From Maya Angelou To Anthony Trollope: The Secret To Getting Books Written
The book “Written” penned by husband and wife writing team, Bec Evans and Chris Smith, is as much about understanding your own lifestyle as it is about finding your own writing style.
If we are in the post-modern, post-truth age then this is the post-normal book about how to get stuff written. It is not about an expert extolling advice from on high, the advice given is all about helping you to develop a system that works for you. The authors are very keen to stress that success will not come from imposing an unachievable way of working on everybody in a one-style-fits-all way. A successful writing project, or even writing career, comes down to noticing, appreciating, and focusing on exactly what works for you. “To thine own self be true”, as a famous writer once said, and that goes for your writing process too.
One of the most revealing sections is when Chris writes about the difference in working styles of the two authors, “…Bec told her family and friends about her writing – how much she was writing and how far along she was. She signed up to a #100daysofwriting challenge on Instagram and shared her writing progress with others in the community. She committed to writing times by joining online writing groups with London Writers’ Salon and also booked sessions with FocusMate. She’s been on writing dates with friends and booked a four-day writing retreat at a residential library. She joined a critiquing group where she shared her work-in-progress for feedback…She enlisted the support of beta readers to read the revised draft. She applied for and won a grant that supported her development and paid for her writing time”
Chris on the other hand says, “I sat at my desk, head down and wrote.”
This provides a flavour of the overall ethos but the book also includes all kinds of tools, support, initiatives and tips for writers too, however, everything is presented as very much a menu rather than a blueprint.
From how to find your own rules for writing, to goal setting, to help just getting started, to creating the optimum environment, and surrounding yourself with people that will hold you accountable, there is something in here for every budding writer – if you “know thyself” well enough.
Take procrastination for example, something I am tremendously partial to, and feel guilty about. Rather than focusing on the whole project and becoming intimidated, the authors advise on developing ‘starter steps’ to move towards the behaviour you want to build. For example, having a coffee or opening your notebook, or labelling a file. Perhaps use what they call a prompt, an everyday routine behaviour to which you can attach your newly desired behaviour so that may also become routine. A super example given in the book is that of Anthony Trollope, who would rise early and write every morning before work. Aided by his “old groom” who was paid to wake him with coffee. By beginning at that early hour with that recurring coffee, and at his desk by 5.30am, he could complete his literary work before he was dressed for breakfast.
The book does tackle the science of habits but the advice seems to be to create your own habitual routine that works for you because you are more likely to stick to it. One author cited uses a tracking tool dubbed the “Fitbit for writing” that asks writers to set a writing goal to track their progress. Others utilise treats or rewards to help encode new habits and hack the system. And the authors encourage would-be writers to identify ‘good things’ every time they write: “This is a type of cognitive restructuring that helps associate positive feelings with your work-in-progress rather than the default negative ones.”
There’s a lot more in the book besides, including many anecdotes from famous authors and personal stories about how to start to write, maintain your writing, build resilience in the face of inescapable adversity and even apparent failure. But my favourite section is on choice architecture and the insight into how Maya Angelou designed her writing approach around her own personal style. She would eschew all extraneous elements in her environment in order to focus on the task at hand, and start her day early, around 6am and after a coffee with her husband. She would then head off to a hotel room that she used as her workplace. It was stripped of all distraction, containing only a bed, a face basin, a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry. “It’s lonely and it’s marvellous” she said.
The book is both a helpful toolkit as well as a story about how the book itself was written, and overall it reminds me of something Scott Adams also advocates which is to build systems not goals. The beauty of this book is that it guides you into finding the best writing process for you, one you can slide into as easily as a DM. Without building a system that supports you, you will find yourself fighting for goals you can never reach. And writing a book is hard enough. As the authors insightfully remark, “knowing what to write is important but that alone won’t get the writing done.”
Written: How To Keep Writing And Build A Habit That Lasts is published by Icon Books and is available in the US here and elsewhere in Europe on Amazon.