One of the more common questions I’ve heard is “How do you get through writer’s block?” or “How do you find time to write?”
In my blog “confessions,” I talked about my work day. I’m going to delve into that a bit more, but what I hope to address is the distinction between “finding time to read,” “writer’s block” and just plain prioritizing.
I’m a big believer in routine. I think consistency breeds consistency. Perfect practice leads to perfect performance. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination in any regard, but I’ve found a thing or two that works for me.
First: My schedule. I usually wake up at 6 a.m. I get up, go the the bathroom, go right back down to my room and shut my eyes for another 10-15 minutes. I don’t like waking up early. I worked night shifts in my younger days, and the routine stuck. My brain usually comes alive around 3. My current schedule, my bosses and my students don’t and shouldn’t care bout my sleep work cycle, but it’s how I’ve always worked. This is honestly harder each year. Already, my body demands an earlier bedtime than it did four years ago. Still, the thing that gets me out of bed is the fact that my students are there, and I love helping them. My friends are there, too. So I get up, get dressed hit the road and arrive to work on time.
I leave my job anywhere from 4:30 to 7:30 depending on a host of factors. Do my students need extra help? How much do I have to grade? Am I prepared to teach whatever it is I’m teaching tomorrow? Will I have to be early tomorrow? How long has it been since I’ve worked out?
More often than not, I’m home no later than 7:30. I’m happiest when I’m home by 6:30. As impossible as it is to tell when I’m going to get home, I still get there. If I get home first, I clean up and start/order dinner. Once everyone is home, I take the time to hang with my family. This goes until about 8:30.
Then I go back to work. Only this time, it’s my dream job. It’s the occupation I want to put on my tax form. (I do that now, but I’d like for my income to grow).
If you want to be a writer, you should probably write. I’ll blog about this at a later date. Anyway, to write, you have to build a routine that works. Some of you may disagree. That’s fine. This is just what works for me.
Step one: Establish the Command Center
So when I go downstairs, I bring some diet soda and a few snacks. I snuggle up in my chair and pull my table with my lap top right up against it, trapping me in what I call my Command Center. You see, I grew up watching Voltron, and I liked the feel of having my chair lock me into my own version of a battle robot. I’ve occasionally been heard making sound effects. Don’t judge.
The term Command Center came from an old boss of mine. He once told me, “You can’t win a war if your command center isn’t squared away.” I hadn’t joined the Navy at the time, and he was a crusty old Sailor. The term made a lot of sense to me. I finish off the command center by making sure my 49ers blanket is wrapped around me in a cowl, my references are near to hand, and my distractions are literally out of reach. I make sure I have a pen and something to scribble on is near by. So my command center is established when I’m locked in, everything I need is close to hand and everything I don’t need is out of reach. The 9ers blanket is just because I love my team, and I like being warm.
Step two: Clear the Distractions
This is a bit of a trick. Before I understood the importance of social media, all I had to do was make sure the X-Box controller and remote controls were out of reach. Social Media has made that harder. I can’t focus if I think there’s other stuff to do. I think very quickly, and if I think a problem is coming, or I need to handle something, I jump to fix it. This takes me away from writing. So I have to clear the virtual distractions, too, so I do my rounds. I have a Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter account. I do whatever sharing, following, and Tweeting I feel is necessary. I check on my sales. I check my emails. I make sure I’ve addressed everything that can come up.
Step three: Establish the Mission
So being in the military has given me an affection for being told what to do, even if I’m the only one giving orders. I COMMIT to what I’m going to do. I PROMISE myself I’m going to achieve something, and every now and then, I promise myself a reward for meeting the mission goal (right now I reward myself by watching episodes of Naruto). I’ll ORDER myself: “I WILL write 1,000 words” or “I will edit this chapter” or “I will write this blog.” Then I offer my self reward. I’ll say, “…and after I finish, I’ll watch ONE episode of Naruto,” or whatever I have to. NOTE: It’s CRITICAL to me to be as strict with my reward as I am with my mission, otherwise I write one thing and watch TONS of Naruto. That’s bad. It’s a betrayal of my mission and a failure of my efforts.
Step four: Clock in.
