Get a routine, get motivated! By Emma Smith-Barton

You dream of becoming a professional writer, but in an industry where hard work goes hand in hand with rejection and there’s little, if any, instant gratification, how can you stay motivated to fulfil your dream?

Where it all started…

I was eleven when I decided I wanted to become a writer. I remember the moment vividly. I’d stayed up late, reading a book I’d fallen in love with and couldn’t put down until I finished (sadly I can’t remember the name of that book). With a torch beneath the bedcovers, as my reading light, that was the moment I knew. I wanted to write something that absorbed someone like this book had me; I wanted to learn how to tell a compelling story. I closed the book, ran my fingers over the turquoise and white glossy cover and imagined my own name on the cover. A dream was born.

Uni years…

Fast forward seven years, my dream still in tact, I started a degree in English and Creative Writing at Warwick University. This was it! I was going to become a writer! As I sat in the huge lecture hall, a fresh notebook with crisp white pages in front of me, I was eager to learn how. But it wasn’t the craft of writing that the lecturer began with: it was the importance of routine and habit. We were to write every day, he said, even if it was for just five minutes. We were to try to write at the same time every day. In the same notebook. Preferably in the same place. We were told to establish routines and rituals around our writing – so that the brain knew what was coming and was less resistant, and that magical state I call ‘the flow’ came sooner. But the truth is, although I understood my lecturer’s point, I didn’t see the value of routine back then. Could it really make that much difference? And it seemed so unromantic! I wanted to write when I felt like it: when I was inspired. But these were vital lessons that would guide me towards success many years later.

A debut is born…

I was sleep-deprived, surrounded by baby toys, nappies and muslin clothes, when I started my novel ‘The Million Pieces of Neena Gill’ (published by Penguin Random House in July 2019). It may seem like a strange time to start a novel – why now, when I clearly had my hands full? Well, I’d had a tough pregnancy and birth and was all too aware that our time is limited. And suddenly the eleven year old in me, dreaming of my name on a book cover, wouldn’t leave me alone. I also had this little being in my arms and as I looked down at him I thought about what I wanted to teach him: to follow your dreams, to beat to your own drum, to always at least try.

Goals and routines…

And so, I finally put everything I’d learned about routine (and craft, of course) over the years into practice. I suspected that if I was going to achieve this with a young – and demanding – child, I needed some structure. Firstly, I set some goals: I would aim for roughly 600-1000 words a day. Then, every day, when my baby slept, I wrote. During his afternoon nap, I wrote. When he went to bed at 8pm, I wrote. Whatever happened – with the house in a mess, with my eyes closing from exhaustion, with my phone ringing – I wrote. And sure enough, it got easier. The more words I saw on the screen, the more motivated I became. As my lecturer had promised, the routine meant that I achieved ‘the flow’ quicker and more often. And soon, that was its own reward, being in that place where words flow and the world slips away – that feeling was more motivating than anything else. 10 months later I had a (very rough) draft of a novel. I’d done it!


Looking back, in the years between writing this novel and my university years, a lot had been going on. I’d been battling some demons when it came to motivation. Fear of rejection. Of not being good enough. Imposter syndrome. By never completing a novel, I couldn’t put it out there, and that meant I could avoid being rejected (but I now see that I was self-rejecting instead). All these things meant I wasn’t fully motivated. But lack of motivation can come in many forms, and can also arise from problems with the work itself. In the ‘Anatomy of Story’ John Truby connects creativity problems to the larger issue of writers block and says “Writers block comes from not understanding the true structure of the story you’re telling… is it hitting the story beats that are unique and right for that story?” More here – highly recommended:

The importance of routine…

But the routine allowed me to overcome the psychological issues of fear – or at least ignore it all while I was working. It also told my brain that I was taking this seriously – and in our busy lives it can be just 10 minutes a day that gives us that message. All I had to do was stick to the routine, to get the words down, and if nothing came of it at least I’d enjoyed the feeling of being in the flow, had deepened my craft, had tried. There’s value in all those things alone. So go, connect with your dreams and get a routine and get writing – imagine your name on the cover of a book. A routine could be just the thing you need!

Recommended reading: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Emma is the author of YA novel The Million Pieces of Neena Gill (July 2019, Penguin Random House). She is represented by Jo Unwin.

She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Warwick University and a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa University. 

Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Mslexia and The Bristol Short Story Prize 2016.

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