I recently made friends with a young writer on tumblr. In talking to her, I realized that there are a few things I do as a writer that she isn’t taking advantage of—and I’d guess a lot of starting writers are in the same boat. So here, without further ado and in no particular order, are the top 10 things I do every day to build myself into a better writer.
Establish a Routine
One common misconception about writing is that it takes inspiration. Not actually true. All it takes is an idea. And then you do a ton of work to get that idea down on paper, or a screen, or whatever. It’s common to hear writers, especially young writers, say that they only write when they feel motivated. I used to do that, too, which is why I’d go through prolific periods of writing poetry when I was sad or had a crush on someone, and then I’d go dead silent for months because I had “nothing to write about.”
The best thing I ever did for myself was to establish a routine.
At first, I would get up super early in the morning and write before I got ready for work. That worked pretty well, but I go into the office early these days. I get up around 4:30, and I don’t really see myself getting up earlier than that. So, I write every day at lunch instead. This works out well because It’s a set slot every weekday. I know it’s coming, I plan for it, and I guard the time fiercely.
I write on weekends too, when I can force myself to make the time. But in a house where dishes need doing and dogs need playing with and groceries need buying and husbands expect a certain amount of couples time spent in Azeroth on days off, it’s tougher to find time.
Because my time is limited, I’ve gotten good at slamming out a decent word count in a short period. Which brings me to my second point.
Set a Goal
Set yourself a goal within your routine. I’ve done this in two ways. If you have some freedom and can write whenever, you might want to focus on meeting a word count goal. That can be 100, 200, 500 words—whatever you want. The key is to set a goal that’s realistic. Something that you can meet consistently, every day. If that’s only 100 words? Totally fine. 100 words is 100 more words than you’d write on a day you didn’t feel motivated.
The other type of goal you can set is time-based. With a purely time-based goal, you don’t worry about how many words you’re getting down. You’re just committing to writing for the entire time. You can start with sprints of just 5 or 10 minutes and work your way up.
Right now, I’m doing a combination of both. I write on my lunch break at work, so depending on the day I take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The only requirement is that I write a minimum of 300 words within that time. Some days, I barely squeak by. Other days, I hit over 1,000 words in less than half an hour. Depends on the scene, and if I’ve already figured out what’s next or if I need to do that part first.
Writing a novel seems like a huge, scary, impossible thing when you’re standing at the front of it. But if you wrote 500 words a day for 3 months, that’s 45,000 words, and that’s a novel. A short novel, sure, but a novel nonetheless.
Don’t Worry About Word Count
At the end of the day, the word counts that define whether something is a short story, a novelette, a novella, or a full-blown novel are pretty arbitrary. Different genres have different “requirements” for what constitutes a novel. But unless you’ve got a contract where you’ve committed to write a book of a certain length and you won’t get paid if it doesn’t happen, throw that shit out the window.
Don’t focus on forcing yourself to meet a certain word count. Focus on telling the story, and let it be whatever it needs to be. It doesn’t have to be perfect when you’re first vomiting it up onto the page. It just has to be happening.
Remember: It’s Okay to Suck
It’s okay for your first draft to suck. In fact, it’s kind of expected. And this is coming from a what’s-the-point-of-doing-anything-if-I-don’t-master-it-on-the-first-try perfectionist.
I finally worked up the courage to write my first novel about eight years ago. I went back and read some of it, and you know what? The bones are there. The concept is cool. But MAN is some of that writing cringey. Dramatic and overblown in some places, where in others I had key details in my head that never actually made it onto the page. It was a mess.
And that’s okay. I kept writing. I got better. I still am.
Fall In Love
In my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who said “I want to do something that requires a lot of hard work.” Got some news for ya: writing is hard.
So why do we do it? Why put ourselves through the torture?
Because we love it. We can’t not do it. And that’s not to say that you can’t have off-days, off-weeks—off-months! But there’s something about telling stories that always pulls a writer back.
And I don’t know about you, but I can’t stick with a story that I don’t love. So fall in love.
Fall in love with your story. Would you be writing it, would you even be thinking about it, if it wasn’t burning inside you? Probably not.
Fall in love with your characters. (My favorite ones to write are the villains and trickster troublemakers. Their scenes FLY because I’m constantly delighted at what diabolical little shits they are.)
And fall in love with listening.
Never Stop Listening
Listening is one of the greatest things you can do as a storyteller. Because stories are everywhere. We’re not even so much making them up as we are stealing them.
Don’t believe me?
Do you listen to conversations in the grocery store? Or on the train? Or at the next desk over?
Do you watch movies or read books and think, I would have written it this way?
Do you think about some of your favorite stories when you’re writing?
