David Yoon on How to Cultivate Creative Endurance
Some Advice for Maintaining the Slow and Steady Work of Writing
Books take forever to make. From the moment I start a manuscript, I know I’m in for a long haul, all by myself. I do sometimes brainstorm with others, but for the most part it’s just me, alone in a room, putting words down one by one. For days. Months. Years! So how do I keep going when the only one watching over me is… me?
The answer isn’t a divine gift of artistic passion. It’s not a perfect knowledge of which words to put where, or some genetic predisposition to stick-to-itiveness. I’m able to write a novel because I have grit. Grit is not a personality trait or a special skill. It’s not even all that special. Anyone can have grit because grit is simply a set of good habits.
My writing habits, listed one by one, will look incredibly dumb at first glance. But consider: these very mundane habits produced my latest novel, City of Orange—fully eleven years after I first outlined it. The book literally wouldn’t have happened without them; I would’ve given up ages ago. (City of Orange, by the way, is my very first novel, begun long before my YA debut Frankly In Love or my adult debut Version Zero. Isn’t publishing fun?)
Now, I could blab on and on with diaphanous writerly advice on the sanctity of staying present, finding wonder, practicing self-care, following your bliss, or—shudder—digging deep. But the older I get and the more art I create (whether it’s music or video games or drawings), the more pragmatic I become. I want simple rules to follow. I do not want to think too hard about things. I’m well aware that writing takes forever. I am a big fan of greasing the rails toward making it happen faster, and with as little agony as possible.
Of course, the big rules for writing still apply. Join a writer’s group or—better yet—go to the best writing school you can afford. Get an agent if you can.
What I’m talking about here are all the little simple rules that, when followed consistently, help keep me sane during the long process of scratching out a novel.
So it is with a dorky flourish that I now present to you: my big dumb list of writing habits.
Get up crazy early to write on Tuesday and/or Thursday. All of us have an inner editor who second-guesses everything we write as we write it. Makes it very hard to be spontaneous and free! Fortunately, that inner editor is still fast asleep at 4:30 am. If you wake up early enough, you can write all kinds of crazy stuff without being awake enough to judge yourself. Later, in the sober light of day, I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how creative you were during those wee hours. You can’t do this often, though, because it’ll turn you into a sleep-deprived cranky crab monster. You’ll also never wake up early on Monday or Friday mornings. Just trust me on that.I’m able to write a novel because I have grit. Grit is not a personality trait or a special skill. It’s not even all that special. Anyone can have grit because grit is simply a set of good habits.
Outline your story, but keep it loose. For the first draft of City of Orange, I created what’s called a “beat sheet”—an excruciatingly detailed, blow-by-blow outline of what happens. I figured I could then just fill in the blanks when writing, easy peasy. Unfortunately, the draft wound up making very little sense. That’s because I had my eyes too close to the road and couldn’t see where I was going. A better alternative is what E.L. Doctorow called a “driving at night in the fog.”
As in, you have a general sense of what landmarks you’re going to hit, but you don’t quite know how you’ll get there, and you can only see as far as your car headlights. (Assume you lost your phone.) This type of outline gives you just enough structure, while leaving room for all-important artistic spontaneity. For a novel, this outline should be around two single-spaced pages or less.
Write one or two pages a day. Let’s do some math—excluding weekends, public holidays, and vacations, a year has about 222 working days. A page is 250 words. If you average one or two pages every working day (because you can’t—and shouldn’t—write all the time), by the end of one year you’ll have a real, honest-to-god 333 page book! This is no small feat. Most people never finish the novels they start. You’ll be one of the chosen few. Plus, you’ll have something to revise, which is far easier work than starting something from scratch.
Stop thinking about your story so dang much. After you’ve gotten your words in for the day, turn your brain off. I like to do boring admin and accounting stuff, or clean out the garage, or fold laundry. Like a muscle after exercise, your mind literally needs to rest in order to properly refill itself with sparkling new creative mojo. Yes, this is your excuse to play Elden Ring guilt-free for two hours straight, you huge nerd.
Use simple tools. This is a really personal habit of mine, and my intent is not to start a holy war among word processing apps, but I’ve tried them all and have settled on your basic, comes-with-every-MacBook Pages app. That’s it. It has just enough features and nothing more, letting me focus on story and not managing macros or my Microsoft 365 account. I also like the basic, built-in Dictionary and Reminders apps. Speaking of which…
Use Siri with the Reminders app. Whenever I get a notion, no matter how weird or random, I lift my phone or watch and say Hey Siri, remind me that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is interesting in theory but mostly bullshit in reality. The rule for this rule is: if a thought strikes your fancy, you must record it on the spot. Do not judge yourself or hesitate. (Street photographers know this rule.) Siri makes this habit especially effortless, especially while driving. It’ll save your thought to your default Reminders app, which you can sort through later.
