The Other Stuff

A question about the backstage aspects of the writing life, via e-mail:

How much of your time as a writer is spent not writing? As in, all the other things in your professional life that are related to writing and selling your work, but not the actual writing itself.

It’s hard to say, either as a flat declaration of time, or as a percentage relative to the amount of time that I do writing. For example, at the moment I’m taking a little bit of a break from major work; I finished my last major project in early July, will be starting the next one on August 17, and between then I’ve mostly traveled and have written small things, like the AMC column. So in a period like this, obviously “everything else” takes up a significantly larger percentage of the time. But once I start the next project, as a percentage they’ll go down. Overall, however, it’s a substantial portion of my time, and sometimes, too much of my time is devoted to things that aren’t writing. And I’m not always happy about that.

I can make a couple of general observations:

* I’m not at the point where I am so famous that I simply can’t keep up with the outside stuff. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with it last year and considered getting an assistant, but that was primarily a matter of my tremendously crappy time management skills, which I’ve since made it a priority to improve. I’ve gotten a bit better at those skills, which has been helpful, although I think I still have a ways to go in that department. But the fact is learning how to apportion your time gives you more time. It’s also cheaper than hiring someone. If I do get to that point where it’s no longer practical for me to do everything myself, I would hire someone, but I figure I have some distance before that’s genuinely an issue for me.

* That said, I am at a point where I get a lot of fan e-mail, personal and business requests, and am asked to do a fair amount of stuff aside from writing. One way of dealing with fan e-mail for me, quite honestly, was by joining Twitter and Facebook, since I know lot of the folks who would otherwise write fan mail now simply follow me on one or the other of those two (it’s also more fun for me to play with). And of course having Whatever here, with its comment capability, also serves that same purpose for fans who want a bit of personal contact (although to be clear it’s not Whatever’s primary purpose). For the personal and business requests, most of the time it just means I’ve gotten better at saying “no” to stuff in the last couple of years, and making sure people understand that it’s not meant to be a personal slight, I just have to be careful to what I commit to because my time is limited.

* It’s also a fact that the further one goes along in the writing business, the more one appreciates working with competent folks. For example, my fiction agent Ethan Ellenberg does a great job dealing with most of the business aspects of selling my work, taking the time I would have to take dealing with it and freeing it up for me to do other things. To be clear I am indeed actively engaged in final business decisions about the work, and it’s important for me to be so, but the advantage of having Ethan there is I don’t have to be fiddling with the business stuff before that point. And that’s a huge advantage to have. As another example, I am blessed with having a wife who has a hell of a practical business sense and a desire to handle that end of things, so once again that’s more time I can spend on other things, like writing.

* There are still things I’m learning as to how better manage my time when handling this other stuff, however. At one point in my career, I was engaged in a rather long negotiation regarding a major project I hoped to do, and in the end it fell through for various reasons that are none of your business (sorry). I was rather mightily annoyed, for a number of reasons, but most relevant for the purposes of our discussion here because during the negotiations I avoided working on any other potential major projects. The rationale for this was that once the negotiations for this project were through, I would need to start on that project immediately, and I didn’t want to leave something else half-finished.

This seemed to make perfect sense at the time, but the fact of the matter was that at the end of this negotiation, all I had to show for it was being generally pissed off, and a three-month smoking crater in my schedule during which I got nothing substantive done, which meant a not-insignificant loss of income and writing time. And as easy and convenient as it would have been simply to blame the other party for that loss of time and money, the simple fact of the matter is they weren’t the ones who decided I shouldn’t do anything else substantive with that time, it was me. It was a mistake, but the nice thing about being me is that I generally don’t have to make a mistake more than once to learn from it. The bad news, of course, is that there are yet other mistakes that I still have to make, in order to learn from them. Such is life.

* At this point, the major time suck away from writing for me is travel, because I find I don’t get any writing done at any point when I travel, and travel is not just the time on an airplane and being someplace else, it’s all the stuff leading up to it, and it’s a day or two coming down from being away when I get back. Going away for a weekend convention ends up being five days out of my schedule. For Worldcon, I’ve written off nine days. You can see how it adds up.

One way I dealt with it this year as was to notice that my major travel came in “clumps” and to schedule downtime around it. For example, beginning mid-July I ended up having roughly three weeks of travel (meaning the travel and the time preparing for it) interspersed over six weeks. So I worked my writing schedule to have a major project done by July 15th (which it was) and then not start the next one until August 17th. This gave me project deadlines, which I actually prefer having over open-ended time to complete something, and it also let me do all the travel I needed to do during that time ,without being stressed about having unfinished work hanging over my head. While my travel schedule this year just happens to lay itself out like this, I think intentionally scheduling my workload this way in the future might make a bit of sense. We’ll see how the next couple of years go.

In any event, the point is, yes, as time goes on, “the other stuff” of writing does end up taking a fair amount of your time. It’s important to recognize that if unchecked, it’ll go ahead and eat up all your time, leaving you very little time to do, you know, writing. So be prepared to deal with it.

