I love reading about how other writers write, but mostly because I like reading about other people’s lives. I like all the idiosyncratic details: a writer eats Oreos for breakfast, a writer can’t write until her daughter is asleep and it’s 1 am. But whenever I read how a writer writes, I’m really looking for something more: a clue about how I should write. And of course, I never find it.
When I set out to write this post, I wanted it to be something different. Because although it might be interesting to you that I write at a fold-down table from Ikea that also holds a sewing machine, I’m guessing that what you’re really looking for is the secret, perhaps housed in that incredibly inexpensive and versatile table, to being a successful writer. Because that’s what I’m always looking for.
Though I’m far from a successful writer (I pay the bills by doing other jobs), I have gotten a lot of things done. I’ve published two ebooks, completed a nonfiction manuscript, and found an agent. I’ve written a draft of a novel and half revised it. I’ve had essays and articles published online and in print, and I’m a(bout to be) columnist at Alt Magazine. I’m striving toward my own personal Holy Grail: a traditional book deal. I’m making money writing, and I’m working towards making it my full-time job.
So, here’s how I do it, plus insights for how you can do it.
It’s not rocket science, but I have two secrets: consistency and getting away. This week, I’m writing about consistency. Next, I’ll tell you about getting away.
Consistency means that when I wake up each day, I come downstairs, make a cup of coffee, and check my email. After half an hour of doing basically nothing and playing with the cat, I open my laptop and look at my to-do list. The list includes pressing writing tasks (an essay I need to pitch, a draft I need to revise) and marketing tasks (a guest post I need to write, a blog post I need to do). Though I wish I could start every day with my “important” “serious” “artistic” writing, I usually don’t–unless I have a deadline.
I try to set internal deadlines for getting things done: I want to publish X essay by next week. I want to finish X draft by the end of the month. The only way my internal deadlines for important but not-about-to-be-published writing stick is if I have someone waiting for my writing at the other end—for example, a friend who I intend to send the draft to by the end of the month. It’s a lot easier to tell myself “You must pitch this editor by next week OR ELSE” than it is for me to tell myself “Just FINISH the draft of your novel, REYES.” Perhaps because pitching essay ideas is a smaller task that can be accomplished in an hour or two, while completing a draft of a novel or a revision of a manuscript is epic and could take months. (The thing is it usually doesn’t, Alicia, SO WHY DON’T YOU JUST DO IT?)
But once I have a deadline, internal or (hopefully) external, consistency is what gets everything done. I don’t mean just in writing habits, which everyone has told you a million times (“Wake up and write first.” “Don’t stop until you reach 1000 words.” “Schedule your writing time in every week.”). I mean consistency in your writing tasks. These aren’t limited drafting, revising, and editing, but also pitching and submitting. I try to pitch two to three essays a month. I try to resubmit my stories to five new places every time they get rejected. I try to write one “real” thing each week, something that doesn’t feel unimportant.
There has to be a balance between writing and submitting. The balance will look different for everyone: last year, I submitted a few stories and queries, but mostly, I wrote: a novel, a book proposal, a revision of another book proposal. And my writing improved.
This year, I’m pitching magazines and posting on my blog much more. And my writing credibility is undoubtedly higher: I’m getting things published, and editors are actually responding to me. But I want to be careful not to get stuck in the trap of churning out bite-size pieces of work when what I really need to do is buckle down and complete some big projects—last year’s novel draft has been sitting in storage for months.
Still, there is a balance. It might be from week to week, month to month, or year to year, but writing takes both the actual writing and the sending your work out into the world. If you don’t have consistency in doing both, your work won’t get published and you won’t ever get down that brilliant idea for a novel you’ve had for years.
How can you be consistent? Here are a few things I’ve tried that might work for you:
- Make a spreadsheet or a Word document and write down, every day, what writing tasks you did. (I put things down like: Wrote X pages. Revised X pages. Pitched to Y and Z magazines. Revised a friend’s essay.)
- Make a spreadsheet of submissions/pitches, the date you sent it, and the response (more on this coming to The Write Life). Highlight the ones that haven’t come back yet.
- Set yourself weekly or monthly numbers to hit: X pages, X pitches. It almost doesn’t matter what you pick at first, because you can change the number the next week/month if the ones you pick aren’t doable (or get done too fast).
- Email a friend who really, really likes you and tell them you want to send them your manuscript/story/essay/article when you are done on X date.
- As soon as you finish a short story/essay, send it out to a friend and ask them for feedback. You don’t have to revise it right away, but when it comes back, you do.
- Email a group of writing friends (or better yet, meet them for coffee) each month about what you’re working on, what you need to work on next month, places you’ve submitted work or pitched and editor, and rejections and acceptances. It sure feels nice to yell about uncaring editors to someone else.
I’ve done each of these things, and they have dramatically changed how I write and what gets done. Perhaps, most importantly, they let me see the progress that I’m making. Because if an essay is pitched in the Internet and no one sees it, was it really pitched at all?
Here’s a sneak peek of the next post: one way I’ve gotten away.