Do not look at social media. Social media is explicitly designed to make you feel like your life is shit. (I should know. I worked as a UX designer in tech for years.) It doesn’t matter how successful you are—there will always be someone out there doing something amazing that will smite you with sheer envy and impostor syndrome, every time. Try going for an hour without checking Instatwittertok. Then try a whole day. Then a whole week. It’s absolutely liberating and will protect the precious, foolish self-delusion that is so crucial for any serious artist (I mean that unironically!). Also, you will miss nothing.
Celebrate every writing milestone. If you finish a page, get up and give yourself a cookie. A chapter? Buy yourself a frilly drink. If you reach the end of act one, go out to dinner. The entire first draft? Freaking go to Disneyland. It took me forever to realize that as a writer, I was also my own boss. What kind of boss did I want to be? The mean boss who took achievements for granted? Or the cool boss who threw morale-boosting office parties? Be the cool boss.
Write in the mornings if you can. Your creative mind is fresher then. I know some people are able to write at night (Sabaa Tahir, I’m looking at you,) but I think most people start the day strong and end flat.
If you can’t write in the mornings, be sure to meditate and exercise. When you get home from work or school, you need to delineate a clear physical break to prepare your mind for creative work. Simple, no-frills meditation and floor exercises can give you that in a short time. I’ll meditate for ten minutes and do basic yoga stuff for fifteen, and then it’s like I’m a different person. Otherwise, you risk trying to write with a cluttered mind, and that’s just like fighting a dang land war in Asia (which Princess Bride fans will know is one of the classic blunders.)
Do not consume crap. If you’re reading a book that’s bad, I hereby give you permission to put it down and never look at it again. Same goes for TV and movies—if what you’re watching absolutely sucks two grapes, I implore you to stop watching immediately. Don’t worry about the money you spent on those things. Everything you consume influences you as an artist, so if you continue to watch Moonfall (oof) out of guilt for that $3.99 rental fee, your limpid pool of creative acumen will become polluted with little particles of crap. Spend time instead on the good stuff, and the good stuff only. Your time off from writing is meant to inspire and refill your creative well so that you can keep going on your long-haul journey. Be brutally shrewd with that time.
Write for twenty minutes, then get up and move around for five. I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro method of productivity, where you do work for short stretches and take many mini-breaks. Practically anyone can maintain focus for twenty minutes, especially with the reward of a five-minute break at the end. I like to use those five work-free minutes to walk around the backyard or play a level of Captain Toad or whatever. It feels downright luxurious, and maintains mental stamina.
Get lots of sleep. What’s that old rule? Eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours what you will? Whoever came up with that was on the right track. Try to honor that as much as you can, even if it makes you feel a little silly and lame going to bed early on a Thursday night. Sleep is pure creativity fuel. Kids know this instinctively.
Get a fun hobby totally unrelated to writing. When she’s not writing, my wife Nicola likes to do paper quilling or build Lego. I like to play music or make video games. There are no goals or deadlines for these endeavors, which is super important. They are pure play, and necessary to let the mind wander and relax. They’re also great places to find unexpected inspiration of the non-verbal, non-narrative kind, like the beauty of a flat 9 chord. Life is not all about words.
The cumulative effect of all these simple habits is to blend writing into the daily fabric of your life, like exercise, or watching TV, or Taco Tuesdays. When the act of sitting down to write becomes routine, it feels like less of a big deal. And that’s incredibly important. In my experience, writing doesn’t respond well to really hard, intense work sessions. Fatigue sets in. The brain overheats and dries up your creative mojo—that mysterious liquid, variable in its viscosity, non-Newtonian. The harder you hit it, the more it resists.
Way before I had any hope of being published, I wrote, because it was something I just had to do. I wrote even though I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote when my day jobs were great, and when they were hell. I kept writing even as I got rejected again and again by agents and contests. I was able to keep at it not because I was some kind of superhero, but because I had turned writing into a routine that I did little by little, every single day, steady drips on soil that kept the plants growing.
This is a tough mindset to explain in a fast-moving capitalistic world where novels just seem to appear on bookstore shelves one day out of thin air. We tend to conceptualize artistic works as consumer products that are magically manufactured like widgets on a conveyor belt, and that expectation can sometimes seep into our own expectations of ourselves as artists. In other words, we can sometimes run the danger of chastising ourselves for not producing tons of creative work at the same lightning speed and quality as a factory in Shenzhen.
That’s why I like to think in terms of habits. It helps to remind me that as a writer, sure, I’m an artist, but I’m also an artisan, steadily working at my craft every day. There aren’t very many artisans in the modern world, so it can feel weird to be one sometimes. But the quiet discipline of the artisan mindset—sleep well, oil your tools, sweep your workshop—is precisely what it takes to last through the hundreds of pages it takes to build the wonderful and strange waking dream that is the novel.
David Yoon’s City of Orange is available now via G.P. Putnam’s Sons.