Here are some of the strategies I use to get started, keep motivated, and set myself up for success.
- How to start: goals, goals, goals
Before you begin your writing each day, write, review and/or revise your goals. Your goals should be further segmented. I like to do six-month increments, although others are successful looking at bigger pictures (such as one-year or five-year plans).
After I establish my six-month goals, I work back from there: what will I do each month? What are the milestones I want to have hit by the first of each month? Then, I break months into weeks.
Each week, I consult with my monthly agenda in order to set an agenda and goals for the week. Each day I check my weekly agenda to plot out my daily agenda.
Doing it this way not only allows me to have that ever-so-satisfying experience of crossing items off my list as I complete them, but also keeps me honest and realistic.
What also works for me is a time commitment. On an average day, I’ll plan to write for three hours. I set a timer for an hour and during that hour, I don’t check my social, I don’t email, and I don’t answer the phone (unless it’s an emergency or it’s someone I really really want to talk to).
After an hour, I get up, have a snack, go to the gym, whatever. The point is, I am committed for the hour. After my break, I sit down for hour two.
As I said, this works for me. Some folks might not be up for a full hour without distraction. You might work your way up: start with 15 minutes, increase to 25 or 45. I don’t recommend working for more than an hour straight: studies have shown we are most productive if we are sure to take a break after about 52 minutes of work.
2. And how to stop: leave a nice on-ramp for your next session
In your last fifteen or thirty minutes of work, start becoming aware of how you might set yourself up for success in your next session. If you’re like me, you may not actually get to work on the same project every single day. Sometimes I even have to put a project aside and focus on something else for a couple of weeks before I can return to it. Do future you a favor and leave yourself some notes. You might write:
“Go back to opening and make sure to add in more details.”
“I left off here because I wasn’t sure what to do next. Should I end the scene?”
or, if you’re including research:
“Read article on beekeeping; take notes for next chapter.”
Even if you’re returning to a project, the very next day, make sure to give yourself a nice, gently sloping on ramp. This can help you to avoid those wasted hours when you try to remember where it was you left off and why.
3. Set yourself up for success: keep an ideas journal
There’s something comforting about a marble notebook filled with possibilities. There are times, perhaps, when you have more than enough to do—if you’re like me, you always have several projects going at once and the problem is not coming up with ideas, it’s coming up with the time to work on your ideas. However, an ideas journal is like your parachute: if you’re ever feel you’re in an inspiration freefall, you can rely on your ideas journal as back-up.
Taking notes on your phone works, but I do recommend transcribing them later so that you have them all together in a book or file. I love the method that Rachel Hollis describes in her book, Girl, Stop Apologizing: she records two new ideas a day.
I think this is a rad approach for a couple of different reasons. First, like most people, I used to always have ideas (in the shower, on a jog, when I’m driving) that I’d be so sure I’d remember later and that I promptly forgot. Now, I think, “I’ll write that in my ideas journal” and for some reason, they stay with me when I have a plan for them. And as soon as I can, I do write them down in there.
Second, I love this approach because it forces you to write down ideas even when you think you don’t have any. Making yourself sit with pen and paper, freewriting or just exploring can be amazingly productive. You never know what might emerge.
4. More about ideas: finding inspiration
If you’re a writer, you’re probably a reader, which means you’ve found stories that moved, inspired, confused, infuriated, or otherwise spoke to you. When you’re stuck, revisit those works. The classics in particular can be a great vein of ideas; the title character of my novel, Iphigenia Murphy, is named after the character Iphigenia from the ancient Greek play, The Oresteia. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father (so that the winds would blow and his ships would sail) and later, avenged by her mother. This story fascinated me when I was a young woman and, obviously, stayed with me for many years. While my novel isn’t a rewriting of The Oresteia, the development of that character was informed by how that story resonated with me.
Lots of authors rewrite or draw on classic or canonical material including Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote and Pride and Prejudice. (One of my recent favorites is Curtis Sittenfeld’s contemporary take on Pride and Prejudice, Eligible. It’s so much fun!)
Make a list (in your ideas journal, of course) of some of the books and movies that were important to you when you were younger. This could be a rich resource for your future work.
5. Finally: write a lot
If you want to write a lot, you’ve got to put the hours in. You have to write some stuff that stinks, and some stuff that feels great, and some stuff that you agonize over and you’re still not sure about. However it feels, you’ve got to actually get yourself in front of the computer or the notebook. You’ve got to start writing.