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Tuesday, May 1

How to Make Writing a Habit

By Tamar Sloan, @SloanTamar 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I don't think I've ever met a writer who didn't want to be more productive (myself included). Making writing a habit is one way to do that, and Tamar Sloan visits the lecture hall today to share thoughts and tips on how to avoid the bad habits that sap our productivity and create good habits that will help us with our writing.

A school psychologist by day, Tamar channels her passion for books into creating young adult stories about discovering life and love beyond our comfort zones. She is the award-winning author of the Prime Prophecy Series. Her debut novel, Prophecy Awakened, is an epic story of a love that defies boundaries. When not reading, writing or working with teens, Tamar can be found with her ever-patient husband and two beautiful sons enjoying country life on their small acreage in the Australian bush. Tamar finds it deeply rewarding to share her stories and she loves to hear from her readers and fellow lovers of all things book related.

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Take it away Tamar...

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
- Aristotle

We all know that to write a book we need to, well, sit down and write. It seems like an easy and straightforward endeavor. But the countless never-finished manuscripts squirreled in people’s computers, and the even larger mass of never-started stories living in people’s heads, are a testament that it really isn’t. There’s a myriad of reasons for this; we all have a life outside of writing that needs to be attended to, the latest season of Game of Thrones just came out, setbacks or challenges suck the wind out of our sails…oh,and we all battle that insidious under-miner self-doubt.

But the reality is that bum-in-seat time is what increases the word count and inches us towards a completed manuscript. The truth is, to optimize your writing success you need to make writing a habit. When we make an activity a habit, it becomes automatic. We no longer need to draw on resources to make decisions, to focus our attention, to resist tempting options. Making your writing routine a habit is the key.

The brain likes habits, and we can use that to our advantage. It’s because our grey matter is all about short-cuts. Heck, I'm all about short-cuts, so I can see why it thinks they're such a great idea. They're efficient and effective. And the good news is that with some focused choices we can deliberately and diligently create a different routine—a habit of a successful author.

According to science, habits compose of a cue, a routine, followed by a reward. The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to engage automatic mode. It's the green light. Then there's the routine, the physical or mental process that we move through. Finally, there's a reward, which tells your brain whether this particular loop is worth remembering for future us. The more we move through this loop, the more automatic it becomes.

For example, when we procrastinate, it starts with a cue—the feelings of tension or anxiety. The routine is you find something else to do—Facebook, the laundry or planning next year's vacation. The reward? You feel better, the negative feeling goes away. Your brain discovers an effective remedy for tension and anxiety so it decides it’s worth repeating again, and again, and again. Bam, before you've had a chance to finish the first season of Friends, you've got yourself a habit.

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It quite literally goes on autopilot so it can go do other important tasks, like figuring out the whether low fat cheesecake is actually worth the saved calories.

But psychology has demonstrated that habits aren't destiny. Now that we know the parts of the machine, we can start tinkering with the calibration. What science has found was to change a habit, you just change one step in the sequence. The cue stays the same, and the reward arises naturally, what you need to alter is the routine.

The cue is what helps you identify when you are about to fall into an old habit. If this were me, the cue would be the stressful feeling at the prospect of having to write a pre-set number of words. The new routine is that I get in and start typing (the old routine was diverse forms of procrastination—I even weeded the garden once when I was writing my psychology thesis). The reward will be the sense of accomplishment I feel as my word tally rises, as I see my characters come to life and my story unfold.

I just need to do that as many times as I've procrastinated and avoided, and repeat (and repeat and repeat). Luckily, I can use my passion for writing to do this over and over and in no time it will be automatic. Next thing I know, when I feel the pressure of needing to write whether I have the energy or not, I'll get in and type. Next thing I know I know, I'll be basking in my achievement and my remaining waking hours will be guilt-free.

Let’s try it yourself. Think of one bad habit that is getting in the way of your writing success.
  • What is the cue?
  • What is the routine?
  • What is the reward?
Now write down one new good habit that will move you towards writing success.
  • What is the cue? (Hint: it will be the same as the cue for the bad habit)
  • What is the new routine? (It can be as small as reading over yesterday's words)
  • What will be the reward (will it be the same or different)?
Now each time you notice the cue, the trigger to your old habit, implement the new habit. The more you do this, the more you will reduce your need to depend on willpower (I like to call mine Mrs Unreliable). Over time, the behaviors that define a successful writer will happen on autopilot.

About Prophecy Awakened

On the first day of her new school all that shy, wounded Eden wants is to finish her senior year and escape to college. It can’t be too much to ask for, can it?

Noah has spent two years not knowing why he failed to come of age as every one of his ancestors has. Two years drifting aimlessly, searching for direction…

When the two meet the connection is instantaneous and undeniable. A connection that has Eden running and Noah burning to know more.

A connection destined to be the catalyst for a prophecy that neither knew existed.
A prophecy others are willing to kill for.

As families rupture and struggle to realign, as their hearts connect and ignite, Eden learns to trust. But with their love and life on the line, Eden must find the power to believe.

Prophecy Awakened is the first book in Tamar Sloan’s Prime Prophecy Series. If you enjoyed Stephanie Meyer, Lauren Kate or Maggie Stiefvater, then you’ll love a series that captures their best traits in an epic, captivating story of a love that defies boundaries.

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