Friday, May 13, 2011

On self-discipline.

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 (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?


Jessica Brockmole said...

Did somebody say NaNoWriMo? Yes, I'm a big fan. I tried it after finishing my first novel. I was having trouble getting started on the second, and worrying that the first was a fluke, since I didn't really have a writing "method" yet. NaNo helped me to find that method. I learned to set goals for myself. I learned to portion out my time, so that I'm not spending all day writing. I learned that, no matter how daunting a project or to-do list appears, I *do* have what it takes to get it done.

That last is probably the biggest thing NaNo has taught me. Yes, it's scary as anything to be standing on the title end of an unwritten novel. To agonize over the first few words and then remember that you have, oh, 99,990 more to go. But I can do it. I know I can! Just like cleaning the house before my mother-in-law comes to visit or planning the elementary school field day (which is next week...I should get on that!), I start small, let myself freak out if I need to, but trust that I can do it.

Rebecca A. Burrell said...

This is a great post - there's a lot of truth in it, and I love how you made it relevant to the writer's side of things while coming at it from the agent's perspective. Without being fatalistic about it, I know I'd fail at NaNo, so I've never tried - setting a daily word count has never worked for me and I find it exhausting. I just try to maintain a sense that I'm progressing through the story. I do like the BIC method though, and I'll set more concrete goals, like getting through a transition that's been tripping me up or finishing a critical scene. Though I'm not a Hemingway fan, I think his advice to write while you still have 'your juice' and you know what happens next is great. There's still a wide world out there beyond the day's writing, and it'll come a lot more easily if we as writers get out there and experience it instead of obsessing about those last few words.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

I especially like your thoughts in #3. Because I believe we can only truly focus on a certain type of project for so long. Beyond that, we're just not giving it our best effort - our mind wanders. For instance, when I'm revising my writing, I can stay really focused for about four hours. After that, I need a break. Maybe it's checking emails, watering the garden, or illustrating a new project - whatever. My brain needs the break. And sometimes that's all it takes for me to be able to sit down and put in another four hours of truly focused time. Speaking of which, it's the fabulous Jane Yolen who came up with the term "Butt in Chair" - sound advice, which I do indeed follow. :) e

Anonymous said...

I love unclutterer! Woot Unitasker Wednesdays!

I'm going to sound like a total yoga dweeb, but every time I go to yoga class I take away some new skill. The big one: CURIOSITY. At yoga, I think, "I wonder if I can touch my toes today." (Instead of "Grrr, come here toes.")

In writing, I say to myself, "I wonder if I can beat my record of 9 pages today," or "I wonder if I can get these two best-friend characters to scrap it out hockey-style." Maybe I do, maybe I don't, but by becoming my own performer and my own audience, I double the fun.

Jenni Wiltz said...

In terms of discipline, I treat writing as a job and make sure I do it five days a week. I allow myself to have two days off per week, and try to do brain-stimulating non-computer types of things on those days (jogging, biking, sewing, cooking, etc.). The time I spend writing, though, might be broken up into writing new material, revising something I've finished, or working on a short story.

I've also never done NaNoWriMo. I've found that when I'm really into a new project, I'll beat that pace just because of sheer love of the new project. Last year, I wrote a 400-page thriller in eight weeks and then took the rest of the year to revise, polish, edit, etc.

I guess the bottom line for me is...if you love what you're writing, you don't have to discipline yourself to write. You won't be able to stop yourself.