Writing: Find the Time or Don’t
Posted on September 16, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 186 Comments
Over the last couple of months I’ve gotten a fair number of letters from aspiring writers who want to write but find themselves plagued by the vicissitudes of the day, i.e., they’ve got jobs, and they’re tiring, and when they come home they just want to collapse in front of the TV/spend time with family/blow up anthills in the backyard/whatever. And so they want to know two things: One, how I keep inspired to write; two, how one manages to find the time and/or will to write when the rest of life is so draining. I’ve addressed these before, but at this point the archives are vast, so I’ll go ahead and address them again.
The answer to the first of these is simple and unsatisfying: I keep inspired to write because if I don’t then the mortgage company will be inspired to foreclose on my house. And I’d prefer not to have that happen. This answer is simple because it’s true — hey, this is my job, I don’t have another — and it’s unsatisfying because writers, and I suppose particularly authors of fiction, are assumed to have some other, more esoteric inspiration. And, you know. Maybe other authors do. But to the extent that I have to be inspired to write at all on a day-to-day basis (and I really don’t; you don’t keep a daily blog for twelve years, for example, if you’re the sort of person who has to wait for inspiration to get your fingers going across a keyboard), the desire to make money for myself and my family works well enough. Another day, another dollar, etc.
Now, bear in mind here I’m establishing a difference between inspiration for writing on a daily, continuing basis, and inspiration for specific pieces of work; those inspirations aren’t necessarily related to getting paid, and can come from any place. But even then, I find the two inspirational motivations work in a complementary fashion. I am inspired to write a particular story or idea in a fanciful way, and then the practical inspiration of getting paid gets my ass in a chair to write the thing. It’s a congenial, if somewhat unromantic, way of doing things.
As to the second of these, my basic response here is, Well, look. Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything. There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
(This sort of skips over the question of whether I’d be good at either acting or music, but that’s neither here nor there. By not trying, I’m not even achieving failure.)
So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.
If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off. If you can’t do that (I’m not a morning person myself) then you have your weekend — weekends being what I used when I wrote Agent to the Stars.
And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write. Cory Doctorow says that no matter what, he tries for 250 words a day (that’s a third of what I’ve written in this entry to this point), and if you write just 250 words a day — the equivalent to a single, double-spaced page of text — then in a year you have 90,000 words. That’s the length of a novel. Off of 250 words a day. Which you could do. On the goddamned bus. If you really wanted.
This is why at this point in time I have really very little patience for people who say they want to write but then come up with all sorts of excuses as to why they don’t have the time. You know what, today is the day my friend Jay Lake goes into surgery to remove a huge chunk of his liver. After which he goes into chemo. For the third time in two years. Between chemo and everything else, he still does work for his day job. And when I last saw him, he was telling me about the novel he was just finishing up. Let me repeat that for you: Jay Lake has been fighting cancer and has had poison running through his system for two years, still does work for his day job and has written novels. So will you please just shut the fuck up about how hard it is for you to find the time and inspiration to write, and just do it or not.
And to repeat: It’s okay if you don’t. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that when it really comes down to it, you want to do things other than writing. It’s even okay to start writing, work at it a while, and decide it’s not for you. Being a writer isn’t some grand, mystical state of being, it just means you put words together to amuse people, most of all yourself. There’s no more shame in not being a writer than there is in not being a painter, or a botanist, or a real estate agent — all of which are things I, personally, quite easily do not regret not being.
But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.
I can think of nothing to say, therefore, allow me to express my appreciation for your post non-verbally:
Heh. This is an observation I’ve made; folks who do ‘x’ have pretty much always been doing ‘x’. Now, would I like to be a published author with adoring fans who throw pickles at me as I stand atop the Pyramid of the Sun? Sure! Who wouldn’t? But I’ve never even written any type of story, all the way back to elementary school. So yeah, doubt I’ll ever be a writer. I also think the 37 words I managed on the last Nano pretty much confirms that.
Now, I look at my daughter (9), who spends hours by herself (ignoring Wii, computer, tv, etc), drawing comics about a dog who solves mysteries and saves Doctor Who, and yeah, she’s a story teller. It may stay in comics or move on to words or film but she’s already doing it. Luckily, she also likes to make robots (lego mind spring) so she may have a paying gig while she does her stories. Even better!
(Ack, the site ate my tags)
You hit the nail on the head with that as always. I spend far too much time finding excuses not to write, and if I spent that much time actually writing I’d have more under my belt than an unpublished and not-very-good novel and two screenplays in the rewrite stage.
I can only hope that at some stage my problem becomes not ‘how do I find the time to write’, but ‘what do I do with this now I’ve written it’.
“Now, would I like to be a published author with adoring fans who throw pickles at me as I stand atop the Pyramid of the Sun?”
Someone is remembering their Real Genius movie lines.
“Why am I the only one with that dream?”
Thanks John. A swift kick in the pants can be a good thing.
I think one of the hardest things about getting inspired to write a particular work is that, often, that feeling is accompanied by a furious desire to sit down and commit 300 or 500 or 2,000 words to the page.
And then the desire wears off. And it’s a tricky thing to understand that at that point, you just need to keep going, rather than decide that the Muse has abruptly turned fickle and abandoned you.
(Also: There are countless books on writing out there, all with more or less the same counsel as yours, John—”To be a writer, you have to write!”—but Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art does the best job of getting into the rudimentary psychology of it that I’ve ever seen. It’s helpful and inspiring!)
I found that quite inspirational, actually.
Wonderful article, glad to see it written.
I personally don’t call myself a writer, except in the most amateurish of ways – I have things I want to say, and find that when I write them down and edit them, I can say them much better through text (of some kind) than through voice. Therefore, I write only when I have something to say. I’ve recently started a blog where I talk about fantasy books I happen to like, and I think I have four entries over the course of about a month now.
However (and very importantly), I am also a musician, and your article here is also extremely applicable to that lifestyle. I play in two bands, write my own music, and record music for other people. That is what I spend my day doing. It doesn’t make me feel bad when, after doing all that, sometimes when I get home, I don’t feel like writing. It just means I understand where my priorities lie, and am willing to accept everything that comes from that. So, if I only write three pages a month of the “novel” I’ve been working on for god-knows-how-long now, then I can rest easy knowing that while I wasn’t doing that, I was playing piano, drums, or was helping someone else put their own music to tape, and that brings me satisfaction.
So I think I don’t have a point here, other than to say, I agree with you, and as a first-time poster (but long-time reader) on your blog, I think you hit upon points that every single person who calls him/herself a “writer,” “musician,” “painter,” etcetera needs to look at within their own life.
Although it should be blatantly obvious, it’s still somewhat amazing how long it can take to fully realize that if you want to do something you have to make the time to do it. I found that sitting down and figuring out exactly how much time I’m spending dithering and not actually doing anything every day helped tons. Taking a moment at the end of the week, looking back and asking what you’ve done only to realize you spent most of your free time dithering – well. That’s an eye-opener. Because you could have taken that dithering time to write or do whatever else it is you keep telling yourself you’ll do, but instead you chose – consciously or unconsciously – to waste your very limited time.
Speaking of dithering… whoops. But posts like these are still a good reminder and a kick in the pants for everyone. :)
Thankyou for saying so clearly what I’ve been trying to tell my fellow amateur writers for years. Everyone has the time to write, if they look hard enough and stop making excuses. If you can’t find the time, then you don’t love it enough to get it done at all.
Every good writing instructor I’ve ever had said pretty much the same thing: either do it or don’t. Part of being a professional is to have the discipline to set aside time every single day and do it.
Although it can be very heady to get swept up in a moment of inspiration, no one isgoing to feel that euphoria every time they sit down to write any more than they’re going to spend every moment of every hour swept up in any other passion.
And if someone is waiting for that to happen, I agree, they fall in the category mentioned above of delusion.
Thanks for a great article. Excellent advice for following any pursuit really.
I would imagine that some would-be writers find that post hard to read, but it’s the truth. I know for myself, all my “yes, but…” excuses come down to fear that I let kill my work. Fear that I’ll never get published because I’ll never be good enough, etc. In the end, though, they are all just that; excuses.
In addition to your fine collection of essays on writing, I recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. She offers a lot of great advice, but the best is to commit to a writing quota, even if it’s 300 words a day. Do whatever you need to do, but always, always make yourself write those 300, or 250 or whatever, words *every* day.
Honestly, it’s the best advice anyone can give the aspiring writer.
Writers *WRITE*, so get to it!
And 2 addendums (is that addendi?).
1. We all get 24 hours a day. No exceptions.
2. My novel The Devil’s Pitchfork was written primarily during my lunch hour when I worked at Henry Ford Hospital. I took a yellow legal pad and a pen and wrote during the 30 or so minutes I had while I was eating my sack lunch or slice of pizza. And that novel started my Derek Stillwater franchise. It can be done.
The problem is best looked at as energy management rather than time management. That was the ah-ha moment for me. Most people have far more time than energy in a day.
Once I started focusing more on taking better care of myself and improving my energy levels, time to do more things (writing!) just sort of started showing up.
Bonus tip: get any sleep problems that you have taken care of. Makes a huge difference.