23 thoughts on “The Other Stuff

  1. I have a related wonder (your mention of your agent reminded me): How much control/input/awareness do (you think) most authors have over/into/of cover art? Some books, after having read them, I look at the cover of and wonder if the artist had any idea what the book was about and who gave the thumbs up for this art. Not even bad art, just bad subjects.

    Other books, of course, have great artwork. Not to brown-nose too much, but I love the artist that’s done the covers of the Old Man’s War books. Somewhat vague in subject matter, perhaps, but that’s no great sin.

    So I wonder: Did you pick those out of a line-up? Meet with the artist ahead of time? Get to choose the artist? Have them assigned? Does the publisher just notify you of their decision? I’m curious.

  2. John,

    Interesting look at the life, thanks. Charlie Stross did a similar post a bit ago and I think it’s valuable for fans to realize that there’s more than getting up, putting on the bunny slippers and making sure there’s Coke Zero in the fridge.

  3. I think I’m one of the few writers who can write when they travel. I edited an interview on one of those tin cans Delta thinks constitutes a comfortable flying experience on weekends coming home from SF. I wrote on a cramped red-eye flight. I write in hotels easily. And no, I’m not fooling anyone when I’m writing in a coffee shop (usually on the road); I really do want to be left alone.

    But…

    I do agree travel is a major time suck, esp. when air travel is involved. It’s worse driving. In airports, you’re too busy foraging for food before your flight leaves, chasing your luggage, looking for the airport shuttle, or standing in line renting your car.

    Plus, I find that as I get older, it’s not as easy to write and travel at the same time. I envy Ken Bruen, who can cross the Atlantic to go to New York or even California, and be up at 7 AM local time to write. Never misses a beat.

  4. Ben @1: I think that if Scalzi (or any writer, for that matter) were as involved in the cover art as you seem to think he is, the time suck would be even more enormous than it already is.

    Granted, as John’s link to Justine shows, this can sometimes have regrettable results, but those results are the responsibility of the publisher, and its art department, not the writer.

  5. eviljwinter,
    I can’t seem to find your sf novels on amazon. I’d be curious to have a gander at your work. Always looking for a new author.

  6. I’d be happy to work as your personal assistant. My rates are very reasonable, plus I’m capable of providing personal security should the need arise.

    I have a couple of conditions though, first you’ll have to move to Alaska and live in my garage.

    Also, I have a Stargate script I’d like you to look at.

    Hello? Hello?

  7. Can your see Russian from the garage? Also, I’m not a writer. I’m a science fiction reader.

  8. @8. No, but I can Palin’s house from here.

    Note: I have lived in parts of Alaska, specifically at the far end of the Aleutian Island chain, where it is possible to see Russia. (If the weather conditions ever actually didn’t totally suck donkey balls that is)

  9. @6

    ‘Fraid my writing’s been limited to three novels in a dropped contract (Well, there’s a reason you don’t go with REALLY small press, and by that, I mean out of someone’s garage), crime fiction shorts, and book reviews.

    Plus my SF output is about nil. Well, except I did interview our esteemed host a few times and reviewed some of his books.

    Hmm…

    Maybe I should blog about Heinlein on Forgotten Book Friday when I return from my blogging exile.

  10. An interesting piece. And it applies to all kinds of work, not just writing. I took the time a couple of years ago to try and put values onto all the things I had to do before, during and after that which I considered work at the time to try to understand why I always seemed to running behind schedule. The results were interesting to say the least. I found that an hour’s productive work could easily eat up almost half a day which seems crazy until you do the math. Has it changed anything? Not really but I know who to blame now…

  11. @Jim Wright: You can see Palin’s house from there? Could you find a use for a slightly used RGP? Only fired a few times?

  12. Thanks for the link, John!

    @hugh57: I didn’t mean to imply bias one way or the other on what I imagined. I honestly had no idea what was realistic and just started listing various permutations that seemed possible (disregarding entirely feasibility). Anyway, I’ll read that link. :)

  13. MikeB @ 14 Naw, she’s more amusing this way.

    John, I know people who signed up for Twitter just so’s they could follow you. You, sir, are indeed that famous.

  14. “the nice thing about being me is that I generally don’t have to make a mistake more than once to learn from it. The bad news, of course, is that there are yet other mistakes that I still have to make, in order to learn from them. Such is life.”

    My favorite quote of the week:

    “An expert is a person who has made all of the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” – Niels Bohr

    Congratulations on approaching experthood.

    (Although I must say, from your photos, it doesn’t look like your fields are all that narrow.)

  15. I’m curious, have you ever thought of renting a cabin in the mountains, logging off for a few months, and writing a sff novel with nothing but the woodland fairies to keep you company?

  16. @19
    Apart from apart from in horror novels and the unabomber do writers really do that? I’m not sure I could but the fairies do sound enticing.

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