Thursday, June 16, 2011

12 Steps to Maximizing Your Writing Potential

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like one of those annoying motivational slogans. You know the ones. Some well dressed, fast talking guy promises to solve all your problems if you “Follow these 12 easy steps to a better you!” He gives you just enough to reel you in and then, guess what? You have to buy his overpriced DVD to actually hear the steps, which, more often than not, work to solve your problem about as often as cheesy pickup lines at a bar actually get the girl. This post will give you 12 tips to being a more productive writer, and I promise I won’t sell you anything, nor will I promise publication. But I'll guarantee the tips will work.

Yikes, I really DO sound like that motivational speaker. But seriously, how many writers do you know who, after months or even years of writing the same book, they're still on the first draft? Or they start another book every month, but never finish more than a few chapters before they move onto another? How many of you get up in the morning raring to write, but the moment you sit down at your computer, your ambition fades? The following tips will help you stay motivated, boost your creativity, and help you maximize your writing potential, hopefully allowing you to finish books faster and stick with the ones you start.

1) Develop a writing routine and stick with it.

Good writers write a lot, but doing so takes a lot of self discipline and heaps of commitment. Establishing a writing routine will help you to form both. So pick a time when you can write for a set amount of time every day. Yes. You heard me. Every day.

Oh, man, I can hear the arguments now. But Raven, I don’t have time to write every day. But Raven, I have four kids to take care of! But Raven, I have two jobs! Blah, blah blah. You’re forgetting something, my friends. I didn’t say you have to write from sunup to sundown. I didn’t say you have to write for four hours a day. I didn’t even say one hour. Your writing routine can include writing for five minutes while you wait for your child to get out of school, or fifteen minutes on the train to work. Do you read for an hour before bed? Cut that in half and write for the other half.

Now, if you have kids, especially young ones, it’s difficult to set aside a good chunk of regular writing time. Most people need at least an 20 minutes to get a good groove going. If you have a busy family, let them know you’ll be writing from this time to this time, and you won’t be available. And make them adhere to it. After a while, they’ll get used to it. Also, try to set up a writing space where you can cut yourself off from anyone who will disturb you. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be somewhere you can be comfortable and write. As Stephen King says, “All you need is a room with a door you can close.”

To help maintain the routine, treat writing the same way you would a job. Most people follow the same work pattern every day. They clock in at the same time and clock out at the same time. Try to establish a writing pattern that’s as close to this as possible. After a while, you’ll find yourself writing out of habit, and it won’t be such a struggle to get yourself going.

But why every day, you ask? Like many authors, I find that after even a day or two off, it gets more difficult to go back to writing again. It’s like when people call in sick. The more often you do it, the more often you want to do it. Also, I find even a few days is long enough to lose touch with the world and the characters I create. I forget how I worded something, or lose that certain vibe a character gives off. The longer I’m away from a novel, the more I lose the flow, often so that I have to go back and reread what I wrote. If you write every day, it will help you stay in touch with the story and keep the ideas fresh in your mind. If you have the sort of busy schedule that prevents writing for longer spurts, even five minutes a day can help you maintain the flow of your story, keep the creative juices pumping, and prevent the story from going stale. If you won’t take it from me, take it from King. In his novel On Writing he tells us, at the most he’ll give us a day off a week, but otherwise we need to be writing every day.

I’ll tell you, I used to have trouble writing more than a few hours a week. I just couldn’t get the motivation to do it more than that. But—and forgive the bad testimonial feel of this—I recently started a routine of writing every day, for a set amount of time, and guess what? It works. I went from writing 6 pages a week to at least 10 a day. Yes, seriously.

2) Cut off all distractions.

These days, most of us spend a lot of time on the internet.  Chatting with friends, Tweeting, farting around on Facebook, answering messages. If I allowed it, I would spend hours a day—no, not a week, a day—answering emails. You know how it works. You start your day nice and early, with plenty of time to write. You sit down at your computer, and the phone rings. Your best friend is calling to tell you all about her hot date last night You tell yourself you’ll talk for a few minutes, and then you’ll write. But she wants to tell you every detail, because this guy is just so perfect, and of course, you don’t want to cut her off. So an hour goes by before you hang up. Then you turn on your computer and you have four emails that you just have to answer. You answer them send them off. Then your other best friend comes online. You’ll just talk for a minute, then you’ll write. An hour later, when you finally sign off, Grandma stops by. By the time she leaves, its lunch time. Then its three o’clock and the kids are home. Before you know it, the day is gone, and you stare at that blank page in horror. You haven’t written a word! There is a simple way to avoid this information age disease we call procrastination. Aside from learning to say no, and tell your friends, your kids, your grandma that your writing time is your writing time, make sure to cut off all distractions. Take the phone off the hook, keep the internet off (unhook it or even write in a room where you can’t get it if you have to) and yes, tell your friends and family to leave you alone. Set aside time to write, and then during that time, you write.