Lately, I’ll signal this by sending Quintessential Editor a quick message via Facebook saying, “Clocking in.” We both know this isn’t an excuse. It’s a commitment. He knows I’m working. He’ll usually tell me he’s working or how long he’ll be before he goes to work. The point is, we’re professionals, who go to work. We see our work as an occupation. It’s not a hobby. It’s not something we get around to. It’s our job, and we have to do it. We may only have to do it because we choose to, but the point is we’ve chosen to. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to make money off your writing, treat it like the job you want to earn an income doing. So I go to work, and I clock in.
Step five: Meet the goal
Whatever objective I established for myself, I reach. Sometimes, it’s fast. For me, it’s fastest when I’m drafting and slowest when I’m editing. That’s not to say there aren’t days when drafting is a pain. Trust me: The most important time to write is when you don’t feel like writing. Now some disagree with me on this, but I have a few tips (which I’ll elaborate on in future blogs).
First…if what you’re trying to write isn’t working, write something else. I have several projects going. If Caught is really not working, I still work until I’ve met my objective, but I may take a different sort of break. No, I don’t go to the digital water cooler and talk to Corey. Instead, I shift gears to a different project. Right now I’m drafting Images of Truth, world building Sojourn in Despair, reading something for my writers group or scanning 1,200. Be wary. If you ever want to be a PUBLISHED author. You have to finish something.
I shift gears to another project only as long as it takes me to get a sense of momentum (more on this later). Once the muse (I subscribe to King’s theory on the muse by the way. I really do.) has had a chance to use the imaginary bathroom or finish his last beer (see “On Writing”), and I can hear him talking to me, I move back to my objective project. I don’t take a break yet. I won’t let distractions fool me into thinking I’ve actually done anything. I finish the mission. Again, I was trained as a Sailor. I may have to take a break from photography or writing an article to stand watch or clean a compartment. Those are important jobs too, but they’re not my main mission.
When I finish those collateral duties, I go back to work and finish the job I PROMISED myself I’d finish. This is the hardest trick to figure out, especially if you’re someone like me who’s a fan of linear, one-at-a-time tasks. But momentum is more important to me than anything. The more I gain momentum, the easier it is for me to keep it. If I stop, I’m hosed. That’s all there is to it.
Once the juices are flowing, I step away from the side project (promising that said project will in time become my primary mission) and get to work on my current objective. I knock it out. Then I revel in whatever reward I’ve promised myself. If I’m on a role, I let it ride until I feel like I’m forcing it.
I can’t do one thing for extreme periods of time. I need to shift gears. I’ve learned I work best with about an hour of productivity and 20-45 minutes of rest. This is just what works for me.
On a good night, I get through about three rotations. On a great night, I get through three rotations, and it’s not yet midnight. That almost never happens, but it’s beautiful when it is. If I’m particularly sleepy or drained, I only do one rotation. But I ALWAYS do one rotation. Midnight is a benchmark for me. If I have more time, or I feel particularly energized, I push it. I usually end up going to 1 or 2 in the morning.
Momentum is everything. I know myself, and as an author, you need to know yourself. Identify your resistance (if you subscribe to Pressfield’s dialogue). For me, I know I WANT an excuse not to write. I want an excuse to step away. That’s why I have to establish my command center. I make sure I don’t have the “excuse” to get up to find something I need. That’s why I clear the distractions. I make sure I don’t have the “excuse” that I’m worried I forgot something. Etcetera.
The more I write, the more I will write. The more I accomplish the more I will accomplish. The consequences of stopping? A few weeks back I had a terrible headache. I took the night off. Now it was the right thing. My head hurt so bad I saw spots and couldn’t see very well. My body said, “Matt, get some sleep, or I’ll PUT you to sleep.” So I let myself turn in early (very early). I was fine the next day, but I didn’t get anything done for about another week. Even when stopping is the right thing to do, it totally derails my rhythm.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe people don’t have momentum, so they stop because they can’t get started. When I say it that way, with brutal honesty, do you see how little sense that makes? It may be a real thing, but I’ve never had it. Maybe something wasn’t working, but the trick I mentioned above always gets me back on track.
My routine PROBABLY won’t work for you. It’s mine. Maybe some theories will work, but you have to find a routine that works for you. I hope mine has given you a few ideas. This routine has evolved over twenty years now. It started when I read “On Writing” and learned the muse needs to know when to come by. (roughly translated it means go to work when you say you will, or write at a consistent time.) It evolved and evolved as I found more distractors or potholes on my road to success. I think it’s pretty solid now as I’ve written six books, and I’m about to publish my second book. The main point remains.
If you want to be a writer, you should be writing.
Thanks for reading,