘paid’ in the long run.
There are dead times in most people’s daily schedule. Dead time means doing an activity that does not require using your brain, because you’re doing mindless, repetitive chores. Use those wasted brain waves on your stories. Play a constant ‘what if?’ game while vacuuming. What if Jennifer doesn’t see Reginald with his mistress, but he sees her? How would he react? What would the mistress do? Playing all the angles out in your head will help you to make the right choice for your novel, just like a Grand Master-class chess player who runs all the scenarios in his head before making a move. Don’t limit yourself to your first novel outline. When something better comes along, use it. Worst comes to worse, you’re getting a better feel for your characters.
Most paying jobs have a set goal or task to complete each day. Your professional writing career depends on your writing, so it’s time to work out a goal. You should strive to meet your goal daily. If you miss your daily task, don’t beat yourself up. Add the missed task to tomorrow’s schedule.
My goal is to write at least two pages of usable text per session. It may be split between three separate stories, so I keep track of my word count with a little Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I consider it my timesheet – no timesheet, no ‘pay’ at the end of the week.
I have daily, weekly and overall project goals. If I hit my daily and weekly goals, I reward myself. My favorite reward is stopping by my local bookstore and spending fifty dollars on books and magazines. Sometimes, I spoil my kids with a surprise or two. Whatever drives you, use it to push your professional author status, if only in your head.
Sometimes, I go to Barnes & Nobles to look at the science fiction shelves. I make it a point to look at the “D” section to visualize where my novel will be in the future. I look at the authors on both sides of where my name would fit, and imagine meeting them at the San Diego Comic Con. It may appear silly to some, but it’s a proven technique used by top athletes.
If you have space set aside to work at home, put some encouragement in the workplace. There are times I need to get a mental boost, so I take the current book I’m developing and log on to Lulu.com. I create a private project, upload what I have so far, and buy a copy of the book for less than fifteen dollars. When the book arrives, I keep it within eyesight when I’m working. It is a great motivator, and it shows me I can accomplish my project goals with just a little more effort.
All it takes is some hard work on your part, some good habits, a comfortable environment, and some motivation. Most of the writers I know already do most of these things, so it’s typically a matter of tweaking and prodding to get into a professional writing routine.
I look forward to reading a complimentary, signed first edition of your New York Times bestseller.