3) Delete your Facebook/Twitter accounts.

Oh the horror! I can see several of you going white with panic. How dare I ask you to do such a thing! For some of you, asking you to cut off your twitter or FB accounts is like asking you to cut off your own arm. Besides the possible need to start attending Facebooker’s Anonymous (Hi, my name is Raven, and I’m a Facebook-aholic) even those of us who aren’t permanently wired to our networking sites may find the temptation to play around on them just too great. It would probably frighten you to realize how much more spare time you have to write once you delete all those unnecessary accounts.

Now, I know that having author’s pages, blogs, Twitter, and possibly other fan-based pages have become essential to a writer’s world. These are necessary tools to promoting oneself as an author, and one’s books. Plus, many agents and publishers ask writers to include links to fanpages and blogs in their queries to establish that the writer has a following, and having already built a fanbase before you submit can actually aid in getting published. In addition, it helps writers get noticed if they have connections with other published authors. I’m not saying to delete your author or fan-based accounts. I’m talking about your personal ones. And importantly, I’m telling you to do it if you end up tweeting and Facebooking when you should be writing. Deleting “playtime” accounts will eliminate the temptation to spend hours procrastinating on those sites when you should be working on your novel.

4) Stay away from writing sites.

Anyone who uses a writing site knows the double edged sword they present. A lot of us found our most loyal fans on writing sites, and for most of us, it’s where we find other writers who help us improve our craft. But if we aren’t careful, they can also be huge time suckers. We’ve all had it happen. Other writers message us asking us to read their work with the promise of returning the favor. And we read, we comment, we rush to accept the offer. Why? Because we can’t resist the prospect of hearing how good a writer we are. We all like to know we’re doing well, and we often need others to point out mistakes we make in our writing. The problem is, one can spend hours at a time reading and commenting only to end up with one liners like, “Great job,” or “Nice!” Comments that don’t even help us. Or worse, you spend hours reading a whole lot of horrible writing, and then half of the so called authors never even touch yours. Not to mention, many writers become so focused on getting comments that they become feedback dependent. As soon as no one is reading, we lose motivation, and every time we get a negative comment, we panic and start worrying about what we’re doing wrong. It stops us in our tracks and even prevents us from finishing a book, because our readers don’t like it. (There’s also the whole issue that posting your book online can cause problems with getting published later, and I’ll be doing a blog on that next week).

So how do we deal with the interference writing sites cause? Don’t go on them while you’re working on a book. Ignore the comments during the creative process, and don’t post chapters from a book you’re working on. And if you can’t do that, delete the account. You can always recreate the account later, after you’ve completed your current project. Criticism is a necessary part of the writing process, but it should be a part of the editing process, not the writing one.

5) Don’t Edit.

Yeah, you read that right. See, writing and editing should be two separate things, and for good reason. When you write, your mind is creative mode. This is a different mode from the editing one. In one of her blog posts, Author Camy Tang talks about editing and writing coming from two different sides of the brain. I can’t find the actual post where she describes it, and I should be putting the link so you can refer to it. Her blog is here, and if anyone can find the post I’m talking about, please post the link so I can insert it. Camy explained it better than I could, but basically she says that editing takes the right side of the brain, while writing takes the left. The creative, or left side of the brain, causes the ideas to flow, the images to form. The right side is your “Internal Editor.” That’s the voice in your head that tells you that you’re showing, not telling, this is too wordy, this character is flat, that dialogue is lame. As soon as you start to edit your words, your brain switches from the creative side to the analytical, and your Internal Editor switches on. This disrupts the flow of ideas and images and breaks your concentration, often killing the high that comes from the creative process and dousing your motivation. It’s important, when in the creative process, to keep your brain in the left side mode of thought and silence your Internal Editor’s voice. So when writing the first draft of a book, don’t edit. Don’t think. Don’t censor your words. Just write. You will make mistakes, you will write crap. Let it happen. Everything can be fixed, and there will be time to fix it, later.

6) Don’t leave the page blank.

For many of us, the biggest motivation killer is confronting the blank page. You sit at your computer, all excited to write, but the moment you see that huge white space staring back at you, you wilt like a flower at the first breath of frost. Or you spend the first hour of your writing time fighting to get that perfect opening line down. Worse, you had that perfect line the night before, and now you just can’t get it right. I found a great solution for this. Don’t leave the page blank.

For most writers, the instinct is to end their writing day at the end of a chapter. Don’t. Keep going. Start the next chapter, finish the first paragraph, even the first page. Then quite for the day. This way, when you begin your routine the next day, you’ll have a good start to your chapter and the moment you read what you wrote, the ideas you had last night will flood back.

