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5 Things the Military Taught Me About Writing

Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.

This week, I asked novelist/screenwriter Todd Tavolazzi to share his experiences working as a Naval Officer, and how a life in the military helps with his writing routines (discipline, anyone?).

Novelist/Screenwriter Todd Tavolazzi

Todd Tavolazzi is an active duty Naval Officer and Naval Aviator (helicopter pilot). He published his debut novel, “Looking Into the Sun: A Novel of the Syrian Conflict”, in February 2016. He also adapted a screenplay from his novel, which was recently optioned for film development. He and his publisher, Pandamoon Publishing (Austin, TX), are donating a portion of the proceeds to Save the Children’s Syrian Children Fund. Todd is currently serving on the faculty at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter @ToddTavolazzi or on his website

Todd: I had the honor and pleasure to be assigned to a three-year tour with the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet staff in Naples, Italy as a military strategic and operational planner. My military duties taught me the following lessons that helped me complete my debut novel (on my off time, of course!):

Lesson #1: Get a routine

Ninety-five percent of my work days, I showed up to work, made a pot of coffee, fired up the computer, checked e-mail, and made myself a prioritized “to do” list. Similarly, since I had a full-time day job (like most new writers), I woke up an hour and fifteen minutes before I had to walk out the door for work almost every work day morning (15 min to make coffee and start the computer and one hour to write), made coffee, fired up the computer, and wrote as much as I possibly could until I had to walk out the door to start my commute. This simple routine yielded anywhere between a half page (my all time low) to seven pages (my all time high) of writing per day. It all adds up! Watching the daily page count grow made me feel productive and happy!

Lesson #2 Be organized

You’d think being organized would be easier in the military. The truth is, everyone has to work at it. Keeping a list of prioritized things to do was essential to successfully managing your time on a military staff. The same is true for writing. Since I only had a very limited time in the morning to write, I made sure every minute was going to count. I became the type of writer who needed to outline or at least have a set list of scenes I knew I wanted in my story. As soon as I sat down to write, I would either pick up where I left off or used an outline or list of scenes as prompts to keep my literary mind on track. With this method, I was rarely blocked.

Lesson #3 Use your down time wisely

Some days are busier than others, but I always had something I could be doing to forward the ball down the field. At work, this revolved around my prioritized “to do” list. But, even though I wouldn’t actually write prose at work, I always had a ready list of research topics to look up during my lunch period or the few minutes between planning meetings. When I accomplished these basic tasks as I found the time for them throughout the day, the words would flow much easier when I actually sat down to write the story (no more staring at the wall wondering how many Amtrak station stops were actually between San Diego and San Francisco, and where - I already looked it up and figured out the location of the next scene and whether it should be day or night when I write it). A big time saver!

Lesson #4 Back up your work

In the military, we plan extensively for contingencies. Things will inevitably go wrong. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Part of my planning for the worst was backing up my writing in three places. 1) Locally on the computer itself 2) Whenever I was complete with my writing for the day, I would send it to a primary e-mail account. 3) Then, I would send it to a secondary e-mail account. I have had to use the secondary e-mail to retrieve my work more than once. I was very glad to have that option!

Lesson #5 Give yourself something to hate

Whenever we were preparing a briefing for our Admiral, our immediate bosses, wisely, wanted us to see a draft to be sure it was “ready for prime time.” I once asked what they were looking for on a particular brief and my boss said, “Give me something to hate.” Of course, what he meant was, put something on paper and he’ll “chop” it (military speak for editing). The bottom line is that you first have to put your story on paper (or the screen). It will not be perfect (nor should it be) but it will be a starting point to begin chopping (editing). Give yourself something to hate, then make it better. Multiple sets of eyes in the chain of command will give feedback to guide the editing process (beta readers and/or editors) before it’s ready for “prime time” (submission/publication).

Thanks to Todd for this week's post! Any valuable lessons you've learned from your day job? Do share!

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