How many of you made New Year’s resolutions? Did you resolve to lose weight or get fit? Maybe you resolved to quit smoking or avoid sugar. Or maybe your goal is to save money, read more books, find a better job, be nicer to your fellow humans, or—if you’re a fellow scribbler—write a novel.
(I personally didn’t make any. Not because “I don’t believe in making resolutions” or because I don’t have goals—I was felled by the flu and too sick to even consider long-term habits on December 31. I might give it another try for the Chinese New year.)
Most people who do make resolutions are aiming for a big change or achievement that will improve their life or health or give them deep personal satisfaction. These kinds of big goals take time. Experts say it takes anywhere from three weeks to two months for a new habit to be entrenched. At this point in January, some of you may be starting to see the positive impacts of, say, swapping your daily sugary coffee drink for green tea, sweating it out at the gym three times a week, or logging your 250 words daily.
Or, some of you may have given up on your resolution because you haven’t seen any results.
If you’re sheepishly raising your hand at the latter, take heart. You’re not alone.
We are all conditioned to want and expect quick results. We get pulled in by get-rich-quick schemes and stories of overnight success. We buy in to promises of fast weight-loss through the latest fad diets. We fork out hard-earned dollars on shortcuts, magic potions, and secret tips to achieving our goals today, if not sooner. Our need for instant gratification is ingrained in our culture.
Writers are not immune to the pull of the quick path to publication. We dream of having a short story accepted by The New Yorker, with book deals and publicity following swiftly after. (Think Kristen Roupenian and “Cat Person”). We imagine writing our magnum opus in solitude all in one sitting, fueled by an inescapable idea and passion…and possibly by generous amounts of wine and gummi bears. NaNoWriMo doesn’t help to diminish this vision. You can “win” National Novel Writing Month by writing a 50,000-word novel in one month (November). In 2017, 468,104 participants signed up to give it a try. I haven’t heard how many of them produced a masterpiece to instant and widespread acclaim.
Many writers have cranked out their novels quickly and found success (I heard it took Ian Fleming six weeks on average to write a James Bond novel). But I would argue that the most meaningful, well-written, and reader-connecting books take months if not years of effort. And now, with writers making less money than ever before, those pesky day-jobs mean not everyone can write as quickly as they like. Making writing a habit, and doing it every day, whenever you can, for as long as it takes to finish, is most likely the surest path to writing a good book.
So, how do you resist the pull of instant gratification? How do you hunker down and take regular, doable steps towards your big writing goal?
Be realistic. Make sure your goal is a stretch, but still achievable. If it’s unlikely that you will have the time to write 1,000 words a day, don’t commit to that. You will have to make sacrifices in order to work towards your goal, but make them manageable. If you try to force writing into your day by giving up something that is similarly meaningful or important to you, you may grow to resent your work, and you will find yourself in a stall. Encourage yourself to write by making your commitment realistic.
Luxuriate in the time it takes. Revel in the daily effort. Tell yourself how excited and lucky you are to be able to pursue your writing. After all, your goal is something that has deep meaning for you—reminding yourself that you are taking action towards a life-long goal can help you move forward. You are becoming a better writer every time you pick up your pen. Remind yourself that, clichéd as it is, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. It’s like going on a cruise, taking a long train ride, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Enjoy the journey (or at least tell yourself you’re enjoying the journey—you may come to believe it).
Inspire yourself for that journey. Make your writing space cozy and welcoming. Put up inspirational quotes or posters that will remind you of why you’re writing. Decorate your space with photos that give you joy. Green up your space with a plant, or enjoy a bunch of wildflowers. Listen to music and have a cat on your lap. Or scrap all that, and make your space as spartan and clean as possible. If you make your space conducive to writing, it will make it that much easier to keep coming back.
Celebrate milestones and daily progress towards your goal. For each step you take towards your writing goal, give yourself a check-mark, a gold star, or a fuzzy unicorn sticker. Tell everyone, and bask in their admiration. When you hit a key milestone in your work—a word count or the completion of a chapter—celebrate it! Every day is a step towards success, and you deserve a pat on the back. And the good feels will help you keep going.
Have a support group that motivates you. These cheerleaders, be they friends, family, a writing group, or an online community, can push you when the going gets tough. They can also help you celebrate key milestones. But don’t forget to thank them—as you go through the process and on the acknowledgements page when your book comes out!
Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. The long haul can be a challenge. Take breaks when you need them. Refill your “creativity well” through reading and the arts. Stay active and maybe say no to the wine and gummi bears once in a while. Binge-writers will suffer the effects of carpal tunnel, writer’s cramp, paper-cuts, and possible hangovers, but you will be well-rested, healthy, and ready for a lifetime of writing.
Do you feel better equipped to resist the need for instant gratification in your writing? If you need a push now and then, drop by the blog or say hello in the comments. The Restless Writers are here for the long haul too. We’re beside you all the way.