I used to tell my friends I wanted to be a writer when I got all growed up. One friend, eventually tired of hearing that, said to me, “I never see you write anything. A writer writes.”
A decade later (early this year), I finally stopped pretending he was just being an jerk and admitted to myself that he was correct. I’ve written something nearly everyday since.
Interestingly, it was your post on the same subject about a year and a half ago, that finally got me to start writing again. (That and the comment “All first novels suck”..that gave me permission to not be perfect) So here I am with the 4th draft finished and over 100,000 words. And I’ve found that I really enjoy the writing process like I did in high school and college, I love the problem solving aspect of the novel and the woo hoo feeling when I get a scene just right. Even if the novel never goes further than friends and family, it’s been a rewarding learning experience..
I am an amateur (formerly professional) musician, who took a songwriting class from Bill Spooner, formerly of The Tubes. Bill liked my work, and exhorted me to get more serious about it. Finally, he said to me, “There are two kinds of songwriters in this world: those who write every day and those who drive cabs.”
I had to think about it and realize that I really *like* my cab. I like my career, and have no desire to become a full time writer. But I never kid myself. If I want to do it, I need to make the time to write every day.
Thanks for reminding me of that.
It strikes me that it would be a great personal resolution — and a difficult one — to swear off saying I “really want to do” things when the evidence suggests that I don’t.
How freeing it would be. I might save some money, too.
Sometime soon I’ll be writing a blogpost that’s sort of a sequel to this, about why writers who claim they need advances from publishers to properly write big non-fiction books need to stfu. That, too, boils down to wanting to and being willing to make the sacrifices to see that it’s done, which too many wannabes won’t do.
Thank you, John. It was exactly what I needed to hear today. Because I am a writer, not someone who wants to have written.
I’ve been having a hard time getting my happy butt in the chair in order to put time into my writing for the past couple of weeks. Oh, I make notes while I’m doing other things, and I maybe sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and sketch out scenes or conversations just before I go to bed. But I haven’t been sitting down at the computer and actually writing, and so the novel I’m working on hasn’t been growing.
And now, back to work on the paying gig…which also involves writing, which makes me one of the luckiest people in the world. I mean, how many of us get to do the one thing we are really good at, and that we really love, and get paid for it?
Jay Lake is my hero. I don’t know that I’d have the wherewithal to even get to my Day Job, going through what he’s went through. And yet he’s kept his job, finished multiple short stories and novels, continued to raise a daughter, updates his blog more often than I can keep up with… to say he’s an inspiration is to fall far short of the mark.
Fight on, Jay. Thinking of you today.
Heinlein’s rules are still valid, especially the first 2, and extremely importantly the first 1:
These are pretty important for any business, really.
Please excuse a stranger offering to add nuance to an already well written piece.
Perhaps a more fair and emotionally satisfying interpretation of “yes, but” isn’t a simple “no” but rather that one is unwilling to make one thing more important than the other.
Still a hard truth to face, but the essential one: you love football, or your leisure time, or having a presentable landscape on your property MORE THAN you love the thing you say you wish you were doing.
And worse still, our value systems don’t change easily, do they?
Given more time, I most often find that I will fill it with more of the same of something else that is immediately gratifying, like some form of leisure.
I think it’s hard to give oneself a sense that _this particular moment matters_, that if I don’t do that job now, it’s the same as not doing it, ever.
A different take:
I’ve wanted to write from age 14 and never got anywhere. Until at age 53 I found out I have ADD and started getting treatment for it.
One of the thing ADD can do is mess with your ability to do what you want to do. Effectively, I decide I want to do A. And I sit for sometimes literally hours frustrated because I can’t do A, because (as it turns out) the neurotransmitters necessary to send the message from the part of the brain that says “I want to do A” to the part of the brain that does A are missing. No connection. Nothing there. I can want with all my heart and soul and still not do A.
When I got on a high enough dose of Ritalin to be able to do A at will, I was astounded. THIS is what it’s like for most people? I asked around; yes, this is indeed what it’s like for most people. I knew I had a wall I couldn’t get past most of the time, but having the wall gone is simply… stunning.
So for some of you, you might want to check out your neurotransmitter situation.
This reminds me of my wife’s favorite motivational quote:
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great. ”
It’s hard to make yourself sit down every day and write. It’s hard to do anything every day. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. And now, after sitting down every day, and finding the time to write among the distractions of the day, she’s finished several novels and short stories.
(Getting them published is another story. All the writer can do is write, as well as they can. The rest is out of their hands.)
I’d inject one caveat: if you find yourself highly interested in doing things but unable to get to doing them, it’s a good idea to go see a mental health professional if you can. Laziness and apathy aren’t curable, but depression has some really good treatments available, and that may fix what ails ya.
I understand where you’re coming from, John, it’s just that get-off-your-butt doesn’t work for depression; as the nurses in my family keep telling me, it’s a chemical condition and it has a chemical solution. So it needs to be said, if you want but can’t, maybe you’re just crazy, and turns out they can fix crazy sometimes.
That’s got to be the one universal piece of advice I’ve heard from authors, that if you wanna, you gotta.
Yesterday I managed 173 words. Not quite the 250 Cory recommends, but it’s better than nothing, and today I can shoot for a little more.
Thanks for the post John!
“So will you please just shut the fuck up about how hard it is for you to find the time and inspiration to write, and just do it or not.”
Amen. I’ve been keeping to around 800-1000 words per day, and according to a neat little iPhone app that I picked up for $1, I’ve written 137,361 words over 121 sessions. That’s around 1135 words over the last 3rd of a year, and that’s just me fooling around, mainly with my own blog. Imagine how that number would jump if I applied myself and actually put all of those words together.
I see this complain from students in my graduate program a lot (I’m an administrator), and they complain that going in the classroom, responding to their fellow classmates online and working on assignments (we just cut a deadline back a week… 10 weeks from now), and I have to remind them that it’s a commitment. I would have thought that the multiple tens of thousands of dollars would be motivation enough to succeed in the program.
Whatever did we do before the Internet allowed us to read insight like this?
Let me throw in a few more:
Want to lose weight? Stop overeating.
Want to quit smoking? Stop buying cigarettes.
Want to get in shape? Go to the gym.
Want to end war? Beat those swords into plowshares.
It’s all so simple–how come no one’s thought of them before???
I’m with you, but only to a point. There’s also the How Dare You factor, which is more of an issue for women than men (patriarchy-cakes, put what yourself and your desires after everyone and everything else, blah, blah blah). How dare you ignore housework for writing? Or how dare you put writing ahead of so many other societally-expected things? Yes you want to write, but it’s also critical that you loathe your body and diet, which involves the constant distraction of hunger, performing complicated math every time you eat, spending hours preparing low cal food and working out.
Yes, when I was working full time, if I had tried for a page a day, I would’ve gotten my novel finished in a year. But if I hadn’t treated Weight Watchers as a second job, I would’ve gotten my novel finished more quickly too.
There’s also the capriciousness of employers. If you’re non-union, you can be expected to work 12 hour days or more for certain stretches just because a project is getting close to deadline.
And you can’t write on a bus or train if you don’t get a seat.
I’m not even getting into fear of failure turning into fear of trying. Or fear of success, for that matter.
Yes, a page a day is a book a year, but it’s oversimplifying the matter to say just do it.
On the main point: The reason I realized I didn’t want to be a freelance editor full-time was because when I tried it, I spent more time avoiding looking for work than I spent working. That seemed to be a pretty good clue to the noggin.
Mark @15: Addenda. As a general rule, singular Latin nouns ending in -um take a plural in -a (like Greek -on and -a — think phenomenon/-mena) and singular Latin nouns ending in -us take a plural in -i. The reason it’s only a general rule has a few parts:
a) It’s not always true. The plural of opus is not opi but opera, for technical reasons of Latin morphology that I’ll spare everyone. And let’s not even discuss octopus, which isn’t a Latin word anyway.
b) English regularizes its plurals over time. Something that used to take a plural in -a or -i will start taking plurals in -s instead.
c) English also starts thinking of a plural as a singular when the plural is more common. “Data” is heading that way; “agenda” is already there. The Latin singular is, yes, agendum, meaning “one thing that has to be done” — so an agenda is a collection of things that have to be done. And as I just demonstrated, in English it’s singular because there’s never just one thing that has to be done anymore.
Sorry for the off-topic lecture — I was a Latin teacher in a former life, and every now and again it resurfaces. I hope it was entertaining, at least.
Thanks, John…what a nice surprise to come across Jay’s name as I read your post! He’ll want to see it when he wakes up.
Your words remind me of Jay’s longtime advice for writers:
Simple as that!
Re: those pointing out ADD/depression:
No question the advice is for the largely neurotypical. I do suspect that if ADD and/or depression are keeping one from writing, they are keeping one from doing other things as well, and that this would (hopefully) be a tip-off.
“Yes, a page a day is a book a year, but it’s oversimplifying the matter to say just do it.”
