Inspiration comes in an amazing diversity of forms and from an array of sometimes unexpected sources, but you have to open your mind and heart to it or you may miss out on some gems.
As a case in point, I recently came across this quote from Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, part of an interview with the New York Times:
I’m not even thinking about any other team. We’re trying to be the best version of ourselves.
If you don’t know, Stevens has fashioned a remarkable coaching career.
First, he rebuilt the Butler Bulldogs basketball program and led them into the spotlight of the NCAA basketball championship game — twice — despite the school’s relatively tiny enrollment.
Then, he took on the job of restarting the storied Celtics franchise after they had fallen from the ranks of the NBA elite. Within just a few years, the Celts rose from a bottom-run team to one of the top teams in the league.
And Stevens did all that by the age of 40.
That’s all great stuff, but what in the world do Stevens and his pithy quote above have to do with you and your writing?
Glad you asked!
Start Where You Are
Brad Stevens knew full well when he took over the Celtics that they weren’t the kind of team that could win a championship. They had a roster full of young players and mid-career guys who weren’t going anywhere. Their one “star” player was seen as a loudmouth and maybe a troublemaker.
So Stevens buckled in and suffered through a first season that saw the team win just 25 games while losing 57. It was ugly, but it was who the Celts were.
During that tough year, though, Stevens installed his coaching system and began working to improve the team’s attitudes and fundamentals. He started with what he had and tried to make it better.
That’s what you hav
e to do with your writing, too.
No matter where you are today, and no matter how you got there, you must start with your present situation as a base.
Stop lamenting the time you’ve wasted in the past and the fact that your life makes writing a hassle. Complaining and pining for the past or some perfect, unachievable “writing life” won’t do you any good at all when it comes to becoming the author you want to be.
Focus on improving your writing and your writing career, starting where you are today.
Other Writers as Role Models
When Stevens took over Butler and, especially when he stepped into the Boston limelight, he may not have been too concerned with the team’s day-to-day opponents, but you can be sure that he was thinking about other folks around the NBA.
He was thinking about the successful teams and coaches for whom he’d worked and played in the past.
He was thinking about the legendary college programs — Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, UCLA.
He was thinking about great Celtics teams of the past and the astounding play of modern-day superstars like LeBron James and Tim Duncan.
What Stevens knew, and what successful people in almost every field know, is that the best way to make the fastest progress possible is to model the behaviors of those who have come before you and who have achieved what you want to achieve.
For writers, that means finding other authors who have made a mark in the world by dint of their words.
Here are some examples:
- Stephen King is a hero for many authors because he faced rejection after rejection before he finally hit it big with Carrie. King is also well-known for his steady and large daily word counts, and he has codified much of his method in the book On Writing.
- Bloggers have all kinds of role models to provide inspiration on a regular basis. Darren Rowse, Neil Patel, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Jon Morrow — all provide great examples of what is possible through blogging in the 21st century, and they all share enough of their methods to help you formulate a roadmap for your own success.
- The guys at Sterling and Stone — Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, David W. Wright — have developed a method for working together to produce unprecedented amounts of published fiction on a monthly basis.
None of these people is you, of course, but you can model the pieces of their approaches that make sense for your goals and proclivities.
Brad Stevens didn’t set out to become John Wooden or Mike Krzyzewski, but the discerning eye can find elements of these greats in the younger man’s approach.
You can do the same thing with your writing — find the people who have done what you want to do, who are where you want to be, and emulate their methods. Now, you can’t do everything Mr. All-World Author does, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to.
For instance, would Stephen King’s approach to novel-writing, wherein he lets his characters lead him through the story, work for the average author? Not unless you’re gifted with the same sort of writing talent and vision as King has.
But how about King’s more “mechanical” advice? You know … write every day, read a lot, cut the fat from your writing, avoid unnecessary adverbs.
Would those work for you?
They almost certainly would.
Maybe more important than any advice your writing heroes could give you, though, is the examples they set.
