Writing Habits for Success

Guest Blogger: Lisa Gardner

When I first started out as a writer, I wrote on a shared computer in the college computer lab during the free time I had after my classes, homework and work study job were all completed.   Basically, I drafted three unpublished novels in the odd hours of the morning, while actively fantasizing about one day becoming a Serious Author.  Then, I would have my own computer.  In a real office.  Where I’d be over-caffeinated and artistically euphoric all of the time.  If I just had the proper equipment in the proper space, I figured, Stephen King would have nothing on me.

Good news:  I managed to sell books one, two and three.  They sent me a contract and money and everything.  Trust me, I flew out and bought my first computer before the ink dried.  Then I set it up on my first desk, hung out my shingle and called myself a writer.

And discovered that M*A*S*H airs on cable TV pretty much 24/7.  I had the equipment, the space, the nagging contractual deadline.  So why was I suddenly getting nothing done?

First cardinal rule of writing:  Write!  Before, because I had limited time, I was highly efficient about using it.  But the moment I had all day, that’s what it took for me to craft a sentence.  I puttered around the house, surfed the internet, and mastered Freecell.  Technically speaking, I used my new laptop a lot.  I just wasn’t writing on it.  In fact, I was teaching myself to play on the computer, not a good habit for completing novels.

Second rule of writing:  Stress is your friend!  Writers can’t take all day to write.  Or all year.  It’s not good for us.  We need to be anxious, terrified and neurotic.  It’s our natural state.  After losing 6 months to cable TV, I dramatically changed my daily schedule.  I gave myself two hours, first thing in the morning, to write ten pages.  No phone could be answered, no e-mail checked, no game of Solitaire started, until I’d blown out ten pages in two hours.  Suddenly I was frantic about time.  I had to get to the computer, I had to get to work.  If I didn’t get my ten pages done…  Well I didn’t know what would happen, but it was best not to find out.

Third rule of writing:  Pavlov’s not just for dogs!  During this time, I attended a writing conference where an author stated the key to the success of her dozen NEW YORK TIMESbestselling novels was scented candles.  As she explained, scent can be a powerful neurological trigger.  By burning the same fragrance each day while she wrote, she conditioned herself to write every time she smelled that fragrance.  Also, she maintained two computers.  One was dedicated to writing, the other to author business (I’m thinking Solitaire, or at the very least, checking Amazon.com sales rankings).  When it was time to write, she lit her candle, moved to the appropriate computer and bingo, she was pounding out pages.  Basically, rather that sitting around waiting for inspiration, she’d trained herself to be efficiently and reliably creative.  I’ve been doing this for ten years now, and as kooky as it sounds, it works!

Over the years, I’ve adapted other writing habits.  For my most recent suspense novel, LOVE YOU MORE, I started the year-long book process by dedicating the first three months to getting the creative juices flowing:  I conducted research at the Body Farm in Tennessee, learned about Search and Recovery dogs and spent a day in jail.  When my brain was brimming with the endless fictional opportunities, I then I gave myself six months to draft the whole book, because whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Finally I worked set hours, Monday thru Friday, in a writing space with my own computer, a scented candle and my two dogs, but no internet or phone connection.  I got into a groove and I worked the groove until six months later, I had a novel.  Which brings me to the last three months, which I spent rewriting.  Have I mentioned yet that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Bottom line:   Writing is never easy.  When you’re first starting out, you’ll struggle to make time for your hobby in between the daily demands of life.  Once published, you’ll then struggle to make time for your core job in between the daily demands of Serious Author business, which may or may not include Facebook updates, book club appearances, book tour obligations, and guest blog installments.  As many authors will tell you, we can write all day and still never get to our novels.

So do yourself a favor.  Think about your work habits now.  Figure out what candles/junkfood/computer arrangement triggers your creative process.  Then hone and perfect.  A productive writer is a happy writer, which makes finding your optimal work habits the true key to writing success.

NEW YORK TIMES bestselling crime novelist Lisa Gardner began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead.  A self-described research junkie, she has parlayed her interest in police procedure, cutting edge forensics and twisted plots into a streak of thirteen internationally bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, LOVE YOU MORE.

Readers are invited to get in on the fun by entering the annual “Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy” Sweepstakes, where they can nominate the person of their choice to die in Lisa’s latest novel.  For more information, please visit Lisa’s website here.


  1. Wait a second, let me pick my self up off the floor. I laughed so hard I fell off the sofa, where I am searching for friends on facebook and reading articles instead of writing my novel which is still on Chapter Eight despite being off all day with nothing to do!~

  2. Well, scented candles wouldn’t work for me, as 1) I have no sense of smell and 2) I have a deathly fear of fire!

    I also have a toddler, so I work my writing time in where I can. I normally do writing “business” during her morning nap (shorter nap), and writing during her afternoon nap (longer one). But she’s starting to change her sleeping schedule, so I guess that’s going to go out the window soon! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-2-2011 « The Author Chronicles

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