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?


Santa List

Ah, the holiday season…time of looniness and mayhem… Today, being my last blog post for 2009, I’m going to channel the holiday spirit and write about conspicuous consumption (of books of course!) and my family’s current wish list for Santa.

Now first up (appropriately enough) are my parents. Notoriously hard to buy for as they devour their favorite authors’ latest books as soon as they come out, they have few books still on their list so I’m going for the audio book approach: I figure I can’t go wrong with Good Omens by Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (my father is a huge fan of both) or The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis…only problem, not sure Santa’s up on the whole ‘bureaucracy of hell’ or ‘the end is nigh’ stuff – might dampen the ho, ho, ho…but, bah humbug, that’s what they’re getting.
My twin boys are so much easier – I’ve already indoctrinated them into loving mystery books (the old fashioned, English kind, of course). Once again, Enid Blyton rules and my boys are already obsessed by the Secret Seven mystery series (seven kids, a dog named Scamper and lots of English village mysteries to solve) and are about to discover the Adventure series (four kids, a talking parrot and mysteries in exotic locations). Santa is fully up to speed on their book requirements though (sigh), Lego is still number one on their Santa list.

My husband is always a trickier proposition, book-wise. He barely has enough time to start a book let alone finish it, but I recently introduced him to a terrific Australian thriller writer, Michael Rowbotham, so I know he’ll be trying to read him over the holidays. As for his list, well I’m going for non-fiction instead with Michael Chabon’s latest, Manhood for Amateurs. I wasn’t quite ready to put his wife’s book, Bad Mother, on my Santa list (my fragile ego couldn’t cope with unwrapping it on Christmas Day…) but I’d love to read it all the same.

I have a veritable library of titles on my list for Santa…and certainly not enough time to read them all…but my top three are: AS Byatt’s Edwardian saga, The Children’s Book; Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic, The Road, and Juliet Nicholson’s non-fiction account of collective mourning in the aftermath of WW1, The Great Silence.

So what books are on your Santa list??