No, it’s really not. One makes the choice to write; then one goes about finding a way to integrate that choice into one’s life. This is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy, which I think is to your point. Everyone who chooses to write faces an array of challenges and setbacks to doing so; but the point is to affirm that one way or another you will find a way to write and then write, rather than to settle for excuses as to why you can’t. One can have really excellent excuses not to write, but they’re still excuses, and both excellent excuses and poor excuses have the same result: No writing.
I think writing daily is useful but I’m not rigid about it. If you can’t write 250 words a day, write 100. If you can’t write every single day, write every other day, or whenever you can schedule it in – but make a schedule. Find what works for you. But in the final analysis, one chooses to write and finds opportunities to do it, or one doesn’t.
First, Jay Lake is an inspiration. He is in my thoughts.
Second, in addition to everyone getting 24 hours in their day, everyone has a life. We all have school, jobs, kids, spouses, etc clamoring for our time. The stay-at-home-mom doesn’t have more hours in her day because she’s home. But all of us who call ourselves writers carve out the time somewhere. My children and I joined my husband on a business trip this week. I wrote roughly 1200 words long hand on the train while being climbed on by my daughter’s stuffed panda and keeping up a running conversation with both her and the damn panda. (Thankfully my son was engrossed with his DS because I’m not sure I could have written and talked to all three of them.) It wasn’t a great word count by any stretch, but all things considered, I’m damn happy with what I got.
Thanks for this, John.
One of the reasons I loved Elizabeth Bear’s blog lately, and particularly her Twitter feed, is that she takes the slog and lays it all out on the table, day after day. 1500 words this day, 3000 on another, oh yes, and all of life to be squeezed in between.
I find her disclosure inspiring, rather than disheartening, because it takes away the magic/muse/fairy/genius myth of being a writer and puts it square in the territory of hard work. Because that’s what it takes to get the books written. And hard work, I can do.
Thanks! I was one of those letters you sent, so I appreciate the insight. Well, most of it…
I think the other thing people don’t realize is writing is a long term commitment. You don’t sit down and produce a publishable novel in a week.
I suspect that there are a lot of people where the desire to be a writer is a lot stronger than the desire to write (me included.) Years ago I had thoughts of being a writer, and if someone were to pay me a living wage to do it from the outset, I am sure I could do it. But after a Nanowrimo eight years ago, when I produced 35000 words (only to be interrupted by the birth of my son on the 20th) I came to the realization that I’d just rather spend my evenings saving the Capital Wasteland from the Enclave, and there really wasn’t anything wrong with that.
Good advice, in general.
I’d like to add to mgb’s caveat, though – the people who say they want to and don’t, should probably be asking *themselves* why they don’t, rather than pestering published writers with questions about how they do.
I’ve had a lot of trouble with sitting down and writing – truly wanting to, but not doing it. Making excuses. Wasting time. Following side tracks.
The biggest help to me in getting past those internal blocks has been journaling. Figuring out why I delay, where my fears are coming from. Facing them down on paper so that I can let them go or start to change them. If it weren’t for journaling – self-therapy, essentially – I would still be *hiding* my notebook and writing (when I wrote) in teeny-tiny script so that anyone who found it wouldn’t be able to read it.
Instead, I’m writing daily now, posting a short story every week to my website, and *finally* starting to work in earnest on my noveling.
It’s not always as easy as “do it or don’t,” but anyone who wants to and doesn’t isn’t going to get answers they can use from someone else – they have to look inside to find their own blocks and motivations.
Acknowledging that “not enough time” is just an empty excuse is a good starting point, though.
Well done article, John. I’m very surprised at how many people attach that “, but” at the end of “yes”.
“Do you want to be a writer?” This helps solidify my acceptance that my answer is, for now: “No.” It is tempting to say the answer is: “Yes, but not right now, not yet.” But when I examine how freeing it has been over the past few months once I finally got it in my head that “No, you’re not writing right now. Get over it, stop worrying about it, and move on with the other bits of your life.” Right now I’m using that morning and lunchbreak and after-kids-go-to-bed time to edit and publish a zine, not write. (Well, other than interviews and reviews and blog posts and editorials, etc.) And I’m OK with that. I’m going to write again someday, but right now: “No.”
“Sorry for the off-topic lecture — I was a Latin teacher in a former life, and every now and again it resurfaces.”
Nice piece but… dammit I didn’t realize the cancer had moved to Jay’s liver. Damn, damn, damn… I hope he comes through this and recovers finally.
My husband, a photographer, has NEVER even once said he doesn’t have time to go get his camera. So yes. As Yoda said in one of those movies I didn’t write: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
What I needed today, a kick in the seat of the pants. Reading is a necessary to me as breathing and I make the time to read every single day. Writing is a distant second, not as necessary so I don’t do it everyday. Trying to change that because I do love it. Thanks!
(This Mrs. Kevin Q. btw) Amen!
You have no idea how many people have told me “You’re so lucky that you have the time to write. Someday I’m going to find the time.”
I’ve gotten to the point where I nod and smile.
What works for me is setting realistic goals for weekly quotas and meeting them no matter what. Even if I’m sick or tired or my kid is sick. Even if the house looks like a bomb went off. Even if I have to unplug the Internet all day, crawl out of bed early, and ignore my husband when we have precious grown-up time. I’ve had to say “no” to things I’d like to do b/c the writing is not done.
I don’t mean this to sound melodramatic, b/c it’s not. As John has pointed out, people like Jay Lake have worked a lot harder to keep writing.
I AM lucky. But even if you’re lucky, you still have to chose to write and make the time to do it. The keyboard will not leap up to your fingertips or chase you down the street.
Also, Jay will be in my thoughts.
Found this to be extremely helpful/inspirational, as a perpetual “but”ter, but I also appreciate 26/El and 32/Jen’s comments, and John’s response…focus is a huge part of it, just sitting with a notepad doesn’t help if your brain is flitting all over because of depression/ ADD/ or, in my case, crushing childcare/ caregiver responsibilities. And I do think this last aspect impacts women moreso than men…the “sandwich” life of caring for a Mom with dementia and children, with its constant emergencies that need to be handled IMMEDIATELY can turn one’s brain into a mushy mess that barely handle typing a quick comment on a blog. I think this paragraph has taken me a half-hour! But I have joined a writer’s group, and I manage a page or two a week, which is still 50-100 pages more than I would have had if I were not part of the group. My advice: find or start a writer’s group, it gives you the push you need.
After years of trying I finally figured out what’s best for me: 400 words a day. I came up with that number because that’s the number I need to write a day to get to 100,000 words on the novel that’s been in progress for ten years on 1/1/2011.
I found 400 words actually fits my lifestyle and schedule. I am surprised its worked so well. I intend to carry on with this after I finish my novel.
The best piece of writing I ever got I got from James MacDonald: Write straight ahead without revising and editing until you reach The End. It makes you cringe sometimes while you write but it’s helped me and writing style a thousand fold.
PS: loved the Latin discussion!
“By not trying, I’m not even achieving failure.”
I’m turning this into a motivational poster for my wall.
I love this article ^-^ ♥
There really is *no* excuse for no writing if it’s what you want to do. Either it’s worth it to you to make the time or it’s not. I work a full time job and manage to fit in 30-50 hours of writing a week. It *is* possible.
– I’ve given up TV completely, to the point of *canceling* cable.
– I see (maybe) 6 movies a year.
– My kitchen sink has dishes in it.
– My laundry is not put away.
There will never be enough time to do everything you’d like to, so life always comes down to choices.
I have a day job that’s at least 8 hours plus a lunch, with an hour commute (each way). I’m a village councilman which takes up some nights and a lot of brain space. I work freelance design (not enough to quit the day job, but enough to make a few extra house payments in a year). On top of that I’m retraining for the health care industry (not my current day job) and taking night classes at a community college. And all of that is on top of housework, chores, petting the cats, etc.
Last year I completed a short novel and this year I’m rewriting it. Every year I complete a handful of short stories and participate in a writing critique workshop monthly. For the past two weeks I haven’t written much more than the blog (and even that has suffered lately with the added classes). I don’t write every day (wish I could), but I get the words out when I can.
If I can work those two jobs, freelance, part-time school, plus the other stuff and get words out, so can most people. You just have to be prepared when people ask if you saw this show, movie, sporting event, etc to say, “No, I didn’t have time to catch that.” It’s surprisingly easy after the first one hundred times.
Plus caffeine. Caffeine helps.
This, this, THIS.
Thank you so much for saying this.
An important distinction. The opposite of “simple” is “complex” or “complicated,” whereas the opposite of “easy” is “hard” or “difficult.” “Simple” and “easy” are not synonymous.
For me, quitting smoking is something that is both simple (don’t smoke) and at the same time hard. I’m not a writer, not do I aspire to be one, but I can appreciate John’s point that making time to write is simple, and at the same time appreciate Jen’s point that it is not easy, and indeed is harder for some than others, depending on circumstance.
As a side note, I’ve noticed that a number of commenters here on the Whatever fulfill their 250 words/day simply by commenting here on the Whatever. ;-)
Mentally read this post out loud as a Garrison Keillor monologue from “Lives of the Cowboys”, with the following change:
[Lefty] Over the last couple of months I’ve gotten a fair number of letters from aspiring writers who want to write but find themselves plagued by the vicissitudes-
[Lefty] Yeah, the vicissitudes of the day…
Mark @#44: Really!
