7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers

atlas1Some time ago I came across an article about the success habits of wealthy individuals, based on a book by Tom Corley. As I scanned it, the habits seemed to me applicable to writers as well. The ones I know who’ve made it in this game—who’ve been published traditionally, or are making good dough as indies, or are doing a bit of both—they share these seven habits:

1. They are persistent.

The article states, “While we generally think of persistence as more of a personality trait, it’s certainly a habit that can be learned and practiced over time. When faced with adversity, wealthy individuals keep pushing through, knowing that success could be right around the corner.”

The successful writer never gives up. Or stops learning. The article found that 88% of the wealthy successes (in other words, not trust-fund babies) read at least 30 minutes every day in order to increase their knowledge. Are you doing the same, writer? I cannot think of a single week in the last 25 years where I have not read or studied something regarding the craft of writing.

2. They set attainable goals.

The article discusses the wrong kind of goals, such as:

“I want to become a recognized leader in my field.”

“I need to bring in more money in order to meet my financial obligations.”

“I want to take an expensive vacation with my family every year.”

The problem with these goals, of course, is that they aren’t specific, and they aren’t necessarily realistic. For instance, if I’m working for minimum wage, going on an expensive holiday probably isn’t in the cards for me this year.

True goals are those to which action may be applied. “I want to be a New York Times bestselling author” is not a goal, it’s a dream. You can’t push a button to make it happen. What you can do are the things that will make you a better writer. You can determine to spend 30 minutes a day studying craft, and an hour a week brainstorming projects. Most of all, you can determine the number of words you will write each week. These are things you can measure and control.

3. They find a mentor.

The article contends that 93% of wealthy individuals had a mentor who assisted them on their path to success.

Mentors can be personal or they can be in print. I consider Lawrence Block to be a mentor, even though he’s never personally coached me. Why? Because I religiously read his fiction column each month in Writer’s Digest and felt like he was counseling me each time. He had the ability to get into the writer’s mind, and certainly he did mine. The books I contribute on the craft I try to write the same way.

A good editor, of which there are many out there, can provide mentorship (usually for a fee, which is money well spent when the editor knows what he or she is doing). A good critique partner fits this role as well.

4. They are positive.

According to the article, wealthy individuals had a positive outlook on life, were upbeat and happy, and grateful for what they had. Some specific findings were as follows:

94% avoided gossiping
98% believed in limitless possibilities and opportunities
94% enjoyed their chosen career

Writers, too, need to be grateful that they have the ability to write. And grateful for the opportunity to publish. Further, don’t tear down fellow authors. Believe in your limitless choices. Nurture the love of writing that got you started in the first place.

5. They educate themselves.

The article found that 85% of the successful people read two or more books per month on an ongoing basis. This is especially important for writers, who need to read widely and not just fiction. All sorts of nonfiction helps to expand your horizons and understand humanity better.

What are you reading, besides fiction, these days?

6. They track their progress.

Corley found that wealthy individuals were meticulous about measuring how they’re doing:

67% kept up-to-date to-do lists
94% balanced their bank account each month
57% counted the calories they consumed
62% set goals and tracked whether or not they were on track to achieving them

Since 2001 I have kept track of my writing on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote, and on what projects, day by week by month by year.

I prioritize my projects and know each day which one I want to work on.

However, I don’t count my calories. I have determined that eating healthy food does not make you live longer, it only seems longer

7. They surround themselves with success-oriented people.

Corley writes, “Wealthy, successful people are very particular about who they associate with. Their goal is to develop relationships with other success-minded individuals. When they stumble onto someone who fits the bill, they then devote an enormous amount of their time and energy into building a strong relationship. They grow the relationship from a sapling into a redwood. Relationships are the currency of the wealthy and successful.”

His suggestion is to dedicate 30 minutes each day to nurturing such a relationship. This could mean being a sounding board, giving advice, or just generally being a helpful companion. As you build and nurture relationships, people likely to reciprocate and become trusted and valuable supporters.

Writers are mostly an encouraging lot. You can find places to hang out with them, starting here at TKZ. Join a local writers group, like an arm of Mystery Writers of America. Go to a good conference.

Systematically disassociate yourself from the sour pickles of life.

Have fun, write, assess, measure, study, correct—then have more fun, write, and never quit. That’s a formula for success.

Anything you’d like to add?

[NOTE: Today I am associating with a bunch of fellow writers at a conference near Santa Cruz, California. Yes, suffering for my art. I’ll try to pop in. Until then, talk amongst yourselves!]


Self-Discipline for the Writer

Nancy J. Cohen

Writers sit in a chair for hours, peering at their work, blocking out the rest of the world in their intense concentration. It’s not an easy job. Some days, I marvel that readers have no idea how many endless days we toil away at our craft. It takes immense self-discipline to keep the butt in the chair when nature tempts us to enjoy the sunshine and balmy weather outside.

We don’t only spend the time writing the manuscript. After submitting our work and having it accepted, we get revisions back from our editor. This requires another round of poring over our work. And another opportunity comes with the page proofs where we scrutinize each word for errors. How many times do we review the same pages, the same words? How many tweaks do we make, continuously correcting and making each sentence better?

These hours and hours of sitting are worth the effort when we hold the published book in our hands, when readers write to us how much they enjoyed the story, or when we win accolades in a contest. As I get older, I wonder if these hours are well spent. My time is getting shorter. Shouldn’t I be outside, enjoying what the community has to offer, admiring the trees and flowers, visiting with friends? Each moment I sit in front of the computer is a moment gone.

But I can no more give up my craft than I can stop breathing. It’s who I am. And the hours I sit here pounding at the keyboard are my legacy.

BICHOK is our motto: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. This policy can take its toll on writers’ health with repetitive strain injury, adverse effects of prolonged sitting, neck and shoulder problems. We have to discipline ourselves not only to sit and work for hours on end, but to get up and exercise so as to avoid injury. This career requires extreme discipline, and those wannabes who can’t concentrate for long periods of time or who give up easily will never reach the summit. They can enjoy the journey and believe that’s where it ends, but they’re playing at being a writer and not acting as a professional.

We’re slaves to our muse, immersed in our imaginary worlds, losing ourselves to the story. And then we have to revise, correct, edit, read through the manuscript numerous times until we turn it in or our vision goes bleary. We are driven. And so we sit, toiling in our chairs (or on the couch if you use a laptop). Hours of life pass us by, irretrievable hours that we’ll never get back.

So please, readers, understand how many hours we put into this craft to entertain you, to educate you, and to illuminate human nature in our stories.

And this doesn’t even count the time required for social media.

I put myself in the chair until I achieve a daily quota. In a writing phase, this is five pages a day or twenty-five pages per week. For self-edits, I aim for a chapter a day but that’s not always possible. I do this is the morning when I’m most creative. Afternoons are for writing blogs, social media, promotion, etc.

How do you get yourself to sit in the chair day after day? Do you set daily goals? Do you offer yourself rewards along the way? Do you ever doubt the time you sacrifice to your muse? Or do you love the process so much that you’d not trade those hours for anything else?


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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?