How To Keep Writing and Keep Sane

There are a billion blog posts out there about how to write a book, how to market a book, how to sell a book. How to up your word-count; how to make your characters pop; how to hook an agent. There’s not so much about how to be happy as a writer. How to live your life, write books, and stay sane.

I certainly don’t have everything figured out along those lines, but I’ve written six books in six years, and I’m not in the nut-house yet. (Barely. Last book came close.) For what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve figured out, through trial and error, about keeping a word-count and keeping balanced. Because it ain’t easy.

1. Figure out how you write best.
Forget the people who say you’ll never succeed if you can’t crank out at least 4,000 words a day. Forget the people who say longhand is the only way to go. Forget the people who say writing out of sequence is the key to keeping it fresh. How do you work best? Can you churn out a book in a few minutes here and a few minutes there throughout your day, or do you need a solid block of time? Do you write best with notepad or laptop, at the crack of dawn or the dead of night? Can you manage 2,000 words a day, or does the word-count thing stress you out and you’d rather measure your progress in scenes completed? Figure out what works for you. I’ve found that I work best in the afternoons, need at least five hours, and can produce about 2,000-3,000 words on an average day–but everybody’s different. My system probably won’t work for you, and yours wouldn’t work for me.

2. Now that you know how you write best, arrange your life to make it happen.
Not easy, I know. Especially when you’ve got the demands of kids, family, and day job. I need uninterrupted time to work, and in the days when I had a full college class-load and three jobs, all I could do was carve out my weekend afternoons for writing. I have a friend who writes around three kids, and she’ll whip out her laptop while waiting in the carpool line or the pediatrician’s office. Whatever you need, make it happen.

3. Realize that something’s gotta go.
I always thought that once I was writing full-time, I’d have time for everything: research, writing, housework, two-hour stints at the gym, and cooking gourmet dinners every night. Nope. No matter whether you’re writing around a day job or not, there is never enough time. To carve out that space in your day to write, you will have to give something up. Maybe it’s your Dr. Who marathons that go bye-bye. Maybe it’s that extra hour of sleep in the morning. Or maybe you didn’t see your daughter score the winning goal because your spouse took her to her soccer game so you could stay home and work. But something’s going to the wayside. I have very little social life and the only show I watch on TV is Game of Thrones. So be it.

4. That being said, make time to get outside.
Let’s face it, writers are pretty much glued to their computer screens. We have to make ourselves unplug, and getting outside is a good way to do it, even if it’s just a five minute stroll around the block with the dog. Besides, I’ve found that a brisk walk away from my Facebook updates and stack of emails is just about the best way to think through a knotty plot problem.

5. Hit the gym.
I know this is starting to sound like one of those health-and-wellness posts, but hear me out: working up a sweat can really help your writing. Writers over-think everything; the book is never “off” in your head–but that isn’t always a good thing. Try taking an hour away from that chapter that’s driving you crazy and focus on your sprint time or your downward dog–your brain just might present you with the bingo solution as you’re sluicing off your gym sweat in the shower. It’s like seeing something clearly only when you look slightly away from it. So if you’re stuck, try working out–my friend C.W. Gortner swears by yoga, my friend Stephanie Thornton trains for half-marathons, I like to hit a punching bag. Whatever works for you.

6. Try to physically separate writing from your ordinary life.
Maybe your brain is never entirely “off” when it comes to the work-in-progress, but you’ll find it a lot easier to relax after your daily stint if you have an office or working sanctum to physically exit when finished. Ideally, of course, this would be a wood-paneled private library a la Downton Abbey complete with fireplace, desk the size of an air-strip, and Carson The Butler bringing you fresh coffee whenever you ring the bell. In real life, we make do with what we’ve got: a spare bedroom made over into an office; a corner of the living room with a makeshift folding desk; a laptop designated as work-only. Don’t have even that much space? I’ve got friends who made the local Panera their office. Anything that separates writing from life, so you can close the door on it when you’re done. If nothing else, it’s a helpful cue for family members: the kids will learn very quickly that Mom is not on call to wash soccer uniforms or make Kool-Aid freezer-pops until she is back from Panera or has exited the spare bedroom and shut the door behind her.

7. “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Flaubert said that, and good old Gustave was right. I know the pervasive stereotype of a writer’s life is hard partying alternating with all-night writing binges . . . but you’ll be more productive with a steady routine, whatever that routine is. (If blowing off steam at a party relaxes you, then make that part of your routine.) When I was working a 9-5 day job, my routine was “Day job Monday through Friday, write all day Saturday, write all day Sunday. Rinse-and-repeat.” These days it’s “Get up, walk the dog, go to the gym, shower, eat lunch standing up in front of the fridge, go to spare bedroom-turned-office and write for the next six hours. Rinse-and-repeat.” It’s mindless. It’s repetitive. It’s certainly not glamorous. But it’s soothing. Soothing is good for your word-count.

8. Speaking of stereotypes, don’t be the substance-abusing writer.
I know; plenty of geniuses like Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote masterpieces around drug-and-alcohol problems. Still don’t recommend it. Most writers probably have a bit of a self-destructive bent built in–after all, our job is not just to nourish the voices in our heads, but talk back to them. Still, it’s probably wiser to soothe the crazy with routine rather than vices. Stephen King is the most successful author in the history of the published word, and what does he attribute his success to? “Staying sober, and staying married.”

9. Speaking of married: toxic relationships are toxic for your word-count.
It’s tough living with a writer–my husband could tell you all about the midnight scrambles to write an idea down before it fades into sleep; the wild-eyed work binges at deadline time; the fact that some part of my brain is always, always on the work-in-progress. But we’re happy, and happiness = productivity. Nobody should settle for less. If your significant other condescends about your cute little hobby, tells you to get a real job, or just plain resents having to do more of the dishes when you’re on deadline, kick ’em to the curb and watch your word-count rise in your new-found solitude.

10. Make friends with other writers.
Even the most loving spouse won’t know deadline agony quite as intimately as a fellow writer. Friends like this will literally save your sanity, not just by reading your entire 500 page manuscript in 3 days over Christmas week when you really need feedback fast, but by understanding where you’re at. When my last book had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my husband brought me flowers, made me dinner . . . and arranged for my nearest writer friend to take me out to coffee and talk me off the ledge. It worked. Whether these people live in your hometown or are a Facebook PM away, know who you can reach out to.

This list is by no means complete–it’s just a few things that help me stay the course so far, and I know I’ll keep learning as long as I keep writing. Because there’s no end in sight. This profession is a race with no finish line. Once you hit one goal (You got an agent! You got published!) it’s instantly replaced by another one. You’re always learning, always working, and there’s no magical point at which it becomes easy. Diana Gabaldon with her millions of readers, multi-city book tours, myriad bestseller lists, and Starz mini-series still had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to finish her galley edits, according to her Facebook update. Margaret George still stresses about getting her historical research accurate. Nobody gets a pass on the ups and downs of this life, no matter how successful. I have days when I cry into my coffee and contemplate a career in burger flipping, and I guarantee you, so does Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell. Just remember to keep an even keel. Keep sane. Keep writing.

What tips help you do that? I’m all ears.

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