It’s been four years, almost exactly, since I devoted myself to writing full time. And, in many ways, it’s gone well, even if I am by no means a bestseller. I’ve written eight books in those four years, and released five of them, with two more to come out later this year. And I’ve learned some things along the way, mostly about how my process works (or doesn’t). So, I thought I’d share a few of those things with you here. Maybe there will be an insight that unlocks something for you. Mostly, what I’ve done, is find a way to work so that the work itself does not drain me, but something I can draw energy from. YMMV, of course, but here goes …
1. You Need to Have Plan
I did not start writing for the first time on July 1, 2019. I’ve been a writer all my life. What I was not, was a closer. I would start out, very excited about a project, then that energy would peter out as I would write myself into a corner, with no idea where to go next. Then I’d leapfrog to another project, abandoning the first, repeating unto infinity. Nothing ever got finished.
I thought I was a ‘pantser’ at heart, and that if I had any kind of outline, it would kill the joy of discovery, boredom would set in, and I would lose my enthusiasm for the project. Well, that was happening anyway, wasn’t it? So, I tried plotting out the main events in my books before I started writing. And Holy Shit! It worked!
I don’t plot out every last detail. I leave surprises for myself to discover along the way, but I have an idea of where I’m going, a clear image of things that need to be set up for later scenes. I don’t commit absolutely to the outline. If I come up with something better, I change things up as I go along. And now, I’m finishing things. I haven’t had an abandoned project in the last four years. That feels like a miracle.
I don’t recommend one specific plot structure over any others. I’ve used ‘Save The Cat,’ and ‘Freitag’s Pyramid’ and KM Weiland’s ‘Character Arcs.’ These have all worked fine. Right now, I’m using a modified version of Dan Well’s 7-point Plot Structure, and that has been ideal for the project I’m currently working on. The point is that you need to have some sort of structure going in, a scaffolding upon which to lay your story. Pick something, or create your own, and use it. If you’re having trouble finishing things, this might be the key for you, as it was for me.
I know this is difficult for ‘discovery writers,’ but it really does keep you from getting stuck.
2 .You’ve got to have a schedule
The sad truth is that if you want to write (or do anything else) at any sort of professional level, you must devote significant amounts of time to it. And if you’re going to do that, especially if you have a spouse and kids and a day job or any other kinds of responsibilities, you’re going to have to schedule the time. The time exists. It might be scarce, but you can make the time if it’s important to you (I know that sounds flippant, but it’s true). You can’t count on the time just appearing. This is especially important for us neurodivergent folks. Some of us can pivot on a dime, but others need time to prepare our brains for a focus-intensive task such as writing.
But there’s a second part to this. Not only do you need to schedule your writing time, but you also need to communicate this schedule to the other people in your life. Do it without apology. This is your writing time. It is sacred. Otherwise, this time will be gobbled up by other people. This is not time you are available to help other people with their shit (unless you have an infant and I understand that shit waits for no one). This is also not ‘your time,’ meaning time people consider as your time to relax. This is WORK TIME. You are not ‘doing nothing.’ You are working. Even if you’re not yet getting paid for it.
I was having this problem because it seemed like every time I sat down to write I would get a call from my daughter or my mom and I would be sucked into whatever emergency (and I use the term loosely here) they had going on. Then I started hard scheduling that time on my google calendar and sharing it with them. I think on the calendar I titled it WRITING TIME DO NOT DISTURB!!! And it took a little while, but eventually everybody in my life adjusted to that and now they help me protect the time because they know it is important to me. That’s not to say I can’t be interrupted if there’s an actual emergency. And my schedule is flexible enough that if I know ahead of time I’m going to be needed to babysit or take someone to the doctor, I can manage that. I don’t think I’ve been a jerk about it, but it is obvious that having enough time to work is important to me.
So, schedule your time. As much time as you can make. This can be whenever you can find it, and those times can change from day to day and week to week. But make a schedule. Respect your work time and other people will start respecting it as well.
