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Habits to Write By, Part 1


"There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
   —W. Somerset Maugham

That quote makes me laugh every time I read it now, but less so when I was writing Japantown, in part because it contains an element of truth. How much truth I'll leave for the pundits to hammer out. What I know is this:

We each have to discover at least some of our own rules as we go along. Other methods can be gathered from writers and teachers who came before us. But before that, we need to develop habits that allow us to write well and continually.

There are plenty of "Tips for Writers"-type articles available. Many are helpful, and I may eventually add one of my own here. But what I'd like to offer first is a foundation on which you can build your writing skills—what might be playfully called the habits of highly persistent authors.

Before I began writing full time, I was an editor and assisted numerous authors in developing their own books. Many of them struggled. In each case, I was there to help them push through whatever barrier they encountered.

Most of my authors wrote nonfiction, but the advice here is applicable to anyone writing in short or long form, fiction or nonfiction. If nothing else, mastering these pointers will make your writing life easier.


1. Do something every day.

You'll hear people say, "Write everyday," but that is not always possible in the beginning. Instead, I prefer my version, especially for those just starting out: Do something every day.

Writing every day is preferred. No doubt about it. But that is the ideal. If you cannot find the time for a full-length session because you put in sixteen hours at work, you had to take your kid to the doctor, or your dog bit your neighbor, then do something. For twenty minutes, or ten, or five.

Even three.

But do not accept zero. "Nothing" will not suffice. Do whatever you can spare or sneak in. But do it. Always.

Why? Because it keeps the writing engine idling. It keeps your subconscious working.

So, on a holiday or a family outing, sneak five minutes in the morning or during a down period. Those are found minutes and they are invaluable.

What can you do in such a short time? Plenty. A partial list could include the following:

  • Type up some raw prose.
  • Reread a couple of typed pages.
  • Organize your notes.
  • Work on a list of chapters.
  • Block out a scene, or even a part of one.
  • Come up with a few lines of dialogue.
  • Do a spot of research.

In short, do something. Anything.

It adds up. Since these shorter efforts have kept your writing engine idling, when you do have the time to sit down for longer periods of time it will be that much easier to hit the gas and go. You won't be starting cold.

Try it.

After a time you'll find your day won't seem complete unless you can attend to your writing. Eventually, you'll want to do more.


2. Do not wait for "perfect."

Don't wait for the perfect situation, whatever "perfect" means to you. Not perfect silence, the perfect mood, or even a perfect cup of coffee. Start now and plow ahead.

More would-be writers stumble over this than I could ever count. They prepare and then wait for everything around them to be "just right." As a prelude, they straighten their desk. They sharpen their pencils, or format a slew of files. They brew themselves a cup of coffee or tea just the way they like it. They set the thermostat at their preferred temperature. They pray that their neighbor's kids will stop playing in the street for a change. They wait expectantly for inspiration to strike.

When all is aligned, they start. Then one of their perfect conditions falls out of sync and all before them crumbles. They can't write because things are no longer "just as they must be." But guess what? Rarely are things perfect.

If you are already practicing Habit #1—Do something every day—you have a head start. By sneaking a bit of time once or twice a day, you have been overriding the "perfect trap" without realizing it. Now roll out the same procedure every time you sit down to write for a longer stretch. You know you can work without a list of precise preconditions, so just start right in.

Make "imperfect" your new perfect. Your coffee will taste fine even if it's not precisely brewed. Kids play; that's what they do.

In one way or another, you are writing about life—and we all know it's messy. "Perfect" may not even be in its vocabulary.

So rise above the fray. This takes practice and persistence, but it can be done. Inspiration will surface of its own accord if you push forward.


3. Learn to write anywhere.

We all lead busy lives. For many people finding time to write is a big part of the secret to success. You may actually have to root through your daily routine to dig some up.

One way to do this is to learn to write anywhere, anytime. If you have incorporated Habit #2—Do not wait for "perfect"—into your writing process, you've moving in the right direction.

When I first made up my mind to write a novel, I discovered all my time was spoken for. I worked at least ten hours a day six days a week, had two children, and rode a commuter train an hour each way. After failing at attempts to write late at night or early in the morning, I decided to write on the train. It was one of the few times of the day I could call my own—barely.

Initially, I wrote only when I could sit, which was once every third or fourth day and usually when I was halfway through the commute. By the time I squeezed into my seat, drew out my materials, composed myself, and reread the earlier pages, little time was left.

My first attempt to write on the train failed miserably. But my commute still remained one of the few times in the day my time wasn't scheduled. Three weeks later it dawned on me that the only way to write during my commute was to do it standing up. Even if it meant rubbing shoulders on an overcrowded Tokyo train.

People told me I was crazy.

It seemed impossible.

But it was the last slot of my daily routine aside from lunch I could possibly use. I had to make it work.

So I bought a clipboard and either wrote longhand or edited typed pages I'd printed out the night before. It took two long months before I figured out how to (1) stand on the train without losing my balance while writing and (2) tune out all the distractions in order to (3) produce useable prose.

Two long months.

But eventually I succeeded. I'd found some underused time and salvaged it. I was able to disregard everything and everyone around me and enter the world of fiction whenever I chose. Now I can pretty much write anywhere, any time.

Everyone has his or her "train." Maybe it's a few early morning hours before you dash off to work. Or late at night after the rest of the family has gone to bed. Maybe it's during your lunch break at work. (I worked then, too.) The point is to make time. We are creatures of habit and tend to let our routine activities expand to fill our days.

So, fence in your routines.

Limit their access to your personal time.

And while you are at it, learn to say no to some of your extracurricular activities.

There you have it. Find one or more gaps in your daily schedule. Then standing, sitting, or wearing earplugs, practice until you are able to produce.

All it takes is some thought and a little audacious planning.

Think, plan, practice, and—dare I say it?—train yourself.


Burn these simple habits into your memory and your writing life will improve. One day you will have a finished manuscript. Whether it's a short story, a novel, or a work of nonfiction.

Once you master one or more of these items, then congratulate yourself. You are a step closer than you were—and on your way.


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