Take a read through my stories and, depending on what you’ve been exposed to, you may pick up clues that I’m a fan of The Last Unicorn, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Tigana, the Fionavar Tapestry, the Raven Cycle, Flight of Dragons, Fight Club, and a thousand other things that are so deeply embedded in my memory that I can’t call up their names.
We’re built by our worlds, by our histories. We steal from what we know without even realizing we’re doing it. How could we not? Everything we’ve seen or read or heard is part of us, and the things that affect us stick with us.
One of my favorite descriptions of this in action is by my main YA squeeze, Maggie Stiefvater. (To be clear, I’ve never squeezed her. I don’t know her, so that would be hella awkward. But she’s rad, and her protagonists embody my ultimate friend goals, and her books have taught me a lot about writing. More on that in the next section.) In a tumblr post excerpting her SCBWI keynote speech, she talks about writers being artists and thieves, and it couldn’t be more true.
And it’s not just about stealing from other people.
Steal from your characters. Steal from yourself. Your brain holds onto things your consciousness has forgotten. But if you listen, if you let your characters take the lead, they’ll often poke a sharp object into your brain and unearth what you’d forgotten you lost. And the more you listen, the more you’ll hear, until you can’t move for connections.
Your brain is a better writer than you are. Learn to trust it.
Stealing is bad if it’s straight-up plagiarism. But you can
steal learn a lot from reading. When you read, don’t just read. Think. Watch.
Read with a critical eye. Seeing repetition? Ask yourself why. Is a phrase pulling you out of the story? Analyze it. Figure out how you would do it.
And don’t just read things you love, things that are similar to what you’re writing. Jump outside your genre, too.
I love fiction. I live and breathe for fantasy worlds, whether they’re in faraway realms or right in my backyard. But the wider your exposure is to what’s out there, the more ammo you’ll have, in writing and in general. I found a surprising affinity for nonfiction, with books like The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World (Edward Dolnick), The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (Steven Johnson), and Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos (Michio Kaku).
To write well, you have to know. To know, you have to learn. And it’s not just about sitting in a classroom and reading books. It’s about paying attention—no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Build Your Toolkit
All you really need to write is a notebook and a writing utensil. That can be a simple Bic mechanical pencil, or a fancy-ass fountain pen. Your paper can be a dollar-store composition book or a leather-bound journal, or anything in-between. You just need something to write with, and write on. (You could write in blood on the walls, but you probably won’t get in a very high word count before they cart you away.) Of course, if you don’t want to write a novel by hand, it’s up to you to build a “toolkit” that works for you.
My toolkit has two core elements: my Traveler’s Notebook, and an iPad with a keyboard cover. I write using the Scrivener app/program (I bought it for Windows and separately as an iOS app. Worth it). On top of that, I have an array of pens and washi tapes and inks and all kinds of other things that make the process more fun.
I also subscribe to Spotify and have playlists of just instrumental movie soundtracks and video game music. The right music can make or break a scene, and it’s solid gold for getting my brain in a writing space. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
Some of my favorite writing soundtracks are Penny Dreadful, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, Child of Light, RiME, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and instrumentals from various movie soundtracks. Heck, I also listen to a lot of k-pop when I write. Depends on what the scene calls for.
My tools may not be your tools. But figure out what tools make it easy to write, what makes you want to write, and get them. Save up if you have to. You don’t need to have everything on day one, and your system will change as you figure out what works. That’s OK too.
Leave No Excuses
Don’t have time? Sure you do. Pooping takes like five minutes. If you have absolutely no other time in the day, keep a notebook by the toilet.
Don’t have space? Stephen King wrote Carrie sandwiched between the machines in his laundry room.
Don’t have motivation? Ha! Some days, me neither. Force yourself. It’s going to suck. Eventually, it’ll stop sucking. One day, you’ll look forward to it. Once upon a time, I had to drag myself to the writing. Now, it’s all I can do to focus on work until my lunch rolls around.
Don’t have confidence? You’d be surprised how many writers feel like total frauds. But no one’s reading over your shoulder unless you let them. Don’t worry about writing for other people. Write for yourself. If you want to share, self-publish, pitch to agents, you can clean it up later. But first and foremost, write it for you. Write it because you love it. Write it because you’re fascinated. The things you love will come through in your work. Let them. It’s what makes the stories uniquely yours. As Neil Gaiman said:
Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Some days, you’re not going to get a word count in. I’m just gonna tell you that right now. But as long as you keep coming back, it all kind of evens out. And remember that writing isn’t just writing. It’s thinking and dreaming and doodling and watching and reading and living.
Just like with anything else, practice makes better. Writing is work. It’s hard. But it’s also wonderful. And the more you love it, the more it’ll love you back. So delight in what little assholes your characters are. Steal the fuck out of that conversation between a singing drunk girl and her embarrassed friends on a Friday night train out of the city. Dare to read your favorite authors and say, I would have done it this way.
And then do it.
The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
The rest is up to you.