Amen. If you have a day job, write on your lunch break. Every day. Forty minutes 5x a week at the local coffee shop got my first novel done. Of course Scalzi will make fun of you for writing in a coffee shop, but hey – no-one said writing was easy.
One addendum to the (excellent) write-every-day advice: give yourself permission to not write every day. Stuff happens. Life gets in the way. 100 words is better than nothing, and a day (or a week, or a month) off is better than quitting. Try to write every day, but don’t use a schedule lapse as an excuse to quit. The perfect is the enemy of the good, yada yada.
And now I’m going to get off my phone in the airport and get some writing done.
Exceptionally well put.
My thoughts, wishes, and prayers are with Jay.
I have a lot of excuses for not writing (starting a business, kids, etc.), but I’ve been ignoring them lately and here’s why: A couple of months ago I stumbled across a very encouraging rejection letter from F&SF — dated from 1997. I’ve submitted nothing since then. That will change.
Thanks John, for putting another fire under my ass (intentionally or not).
I’m with Jen and crabbylady@49. Life frequently sucks out of me exactly what I need to write well. I can’t use my brain for all the things in a day that I need to get done and still have it produce really good writing. For example, I can’t write anything worth keeping when I’ve haven’t had more than four hours of uninterrupted of sleep in a year.
Oh, sure, I can put down 250 words, but 250 words of shit every day amounts to 90,000 words of shit at the end of the year. I’ve done it, and I know. Okay, maybe it wasn’t shit, because I am actually good at what I do, but it wasn’t anything I wanted to see published, either. That said, I’ve written and published four books in the last 15 years. Because I am a writer. But that is more because I got lucky and *did* get some sleep and *did* get a break from Life and I *do* have a great husband who supports me with his day job.
If I didn’t have other responsibilities, that might have been 8 books. But just spitting 250 words on a page wouldn’t have made them.
I understand why you are crabby today, and I know a whole lot of do-nothings who whine all the time because they can’t get something for nothing. But not all who would be writers have the freedom. And that’s our loss.
Sorry, when I said “our loss,” I meant as readers. We don’t get to read what someone would have written if he or she wasn’t working in a mine somewhere.
You’re mixing up two kinds of change. Getting in shape and writing are adding something. Losing weight and quitting smoking subtract.
The first kind of change is indeed that simple. Over the last several years I’ve gone from total schlub to somebody who happily runs 10k races. That hasn’t been easy, but the process is simple. I set a schedule and try to keep to it. When I fail, I look at why and try to fix that. Then I repeat as needed.
Writing is the same deal. And it’s the same in another way: you’re only a runner if you run. Talking about running? Not running. Thinking about running? Also not running. Runners run, and writers write.
I don’t agree with this line. I was overweight for many years and it was thrown at me a lot. It wasn’t true. But it is popularly accepted lore and because we don’t have any specific advice, we tell people that.
I have suggestion:
If you want to write, you have to clear the path. Find a moment you think will work – lets say its your lunch break. So now consciously say – When I go to lunch I will write for 45 minutes.
Next figure out what you need in order to accomplish this. If you need a laptop – DO NOT CONNECT TO THE INTERNET.
Make sure you have a place designated, and all the tools you need to write.
Plan your next 1000 words. Have good idea of where you are going before you sit down to write. So at the end of each session, or on your drive home, or while you are in the shower – think about where things are going and what you want to write.
Keep a small notebook with you in case you are inspired with something and need to jot it down.
Here’s the thing. Sometimes we don’t write because we are tired and we aren’t sure what we would write and where would write and so its just easier to watch TV.
You set up an action plan triggered by already existing habit – like going to lunch. You make sure you have all the materials you need. You make sure you have a plan.
“Oh, sure, I can put down 250 words, but 250 words of shit every day amounts to 90,000 words of shit at the end of the year.”
And? You’ll notice that I said after a year you’ll have 90,000 words, which is the length of a novel — I didn’t say you’ll have a novel. Nor did I say that each of those 90,000 words would be gold. I know very few writers who write all gold, all the time. Even the successful ones — hell, especially the successful ones — write lots of shit (they just don’t let it get out into public).
The thing is, with writing, you can learn from the shit, and sometimes you can re-work the shit so it turns into gold. So even the shit writing has its value. Not wanting to write shit just makes it harder to write anything else. And you’ve already defeated yourself by assuming everything you write will just be shit.
“But not all who would be writers have the freedom.”
Who said anything about freedom? We’re talking about commitment, which is a separate thing entirely. You make the commitment, or you don’t. And if you don’t want to make the commitment or have reasons you think keep you from making that commitment, fine. But that’s a choice you make. And again we’re down to whether you choose to be a writer or not.
“I was overweight for many years and it was thrown at me a lot.”
I’m not aware of suggesting that something that is largely a learnable skill (writing, acting, music), is the same thing as trying to lose weight.
Man, that was great. Nice and blunt.
‘if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”’
Now there’s a quote worth jotting down.
Re: Freedom and Commitment.
J. Franzen was on NPR the other day, talking about Freedom, his new novel, and freedom, how we imagine the word and what it entails. He talked about becoming an adult means giving up some kinds of freedom: the freedom to be many things a little bit to be one or two things fully.
I sorta noticed a long time ago that I’ve never been able to do the “write every day” thing. So my answer to “Do you want to be a professional writer?” would have to be “No.”
On the other hand, if the question was “Do you want to write?”, then the answer would be “Sometimes.” I write stories occasionally, send them out occasionally, and occasionally see them get published.
That probably makes me a dilettante, rather than a “writer”. But, hey, nothing wrong with being a dilettante in this context. And I think some of those occasional stories have been pretty damn good.
I like Mary Arrr’s observation (#16) that finding time to write involves energy-management as well as time-management.
Also, Jay Lake is Awesome.
“That probably makes me a dilettante, rather than a ‘writer’.”
It makes you a writer. An occasional one. You’ve found the balance that works for your life, and that’s good.
Somebody once said that many would-be writers are really just avid readers who fantasize about producing the product they love.
I think I ultimately turned out to be in that category. Actually, I rarely even read a lot of SF any more, for a variety of reasons.
Still, there’s something to this. There’s a lot to be said for giving yourself Permission To Suck, so you keep writing. When I was a teenager, for a few years, I wrote many short SF stories for the entertainment of my friends. They were pretty bad and uniformly derivative, and I fully knew the latter (if not the former) and did not care much. So I kept writing them. And I actually did get better, though I didn’t stick with it long enough to get really good.
@70 – As a non-writer…. I’m not sure you have to write every day to be a writer. But I think you need to do it regularly. That might be “Every Saturday is my day to write…” vs every day. But I like John’s point overall – if you want to write, you’ll make time.
To Hope and others… I don’t and cannot know your situations, but I’d encourage you to inventory your day. In a fairly long life so far every person I’ve met who ‘has no time’ chooses to spend it in certain ways. That might be making sure the house is picture perfect, gaming, gardening, playing with their kids, etc. The exception I know of are people who are fulltime caregivers for very sick parents or children who really don’t control much of their own time. But aside from that, it’s choice. I know of no one who cannot carve out 3-60 minutes a day for something that’s really important to them. I know a lot of people, myself included, who put things off due to doing other things. That’s a priority issue though. It’s a choice. Which is, I think, John’s main point. If you want to write, make the time and write.
One of the things that I made my peace with back in college, where I gave some thought to pursuing a career in writing, is that I just lack the self-motivation to do it.
Roger Zelazny, one of my favorite writers, when asked how he managed his production, said (paraphrasing):
Each day, in the morning, I write five sentences. Anyone can write five sentences. It’s trivial. It takes no time at all. And then in the evening, I write five sentences. Again, trivial.
A lot of the time, once I’ve written those five sentences, I’m inspired to write more, and find I’ve written pages and pages. But if not, I’ve written ten sentences that day. About ten words a sentence, 100 words. A little under half a page. That’s measurable, albeit slow, progress.
Remember that Dorothy Parker line ?
“I hate writing, I love having written.”
Good advice. My personal goal is 500 words a day. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t, but I try every day. On top of going to work. And reading. And working out. And kendo. To think though, I’ve been doing this for nearly a year. I made a promise to myself last September that I would make a serious effort to become a published author. The “yes, but” turned to “hell yes!”
I can see my writing getting better with each story. It used to be easy for me to spill out 500 words worth of verbal diarrhea, but I ended up spending more time cutting and editing. Now I’m more aware of what I write, and what effect I’m trying to go for. I can see the pitfalls I’m headed for and I can head the story off before it goes careening out of control. And I wouldn’t be able to see this if I hadn’t spent time butt in seat.
And as an attorney, I write all day as a profession (but I’m not a writer), and I find that the hardest thing is getting the first chunk of crap on the page. After that, I’m pretty good about turning the crap into useful work product, but I’ve never had the same success with trying to do that with my fits and starts of writing fiction. Getting *that* crap on the page the first time is the hardest thing for me.