7) Carry a pad and pen at all times.

Oftentimes our best ideas form when we aren’t actually writing. They pop into our heads while waiting at the bus terminal, sitting on the john, waiting for our coffee to brew, or as we’re drifting off to sleep. But by the time we get to a computer, the idea fades. We forget that golden line the hero said, or that awesome fighting move. If you have a pad and pen with you at all times, you can stop what you’re doing to write those gems down before they slip away. Besides, you never know when a story idea will hit you that could be your next best seller.

8) Read. A lot.

Believe it or not, this is my biggest downfall. I don’t read enough. I’m lucky if I read a book every couple of months. I know, flog me. Most of the time, it’s because so many books out now just don’t grab me the way they used to. It’s also because, the more I learn about writing, the harder it is to just sit back and enjoy the book. I pick at everything, and I’m so hyper aware of how the book is written, I forget to just take it in. But reading is a staple of the creative process. It helps you to see what’s popular and what’s not, and why. It keeps you in touch with what’s been overused and what hasn’t. If you pay attention to what you read, it can also help you to see what works in a story and what doesn’t, what makes people want to read this book, but not that one. The rules and trends change all the time in writing, and only by reading other works will you be aware of those changes. And best of all, reading other works helps to generate ideas for new stories and plot lines.

9) Read as a writer, not as a reader.

Yes. I’m basically telling you to do the exact thing that causes me to lose interest in reading. In order to learn how to write better books, we have to pay attention to what other authors are writing. This means picking it apart, analyzing it. Pay attention to what it is at the start of the book that didn’t pull you in. Ask yourself why that character rubbed you the wrong way, and what could have been done to make him/her more likable. Pay attention to how often the same creature is used in how many books, or which ones you’re tired of, and consider what you would do to make it more original. Doing this will help you generate more original stories or turn old plots into fresh ideas that will grab the attention of agents and publishers and keep readers wanting more. Also, when you come across phrases, ideas and concepts you like, wording that catches your attention, write it down. Then think on how you can turn it into something new.

10) Finish reading every book you start.

I know, this will be hard. If you really hate a book, it’s murder to have to finish it. The pages feel like lead weights and the two hundred pages you have left suddenly look like a thousand. And I know some of you would rather put a crappy book down and spend time on one you’ll enjoy. Well, suck it up. For two reasons. One, writing takes discipline, and forcing yourself to get through every book you read will help form disciplining habits. If you want to write for a living, then like it or not, reading will also be part of your job. Think about it. When you are at work, do you quite and go home because you’re having a bad day? No. Then why do that with a book? Two, it’s impossible to tell whether you like a story after a few chapters. It could start out great, but lose steam part way through. Or the whole book could be awesome, but the ending is horrible. Likewise, a book can start out slow or uninteresting, but suddenly pick up. As a writer, you need to see what the writer did that made you lose interest, so you can avoid making the same mistakes. And the only way you can do that is to read the whole story, to see it through to the end. So read good books, bad books, and everything in between. And more importantly, finish them. 

11) Finish every book you write.

Oi. I know. How many of you are looking with horror at the huge list of stories you started and never finished? It’s a bitch, but you need to finish them. Like reading a whole book, it’s important to finish writing them too, and, partially for the same reasons. Once you give up on a story, it gets easier to give up on others the moment you think it isn’t going the way you wanted. But you never know when one of those stories, with editing and hard work, could turn into the next great thing. And in everything we write, there is usually a few ideas we might be able to use later. So when you start a book, no matter if you like it or not, keep going. If other ideas come, make notes and then go back to your current project. Get it out as fast as you can so you can move onto the next. To get published, you need a finished book, and once published, our agents and publishers want more, and they want them fast. Most writers are expected to put out a new book every year, if not several times a year in order to keep readers interested and gain new readers. You can’t turn books out that fast if you can’t finish most of them. Not to mention, getting into the habit of finishing what you start, and doing it as quickly as possible, will help to form the discipline you’ll need when you have deadlines to meet.

12) Do what works for you.

This is going to sound weird coming off of everything I just said, but, basically, this means if what you’re doing now is working, keep doing it. And yes, this means if you finish books better by writing a chapter and then editing it before you go onto the next one, then keep doing it. There are some authors for whom this approach works. If you’re creative juices flow faster with the internet on, then leave it on. When I write, I can’t do it without my Youtube on. I need my music, and Youtube happens to be the easiest way. If writing at a different time every day keeps you writing, then change it up. If you can only write with six kids screaming in the background and your hubby shouting at you to find something every five seconds, by all means, sit in the middle of the busiest room in the house and type away.  These tips are generalizations. Nothing works for everyone. But, if you find you’re having trouble getting those words on the page, chances are, doing even one of these tips will help you fix that.  Mix and match, do what works, ignore what does not. Eventually, something’s got to give.

