Writing a novel asks more of us than just the ability to come up with an intriguing idea. Stories are not born. They are made by trial and error, practice and perseverance. It’s very easy to be enthused by an idea, start to write about it, only to find the story peters out under the pressure of other commitments, like work, family, social life, or not being able to find the right mood or focus. Sitting down to write isn’t always the most natural thing to do, either. It’s very easy to find any other activity preferable. Other priorities can also exert a powerful pull. To become the sort of prolific writer who completes projects and builds a body of work, it’s crucial to devise a writing routine that you can stick to and that works for you.
1: Make a plan
Don’t rush into things. Know what you want to do and how the story will work. Spend some time with your notebooks. Work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Structure the story so you have a clear way ahead, and break the writing down into achievable milestones. Blundering into a story, relying only on spontaneous creativity, can often lead to dispiriting roadblocks. Know where you want to go so you don’t tumble into a gaping plot hole.
2: Set yourself a daily wordcount
Writing every day will help keep you preoccupied with the story and close to it. Even short breaks can cause you to lose track of your characters. Time you could have spent writing is now used up reorientating yourself to your story. This can later show in the writing. A little every day will soon mount up, and an allotted daily word count will give you something to aim at and feel satisfied with. It doesn’t need to be Stephen King’s whopping six pages a day. Set yourself a target of 250 words a day, a paragraph even, and the work will soon mount up.
3: Timetable your writing
When he’s writing a novel, Haruki Murakami gets up a 4am, writes for six hours, then goes for a run and repeats this routine every day until he’s done. This is great if you’re a millionaire already, but the idea of a routine is key. He knows when he’s going to write. Most writers have a timetable they stick to and rely on. If you’re pulled every which way by all sorts of other concerns, at the start of each week, timetable when you know you can write. Which lunch hours you can write longhand in a café? Which evenings you can grab an hour when everyone else is out? If you make your writing routine, part of your general routine, again, the work will soon grow.
4: Know what time you write best
Susan Sontag and Hemingway wrote always in the morning. Michael Chabon writes at night, has ‘the midnight sickness’. David Rose wrote his novel Vault in his lunch hours in Pizza Express in Staines. Learn what works best for you. Can you set an early alarm and write for a few hours before work, as John Grisham used to do? Are you a night owl who needs to feel she’s the only person awake in the street? If you don’t know, experiment.
5: Ring-fence your writing time
You have to write. If you don’t have a routine, if you can’t feel the story getting somewhere, or that a new story is a step up from the last, you’re liable to feel defeated. It’s not just a case of setting a timetable. It’s also making sure that your nearest and dearest know that at certain times of the day there’s a Do Not Disturb sign on your door. Don’t feel guilty about this. You’re not being selfish. You’re a writer.
6: Don’t wait for the right vibe
You might not feel like it, or particularly inspired, but once you’ve set your timetable, stick to it and make yourself write. Don’t wait for a certain atmosphere, or tell yourself you need to write with a quill or wearing an Elizabethan ruff by tallow candlelight, or need fresh flowers on your desk. Even if writing feels like trying to teach a cat to drive today, get something down. You can always cut or revise it later. Also, you never know what you might stumble upon when you’re distracted or feeling brutal with yourself.
7: Warm up
Alternatively, if you feel you need to find a way into the writing, do some warm-up exercises to juice your creative flow. Allow yourself to play and doodle. Keep a journal to purge yourself of everyday worries. Write about a painting or poem, a news article, an historical event. Explain to yourself why you are going to write the scene that you are going to write and what it will do for the story. Try Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages (which you don’t necessarily have to do in the morning), i.e., write three pages of stream-of-consciousness words. After three pages, you’re liable to have started to concentrate only on your story.
8: Don’t be too hard on the draft
New writers can be perfectionists because they are used to reading honed and professionally edited books rather than first-draft work, especially their own. This can make our first efforts and early drafts seem too rough or lacking in accomplishment. Experienced writers know that the first draft only exists to have something to change, and the routine is there to make your finish the draft. Establish a routine, finish the story, and then put it through its editorial paces. The idea of the writer typing the same line over and over again, continually ripping papers from the typewriter and tossing it into an over-full bin is a myth.
9: Join a Writing Workshop
Writing is a public act committed in private. It’s often hard to keep going without any encouragement or feedback. Joining a writing workshop can help you maintain your routine by giving you deadlines and objectives. Sharing your writing with others will soon show you that everyone has the same worries and everyone has made the same mistakes and is finding solutions to their problems. By joining a writing workshop, you are providing yourself with a readymade schedule.
Your writing routine is essential to your writing. There’s no one way to do this but writing frequently, in small, daily increments and joining a group of likeminded writers will defiantly help you finish your projects. How you decide to make the time and schedule your writing will be bespoke to your personality, so if you don’t yet have a settled way of doing this, try some different approaches and see what gets the best results for you.