They show us what’s possible. Their personal stories remind us that everyone must start from where he is today and that even the greats weren’t always so great. And they inspire us to improve.
Focus on Improvement
And really, that’s the crux of the Brad Stevens quote that I used to open this piece: improvement.
You can’t expect to wake up one morning and write a novel that will bump The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird from their slots among the most beloved tomes in American literary history any more than Stevens could have expected to dominate LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first year of the Celtics’ rebuild.
Stevens started with what he had and built from there. He coached the players he already had and began crafting the team atmosphere he thought would lead to wins down the road. He orchestrated a move to bring in Isaiah Thomas and helped turn the point guard into a superstar. He drafted well.
And, by the middle of his fourth year at the helm, Stevens had his club on the verge of big things, capable of knocking off any team in the NBA on any given night.
Stevens’s secret to success is a relentless focus on improving, day by day and season by season.
It served him as he worked his way up the college coaching ranks, it’s served him in the NBA, and it will serve him in whatever endeavor he undertakes in the coming decades.
It will serve you, too, if you let it.
But you have to be patient, and you have to be persistent. I know those aren’t exciting or sexy concepts, but think about what you might be able to achieve this year if you focus on incremental improvement:
- If you write 500 words a day on average for the next 365 days, you’ll have amassed a body of more than 180,000 words a year from now. That’s the equivalent of one very epic novel, several mid-range novels, or enough blog posts to fill a new website to the brim.
- If you improve your writing speed by one word per minute every week, and if you currently average 10 words per minute, you’ll double your writing speed in 10 weeks. Do that twice in a row, and you’ll be hitting your 500-word target in 15 minutes a day. Think you can find that much time to write?
- If you currently publish one book every year, you can double your output and your exposure by bumping that up to one every six months. That may feel like a stretch at first, but you could find that you have even more capacity next year — maybe you’ll push out four books.
You get the picture.
The power of compound improvements is real and profound, and the results are sexy. But you have to be willing and able to push through the early boredom of incremental improvement if you want to reap those rewards.
Because writing 500 words a day for a week may not seem all that gratifying when your goal is to complete a 50,000-word novel, you might need a little motivation along the way. In that vein, here are a few ideas to give yourself constant positive reinforcement through frequent success cues:
- Starting with your end goal in mind — like finishing your novel — map out the milestones you have to reach along the way. Then, when you hit one of them, mark it down and do a little celebratory dance.
- Track your word-count progress using a simple spreadsheet or an online tool like Pacemaker Planner.
- Each time you hit your daily word-count goal, cross out that day on a paper calendar.
- Keep a list of your BIG goals handy and read through them every day. Remind yourself how your activities for that day will help you become the writer you want to be.
- Give yourself micro rewards when you hit milestones along your path. Good options might include food treats or a new book to read.
Set up your reward or tracking structure beforehand, then get down to the business of improving.
Compare your efforts and results today to what you were able to accomplish yesterday and last week and last year.
What you shouldn’t do is compare your results, day by day, to those of your role models. It can be very discouraging to see that Joe F. Author published 10 books last year and realize that he must have cranked out about 5,000 words a day when you’re still trying to boost your word count from 200 to 500 per day.
Be inspired by Joe’s success. Put him on a pedestal as what you’d like to be someday. But don’t compare your accomplishments to his, because you’re not him.
Judge your progress by the appropriate yardstick — what you have done in the recent past — and you’ll be much happier and more productive in the long run.
One Writing Session at a Time
I’ll leave you with another quote from Brad Stevens both because it’s a nice bookend to how we started this discussion and because it’s great advice as you embark on your next writing task:
My goal is to win the next game one possession at a time. That’s it. I don’t have any other goals
Your goal should be to “win” the next week of your author’s career one writing session at a time.
Write more words, better, the next time you sit down than you did the last time you put pen to paper.
Squeeze in more writing time.
Become a better you.
In a year, you might not even recognize yourself or your writing accomplishments.