Ever since she turned 5 years old, my daughter has been kvetching about the rules. Daddy, why do I have to follow the rules? Daddy, when do I get to not follow the rules? Daddy, rules are dumb and don’t let me have any fun. Daddy, I hate rules! I hate them!
She’s absolutely correct. Rules are a bummer.
Alas, rules are usually rules for a reason. Especially household and personal rules. Look around at the successful people in the world, and you will almost always find that they abide by a significant set of personal rules, business rules, ethical and moral rules, etc. Then look at the losers and the jerks and the going-nowhere people. Notice what’s missing? Yup. Rules. Boundaries. Discipline.
I’ve been working towards professional publication for a number of years. For the bulk of that time, I’ve suffered from a lack of rules. I’ve not required myself to put in the regular hours. I’ve not required myself to do the necessary homework. And I’ve also not required myself to make sacrifices, in terms of time: how it’s spent, and on what.
How about you? How have you been doing, and what kinds of rules — if any — have you made for yourself?
Today as I was driving into work I realized that over the last two years especially, I’ve been gradually building a set of unconscious rules. I thought it would be a good self-exercise to put them here, as a reminder, and also as a way to make myself accountable.
So, here we go. Brad’s Five Personal Writing Rules.
Rule #1: Limit idle internet use
This is my top rule because this is the one I consciously and unconsciously violate most often. Therefore it’s the one I’ve really been paying a lot of attention to lately, because if I go back and think about all the hours I’ve wasted since 1996 playing around on the internet, it makes me ill. Those are hours I should have spent writing. I could have written a dozen or more novels in the time I’ve spent fooling around on-line. And don’t even get me started about political blogs and web sites. I’ve wasted more time on political arguments with faceless InterToob denizens than I care to admit. And it’s never changed anyone’s mind. And in fact it’s just pissed a lot of people off — myself included — so what’s the point? My conclusion is that there is no point to this kind of internet activity. And I have reached a place in my life and in my soul where I don’t have a lot of room for pointless activity. I’m 35. The average male lifespan in the U.S. is just above 70. I’m technically middle-aged. There is not enough time in my life left for pointlessness.
Rule #2: Make the time for the work
This is my second rule, and is equivalent to Rule #1 in importance. It’s also the one I violate almost as often as I violate Rule #1 — because I am my own best excuse-maker. Oh, I didn’t have the time. Oh, I was too busy at work. I’m too tired. I have all these house chores to do. I have to go to the gym. I have to spend time with my daughter and family. I have to, I have to, I have to… There is a thing in many time management classes where they warn you against “busy projects” that keep you occupied and make you feel like you’re actually doing something, when the reality is that the “busy projects” are just distractions so that you don’t have to focus on the stuff you know you really should be focusing on. I do this all the damn time. Combined with idle net surfing, this is where all my minutes go. And I’ve reached a point where I know I have to force these kinds of things to the side for at least a portion of my day, so that I can devote the necessary minutes to the writing. The words won’t put themselves on the page. I have to put them there. And I can’t put them there if I keep giving myself excuses to go and do something else, when I should have my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keys.
Rule #3: Set and keep goals
This one is so elementary I am embarrassed to have to mention it. But it’s crucial. I can’t function unless I have solid, incremental flags waiting for me along my route. At the end of the week, at the end of the month, at the end of the year. I will have produced x-amount of work and mailed it. I used to try and do daily word goals, and discovered that my ever-changing schedule simply doesn’t allow me to set hard daily word goals. But I have had a good degree of success setting and keeping both weekly and monthly goals. Right now I have some very ambitious goals for the rest of the year. I can’t make those unless I make the smaller, short-horizon goals first. In order to walk a mile, you have to go the first ten yards. Etc. The key for me has been to set realistic goals that are challenging without being utterly out of reach. I’ve also learned to revise goals as life has gotten in the way — and sometimes you just can’t help that. So I pick myself up, try not to fret missed goals, revise future short-horizon goals to try and still make the long-horizon goals, and move forward.
Rule #4: Seek knowledge from the current professionals
This is a fairly recent rule, but it’s a very important one. When I started out I used to read and buy all the writing books and look at all the writing articles from any old Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’ve slowly realized over the years that it’s somewhat contradictory to take advice from a book on writing that is written by someone whose only publication credit is having written a book on writing. So I got rid of all such books, canceled my magazine subscriptions, and devoted both time and money to attending conventions and workshops where I can get information and ask questions of currently working professionals. Best-sellers. Names. The kind of people I want to be someday. I can tell yah, some of the information they put out flies in the face of everything that the other, non-Name people have been saying for years. Why trust it? Because it’s coming from people who are currently working professionally.
Rule #5: Work within the Heinlein 5 as much as possible.
I’ve detailed Heinlein’s Five Rules on my TA-50 web page. I’ve heard them emphasized so often from currently working professionals that I have to believe them. Also, with some of the knowledge I’ve most recently gotten, they force you to keep moving forward. Too many times I think I’ve sat down and dwelt on a single piece of writing for too long, thinking I can “perfect” the thing, when in fact I am a) probably the worst person to be judging my own work, and b) doing that kind of nit-picky re-writing never feels like it teaches me the same way writing a whole new piece teaches me. I know lots of professional writers who have written many books that never sold, but who went on to eventually sell new books; and sell well! I can’t say I’ve ever met a pro writer who sat down and re-wrote the same book many, many times, until it was just right, then sent it out and made a career from it. The evidence seems to indicate that you can’t get better if you aren’t doing new stuff, and you can’t do new stuff unless the old stuff is in the mail so that you can forget about it and move on.
Those are my rules. The Big Five, if you will. Oh, there are other, smaller rules. I don’t think I’ll list them, because they’re really just sub-rules of the Big Five. I’ll probably put a link on my main web list page — which is my own personal home page when I first open my browser — to this post. Just so that I can remind myself every time I open the browser and even feel like I might be breaking one or more of them.