Somewhere in my childhood bedroom closet there is a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, each partially filled with some truly awful first attempts at writing science fiction. But you know what? When I was 11-years-old, I was doing a better job of being a writer than I did at age twenty-five, when my year's productivity maybe consisted of a single piece of awful X-Files fanfiction, because grad school. At age 11, I regularly stayed up late, school be damned, and just wrote whatever I felt like because I enjoyed doing it. None of what I was writing was good, but at least I was making a habit of writing.
It took me years to realize that's the secret to being a writer: you just have to make a habit of writing. Full disclosure, I am not a published fiction writer, but I have published journal articles and a book chapter, even if it is all related to my research. But in 2013, I had a sort of break-through when it came to my fiction. At the time, I was really struggling at work and the usual troubles that come with moving to an new area. I can't remember exactly how I heard about NaNoWriMo, but it must have been around October of that year because my circle of the internet seemed to be buzzing with anticipation for November.
For those that aren't familiar, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month." It's an online event (project?) in which aspiring authors sign up for the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That averages to about 1667 words a day, which is a substantial amount of writing. I was game and signed up.
It was a total revelation. Each day I had to hit 1667 words, or at least try to. The NaNoWriMo website lets you upload how many words you've written each day and track your progress against the projected rate necessary to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.
Like most people, I "failed" the challenge in the sense that I didn't hit the 50,000 word mark. I had (and still do) a tendency to edit and rework what I had written. Deleting sections is generally counter-productive to hitting a word count. For this reason, some people criticize NaNoWriMo because the nature of the competition does tend to encourage sloppy writing over quality work.
But look, it's a competition with yourself. People can do whatever they want with NaNoWriMo. For some, I guess it's a chance to actually write that novel they had been planning (there are many published novels, even famous ones, that originally came out of NaNoWriMo - Water for Elephants is one example). But what I took out of the experience was the habit of regular daily writing.
Each evening, I came home from work and wrote as much as I could. Not every night resulted in much more than two or three hundred words. But some nights and weekends exploded with writing if I got on a roll. 1500 words wasn't uncommon for a Saturday, even if that was still woefully below what I needed to actually get a NaNoWriMo winner's badge. It didn't matter though. It made writing a daily habit for me that continues on almost two years later now.
Have I gone on writing breaks? Absolutely. Usually, these breaks coincide with vacation and family time or when my husband is out of town. But I always pick it up again.
So besides trying NaNoWriMo yourself this November, what are some things you can do to make writing a daily habit? I like to use a redundant calendar system. On my wall calendar, I mark X's for each day I have written. This was an idea I got from something Jerry Seinfeld once said about how to be a writer. I also keep a journal by my computer to keep track of my daily word count and any ideas I have for the next day, or long term plans for later chapters of the book, etc. And then I have a weekly planner, where again, I write down my word count.
Ironically, the word count means less and less to me. Sometimes, I spend my entire session working on a single paragraph, because I want to get the words just right. But documenting my writing using word counts is easy and keep me accountable for my main goal of writing regularly. I don't know why I enjoy writing the same things down in multiple calendars. I do that at work too. Minor OCD, perhaps.
Routine also helps me maintain the daily writing habit. I eventually figured out that I was a better and more productive writer in the mornings. So I gave up my evening sessions in favor of waking up early and writing before work. I have a long commute, so this means I get up at 4:45 a.m every day. I'm groggy at first, but after I drink my coffee, sit down at my computer, turn on my writing playlist, and read the last page that I wrote the day before, I find it's no trouble to wake up and start writing the next section. That's just what works for me, but I think it's important to figure out what time, place and set of conditions works well for you.
Admittedly, it is slow going working on a book 700 words (my daily average) at a time. I have felt despair that I'll ever have enough, that I'm happy with, to send to literary agents. It also makes it hard to keep track of long-game plot development. I personally find I can get so bogged down in one description that it's hard to feel like I'm making any progress at all. I have a full time job. I wish I could spend all day writing, but I have to support myself. So this is the best I can do and I'm pleased to do it. No self-judgement, that's another key.
Give it a shot. Write something, no matter how small, every day. Make it a long term project. Keep track of your progress. Just make it a habit. For me, it's the difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one.
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.