3. You need to take yourself seriously
This is related to the last item. Even if you’re not making money yet, what you are doing is important, and not just to you. Don’t apologize for what you do. Be proud of your work. Be proud of yourself for doing it. It’s hard. It’s something a lot of people say they want to do, but very few actually accomplish. And if your work is out there, in whatever venue, celebrate that!
The other day my best friend, Nick (also a writer) and I were at Barnes and Noble and he walked right up to the information desk and started asking how he would go about getting his books in the store. Now, I immediately started freaking out thinking ‘No! You Can’t just do that! You’re going to embarrass yourself! Don’t you understand how this works?!’ and then I realized that Nick was just acting without fear, while I walk around apologizing for myself. And when I joined the conversation, we both found out useful information that might lead to us having a reading/signing at the store later this summer.
So, believe in the quality of your work. Don’t apologize for it, or yourself. You wrote (or are writing) a book! That book deserves to be in stores and on ebook sites! That book deserves to be talked about so it can find its readers. They are out there! It’s hard to find them if you don’t put yourself out there as well. Take yourself seriously as an author and take your work seriously even if you’re not yet published. Believe in yourself. It’s the only way forward.
4. You need to have a community
Nothing good happens in a vacuum. Granted, the actual writing of fiction can be a solitary pursuit. We are, each of us, solely responsible for the words on the page. But we need other people. People to bounce ideas off of. People to ask relevant research questions. People who can cheer us up when this starts to feel like a slog. We need cheerleaders and coaches and fellow travelers, and people to roll our eyes at when someone who should know better says something stupid on the internet.
Now, these could just be the people who are already in your life. Family and friends, a supportive spouse or partner. For me, it started with my mom and my best friend from high school, Jennie, who believed in my potential long before I did. Then I met the aforementioned Nick, who was good at talking through stories with me, and who introduced me to Amazon’s KDP program, as well as to my editor and formatter, who have since become valuable members of my production team.
I also joined Apex Writers, which has been a valuable source of companionship and feedback when I need it. We have zoom meetings several times a week, each focused on different topics, but my favorite is our Sunday afternoon meeting, where we check in with each other about our goals and the progress we are making.
So, find your people, whether they are in person or online. There are, perhaps, thousands of online writers’ groups out there, on Facebook and other places. You might have to try out a few before you find one that really fits.
A word of warning, though. There are many wonderful groups, but it might lead you to compare your own journey with other, seemingly more successful, people. Comparison truly is the thief of joy. No one follows the same path to success as anyone else, not exactly. I was in one group which shall remain nameless, and there was a constant stream of posts reading ‘I released my book three days ago and I only sold 300 copies what am I doing wrong?’ and let me tell you, too much of that can be demoralizing. So, find a group where you can be honest about your very real struggles as well as celebrate your successes.
5. You get to decide what success means to you
This is related to the previous note about comparison, but it’s important to understand. Success means different things to different people. Don’t take any else’s definition as your own. For some people, success is a certain monetary value in sales, or a number of copies sold. For some people, it is getting a traditional publishing contract from one of the Big 5 publishers. Don’t let anyone convince you you’re not a success because you have not met the criteria they set for themselves. Set your own criteria, based on what you want to get out of this process.
And once you’ve set your own definition, that definition can change over time as you meet your initial goals and set new ones. When I first started doing this, I considered myself a success if I finished something, then it became putting my books out in a form that I was proud of. Now, my goals have shifted to growing an audience. For myself, I don’t care a great deal about sales numbers. I have the privilege of having an income besides this, so that works for me.
The point is you’re going to have to decide what it means for you, and don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.
So, those are five of the most important things I’ve learned over the course of the last four years. They can probably be applied to other things besides writing, but of course, writing is my focus. So, whatever stage you’re in, remember, what you are doing is important and valuable, and the world is a better place because you’re doing it.