I once had a writer friend whose entire writing routine was comprised of “rules” he’d learned from successful authors. He got up early to write because that’s what the successful authors did. He outlined on index cards because he’d read somewhere that certain successful authors did it that way. He used a certain kind of pen because some author declared it to be lucky. The list went on and on.
The thing was, very few of these routines worked for my friend. He was not an early riser by nature and hated getting up so early. He didn’t like to outline, felt it was stifling, but did it anyway. These things weren’t fun or useful for him, but he kept doing them because he believed that the only way to attain success was to follow what others had already done. He was trying to imitate the success of others rather than finding his own path.
If you look through history, though, (and not just that of writers and writing) you’ll find that the most successful people are usually the ones who did things their own way. Walt Disney, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling, and Steve Jobs are just a few examples of people who said, “Screw it,” to the conventional wisdom and went out and did things their own way. They didn’t follow the rules and rituals of others before them. They did what worked for them.
Doing what works for you is the only way to succeed. You have to work with your strengths, talents, and motivations. Someone else’s motivations and rituals are not yours. Sure, you may be able to derive some value from studying the “greats,” but ultimately you have to find your own path. Anything else just smacks of desperation and a lack of creativity on your part. Worse, readers, agents, and publishers will smell the desperation all over your work because it won’t be unique.
This applies not only to your writing life but also to what you choose to write. Don’t spend time chasing the hottest trends in plots and writing styles. By the time your work is ready for submission, that fad will have rolled on. Write the story you have to tell, even if it’s not hot. Who knows? You might start the next big trend. Don’t be derivative, be yourself.
Sure, there are some rules you have to follow. You have to stick with basic grammar and structure (there are exceptions, but you have to be really exceptional to pull it off). You have to follow basic submission guidelines and rules if you want to be taken seriously. You have to act professional and meet your deadlines. But anything else is up to you to decide.
If you try to do what others have done, you just end up hemming yourself in with a set of rules and regulations that you don’t even need. When your schedule reads, “Get up early, outline on index cards, use a certain pen, and write exactly 1,000 words per day,” there’s no room for “you” to shine through. What happens if the work is going great and you want to write 2,000 words? What happens if you skip the outline? What if you never discover that you’re better off writing between 9 p.m. and midnight? There are enough rules in writing that you must follow. You don’t need to create an even smaller cage by following the rituals of others.
Find your own rituals. Embrace your personal quirks. Learn to love your best rhythm, even if it means writing all day long without a break. (Not advisable, but if it works…) Don’t believe people who tell you something can’t be done just because it’s never been done before. (Someone always has to be first.) Do what makes you the most comfortable. When you are comfortable, you’ll do your best work and it will be uniquely yours. When you’re imitating someone else, you’re doing just that: imitating. And that’s not the way to be successful.
(Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks)