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Effective habits for writers

When not writing space opera with sexy pilots and what-not, I am a management consultant. It's about as scintillating as it sounds.... 

One of my favourite management gurus is the late, great Steve Covey. I've argued many times that his seven habits could be applied to any field and I thought I'd put my money where my mouth is and apply if to writing.

These habits are to promote effectiveness. They're useful for beginners to begin to think about what might lie ahead when learning to write, and useful for the more established in honing writing practices and continuing our growth.


1. Be proactive.

It's easy to sit back and hope good things will happen, but it's a bit of a shot in the dark. Frankly, as a writer, if the impetus does not come from within, you will produce nothing. So be proactive in choosing what you might want to write, in how you want to be published, in what you want to achieve. Once you have a clear idea of what you want and an internal willingness to follow through, things become easier.

2. Begin with the end in mind.

This is an interesting one (really, sit up and pay attention.) On a book level, it suggests knowing where the journey goes before setting out and, for the pantsters, that can be a challenge. It might only be a vague idea in the back of your mind. It might be you only know that end after a rough draft, or some planning, and then need to hone with the end in mind. But I've found - and I am an absolute pantster - some idea of where I'm going is useful. Even if it's just knowing the good guy will win, or the aliens will be revealed as the heroes. That's enough to shape what I'm writing.

But, also, it's worth thinking of this habit in the wider context. What do you hope to achieve as a writer? To have a book out for friends to read? To become the next Iain Banks? To produce well thought out literary masterpieces for a niche market? To make a living by self-publishing?
Without knowing what you want, it's easy to take the wrong path and waste energy.

For instance, I know I'd like to be traditionally published, and that I'd like to make some of my living from writing. That meant getting an agent. Which meant learning how to query. It means accepting editorial advice and letting go of the control of some of my baby. It means coming up with more than one book. If I'd decided I wanted to self-publish the trilogy I started writing for, I'd have learned different skills - formatting, and promotion, and pricing. As it is, with the firm idea of what I wanted, I put my energies into what might achieve it.

3. Put first things first. 

Don't send the query without haven written the book. Don't do the edit without finishing the book. Don't promote without having written.

It's easy to get lost in our dream of being a writer, sitting in coffee shops dreaming up the next chapter whilst eating cake (an endeavour I heartedly applaud, however). But to be effective we need to write. We need to be organised. We need to build on what we have, use the skills we have and finish each stage.

4. Think win-win. 

I'm incredibly lucky with my peer support from writers. We cheerlead each other, give each other hints when an agent might want our stuff, we read and crit each others, we respond to questions. And yet we're all playing in a very small world with limited opportunities. But, I believe that no one I've met would write the same book as me. No one would come up with the same ideas as me (aliens invading Belfast doesn't pop up everywhere). We can all win, and to do that we don't need to compete. We just need to accept it's okay to have more than one writer of sff out there. That, in fact, it's good - the more diverse the market, the more readers will be swayed to the dark side of genre fiction, the more books are needed, and the cycle goes on.

Also within win-win, Covey introduces the paradigm of a new option, not about winning, or losing, but about personal freedom: the right to walk away. The right to say I don't want what's on the table and say no without losing. The right to realise the deal we've been offered isn't good, or we don't want to follow a certain path anymore. Once we understand we have that right, all doors open to us. Because it's our choice to play a game or not.

5. Seek first to understand and then be understood. 

Listen for a while. Take advice. Read blogs of experienced writers. Join forums. Unless you gain an understanding of writing, from the basics up of grammar and storytelling, to the business end, how can you ever succeed? Writing is the arena that I've most noticed people coming into it (as I did, blasting myself on a poor, unsuspecting forum and bulldozing everything in my path - sorry guys) and assuming they can hit the ground running and succeed. And yet, it's the area where it's most difficult to do that. It takes hard, hard work. It takes years. So, while you're learning, listen and understand the arena. Then, when you're ready, people might listen back.

6. Synergize

Going it alone is hard. Writing is hard. Writing a novel is hellish. If you can share that journey with others, it will be easier. If you can give your energy to them when they need it, and accept theirs when your own is depleted, it will carry you further. (In a day or two, when I have time, I'll follow this blog up with some lessons from the geese about how synergy takes us further.)

For a couple of years I had a formal writing group. Apart from making three great friends, their input shaped my writing then and now. Their ideas enhanced my own. My knowledge enhanced theirs (although handing over powerpoints on Handy's organisational culture perhaps went a little far.) Without their knowledge I'd have a totalitarian fairground state (rare, those) and a protagonist with the least believeable PTSD in the written universe. I wouldn't have had the key jigsaw piece to form the plot of one of my books.

So find your cake partners, virtual and otherwise, and share your energy, knowing the road is long enough that you'll need something to get you to the end, and so will others.

7. Sharpen the saw

Possibly the most important of all. Learn. Learn some more. Hone your skills and keep honing them. Question, practice, read, seek feedback. Keep getting better. And never believe you can't - in self improvement we find what might lift us to being good enough to get to that end we set for ourselves, whatever that might be.