I actually do write on public transportation, so I know it can be done–even when I don’t get a seat (seats are better). My commute is 40 minutes in each direction, with a transfer in the middle–so about an hour of writing time every day. On a good day, that’s 600 words. On a “screaming baby, clueless tourists, I think an ocelot on speed is driving this train” day, it’s about 250. Waiting rooms and airplanes are also great times to get in some extra progress.
You know, the original post applies as much to game moderating (table top RPGs that is) as to writing, for both involve creativity, research, and story telling of a sort. Like John I have heard people complain about how hard it is to find the time to be creative, to get words down on paper, and in the case of a GM preparing a session for his group. Makes you want to tell the benighted soul, “If you’re too busy to do the work why don’t you just give up and vegetate?”
Yep. I’ve written almost 300,000 words this year, and I did it almost all in nights and weekends and lunch breaks, while working 36 hours a week at a day job and doing my share of taking care of my three-year-old son.
I don’t write every day. I probably spend 5-10 hours a week on the typing-words-into-the-computer part of writing. It’s not that much, but it really adds up. (I spend a lot more time *thinking* and jotting notes, but I can think in the shower or while driving.)
Admittedly, I write pretty quickly, and have been doing this long enough that my first drafts don’t usually have major structural issues. But even if I wrote *half* as quickly as I do, I’d still have 150,000 words written this year. It just takes commitment.
I watch TV and play video games, too… just not as much as I’d like! I don’t socialize much either, alas, and use about half my vacation time each year to write instead of going on actual vacations. I make deals to divide up childcare with my wife on weekends to get a few uninterrupted hours to write. My house is kind of a mess. It takes juggling, but the words get done. I’m also motivated by the need to pay bills. If I don’t finish books, my kid’s preschool tuition doesn’t get paid. Nothing concentrates the mind like financial necessity.
So true. A friend of mine wrote in her car on her lunch breaks. (She lived in a place where the weather was temperate enough to do that.) Every day. For years. Until she sold her first novel. And now she makes her living, supports herself and her family, writing.
I have a day job (that I love ridiculously), and I do concert photography on the side. I photograph musicians. (It’s a dirty job, but…) I am out at least one night a week, frequently two or three. And I’m on the road a lot on the weekends. And on the weekends when I’m at home, I’m in a darkened room, parked in front of the computer, editing images from this or that photo shoot. Winter, spring, summer, fall, nice days, crappy days, doesn’t matter. I’m either shooting or editing, or traveling from one to the other. (Last year there was an ice storm that kept me from leaving the house on Christmas; I was ecstatic, because it gave me an extra day and nobody got their feelings hurt.)
I love my stupid life. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation talking, but I wouldn’t do anything else. I have lots of friends who talk about how they “wish” they could do the things that I do, but when the rubber hits the road, they’re vegged-out on their sofa, and I’m crawling around in the dark in front of a stage in some skeevy bar.
Maybe I should rethink this. *g*
I wonder how many people have written more than 250 words today explaining why they can’t? Count ’em up, people. See how many words that was. Go ahead.
When I sit down at one of the two blogs I write at semi-regularly, I can spit out 500-1,000 words while watching television in an hour or so. That’s not as challenging to me as writing the things I *want* to write, but, still, it proves it can be done. So, the only answer to writing what I truly want, at a level I find acceptable, is to write.
That’s the “secret” to becoming a better writer; Write more!
The more comfortable we are writing, the easier it is and, hopefully, the better we get at it.
I love that so many people have either been inspired by this post or riled by it! Mission accomplished, John!
I’m just going to slap this on the wall over my desk and force myself to read it everytime I use an excuse not to put fingers to the keyboard.
We all have things that need to be done ad nauseaum and finding time to do what’s important to us should be a priority.
Lately, it’s been harder for me to sit down and get at least a little writing done every day. Lately, it seems to me that the writing produced in this fashion is more likely to suck, and I have to scrub harder to get it turned into something worthwhile.
You know what? So what. At least I end up with something to scrub. Eventually, I even end up with something I’ve written. Slow is much faster than stop.
As someone who spent a lot of time in the “yes, but” category and only just recently crossed over into the “dammit, yes” category, I’ll make an observation:
For me, one of the “buts” was the fact that I was devoting time to a different creative pursuit that was taking up those in-between spaces. I was taking that “just do it” approach, but applying it to something that turned out not to be as rewarding as I’d hoped.
What eventually happened was that I found myself procrastinating from this other obligation, but not filling that time with writing because I “should” have been doing something else.
Once I gave myself permission to set that activity aside — or at least shove it to the back burner — it freed up the time and mental space to “indulge” in writing.
So in my case, one “just do it” was blocking another. Which just goes back to John’s point about figuring out how serious you are — and not just about writing, but about the things that are keeping you from writing.
Like Ell, back at comment 26, I’ve found that the state of your brain chemicals can really make a difference, although I discovered this after passing through a puberty where I wrote and drew all the time, and then hit a chronically depressed patch in my mid-20s where my ability to do the things I had formerly loved was mightily throttled. I feared going on medication because so many folks threw the canard about medication sapping the creativity, until I finally snapped and said, “Well, it won’t be functionally different than having depression sap my creativity, but at least I’ll be happier.” I have yet to reach the peaks of sheer creative burstage I had in my teens and early twenties, but at least I’m back in the saddle so to speak. (And I have a supportive boyfriend which really helps. He lets me read the snippets I’ve gotten down to him after nearly every session, and reminds me to write in the evenings. I also have a group that Skype-conference calls once a week, and a yearly retreat that I go to with professional writers that encourage me.) I try to make opportunities–bring my notebook to the doctor’s office and scribble while they monitor me post-shots. Go to the public library during lunch hour, and eat at the desk. I basically chalk off a day on my calendar if I spend at least ten to fifteen minutes worth of writing, because it may not be much, but it does add up.
Great article. So true. It is something I figured out awhile ago. It took some time, but it is so true, the only “secret” to writing is: Sit down. Shut up. Pen to Paper. Repeat. Everything else is just details.
And I was stunned at how well things went for me after realizing that. And now, like you, I have zero patience for all the whiners and the posers you have to slog to, especilly after they realize that you’re both writers… ugh…
simper “I have so many ideas, I just can’t get them all down'” simper
God! Shut up! Just shut up! Find the time or don’t, but please… shut up about it.
I do want to point out that for many people (me, specifically, but I’m sure I’m not alone) writing fiction and writing casual non-fiction (e.g. blogs) are completely different skills.
I can crank out coherent essay pretty easily. It flows out of my head with little effort. I do reread and edit, but again, it’s not very difficult for me to do at least an adequate job.
Fiction, OTOH, is hellish. I get one or two sentences out, and then don’t know what comes next. Each sentence is painful; but the relief of getting the sentence out is rather pleasant. (Hmmm. I think it would not be inaccurate to say I have fiction constipation.) This has been the pattern for thirty fucking years, so I have no expectation that it will change. It is how my brain works.
Despite that, I keep doing it. I go through long periods (up to a year) of writing nothing, but eventually I go at it again.
A few months back I started trying to make sure I do some writing every week, if not every day. Last night I threw in the towel after 57 words. Other nights it gets to 400 or even 600. 200 is about standard.
But even that progress is all part of a carefully managed program of kicking myself in the ass, and asking myself if I really want to be a writer. Early last year I decided to hang it up, then spent about a week telling myself I was no longer a writer and that was okay.
In the past 15.5 months I’ve written 60K words, which is the most I’ve ever written in that length of time. There’s nothing like forcing the decision on yourself to make you know where you really stand.
Self-management is key. The writing computer is not hooked up to the internet. I have the current WIP in the “startup items” folder so it’s glaring at me as soon as the computer finishes booting.
I’ve always felt I’m a novelist, not a short-story writer, so I gave myself permission to not have something in the mail at all times. This freed up the psyche to go back to how it was when I was twelve or thirteen, and writing was simply something I did because I wanted to. Reconnecting with that feeling was very important.
I was going to write a witty comment here, but I don’t have the time.
Seriously, I remember reading Silverberg’s Reflections and Refractions in the late 90’s and being kicked upside the head about writing. Writers write. Period.
Found this Silverberg quote on Google today —
“Three Rules for Literary Success: 1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot. 3. Read a lot more, write a lot more.”
Thank you, John. This was the final kick in the pants I needed.
Stack of legal pads yoinked from office today? Check.
250 words tonight? Better be.
Thank you ! Thank you for this article ! I think all aspiring writers (actually all writers) should read this. I am a beginner. And I write. And sometimes I talk about writing. But I prefer not talking about it and doing it. If I had a blog (but I haven’t because I write very slowly), I would do a link to this article, so all other aspiring writers I know could read it. Sometimes I dream not to hear them eternally talking about writing and the difficulty of doing it, etc. In fact, I already thought about having a blog, but I would never post, because the blog would be named “Shut up and write…”.
Thank you again : frankness is a good think. Aspiring writers don’t need to be praised. They need to hear what is waiting for them.
