The Most Important Characteristic Every Writer Needs

James Scott Bell

There are three things that are required for success as a writer: talent, luck, discipline … Discipline is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.
—Michael Chabon

Some time ago I waxed lyrical on the two things every novel needs. Today I’d like to focus on the writer, and the single most important characteristic for success: Self-discipline.
That’s right. Even more than talent. Talent is overrated. The ability to get tough, stick with it and produce words beats lazy literary giftedness every time.
That’s why you need your own inner drill sergeant. He has four areas of concentration.

1. Motivation
Desire drives discipline. Mega bestselling writer Phyllis Whitney once said, “You must want it enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
You’ve got to go into this with the thought that nothing will stop you. And you’ve got to get yourself pumped up to do your work, which is producing the words.
One way to do this is with visual motivators. When I first started I got a coffee mug with WRITER written on it. I looked at it every day.
Another kind of visual is a “model of possibility.” I found a picture of Stephen King that did that for me.

There’s a guy working at his job, his dog under his chair, his office stuffed with books and papers, sitting back with his feet on the desk, editing a manuscript. That’s what I wanted to be doing. I put this picture in a frame and set it in my office where I could see it every day. 
Find your own visual motivators. Create some. It’s not hard to do, and they’ll get your blood flowing.
2. Action
The whole idea of motivation is to get you to take action. If you take action every day toward your goals you begin to feel unstoppable. Let’s say you decide to write 300 words a day, 6 days a week. Maybe that’s all you can manage because of your job or other life priorities. So you do it, and after a month you’ve acquired the habit. You keep this up and in a year you’ll have a book. Keep that up over 20 years and you’ll have 20 books, which is not a bad output at all.
If you have not set a weekly writing quota, do so now. What can you realistically accomplish in a week? I’ll wait.
Good. Now, up that by 10%. Push yourself toward that goal each and every week.
3. Assessment
At various times, just like any business would, you need to step back and assess where you are and where you need to improve. At different stages of my career I would look at where I was in the craft and find weak spots. For example, a few books in I knew I’d become a good plotter, but decided my character work needed improvement. So I designed a self-study program. I gathered a bunch of novels with memorable characters and read them with an eye toward studying what the authors did. I took from my shelf of writing books those that dealt with characters and re-studied key sections. Every time I learned something I would write a scene using that tip or technique.

4. Time Management
Finally, you must learn to manage time. That’s your real currency. When you are holding down a job or chasing kids around the house, finding writing time can be a challenge. But you can if you do three simple things:
a. Plan in advance (use Sunday to plan a week ahead, with a calendar in front of you)
b. Write it down (fill in your calendar with all your obligations, then block out times you can write)
c. Prioritize (learn to ignore those matters that are not important or urgent. Watching the Kardashians is not as important as finishing your novel)
The best book on the subject I ever read is now sadly out of print: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein (but you can pick up a used copy via Amazon’s used book sellers. You can have one for under $5. Well worth it).
So how are you doing on your self-discipline? Are you producing words on a regular basis? Or do I have to make you drop and give me twenty?

16 thoughts on “The Most Important Characteristic Every Writer Needs

  1. Some days I’d rather watch NCIS than write. But I’ve just finished book 3 in my first series. That feels so good! Of course the edits will come, etc. but I’ve learned so much from this, my first publishing experience. And I agree, Jim, it’s a lot about discipline. Was that Edison who said something about success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration?

    Now I get to start thinking about what comes next. What about a rest? 🙂 How do you all do this and stay healthy?

    I’ve discovered that dialogue is my strength and narrative needs some work.

  2. Jim, I call it bum glue – the drive, discipline and sheer determination that makes me sit at my desk everyday and get the writing done. I don’t go for quotas but set deadlines to finish chunks of the manuscript. I am just about to start a new WIP after finishing final revisions to the last based on my agent’s feedback. It would be easy just to wait around and do nothing but no, I know I have to knuckle down and get going on the next ms. Tomorrow I’ll set out my timeline for getting it done! Whenever my discipline wavers I remind myself, this is my job…and there’s no room for whining!

  3. This was great to read since I’m currently about 35% through Plot & Structure, where I read where you recently mentioned the WRITER mug (and the many mentions of my favorite writer, Stephen King). I recently, just after starting the book a week ago, started a blog in order to force myself to write at least 250 words per day. I figured that, no matter what I did with outlining or writing that day, I would no longer allow myself any excuse not to write something, ANYthing, while doing minimal editing along the way. It is surprisingly very fun, and having a few of my friends following it makes me even more determined to get that daily writing completed. It’s not going towards anything other than my own personal writing skill, but that’s exactly what I’m doing this for.

  4. I gave up on both writing and narrating yesterday because I had a chance to spend the day shooting everything from black powder rifles to cowboy six shooters to MP5 and UZI submachine guns. If I call it research can I get a pass from being called undisciplined?

  5. I couldn’t give you 20 if my life depended on it because I can’t do floor push ups–which disgusts me to no end. But along with my writing, I’m working on the upper body strength.

    Thankfully, self discipline is something I’ve finally achieved this year. I have written every single day so far (about 85K I think so far).

    Now I have the opposite problem. I need to learn to build in rest times too, because the combination of job, writing, and a million other things always leaves me exhausted.

  6. Jillian and BK, I do take one day off a week, Sunday, from writing (excluding blog commentary, of course). It is a necessary battery recharge.

    Clare, I do love the expression “bum glue.” I’ll have to come up with another one for when I write standing up (which I try to do a lot of).

    David, good on you. That’s what I’m talking about.

    Basil, considering your report, I am not going to get anywhere near arguing with you.

  7. Jim,

    I look forward to your Sunday posts for motivation. One day we’ll all cite you as the guy who helped us the most with our writing goals and discipline, and joy of this craft.

    I’ve been taking a RWA online workshop this month by Lynn Johnston about editing. Some heart-felt assessment about my writing led me there, and it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I can hear my characters rejoicing with all I’ve learned.

    I like your list, and I may hang the picture of the drill instructor up in my office for motivation.

    See you next week,

  8. Thanks for the good word, Paula. And congrats on taking that next step. There’s always a next step. I was recently with a #1 NY Times bestselling writer who continues to study the craft. That’s inspiring.

  9. Thanks Sarge for the timely post. Trying to get my mojo back. Out of the blue I had to switch day jobs and found myself in a position at half the pay for twice the hours. I’m still reeling. But my deadlines still keep coming, so, must, make, words. . .


  10. So glad I owned a community newspaper for seven years. No make deadline – no eat 🙂

    gary vanriper
    12 books in 12 years, & counting…

  11. I was just beginning to think that, these days, talent may be underrated. I’ve hammered out a good few books in my time, lost count of them in fact, but if the choice is between William Gibson (a great novel every few years) or Walter Gibson (a workmanlike novel a fortnight) then I’d take the former.

  12. Excellent ideas for those of us just getting started. Working on upping my weekly word count and making writing dates with computer. Thanks!

  13. Jim, this advice is spiritual dynamite — it blows away the myths about writing. Thank you for reminding us of where it begins and ends and keeps going.

    But I didn’t see mention of your great book “The War of Art for Writers.” As Steven said “inertia’s a killer,” but that book is a companionable dragon slayer.

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