Last updated on December 14, 2017
Do you dream of one day quitting your day job and becoming a full-time indie or traditionally published author? Has your day job become a grind as you stare into the distance, dreaming of more time at your keyboard, creating new worlds, garnering diehard fans, and finally being able to pursue your dream? Do you wonder what the criteria are for writing success? Then, this post is for you!
First, know that you are not alone. There are so many of us out there just waiting for it to happen. However, making that dream a reality is more complex than one might think. We go through our days promising ourselves that we will write when we have time. First, we have to get the kids all set. We have to do all that basic stuff, like brushing our teeth, taking a shower, walking the dog, changing the litter box, eating, working, … Before we know it, we’re binge-watching My Little Pony on Netflix at two in the morning and blinking our eyes at the screen when we realize, “Oh no! I forgot to write today … again!” And the next day, we start it all over again.
Before long, we start to wonder if having a writing career is really possible. We shake our heads at people publishing two to three books a year. The ones who are publishing more simply blow our minds.
“How do they do it?” we ask ourselves over and over again.
“She must not have kids.”
“He must have started out with a really easy day job or inherited lots of money.”
“I’ll bet her dog doesn’t wake her up at 2 o’clock every morning.”
But the truth is, we all have challenges, and all those successful writers have them as well. In the last year, I made a commitment to joining the ranks of my clients and becoming a real indie author myself. To me, this meant no more excuses. Writers write, and I couldn’t expect to become a writer if I didn’t actually find the time to write regularly and productively. Over that period of time, I’ve listened to probably hundreds of podcasts and read a jillion blog posts and articles on writing and author entrepreneurship, trying to find the keys to success. And while I may not have the golden key to instant fame and fortune, I have learned a few essential things that authors need for writing success.
The first thing you need for writing success is a commitment to your passion. This doesn’t mean that you need to go around and tell everyone, “Hey, I’m a writer,” each and every day. That’s just talk.
I mean the kind of commitment that means each and every day (with few exceptions), you apply “the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and write.” This is paraphrased from a letter I received as a teenager. I had written to my favorite author, Stephen R. Donaldson, author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and asked for writing advice. His advice was spot-on. I just wish it hadn’t taken me 30 years to figure that out.
If applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair every single day turns you off, ask yourself, is this really what you want? Open your eyes to the reality of being a writer. When you’re starting out, this can mean hours in front of your computer or your notebook, alone with the blank page, every day. If you dictate your books, it can mean a lot of time walking and transcribing or initially adjusting your software. It means dealing with feedback that physically hurts and rejection from people you don’t know. We all have to go through this. I don’t see a way of getting around it.
Maybe, if you’re lucky and committed, one day, you’ll get to add speaking, traveling, and book signings to that repertoire, and then, you’ll have to squeeze in your writing on an even tighter schedule. The same fans that buoy you up will be the ones keeping you from sticking to your writing schedule.
Know yourself, and make your writing a priority. I’m not asking you to shove your kids out the door and divorce your husband, but put writing where it belongs according to how important it is to you.
Is it more important than your Netflix habit? Or maybe (eyes shifting guiltily) your video game habit? I’m not saying you have to give these things up. Just do your writing first. Maybe, in the end, you’ll end up watching a little less TV, but you won’t have another night like the one I described above. You will go to bed at the end of every day knowing that you’re on the right road. Which will you feel less guilty about? Missing an episode of Supernatural or missing another day of writing?
Let your family and friends know how important writing is to you. Share your successes and failures. Odds are, your loved ones know that writing takes commitment. Hopefully, they’ll throw their support your way and help you out when they can.
Commitment and discipline are intertwined. Commitment is what gets you started. Discipline is what keeps you going and gets you to the writing success you’re looking for.
The simplest bit of advice I can give you is to write every day and schedule your writing time. Find a good time for it (a.k.a. don’t sabotage yourself by scheduling it at a time you know is unworkable). If you can only find 15 minutes a day, schedule it. It’s 15 minutes more than nothing. Stick to your schedule until it doesn’t work anymore (see #3 Flexibility). Don’t let anything short of an emergency keep you from getting that time in. Pick a project, set a goal, and get going.