PS : Sorry for my poor english… I’m French-speaking ;-)
I came here to check up on what your latest works were, John, and found this treat too. Replace “to write” with any verb about which I’m whining because I think I don’t have the time to do it, and this becomes a wonderful all-purpose guide to what’s important to me. Re: the deathbed statement, substitute your favorite mindless vegetating activity or time killer (World of Warcraft, Halo, Surfing the Web, Tweeting, Facebook, shopping…) and it’s a kick in the ass to get your priorities in order and get into gear.
The deathbed quote now resides on my office door. Kudos.
“Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.”
THIS. This, this, this! I get so angry when people tell me that they would write a book “if only they had the time.” Uh huh. And I would be a brain surgeon if only I had the time. (And I’d be a singer if only I had the talent. But as it is, people pay me not to sing. Got to get the kids through college somehow…)
Many, many years ago I used to go to a great little book store in Colorado called The Little Bookshop of Horrors (I believe) and the owner had authors in to do readings and Q&A as well. And one night a guy was asking Melanie Tem how she found time to write. I don’t know about now but at the time she was working full time at a college. She gave the same advice Scalzi does, just find the time. He looked a bit frustrated but listened nonetheless.
Years later the shop was long gone and as I was shopping in a ‘regular’ bookstore I was stunned to see a book on the shelf by that very same guy. Guess he found the time!
I find lunch hour to be the best time for writing.
I did postpone my writing wishes because I have a pet project (or 2.. or 3) that are much more interesting to me right now. That and I couldn’t stand my novel anymore and I needed time off of it before starting to review and rewrite a piece I absolutelly hated.
But see, I don’t want to write now. I do want to write again, soon. And I will have time for that whenever it is.
I don’t have to pay my mortgage with it, yet. So I’ll let it flow.
Lovely text, really.
BTW, I would like to have a publishing company, a successful blog and a digital marketing agency. Now. So now I have the time for that.
I can write when I get at least 1 of the 3. I suppose writing time is the award I’m promising myself if I fulfill the others. I’m odd like that.
When I was in school, I had a lot of encouragement to write. More than one teacher had a special meeting with me, attempting to push me in that direction. And for a long time, I thought I really should be a writer.
The truth is, though, I’m a reader. I’m a consumer, not a producer, when it comes to stories. I love the flights of other people’s imagination, and after many years of feeling guilty for not writing, I’m finally happy to acknowledge being a reader, not a writer.
I love hearing about the process, and it never ceases to amaze me to think that entire worlds can be born inside the mind of my fellow humans. I also appreciate the message because I have other life-goals that get pushed into the background because of so many excuses.
I want to hang out with Anne @81, but alas, I’m too busy writing!
Hey, “hope”, thanks for the response. It made me feel great that someone got what I was saying. John, I totally appreciate and understand what you are saying about needing to write shit, but when your days are just filled with shit (quite literally, from an incontinent adult that you are caring for), or if you feel totally drunk from the lack of sleep, it is quite disheartening to sit down and write something that is so not good. It is the whole Tillie Olsen thing–she was a master, but cranked out very little in her lifetime.
But on the other hand, it can be rejuvenating to write something decent, or something that can be molded into decent, so I should keep trying. I guess what I and I think “hope” and “jen” are saying is that it may not be a total cop-out for some of us to say we aren’t up to writing even when we’d LIKE to be writing. Our situation is not the same as a person who comes home & just wants to “veg-out” in front of the TV, or who uses their lunch-hour to shop…it is the desire, when seated in front of the computer, to wax on about how miserable things are, which only makes things worse. Wow! Now I’m getting a little carried away. But I have benefitted from this thread, and I am INSPIRED to write more (my son just came upstairs to tell me that my Mom is on the floor in the kitchen, picking up crumbs, so I’d better go…). Thanks.
“I guess what I and I think ‘hope’ and ‘jen’ are saying is that it may not be a total cop-out for some of us to say we aren’t up to writing even when we’d LIKE to be writing.”
As I noted earlier, one can have really excellent excuses not to write, but both excellent excuses and poor excuses have the same result: No writing.
If you want to write, find a way to get your writing done, and then do it. Lots of people have gotten writing done in difficult circumstances; I’m confident folks who have the time to write here can find a way to do other sorts of writing as well.
Jackie@93: “And I would be a brain surgeon if only I had the time.”
Actually, you do have the time. So do I. We all have the time; it’s just that some people choose to use that time to become brain surgeons while the rest of us become other things.
I think the old writing admonition, “show, don’t tell!” can be applied here. Don’t tell me you want to be a writer (or brain surgeon, or musicion, or actor), show me. Do it.
I find it’s almost impossible to lie to a cat or a dog, because they’re not confused by words like “I will” or “I should.” All they see is how I behave, and that doesn’t lie.
(Sorry, Jackie, I’m not picking on you. You just gave me an opening.)
I too struggle with the balance between writing and living my dull old life from day to day. I guess for me, the biggest struggle is that I write kinda the way Philip K. Dick wrote (not implying I’m remotely close to PKD’s awesomeness). He would sit on an idea for a long time, letting it simmer and marinate in his brain, then when it was ready to burst out, he would write it in a fury.
My writer-brain works in a similar fashion. I’m much better when I can “zone in” if you will, and just bust out a lot of material in a concentrated time frame. Problem is I can’t do this everyday, so with work and daily interruptions I might go weeks without putting much down on paper.
Lately though, I’ve been slowly admitting to myself that I need to just write something everyday, even if it is 100 to 200 words. My plan is that I’ll at least get something down, and then I can really bust out a lot of writing when I have those more rare time periods where I can write for seven or eight hours at a time without interruption.
Part of the delay or putting off of writing I think does come from what your actual day job is. For those of us with more stressful or physically strenuous day jobs, sometimes it is much harder to just “leave work at home” and have a clear head right off the bat when you do sit down in front of the blank page. Of course, we still have to write, but I can sympathize with those that try to write around odd work hours, or those who have an energy and soul sapping job.
Actually, you do have the time. So do I. We all have the time; it’s just that some people choose to use that time to become brain surgeons while the rest of us become other things.
Let’s be careful about separating “devoting the time to do something” and “being able to do something well.” I seriously doubt that many of us, even if we devoted a very long time to studying brain surgery, would actually be able to be brain surgeons, or rocket scientists, or so on.
John–some of these folks seem to have some very compelling reasons not to write, even though they would still like to be writers. Can’t you make an exception? You are President of SFWA…
Well, I thought I would try.
My favorite “if I had time to write” story comes from about 1998. One of my coworkers was on maternity leave, and another coworker was opining wistfully that he would like to have a “six week paid vacation” so that he could “write a novel.” And so in one fell swoop he offended and belittled the labor of mothers *and* writers. That was a doozy.
What John said.
I really wanted to put something meaningful down here. But I discovered Tripping the Rift is available instantly on Netflix. Twenty nine daily words down. I’ve earned a break.
This type of attitude is not unique to writing, it is common with a lot of things. I have my own business. I know alot of people who go, well I would like to do that, but (same buts as you have). I just did it.
Lets face it most people talk a good game, but at the end of the day they are lazy. These same people would play video games all day if they were not working instead of writing or doing something else.
I am sure you have read “A Brave New World”. Lets face it, most people are deltas.
That being said, there are some people who work so much and so hard just to get by that they really don’t have time to do things like write or start a business. I have found people like to have different personalities than the ones who just make excuses. Those people are very hard working.
One other thing. For most people, writing is hard. Brandon Sanderson said he wrote something like 13-14 books before he sold one. Most people have to work really hard to get good at something.
(I wrote 500 words before I let myself read the comments here. Go me!)
For the story I’m working on now, I have used a timer to measure out half-hour chunks, and then kept a log of both how long I’ve spent and how many words I wrote during that time. (Although I still have not mastered that “every day” part.)
Eeehh….I agree with 99.9% of what you’re saying here, but.
There are people who have real, massive roadblocks. (They’re probably not posting here. But people who have had those roadblocks in the past, might be.) Yes, the end result is the same: no writing. How they get there is different, and how they get to a place with writing is also very different. “Put down your flippin’ Xbox controller” is an entirely different order than “Divorce your asshole spouse who keeps ‘accidentally’ screwing up your hard drive and telling you that you’re a shit writer.”
“John–some of these folks seem to have some very compelling reasons not to write, even though they would still like to be writers.”
I’m not a bouncer at a door, Catherine, nor am I sitting in judgment regarding who can be a writer or not. Anyone can be a writer, but whether one is a writer really is a simple thing: Do you write? If you do, then you are.
“‘Put down your flippin’ Xbox controller’ is an entirely different order than ‘Divorce your asshole spouse who keeps “accidentally” screwing up your hard drive and telling you that you’re a shit writer.'”
Someone in that situation has substantially more and more serious problems than simply carving out time to write, Mythago. It doesn’t invalidate the advice to the vast majority of people who want to write; it doesn’t even invalidate it for many of the people who think their troubles are too numerous to devote time to writing.
And speaking personally, I do know people whose desire to write has helped them to change their lives, so even in the depths of some real live shit, making the affirmative choice to write and doing do in spite of their difficulties has made a difference in how they view themselves and the world.
John @109, as I said, my disagreement is .01%. That disagreement is with the “get off your ass, whiner” tone where directed at folks who really do have reasons they’re not writing – generally, as you note, because ‘can’t find five minutes to write’ is a symptom rather than a cause of their problems.
