Shut up and write. Of all the many, many pieces of valuable advice that bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson distributed at the Superstars seminar last weekend, this was the one that really got under my skin. All week long I’ve been re-listening to Kevin’s 11 tips on increasing productivity, and his first tip is the one that seems to shout the loudest — shut up and write.
The reason this got under my skin is because I am an expert at finding excuses to not write. On any given day I can come up with 50 different things to do, all of which are more important than sitting down and logging writing time. And from a certain perspective — the perspective held by sane people — all 50 of those things really are more important. But as a writer, I have committed myself to what Tom Clancy once described as a self-induced form of mental illness. I shouldn’t be giving myself the option to do something other than write — not before the day’s designated writing objectives have been met. Whether they’re a set number of words, a set amount of time sitting in front of the keyboard, or perhaps a chapter or chapter(s) completed, and so forth.
But I have been giving myself the option to not write. Sometimes, to an extent that’s embarrassing. I’m a semi-pro trying to figure out how to become a full-time pro, and I’m still stuck (in too many ways) in the hobbyist’s mentality. Which basically means I often don’t write unless I’ve suddenly got a sizable chunk of free time that also happens to coincide with me being in the mood. Everybody who is a hobbyist almost always waits until those two conditions are met, before they will sit down and put words on the blank page.
The professionals I pay attention to have learned to move past mood. They’ve also often learned to move past the requirement that they have large pieces of free time in which to sit at the computer and create prose. Ergo, they’ve figured out a way to make use of the small pieces of time in their lives, for writing. And they do it whether they’re in the mood or not. They don’t wait for circumstances to fall exactly into place, because they know that circumstances so rarely do.
Thus the keys to being a professional are not talent or inspiration as much as they’re discipline, being able to ignore silent doubts about quality, and forging ahead with dogged consistency.
All the pros I admire had day jobs, before they became bestsellers. All of them figured out a way to put in the time and the effort, day after week after month after year, on top of their normal working lives, until they’d written what they wanted to write, and achieved the goals they’d wanted to achieve.
I’ve got big goals for 2011. I can already tell I won’t make even half of them if I don’t figure out a way to have some discipline about what I am doing. I’ve said it before to many people: 2011 will be my year of writing professionally. No more hobbyist mentality. I want at least two or three books and a couple dozen shorter works done and out to the markets before the year is over.
But as much as I might have sworn it to myself on New Years, breaking old habits is very, very hard. I am, by nature, the kind of person who likes to take it easy. I am also the kind of person who finds it tough to focus intently on long-term, incremental projects without getting distracted or bored. I have also always desired and preferred large hunks of free time before I’ll sit down and type. Because my emotional writing sense is that nothing worthwhile can get done if I don’t have whole hours in which to drop into The Zone and get cruising.
Well, it doesn’t take an idiot to figure out that I’m going to have to let go of these blocking mindsets if I am going to have success this year, and in years to come.
So I need to take Kevin’s advice and shut up and write. If Kevin’s muse sounds like R. Lee Ermey, barking orders, I need to develop an internal TAC officer who bird-dogs me with my daily goals. Drops me for push-ups when I screw up or slack off. Revokes privileges if I miss my wordcount or otherwise fail to achieve — daily, weekly, monthly — what I have set out to achieve.
It’s been easy to slack on writing goals because nobody punishes me externally if I decide to goof off and surf the internet instead of write a few pages. Which is, according to pros like Kevin, one of the huge problems with trying to become and remain a professional, working fiction author. There is nobody but YOU to enforce the standard. Nobody but YOU to keep yourself on track. Nobody but YOU can make yourself do the hard chore of writing without being in the mood, without having the large blocks of free time, and without having the luxury of spontaneous creativity on a flexible schedule.
The professionals I admire sometimes seem inhumanly maniacal about their writing. They seem to miss no opportunity to put new words onto the white page. They write waiting in the doctor’s office. They write during the commute to work. They write on lunch and smoke breaks. They write for 15 minutes before bed, or for 30 minutes before work. They sometimes do all of the above, and they do these things every stinking day, such that I begin to wonder if you have to be a literal machine to function like that.
Ironically, many writers who do quit the day job and create an open schedule for themselves, discover that they write less because when suddenly they don’t have the familiarity of the structured routine to rely on, they invent all kinds of excuses and distractions for themselves — so that their production almost always takes a hit. Sounds counterintuitive, yes, but that’s what statistically happens, more often than not.
So it’s clearly not about not having the time to write. Clearly, I shouldn’t pine for something which is really just a fantasy anyway. If I am not a disciplined, structured writer now — with the day job — how can I ever hope to be a disciplined, structured writer when I have no boss, other than myself? It won’t work.
So I keep re-listening to my MP3 from the Superstars seminar, and paying attention to the wisdom which I have heard from so many professional writers so many times before: don’t wait for inspiration or mood, and don’t wait for large blocks of time. If you can only write a few sentences in a short span of time, then dammit, write a few sentences. And every chance you get to write a few more sentences, write a few more sentences. And then a few more, and then a few more…. Do that consistently across days, weeks, and months, and that’s how books get written. Sometimes, bestselling books. No magic to it. Only effort and discipline.
Just… shut up and write!