Setting Out: Routine Beats Talent

Hard at work. Not my hands. Pic by Thomas Lefebvre –


This is the first in a new series of posts aimed at writers setting out on the path to publication. I call it ‘Setting Out’. I didn’t say I was good at blog post titles.

The series will cover themes and experiences that might be useful to new writers. However, a range of topics will be discussed – from editing to agents to conventions – which could be of interest to writers of all stages. Others I’ve met in different parts of the industry will chip in, too, including writers, agents, reviewers, editors, etc, so there will be a good depth of knowledge.

There will be a natural SFF tint to the posts, as that’s the genre I’m in, but I think there will be something here for authors in different areas, too.

Routine Beats Talent

When people hear I have a book deal, they tend to ask a number of questions. These can be anything from ‘how on earth did that happen?!?’ to ‘were no other novels written that year?’ However, the main focus is often on the nuts and bolts of writing – along the lines of, ‘where did you find the time?’

I think this is the most important and difficult issue for any would-be writer. Most of us live very busy lives, filled with work commitments, family responsibilities, and finding time to eat and sleep. It can be extremely hard to simply find the time to sit in front of the computer and work on a book, particularly when you don’t know if it will be successful, and are aware of how hard it is to crack into the industry. You wonder if you are sacrificing time that could be better spent elsewhere.

When I started writing The Machinery, I really struggled with this problem. I had the idea for the book in the summer of 2008, but I definitely didn’t get cracking on it right away. I would sit in front of my computer, write a short amount, and then give up. I would decide I didn’t like this one paragraph I had written, and lose heart, which would have a knock-on effect, dissuading me from returning to the computer the next day.

It took about a year and a half before I got into the flow of it. I remember sitting down one day, typing a short amount, and agreeing with myself that I would return the next day and do a bit more. I don’t think any of the text from those early days and months made it into the final manuscript. However, it was a very important period for me – I discovered a routine that worked.

That is the important thing. You should not worry too much about the habits of other writers. You need to find a schedule that is suited to you, which could depend on all sorts of things: whether you’re an early morning person, whether you’re a night owl, etc. I did a little bit every day before I went to work – we’re talking twenty-thirty minutes tops, and none on weekends. However, for others, it may make more sense to spend all day Saturday hammering away on the keyboard, or doing a little bit after dinner every night. It doesn’t matter, so long as you keep to your routine. Even then you should cut yourself some slack – if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up about it.

I’ve written about this before in other blogs, because I really think it is important. I can’t see how anyone could write a book – or indeed embark on any project – without some kind of discipline, no matter how haphazard their routine might look to others. In fact, I would put it above talent in terms of importance. Of course the ideas and the skill etc are necessary. But if they are completely unused, what’s the point? On the flipside, you can pick up skills as you go along, if you apply yourself. I think that the moderately talented, disciplined person will beat out the undisciplined genius every time (if you can break talent down into different categories like this).

I think the key is to take it easy on yourself. If you only have fifteen minutes a day, then do fifteen minutes a day. It’s a bit like saving money (not that I can claim to be an expert on that) – an amount that seems small on a weekly or monthly basis can really add up over a year or two. As I said, I spent a year and a half floundering without a routine. If I had written just 100 words a day on weekdays, that would have worked out at anywhere from 35,000 – 40,000 words, allowing some wiggle room for holidays or days being skipped. Even at the lower end, that’s a decent chunk of text – getting on for half a novel or so.

The last thing I’d say is that getting into the routine itself can be useful, in and of itself, even if you’re not published. You may decide to take on another extracurricular project in the future, for example, whether writing-related or not. So even if it’s no more than five minutes or two sentences a day, doing something regularly is better than doing nothing.








Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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