I'm not a writer. I have no concrete plans to change this, either-- my mmph years in the publishing industry have given me a front-row seat to just how hard it is for an author to "make it" in this business.
(And how very modest that success usually is, even for authors who achieve their dream of quitting their day jobs. I think there may be easier roads to fame and fortune, to put it mildly.)
To make it as a writer, you have to want it. And you have to work hard for it, usually on a near-daily basis, over a period of many years.
Anyway, it occurred to me this week that I have more in common with the writers with whom I work than I sometimes think. Namely, that self-discipline is not only a requirement, but it might as well be a prerequisite.
As a literary agent, I essentially work for myself. I set my own hours, I choose my own projects, I make my own priorities. This creates both a sense of freedom and a sense of responsibility. There's no one breathing down my neck-- except me! But because it's my job to, well, do my job, I have to be very self-disciplined. Here are some of my strategies.
1. I create deadlines, for myself and my clients, which are generally pretty artificial. Book publishing is a notoriously slow-paced industry, but I find that it really helps me to get something done (like feedback on a manuscript) in a timely manner when I promise someone I'll get back to them by X date. I have someone else who's then holding me accountable, and I'm motivated to keep my word. You could do the same with your critique group, or your friend who's agreed to read your manuscript.
2. I make lists. Oh, goodness, do I make lists. When I can manage it, I make lists of lists. Sometimes I have an electronic list of some sort: an email to myself, a "note" on my phone, or a newfangled web-based program like Remember the Milk. But I always seem to revert to a pen-and-paper list. Ticking the tiny box on my iphone is nowhere near as satisfying as crossing an item off the paper list with a great flourish. (One of these days, we will have to talk about pens. Remind me.) The important thing is that the system seems to work for me.
3. I have a lot of projects going at any one time, and I try to make sure they're all at various stages in the process. I can probably read 400 pages in a day if I don't even try to do anything else, but it's exhausting and it won't be my best work. It's better to have some reading time, some email time, some phonecall time, and so on. If you're a writer, I expect you'd similarly benefit from having various projects at different stages of completion: one very rough draft, one in revision-- and once you've got a book deal, maybe you've also got one for which you're reviewing page proofs before publication.
4. I try really hard to be kind to myself. Everyone has days which are not their best, and if I'm in a growly mood and hate everything that's put in front of me, that's not a good day to try to give someone feedback on their manuscript. It's really important to me that I stay on top of my work, that I give every client (or prospective client) my best effort, AND that I remember that things have a way of balancing themselves out. Some days are more productive than others.
My client Erin Doland, who is the editor-in-chief of unclutterer.com (and whose new book proposal I've been hard at work on today!), had an excellent post last week which speaks to a lot of these issues, particularly my #2 above. Here's the link.
Another client, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, swears by what she calls the "butt in chair" method-- meaning the work doesn't get done unless you sit down and work on it.
How about you? Have you tried NaNoWriMo? Do you have a daily word count? What other strategies for self-discipline have you tried?