As a rocket scientist… Rocket science isn’t as hard as a lot of people think.
It’s just being able to do some computer modeling, some gas flow physics, some combustion physics / chemistry, machine design, electronics design, trajectories physics, mechanical engineering, and design synthesis, all at the same time and withing intermeshing tradeoffs.
You may look at that and go “oh my GOD”, but reasonably smart people in small groups (2-5) have flown large (up to ton-sized) vertical take off vertical landing hovering capable rockets with a few years part time work. In some cases with miniscule budgets (new car prices).
If you can’t juggle a bunch of things together in your head, you’re probably not going to make a good rocket scientist. But if you can’t juggle a lot of things together in your head, you probably can’t handle plotting and character development and storyline progress and the mechanics of writing speculative fiction.
Stop telling yourself you can’t. You’re here because you’re smart enough to realize that Scalzi’s good. If you’ve written a good short story before you probably have what it takes to tackle novels. If you’ve got what it takes to tackle novels and can do a lot of math, and are willing to learn the physics and engineering and chemistry, you can do rockets.
Most of you probably will stick to writing, but there really isn’t anything that’s out of reach if you’re smart and take to education and learning. Pick the things you want to do, do them. Ask about them. You’ll pick it up.
+++Mentally read this post out loud as a Garrison Keillor monologue from “Lives of the Cowboys”+++ (Huey @ 58)
For myself, my brain turned this into that scene from the first IRON MAN, with a burly, bearded Scalzi roaring that Jay Lake wrote his novel in a CAVE! From a box of SCRAPS! On CHEMO!
silbey@102: “I seriously doubt that many of us, even if we devoted a very long time to studying brain surgery, would actually be able to be brain surgeons, or rocket scientists, or so on.”
Respectfully I disagree. There are very few human activities that cannot be mastered by a person of average intelligence with a willingness to put in the time to study and practice.
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson did a study of musicians at the Berlin Academy of Music. (Summary here, with links to books with more detail: http://beststudentviolins.com/PedagogyTech.html#31) They found that the best violinists were the ones who had spent the most hours practicing. There were no geniuses who rose to the top on natural talent; everyone at the top had put in an estimated 10,000 hours of practice by the time they got to the Academy.
Granted, the study doesn’t prove that just doing 10,000 hours of anything will make one a virtuoso. Some people may have a personality trait, some inbuilt disposition to enjoy the work so that they keep at it long enough to put in those 10,000 hours while the rest of us get bored and move on to something else. But even if they have that trait, they still need to do the time.
I see now that where we disagree is in our definition of “writer.”
There’s a fabulous little book called “How to Write A Lot.” It’s directed mainly at graduate students and academics, but the meat of it applies to anyone who actually wants to put words on paper (or pixels on e-paper):
Find a time to write that works for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s half an hour before you have to take your shower on weekdays, or two hours in the morning on Saturday while your family is asleep, or while the dryer is thumping away at the laundromat. Find that time, make that time, and write. Once a week, once a day, every other day, during your husband’s spinning class or your wife’s volunteer shift at the homeless shelter: take that time and do nothing but write, with no excuses and no skipping.
Even if you write as little as 100 words per day, getting yourself into the habit of writing *something* on a regular basis will eventually lead to more, and before you know it you’ll have an outline or an article or a book. And best of all, you’ll be used to writing without the inspiration, which is what people who actually write for a living do.
Well put. I was writting everyday for 6 months before I started a new job and I stopped. This has inspired me to start again.
100% agree with John.
You’re either in, or you’re out. You decide. The world will find all kinds of ways to screw with you–all sorts of “reasonable” reasons for you to not get your work done today, tomorrow, this week, this year, and the problems will change from year to year but they’ll always be there–whether it’s a dying parent, or a sick child, or an important job deadline, or a run to get the oil changed in the car.
Before I was earning enough to call writing my profession, the way I thought about it was that my job as a writer was to steal time from every other part of my life. Life doesn’t just hand over the time to write. It’s actually quite delighted to take your time and put it to use elsewhere, on some project that’s significantly more worthwhile than “creativity.”
So you take the time, you steal it, you sneak it, you rip it off on commutes and you rob it from sleep, and you do whatever it takes to get your writing goals accomplished. Because, frankly, the world doesn’t really value your writing, or the time you put into it. The world will very happily run right over all your pretensions of the creative life.
I’ve robbed my relationship of quality time, my son of father time, my friends of social time, my body of biking and hiking time. I’ve robbed myself of money by working the bare minimum number of hours I had to get by, and then by quitting whenever I’d saved up enough money to write again… the list goes on. But it all started with two things: stealing sleep from myself by waking up a half hour earlier every morning, and stealing Saturdays from everything else.
I secretly suspect that a few of the aspiring writers I’ve known don’t really want to write as much as they want to be writers so they can ascend to the top of the Geek Hierarchy and be able to speak with their heroes as equals.
I write because I loved writing stories ever since I found out that I could put my crazy imagination into words and that people actually did that sort of thing for a living. I was seven years old. I let a lot of excuses block my path over the years since then, but I’ve cured myself of most of them.
The Myth of Time, admittedly, was one of the hardest ones to unlearn but I know by now that it’s not as much a question of having time as making it.
there’s a brilliant poem by bukowski that motivates me. i have it on my wall over my computer. as i have three kids and a busy job, it reminds me to make time to write.
“air and light and time and space”
Sent here via Twitter AFTER doing my allotted writing for the day. Lucky for me, I’m a playwright, so I don’t have the angst and misery that seems to be vital for being a novelist. I’m only running the one other job (apart from writing plays and reviewing other people’s plays for my publisher, that is) and looking after three kids, so I have tons of time ( sorry “Freedom”) in which to write. It’s been nearly twelve years now, and I’m still writing because I want to, not because I’m trying to be rich and famous, or because I’m trying to write the Biggest Novel Since That One About The Miserable Childhood That Lead To An Inspirational Life.
This is great advice, bookmarked and tattooed on the inside of my eyeballs. Not to mention pokerworked onto a cricket bat for the edification of whiny would-be writers.
Paolo @ 117
So, wait. Actually, would mind explaining that to my wife? It sounds so…pretty…when you say it.
And mention the Hugo. Definitely mention the Hugo.
What I should have said before:
Plus one to Paolo, John and all the other folks chiming in on making time to write. These folks know about that which they speak. The divine may or may not spark a creative idea. But, a spark, even a divine one, sure don’t power your butt to your chair or move your fingers for you. That’s all you.
Own it. Learn it. Make it.
But say it in Latin.
Re #24: “Heinlein’s rules are still valid” and, as he pointed out in his 0th rule, if you follow all 5, you are not guaranteed to succeed. But if you violate even one of them, you are almost guaranteed to fail.
My two favorite books on how to be a professional writer are:
(1) Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing.
(2) Stephen King (I paraphrase from memory): when you write, you tell yourself a story. When you edit, you remove anything which is NOT the story.
I am not a great source of general advice on professional writing, because I have gotten used to doing things my own way (modulo having a good editor, which helps a lot). I have over 3,800 publications, presentations, and
broadcasts to my credit, totaling somewhere between 5 and 15 million words.
My wife recently ordered from Amazon or the like a particularly wonder and funny and valid book on how to be a professional writer:
On Writing, by Stephen King
# Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
# Publisher: Pocket (July 1, 2002)
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 0743455967
# ISBN-13: 978-0743455961
# Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 4.1 x 1.1 inches
# Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
He suggests that new writers write at the same place and same time every day, and do 1,000 words. With the door closed. later you can edit, with the doors open. That is, writers workshops, post you draft on facebook, read it to family, whatever. He suggests that if you’re already selling, do 2,000 words poer day, every day. Or more.
L. Ron Hubbard did 100,000 words each month for 1/4 to 1/2 cent per word.
Isaac Asimov wrote 363 days a year, 10 hours a day, typing 90 words per minute, and selling every word.
So I started in 6 July 2010 seeing if I could maintain 3,000 words of fiction per day (still short of what Silverberg did, or Asimov, but in the Hubbard/King range).
Since then: 222,650 words of fiction. Plus selling weekly nonfiction to H+, for example:
And a 10,000 word critical essay on “Hard Science Fantasy.” Plus my one-a-day on average short Math pieces in edited online venues.
Your Milage May Vary.
But Mr. Scalzi is right. If you can’t do 1,000 words a day, do 250 words a day. But do try to write EVERY day. That’s what writers do!
Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King’s On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You’re right there with
the young author as he’s tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London’s. It’s a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant
Leeches, not Sandra Dee. “I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and
girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.” But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” [JVP: actually, that was his title, the fan editor of his first publication changed it. I repurposed the title “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber” in my novella sent last month to alfred hitchcock’s mystery magazine] young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with
Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The
Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife’s intervention, which he describes). “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing.”
King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer’s “tool kit”: a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s leanness, Grisham’s authenticity, Richard Dooling’s artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman’s sentence fragments. He explains why Hart’s War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool could be the antidote.
