Over the course of a 20-year writing career, I’ve learned a few things about the daily habits that result in published books and continued creativity. The habits that form a strong foundation for a writing life have little to do with networking and speed-writing, much to do with solitude and consistency.
If you make room in your days for these five habits, you will vastly increase your chances of publishing your first book and maintaining a writing career for the long haul.
1. Always Be Learning
No matter how much you’ve written, how much you’ve studied writing, how much you’ve read, you can always learn more. For me, learning means reading a novel, listening to an interview with a writer I admire, reading an essay about another artistic field, or analyzing a book, movie, or photograph to see what I can learn from it.
Right now, for example, I’m learning an entirely new medium. I’ve been writing novels and short stories for twenty years, but one thing I’ve never learned how to do is write a screenplay.
This week, I bought a book on adapting books to film, signed up for a screenwriting class, and started developing a beat board for my forthcoming novel. If this one gets optioned, I want to have a screenplay ready to go. I’m just as uncertain about writing a screenplay as most aspiring novelists are about writing their first novels. Uncertainty is good. It’s invigorating. I really have no clue what I’m doing when it comes to writing a screenplay, so I have to approach it as a novice.
Doing the same thing day after day can lead to a rut. When you make “Always be learning” your motto, writing never gets boring.
2. Put in an Hour…Alone…With Your Ritual
I try to get in at least one hour of writing in solitude every day. For an introvert, the solitude is easy. Sitting down to begin writing is the hard part. Fortunately, an hour often turns into an hour and a half, two hours, three. Hour two is always easier than hour one.
Commit to breaking through the barrier by simply sitting down at your laptop or with your notebook. Why alone? Because solitude is where the deep dives into your subconscious happen. If you don’t have the luxury of “a room of one’s own,” create solitude with noise-canceling headphones. If you’re writing in a a public space, like a cafe, keep your eyes on your keyboard or on the inanimate objects around you. Try to mimic solitude by limiting your conversation with other humans. If networking is your go-to state of being, this won’t be fun (at first), but once you get into the habit of inhabiting solitude for an hour a day, you will crave that mental alone space.
Establish your ritual, the habit that tells your brain it’s time to write.“Writing every day” may not sound like a fun ritual. “Brew the coffee,” however, is a simple ritual that offers many rewards. When you tie your easy ritual, “Brew the coffee,” to the more challenging ritual, “Sit down and write,” you have created a habit that will work for you.
My hour doesn’t always go to the same project. Monday I may spend an hour on my novel-in-progress, Tuesday I might work on an essay, Wednesday I might write a lecture for one of my writing classes. Although writing on the same project every day provides continuity, a willingness to move among projects will make it more likely that you really do write every day.
As we’ve all discovered, days tend to be longer when you can’t leave the house. Just like fasting until noon or putting the dishes away before bed, the more times you practice the habit of writing every day, the easier it is to stick to it.
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3. Check the Word Count at the End of a Writing Session
Seeing a word count is satisfying and motivating. It reminds you that every chunk of time you devote to writing, whether it be fifteen minutes or an hour or three hours, will grow your word count.
An easy way to keep track of your word count by day is Scrivener, my go-to writing software, but you can also keep an old-school analog record of your progress in a notebook or on a whiteboard.
Remember how I said “Put in an hour”? You can make that hour do more for you by setting a word count goal. Whether your goal is 500 words or 1,200 words per hour, the pages will add up as the hours add up. That steadily rising word count is second only to a great cup of coffee when it comes to motivation.
If your cursor isn’t moving and your word count is stagnant, look to your past. When I started this piece, I only meant to write about habits, but then I thought of Muffin, and then I thought of Pat Conroy, and then I was back on the boat to Petit-Bois island, and it all unfolded from there. When the words won’t come, just dig up a single detail from your past, and the path for that day’s writing will open up in front of you. I promise.
4. Keep Your Eyes on the Ticking Clock
As long as we’re talking about time, you can think of the ticking clock by hour, but I think it’s more useful to think of it by year. Not to be morbid, but none of us really knows how much time we have. You probably know you can work on your book today. You don’t know that you can work on it tomorrow or the next day.
If you have the good fortune to still be writing ten years from now, what do you want to see in your rearview mirror? Ten years of thinking about writing, or a few books?
You’re not getting more time. There will always be 24 hours between midnight and midnight. Use the time you have now. Thinking of one’s inevitable departure from this planet, or simply trying to imagine yourself five years into the future, will help you write now, instead of a month or a year from now.
5. Support Another Writer
Writers, like children and puppies, need love. You can support other writers by sharing their book or event on social media, attending a virtual reading, leaving a review on Amazon or goodreads, or providing thoughtful feedback on a fellow writer’s story or manuscript.
You can go to book launches, pick up a debut novel from the front table at an independent bookstore, send an email to a writer you don’t know whose book blew you away.
Finally, you can buy a book. You can up your game and buy books from independent bookstores, which support local authors, local economies, and local readers. When your book comes out, you can reap the karmic rewards of all those books you’ve bought, all those readings you’ve attended.
So that’s it, five things you can do every day to help establish yourself as writer for the long term. Numbers 2 and 3 are advisable, numbers 1 and 4 are essential, and number 5 is just part of being a good literary citizen.
My challenge to you: Do just one of these things each day for five days, starting today, and see where it takes you.
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Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two story collections. Her latest novel, The Marriage Pact, has been published in 30 languages. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.