Since August, my personal writing goal has been 500 words or one hour of editing every day. Until recently, it was on my calendar for five in the morning. I recently switched it to after work except on my days off, but it’s still on the schedule.
Sometimes, I write much more than those 500 words. Other times, it’s a slog just getting the minimum onto the page, but I’ve missed only three days since I really committed in October. What does that mean? It means that I have finished two first drafts, published one short story and had another accepted for publication, written and published numerous blog posts, and started the rewrite of one of those book drafts. I’ve been more productive in the last six months than I was in the last six years.
Scheduling my writing means that when I finish my writing for the day, I can go about doing all of those other things without feeling guilty. I know that every day I’m making progress. If I meet only my minimum of 500 words a day, I’m still writing about 15,000 words every month. That means I can finish a draft in less than six months. That is a huge improvement over the 10 years it took for the first of those first drafts.
You may find that you can write much more per day than I can, or maybe writing 100 words a day is all you can manage. That’s still about 3000 words a month. If you’re writing nothing now, isn’t that a huge improvement? You can’t get closer to your goal if you are standing still.
Writing first thing every morning can be a great way to get started. Get onto Twitter, join the #5amwritersclub, and write when your house is quiet and your kids are asleep. If you have a baby or toddler that doesn’t respect sane waking hours, start writing as soon as she goes down for a nap, or if you can’t get away from that, ask your spouse to give you 15 minutes when he gets home so you can get in some writing and he can reconnect with the little one. If you work outside the home, commit half of your lunch break to writing. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish in a month.
Don’t let writing become one of those things that slips away every time life throws you a curve ball.
I know it’s not always that easy, which is why every writer needs some flexibility. If squeezing in even 15 minutes is hard, schedule several writing times, and use the one or all of the ones that work that day. Dictate your story to your phone while you’re making dinner, folding laundry, or going for a walk. Ask a friend or relative to take the kids for a walk while you write. Take a personal day from work, and dedicate that day to writing.
If your schedule changes or if something comes up, take that into account and make changes to your writing schedule on your calendar just like you would with work or prior commitments. Don’t let writing become one of those things that slips away every time life throws you a curve ball. That’s how we get into that spiral of feeling that becoming a successful writer is impossible.
Basically, create success for yourself by creating multiple opportunities to write, multiple opportunities for writing success.
An often essential piece of the puzzle in writing success is community. Find a community of writers, whether in person or online, that is there to support you every day through your writing journey. Having more than one is even better as long as you don’t stretch yourself too thin. These writers will be there to inspire you, collaborate with you, hold you up when things are down, and cheer you on when things are going well.
You can find your community through in-person writing groups and critique groups, Facebook groups dedicated to writing, and even groups held together by Twitter hashtags. The monthly writing challenge, which has its home on Twitter, keeps me inspired and accountable every day. Even when I don’t write as much as I want to or I miss writing entirely, this great group of people whom I’ve never met makes it all worthwhile. If you’d don’t do the whole social media thing, find a writing group near you or start your own.
Having just a few writers to talk to on a regular basis helps alleviate the loneliness of writing, gives you an outlet for your questions, allows you to help other writers by providing answers, and can provide a built-in set of critique partners. Like anything else, writing groups are not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, but if you’re willing to put in the time to find the right one, I think you’ll find it’s worth it. I know writers like Brandon Sanderson who are still good friends with the people in their early writing groups, the ones they had when writing success was just a dream.
In addition, immerse yourself in the world of writing. Listen to podcasts, read blog posts, and watch YouTube videos by writers and writing teachers. Find the ones that appeal to you, and find inspiration.
I’m still at the beginning of my author–entrepreneur journey, and I’m sure there are many more elements that contribute to writing success.
I’d love to hear your tips on how we can shape our lives as writers to catch that dream of becoming successful authors and achieving writing success.
The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn
The Creative Penn podcast
Writing Excuses podcast