January 19th, 2017 was the day that changed my writing life. On that day, I made the commitment to write for at least ten minutes every single day. And, as of this writing, I haven’t broken the chain once.
Because of that promise, and the fact that I honoured it, I have written 1.25 million words and published 21 novels, two non-fiction books and many short stories.
I’ve gone from being an author earning less than £100 ($140) per month to a four-figure monthly income.
I’ve achieved my dream of earning my living from writing.
But here’s the surprising truth: it hasn’t been difficult. The writing itself is still tough, to be sure. Even after well over a million words, it’s hard work because I’m always looking to become a better writer. But the habit of writing is as ingrained in my daily life as walking the dog or making a cuppa.
That is the key.
And it all began on a rainy afternoon in January as I sat in my car waiting for my wife to come out of a hospital appointment.
Life BTMH (Before Ten-minute habit)
Have you ever started writing a book only to give up part way through?
Have you ever felt that you’ll never finish your work in progress? That you’re inching your way along, writing words but getting no closer to completion?
I’ve felt that.
And if you did slog your way through that first draft, have you ever given up editing it because it feels as though the book has no life or merit?
Yep, done that too.
I’ve been a professional writer since the mid-1990s when I began contributing to PC Pro magazine, the best-selling publication for computer professionals. For the next twenty years I contributed articles that ended up being a monthly 3,000-word column that paid very nicely.
So, I know a thing or two about writing consistently and to a deadline.
And yet, when I decided to try my hand at fiction for the first time since my teens, I found it tougher than I could possibly have imagined.
I found out about NaNoWriMo[i] in the last couple of days of October 2014 and decided I’d give it a go. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month. Now, I have many faults (just ask my wife), but in this case my obstinacy paid off because, despite what seemed like an impossible 1,667 word daily target, I ground it out and wrote that darned book with no outline and very few ideas.
The best I can say about that first draft (which took a further month to finish) was that it didn’t entirely suck. The story had some great moments and it did, at least, confirm to me that I could probably write a good novel with practice and training.
But I couldn’t get through the second edit. I got bored and concluded that so would my readers.
In 2015, I completed my second NaNoWriMo. This time it was a comic fantasy in honour of Terry Pratchett who’d died that year.
It was much better, but it took another several months to finish the first draft, so I didn’t publish this, my first completed novel, until October 2016.
That’s almost a year from beginning the first draft. Now, it’s fine to take a year if you’re using that time or if it’s intentional. But neither were true for me. I worked on the book in fits and starts when I could find the motivation. I thought lack of time was the problem. It wasn’t.
In July 2016, while editing book 1, I took a Camp NaNoWriMo[ii] and wrote most of the first draft of book 2 in the series. And that took months to complete after NaNo was over.
So, I found myself, at the turn of 2017, having taken a little over two years to publish one novel and half write a second.
I knew that I needed to write more consistently, but I was busy with other work that always seemed more urgent.
I tried setting a target of 500 words a day. That lasted two days before I fell off the wagon.
And then I listened to a podcast that featured someone called Stephen Guise talking about the concept of “mini habits”. I was intrigued enough to buy the ebook. I devoured it in one sitting—in the car outside the hospital—and decided it was at least worth an experiment.
My wife, who was by this time sick of hearing me moan about my lack of productivity, breathed a sigh of relief as I gushed on about this revelation. And then, with infinite patience, asked whether I was at all interested in how her appointment had gone…
It’s no exaggeration to say that beginning this habit marked a turning point in my life as a writer. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Habits can be rocked by things going on in the external world and within my own mind, but as my ten-minute daily writing became more and more solidly embedded, it became harder to shift. It certainly helped that nothing too challenging rocked my world in the first couple of months, but once I’d completed the first 30-day streak, it would have taken a lot to break it.
I’m not saying I’ll never take a day off but, so far, I haven’t seen the need to. Sure, sometimes the twin demons of procrastination and laziness whisper in my ear, encouraging me to stick the telly on or pick up my guitalele, but I don’t listen to them anymore.
It’s only ten minutes, after all.
[i] National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of authors around the world accept the challenge of writing the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in those thirty days. It’s a fantastic experience and I highly recommend it. https://www.nanowrimo.org
[ii] An informal event where you set your own word count target – I opted for 50,000 words again.