What about you? How do you make the most of your writing potential? Are there any techniques you’d like to… Hey… wait a minute, what are you doing reading this blog? Go write! Go, I say!


  1. Great blog, Raven. And I agree with King. I can't write as well at the kitchen table as I can in my bedroom. No door to close.
    Even as I type this comment the door's shut. Lol!

    As for my writing routine...I love writing in the dark. At night or late in the afternoon. Dunno why. It just works. And I have to have music on. Can't write without it.


  2. Thanks for reading, Maddie. Ugh. I wish they would fix the stupid commenting issue on here. You write in the dark? I don't know how you do that. LOL! I love that book, On Writing. Honestly, that and Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel should be mandatory reading for any writer.

  3. Omg, you caught me! I was editing my book then I was like, "Let me check this! Oooh! Look!" And I got all kinds of distracted by your blog. :D *big sheepish grin* Anyway, I agree with most of your points though. Especially #8! As a writer you have to read a lot. There's no going around the fact.

    Even Stephen King mentioned it in his book, On Writing (and yes I have the copy on my bookshelf) that to be a good writer you have to

    a) write a lot
    b) read a lot

    I was appalled to hear that a student LOVES to write but HATES to read. It seemed like I was the only one puzzled by that statement other than the teacher. And get this: She's an English major! :O So yeah, I just wanted to shake her and say "How can you call yourself a writer!?" But I didn't.

    Anyway, I'm getting back to my editing now! *salutes and trudges back to edit the book for the umpteenth time then sighs*

  4. Awesome post Raven!

    I know one of my problems has been getting into a routine and sticking to it. Then when i don't write enough on a story i loose interest because i feel like the story has left me and it's so painful to pull it back up again.

    I also have the distraction problem. I will be sitting at the table and look around the room and realize, "man this place is dirty!" and i will tell myself that i have to get at least a little bit clean then i can write. But the writing never actually gets done...sigh.

    The past two weeks i've begun to set deadlines for myself and I have gotten a lot more written. I'm going to keep going like that and hopefully finish this novel!

    Surreal Storm

  5. @Larissa, LOL! A writer and English major who doesn't like to read? *Covers ears* That's just so wrong. I too love the book On Writing.

    If you're at the editing stage, I recommend two books. Writing the Breakout Novel, and it's companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, both by Donald Maass. I know, I recommend those a lot, but they are invaluable. The work book is like having Maass at your side, helping you edit the book, but free. He has you go through excercises to make your book better in every way from your plot to your characters. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

    @Surreal Storm, I'm so glad you're writing more. :D. A writing routine really does make all the difference.

    Thank you both so much for reading and for the wonderful comments. :D.

  6. I need to find a routine that works for me and then stick with it. That is my biggest problem. I usually can but after a week or two I'm back to my old, non writing self. Guess I gotta keep trying. Great tips and thanks so much!

  7. Faith, I find what helps best is to find a time in the day where you have a habit of procrastinating the most and make at least some of that you're writing time. Also, start small, that way you'll focus on the writing and not how long you have to write. It's easier to stick with a routine if you start with a small amount of time, even 20 minutes, then soon you'll find that isn't enough, and you add more on. Over tine, you'll get into the groove and not even realize how long you're writing. Thanks for reading!

  8. Great post! I'm always looking for motivation, inspiration and any advice that will keep me on track - I'm not sure how I'd handle the 'no facebook' thing. I know pages like FB can be a massive distraction. They are time consuming - as is blogging, and I've tried going without for some months. I missed blogging a great deal. There are too many precious people in cyberland to simply put away for another time. For me, it's not procrastination - it's distractions. My house is full and constantly buzzing. My time to write is at dawn or late at night - not always productive because my mind fires hot at mid morning, and writing at that time is almost impossible :( Thanks for sharing, always interesting reading, R. I like the new look of your space (not sure how new it is, I've been an absentee for some time). Hope your'e well. Blessings, Moana x

  9. Wow, Moana. Thanks for the great comment. I've actually dropped that other blog, and made this one my home blog permenantly. :D. It sounds like you have one of this busy, distracting lives I was talking about. Congrats to you for still finding time to write amidst all that. Keep plugging away. Thanks for touching base. :)


  10. Haven't quite finished the post, let alone the comments, but the RIGHT brain is the holistic, creative side and the LEFT is the linear, critical thinking side. Therefore, the RIGHT lets us WRITE creatively and the LEFT is our EDITOR. LOL Katie

  11. all the steps are very good and this blog is gleat and useful for the students
    maximize potential | natural leadership



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