Author’s Note: Searching for Self-Discipline

Sometimes, being self-employed sucks. Writing fanfic was easy. I could sit down and write like a fiend, finish something and post it. If I didn’t feel like writing for a month, I didn’t. If I felt like writing an entire 60,000 word story in three days, I could. Then I joined the real world, and started writing for pay.

I can’t count the number of unfinished fanfics I have on my hard drive. When you write 20,000 words on a novel and then lose interest, though, it’s not just setting aside a story; it’s time I didn’t get paid for. I decided that while I could stop working on fanfic projects if I wanted, doing the same for a novel wasn’t acceptable. So started my quest for self-discipline.

I’m going to tell you a secret: I have no self-discipline. I started working on my first novel when I was 20, but I didn’t publish until I was 27, mostly for lack of trying, and the only reason I did was because a small publishing house asked for novella submissions. In a fit of frustration with myself, I thought, “I can write that in a month, damn it!” I did, and it was accepted.

Getting a book accepted is like crack. As soon as you’ve done it once it becomes so much easier to do it again. That was the boost I needed. At that point I decided to write 500 words a day, three days a week. What I really wanted was to write fanfic, but fanfic doesn’t pay. So I’d knock out my 500 words, and then write another 2000 on whatever fandom had caught my interest–and there was always a fandom.

When I realized how much fanfic I was writing, I decided to up my novel word count, and soon I was writing 4000 words a day. But when I’d lose interest in a project, writing those words was like pulling teeth. This was where self-discipline came in.

The hardest thing in the world is to get up and go to work when there’s no one to say you have to, or to stay at work when you don’t want to. You aren’t seeing money from it any time soon, and there’s no one to make you. It’s tempting to stay up late talking to people, and then just sleep in a little bit. No one is counting on me! No one’s there to punch my timecard! I can just write late! But you know what happens when I do that? Suddenly I’m not getting up until eleven, not starting to write until one, and at five when people get home and good TV is on, I don’t want to write anymore. Four hours isn’t enough, especially when the words aren’t coming.

To combat this and help develop self-discipline, I created a list. Everyone will need a different list, but to give you an idea, I’ll share mine. Here’s the important thing to take away: I have a list. I have rules, just as if I were going to work in the morning. When I throw these rules out the window, or even just start bending them a little, my writing schedule falls apart.

1. Go to bed early enough to get up on time. I cannot write if I’m tired.

My day starts the night before. If I don’t go to bed on time, I’m never going to get up on time–and if I do get up on time, I’ll be so tired that creativity goes out the window, anyway.


I need those capital letters to remind myself this isn’t negotiable. “Wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “Didn’t you just say that if you were tired, creativity goes out the window?” Well, yes. This is a matter of starting my day right, though. If I sleep in, then everything runs late and I feel like, “I’m never going to get my writing done!” And that, folks, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do, however, have a back-up plan for sleepy days. Keep reading.

3. Do my morning things.

I really hope this is self-explanatory. But it does need to be done before I start writing. (Okay, I often write in my pajamas, but if I’m going to the gym, running, or need to let the dogs out then I’d better do it first!)

4. Take a nap.

Isn’t this the greatest rule ever? If I sleep, I write about four times faster than if I don’t. And if I did flub up and I’m tired, a nap helps to revive me. I never sleep longer than 30 minutes; just enough to refresh me and get my creative juices flowing. When Einstein was stuck on a problem, he used to nap. Best solution ever! Other famous nappers include Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, and US Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton–oh yeah, and the employees at Google and Nike.

But here’s the trick, and why number 3 is up there: napping doesn’t excuse me from going to bed on time! I still have to get up and function.

5. Hit my word count goals before I turn on the Internet.

I can’t speak for you, but I’m an Internet addict. I’ll check my email fifteen times in twenty minutes, and that is not a good way to get writing done. If I’m working on something that I need research for, I actually have two computers: one sits on a table nearby with the internet so I can look things up, the other I work on. This way, it’s a conscious desicion to put one down, jog the other out of hibernation, wait for it to wake up, Google what I need and then go back. It makes turning it on to check my email a little less easy. The other option, of course, is to turn off your router or unplug your computer until you need the Internet.

I should also take a moment to note that I said ‘word count goals,’ plural, up there. My daily goal is one thing, but my goals before I can take a break are something else. I’ll tell myself, “Write 1000 words, and then you can have a break.” At that point, I might check my email.

…Oh, let’s not be silly. I will check my email!

6. Take more 30-minute naps if needed. Take a walk. Don’t stress out.

Stress is the worst thing I can do for myself. If I hit a mental block and I don’t know where to go next or how to get there, I stop and check in. I ask myself one important thing: Am I tired? If the answer is yes, even if I’m only vaguely sleepy, I take another 30-minute nap. Napping is great, and it reboots my brain. If, however, I’m just plain stuck, then I’ll go for a short walk. Usually just wandering around my apartment is all I need! Somehow, moving my feet gets my brain in gear again.

If I start stressing, I remind myself it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t meet my word count. Everyone has off-days. (I do not, however, then get off “work” and start writing fanfic. If I can’t write, I can’t write — but that includes the fun stuff!)

It’s only six rules. Six rules, and nothing terribly earth-shaking–and yet, without them I don’t get anything done. When I start bending or breaking the rules, then I lose all self-discipline. Bending one rule means I can bend another, means I can bend the whole week, means I don’t write.

Trying not to bend rules is hard enough, made much harder when people in my life think “self-employed” means “do whatever I want.” That, however, is a whole ‘nother article–and I’ve reached my word count!

Jenna B. McDonald is a working romance novel and fanfic author. You can check out her website at

Posted on August 16, 2010 at 14:12 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , ,