I recently finished the rough draft of my 11th novel. Using outlining techniques I've been honing for years, it took me between 11 and 12 weeks to plan and execute this draft from beginning to end, including about 90% of the world-building.
When I get going on a book, I write with a sort of feverish energy, totally immersing myself in the project, and I will admit that many things in my life go undone as a result -- usually things like cleaning and general picking up around my house. But my four children still have to be cared for, and I still need to spend time with my husband, and my other work (freelance and contract writing and editing) needs to get done, so I can't disappear entirely into my head. But my stories do weigh heavily on me until they are finished, which is part of why I insist on pouring them out at a frenetic pace until they are done.
I'm always asked how I do it. Obviously writing a novel is not a speed drill or a race with anyone else, so the pace at which I do it is really not that important, but to me, getting them out of my head in a timely manner IS important for the reasons I've mentioned, as well as a few others. And these other reasons are things I think make for a successful writer.
*Please keep in mind, I'm not claiming these are the only things that make a writer successful, just that they are some key elements I think do make for writing success. How each writer applies them might look different depending on circumstances.
I don't know if this is widely put about, but writing doesn't pay well. Or sometimes. . . at all. Or maybe better said, under certain circumstances, writing doesn't pay yet. Everything depends on where you are in your writing "journey" -- your career path, assuming you are choosing writing as a career. If you are really crazy and have chosen to be a novelist (ha), you had better prepare yourself to fall into the category of delayed monetary gratification, if it ever comes at all. So as a writer, you need to be self-motivated to get your manuscripts written in your own time while working other jobs for actual money (or falling back on a spouse or significant other or parents to support you).
I have met a lot of hobby writers and wannabe successful writers. You'd be surprised how many of them lack basic self-motivation. I know it seems like I'm making this all about money here, and maybe that's a mistake, but money is a reality of this game. Money aside, though, sometimes writers can just be terrible procrastinators. Not only do you have to be prepared to work for little to no income, but you have to motivate yourself to work even when you don't feel like it.
Successful writers are goal oriented people. I'm not talking about hobby writers. Hobby writers often pick at their manuscripts for years -- never really serious about them. They wax philosophical about being "writers," but many of them have never really finished anything or submitted anything for publication or been paid for anything (no matter how much or little). Many hobby writers could be professional writers if they wanted to be, but they lack clear goals -- clear focus about what they want to be doing, and/or where they want to be with their writing career a year from now. Two years from now. Five years. . . Ten years (you get the idea).
Most simply put: If you don't know where you're going, you can't possibly know how to get there.
If you don't view writing as a career and set clear goals for yourself, you will never put yourself on a path to meet those goals. Now, sometimes you won't meet your goals, because a lot in the writing industry simply doesn't depend on you and the power of your will. (If I could will myself to right now be a New York Times bestselling author, believe me, I would!) But, as with any goal setting, if you start with attainable goals and work your way forward, you will actually make progress toward the bigger goals you have. For example: Do you want to be a published novelist? If the answer is yes, but you have never actually completed a manuscript before, then the first goal you should set for yourself is finishing writing a book! Then you need to ask yourself: How do I finish writing a book? Then set steps for yourself to make sure you 1) Learn how to do it, and 2) Do it in a set timeframe (SO important).
Also so important with your goals, though, is giving yourself grace when things don't turn out the way you intend. You will stumble and fail many times over if you decide to seriously pursue writing. Sometimes it will be your fault, but if you are doing all you can to complete reasonable goals, more often than not, it will just be the hard knocks of the industry. It's a business of rejection -- plain and simple. Learning to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, reorient, and keep going. . . These are crucial things. (And if you've set your goals several years out, you should be able to keep those before you as a fixed point to help you get back on your feet whenever you stumble.)
Hobby writers tend to be terrible finishers. Professional writers -- successful writers -- finish things. I don't just mean finish manuscripts, by the way, I mean finish goals. I've known some fantastic hobby writers who have completed several books, articles, poems (you name it), but who have never gotten up the moxie to submit anything for publication or set any further goals besides tossing words on the page. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to finish -- not only books, articles, short stories, poems, essays (ad infinitum) in a timely manner (often to deadlines!), but finish those goals you set out for yourself. And it doesn't necessarily mean cranking out a novel in 12 weeks, but it does mean not letting procrastination take hold. It means treating writing like a job (because. . . it is). It means writing -- something -- every day you possibly can. It means acknowledging that if other professions don't get to use being "blocked" as an excuse to not finish a project, then neither do you!
At the end of the day, you can't ever be labeled "successful," and you're not going to make a dime on your writing, if you don't finish. And you can't finish if you don't know how (aren't goal-oriented). And you probably aren't going to set those goals in the first place if you aren't self-motivated to do so. So those are my Big Three when it comes to being a successful writer. Thoughts? Questions? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!
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