10 Disciplines for Fiction Writers

By James Scott Bell

My high school basketball coach was a strict disciplinarian. If it was up to me, I would have spent my practice time shooting jump shots. But Coach made us do fundamental drills—dribbling, passing, cutting, setting picks. And, of course, the dreaded wind sprints when we messed up.

We all hated the drudgery, but come game time we knew we were better players for it. And all his teams overachieved.

If you want to break through as a fiction writer, you'll need to be your own disciplinarian. Here are 10 steps to help you become your own writing coach.

1. Motivation

The first thing I did when I decided to be a writer was buy a black coffee mug with "Writer" written in gold across it. I would look at that cup every day to remind me of my commitment to the craft. In fact, on days when the writing drags, I'll look at it again. It gives me a jolt of enthusiasm.

Come up with your own item of visual motivation. It might be inspirational words taped to your computer ("You get what you dare, baby, and if you want big, you dare big"—author Leonard Bishop), a photograph of an admired writer, or your own rendering of your first novel's cover. (Be lavish in the critical praise on the back!)

Another motivating factor for me early on was going to bookstores and browsing in the best-seller section. I'd look at the authors' pictures and bios, I'd read their openings (and think, "I can do this!"). I'd imagine what my face would look like on the back of a dust jacket (nicely retouched, of course.) Then—and this is crucial—I'd race back to my office and start writing.

Find your own ritual that gets your juices flowing, and don't waste it. Turn it into words on the page.

2. Momentum

First efforts on a new idea are like falling in love. You can't wait to get to the writing, and being away from the page is exquisite torture.

Soon enough, though, writing becomes work. Any worthy project does. You must find a way to write consistently if you wish to be a working fiction writer.

The primary way writers keep momentum going is through the daily quota. Most successful fiction writers make a word goal and stick to it. A time goal can easily be squandered as you agonize over sentences or paragraphs. Sure you were at your writing desk for three hours, but what did you produce? Write a certain number of words instead. But be kind to yourself. If you don't make your quota one day, just make it up the next. For this reason, I keep an eye mostly on my weekly word count.

The daily writing of words, once it becomes a habit, will be the most fruitful discipline of your writing life. You'll be amazed at how productive you'll become and how much you'll learn about the craft.

3. The nifty 350

I like a kick start in the morning. For my body it is the medium of the coffee bean. For my writing, it is 350 words knocked out before I do just about anything else.

There are any number of things I can do besides write. If I don't watch it, my day can fill quickly with little tasks, distractions, interruptions, phone calls and crises of various magnitudes.

But if I set down those nifty 350 early on, I find I am motivated to do more. Often I'll press on and get even closer to my quota. Even if I stop at 350, I still feel good because I've got those words under my belt, and finishing up my quota later on doesn't seem so daunting.

4. The furious 500

If I need to write a lot of words on a given day, the task may feel like scaling Everest. And if I try to do them in one long stint at the keyboard, I find the quality is less than I hoped for. Tired writing soon collapses like an oxygen-deprived climber.

Research tells us the brain needs frequent breaks to stay at maximum capacity. I have found that I can do 500 words in one, furious stint before my brain yells, like a disgruntled Teamster, for a break. So I stop, even if I'm going good. I get up, walk around, take deep breaths. This break may last only a minute or two, but it definitely recharges my battery. Then I'm set for another 500.

Whatever your quota is, break it down into furious chunks. This means keeping your self-editor's nose out of the process the first time around. Don't worry. You can make it perfect later. "Don't get it right the first time," James Thurber said. "Just get it written."

5. Super Tuesday

I have designated each Tuesday to be exclusively a writing day. I have other duties during the week, but I work it out so I can leave Tuesday completely free. I don't schedule appointments or pleasure trips or anything else on that day.

My goal here is to blow through my usual quota of words. Sometimes I see just how far I can go. The result is often that wonderful feeling you get when you've been in "flow." Time speeds up. You have done a great day's worth of work.

You may not be able to give an entire day to your writing each week. But you can carve out some time with regularity. Put it on your calendar, and keep it like an appointment.

6. Celebrate

If it is good enough for General Electric, it should be good enough for one measly writer. GE rose to prominence under Jack Welch, who loved to create little celebrations to energize his organization. He empowered his managers to look for creative ways to celebrate even the smallest victories.

Find ways to celebrate the things you do. If you make your quota for a week, give in to a favorite dessert. If you finish an entire novel, do something grand. You deserve it.

My favorite things to do after completing a project:

  • Take my wife to an especially nice restaurant.
  • Go to a movie matinee by myself and eat an entire box of Raisinettes.
  • Treat myself to a hardcover I've been salivating over.

Make a list of your favorite things and use them as incentives to get your work done.

7. A kick in the rear

Welch also came down hard on unproductive employees. One of the nice things about being a self-disciplined writer is that you can't get fired. But you do have to find ways to get yourself back on track if you derail. Here's how.

  • Don't make a setback about merit ("I'm not good enough"), but about production ("I could be doing more").
  • Have a talk with yourself. In the mirror. Just do it. Admit that you've been lax, then say, "But I believe you have what it takes, pal, so get back in there tomorrow."
  • Forget the past.
  • Stay on track for a solid week, then immediately go to No. 6.

8. Keep a log

I set this up on my spreadsheet program. In my log I record the number of words I write on my projects. The spreadsheet automatically tallies my daily and weekly production.

I review this log each week. If I'm not making my quota, I go immediately to No. 7.

9. Get healthy

The imagination is housed in the brain. The brain is housed in the body. The body is the temple of the soul. Treat it as such. Your productivity and creativity improve with the care of your body. Take the long-term view.

The brisk walk is an easy way to start, and with tape players you can multitask. I listen to novels on tape so I'm studying the craft as I walk. I make a commitment to myself: I can't finish a tape unless I'm walking. That forces me to exercise because I want to know how the story turns out!

The history of literature is littered with geniuses who squandered their gifts through the bottle, drugs or simple neglect. You've only got one writing life. Make the most of it.

10. Retreat and advance

In the '90s, re-engineering was a corporate buzzword. It refers to the act of assessing the current situation, creating new goals and systems for the future and making appropriate plans.

You are the CEO of your own company: You, Writer. See yourself as a business. Schedule a yearly writer's retreat. Go off by yourself for at least a day (more if you can) when you do nothing else but think about your writing goals for the coming year. Do the following:

  • Create a mission statement. Why do you write? What can you say, in a single paragraph, about your unique position as a writer?
  • Create goals based on your mission. A goal is a dream with a deadline. Write them in the present tense with a date attached: I will complete my Hollywood murder mystery by June 1. Read your goals every day before you begin writing.
  • Create action steps for each of your goals. Start with a writing quota, but add research trips, rewriting schedule, getting your manuscript to readers, etc. Place these tasks in an appointment calendar. Then, day by day, week by week, advance on your goals, like a general in charge of an army.

Writing fiction for publication is a tough proposition. You need to give yourself every edge. If you follow these 10 steps, you will immediately jump ahead of 99 percent of the competition.

But if you're one of those writers who needs inspiration, I suggest you follow the advice of author Peter DeVries: "I only write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired every day at 9 a.m."
James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the Christy Award winning author of Deadlock, Breach of Promise and The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website: www.jamesscottbell.com.

This article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.
© 2004 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.