King isn’t just a writer, he’s a true teacher. –Tim Appelo
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
This is what I’ve been saying to myself for a while & just a bit louder since VP. I really, truly appreciate it.
Especially when you bring home the point about Jay Lake.
I often remind myself of how either Alice Walker or TOni Morrison – I can’t remember, sadly – worked two jobs, raised two kids as a single mom, and still found time in the wee hours to write. Look where it got her.
So I’m off to write at 5:39AM for as long as I can until the rest of the house wakes up.
I’m the mother of an autistic boy (plus three girls who are ALL at home again now), was a substitute teacher, run a successful online workshop which has zero of the work required being done through any kind of automation/software, and have 2 journals, among other things. People are amazed I find the time to write, and my response is always, “Find it? No, I make the time to write because we always MAKE time for what’s important to us.”
Are there days when real life overwhelms my writing time/routine? Yea, but I get right back to it as soon as whatever crises that interfered is dealt with.
Granted, the study doesn’t prove that just doing 10,000 hours of anything will make one a virtuoso. Some people may have a personality trait, some inbuilt disposition to enjoy the work so that they keep at it long enough to put in those 10,000 hours while the rest of us get bored and move on to something else. But even if they have that trait, they still need to do the time.
You’re disagreeing with something I didn’t say. I did not say that people with the skill to do something don’t also have to practice. I said that *just* practice may not be enough for certain professions/occupations.
To take an obvious one: I’d like to be a professional athlete. I’m 42 and in reasonable shape. I can get in the requisite 10,000 hours of practice by the time (with the day job and all) I’m in my mid-50s. Shall I become an NBA player or an NFL player?
John: Give the lazy people a link to Howard Taylor’s Schlock Mercenary page. To get started he was working in IT for 60 hours/week. Then came home (he had a family too) and worked most of the night on his web comic. So he basically didn’t sleep for 2 years.
Writing is entrepreneurship. You are your own business. That is the basically what successful entrepreneurs do. Bill Gates used to sleep under his desk. There is a very good book about the early software industry called Accidental Empires.
Starting your own business is alot of work and involves a lot of risk. Most people are not willing to do either.
Jay Lake is a great example of someone who has managed to focus his ambition like a laser, in spite of severe physical trauma. In Jay’s place I am fairly sure I’d have curled up into a ball a long time ago, clutching a cardboard sign that says, in crayon, “Please, make the world go away today!” So yes, complaints about finding time sort of ring a bit hollow when you compare them to Jay’s situation. That’s a great example.
Most of the contemporary successful professional writers I’ve met, and even some of the older ones who were pros when I was a teen, have all related more or less similar stories: waking up at odd or impossible hours, using lunch breaks, locking themselves away in basements, garages, even closets — whatever it takes to put in regular, routine time so that the wordcount piles up.
Every single one of them had lives and/or jobs and/or families, before they became Big Famous Writer People, and every single one of them decided, somewhere at some point, that either they’d make the time to write on a routine basis, or they were never going to be anything more than a dabbler.
Hell, that was my decision point too. Remain an unpublished dabbler, or put in the hours and make it happen. I still have to make that decision every day, because once you get a bit of success under your belt, the pressure suddenly doubles because there is no rule that says once you publish a bit, you’ll remain published. Rejections don’t stop, even for successful or regularly publishing writers. So you have to write even more, get even more disciplined and laser-focused about your time, etc. In other words, the problem only becomes more pronounced!
Having said this, I think the internet is actually my #1 enemy, when it comes to time expenditure. I suspect this is true for many would-be writers — followed (probably) by video games at #2. Those who aspire to write and be professionally published should look carefully at how they spend their time, and take an hour or two (or more) of their internet and video game time, every single day, and devote it rigorously to fiction production.
It’s amazing the kind of cool things that happen for you once you stop with the excuses and diversions. Simply amazing. The words pile up. If you’re following Heinlein’s Rules, eventually you start selling, and making a bit of money. Rinse, repeat, and you can potentially make a lot of money — Kevin J. Anderson’s “popcorn” theory.
Silbey@125: Guilty as charged. I’m sorry.
Your example of becoming a pro football or basketball player brings up an interesting distinction. I think the writerly equivalent is to be a published author, which definitely requires more than time and practice. It requires you to convince someone to pay you for writing, just like you’d have to convince an NFL or NBA team to pay you to be a pro athlete. That involves conditions outside your direct control.
Yes, it is really is just that simple. And that hard. Too often people describe being a writer or artist as some sort of sacred calling that one is compelled to do. But I can’t stand that kind of self-glorifying language. I’ve never felt that being a artist was a mythic calling for me – it’s just something I enjoy doing.
I prefer your description, that being an artist or writer (or whatever) is something you like to do enough to make the time to do it. That’s it, plain and simple. And if you do it enough, hey, you might find out you are really good. Or not. But that doesn’t matter.
It’s not the hand of the divine touching your inner parts and making them all tingly. It’s just you, having an interest, and actually DOING it.
This is brilliant. I am printing it out and posting it to the wall to remind me of what’s important to me.
Silbey@125: Guilty as charged. I’m sorry.
I think the writerly equivalent is to be a published author, which definitely requires more than time and practice.
It’s a good point. That second stage has different challenges than the first (actually writing), but (to add on to John Scalzi’s original point), no one gets to stage two (trying to get their writing published) without managing stage one (actually writing).
Thank-you, Mr. Scalzi.
How do you keep going when you get nothing but rejection? I’ve written three novels, several plays, screenplays, etc. I get nothing but rejection for them. I am ready to quit.
Amy, I hate to say it, but rejections never stop. Even well-established professionals get them routinely. That’s why you have to put even more “popcorn” into the popper. Sooner or later, some of it will “pop” for you. And if you’re feeling like you’re stuck or blocked, it’s advisable to seek out a profesionally-led, professionally-focused workshop. There are several I could recommend, all worthwhile. I know when I took that step, it “jumped” me enough I could start selling.
Thanks for this. I was facing a similar sort-of dilemma. It was my own realization that my daily Twittering alone is easily more than 300 words; plus the fact that “waiting for inspiration” means I’m not actually writing, that gave me the necessary impetus to get back in the saddle.
That you’re saying essentially the same thing here — and you’re, y’know, a hotshot published writer and one could reasonably assume you know what you’re on about — that just tells me I’m on the right track. So, appreciated.
Looking forward to your next book, incidentally.
In response to John’s Real Genius quote:
At least you won’t look at those adoring fans and say “I drank what?”
Incredible Post. The viral-ness of it’s smack-a-tude is endless.
Amazingly wonderful post, I feel like someone gave me a “Jethro” (NCIS reference…slapped me upside the back of my head). I have been slacking because I have felt lazy. It is time to get my fanny back in gear. I went from 2K a day to nada. I have no excuses.
Thank you again.
I worked all day, took the cats to the vet, did the dishes I’ve been ignoring the past few days, chatted with the wife over pizza, watched the last bit of Fringe on TV and then sat down about 10:30 wrote 1000 words until I was almost alling asleep at my computer.
I make the time.
You can too.
This is actually an all-purpose, fantastic “quitcherbitchin and just do it or don’t” motivational speech. Just replace ‘writing’ with whatever your personal “I would but” is. I just gave myself this speech at the gym. It totally worked.
I couldn’t have put it better. Writing to pay the bills is one thing, writing for fun is another, it’s hard to balance each of these and feel fulfilled as a writer while juggling family, friends, housework and a million other little things. Sometimes one or the other slides a bit.
Because I have trouble making time for the fun writing I am participating in NaNo this year and am already making preparations to adjust my bill paying writing for an entire month, just before the Holidays.
First of all, thanks. I would add it’s important to avoid making excuses to oneself not to write. A couple of other inspirational examples in this regard are Christy Brown and Jean-Dominique Bauby, who both wrote memoirs despite being almost completely paralyzed (OK, maybe “composed” rather than “written” since someone else did the actual writing, but still).
Again, thanks. I promise not to bother you any more on this topic until the finished book is in the publisher’s hands.
While I agree with points made above by Jen and Hope (especially on the distinction between time and energy), we should resist the temptation to impute readings that don’t exist in the original post.
Scalzi isn’t talking about writing well. He’s not even talking about writing novels, per se. He’s simply talking about the most elemental act of writing–the stringing together of words. Whether those words amount to books or poems, fiction or nonfiction, or whatever, is beside the point.
My one refinement: “Yes, but…” doesn’t necessarily mean “no, I don’t want to write”; it can also mean “yes, I want to write, but I want these other things more”. Granted, both result in zero pages written right now, but if the latter is the case, then it’s worth asking yourself “Do I want to write?” again down the road; circumstances change.
I suspect I would write a lot more if I could convince my backbrain that I don’t have to write for publication. I’m not in a position to try for a writing career right now; I’ve got too many responsibilities that are more important to me. But I do have the time to write unpublishable stuff that’s good enough for me to enjoy rereading and tweaking later.
I love this so much I can hardly stand it. Well said.
I want to email this to all the people who have said to me they’d like to write a book someday.
Also the well-intentioned friend struggling through his first novel. He’s been stuck on one scene since last holiday season. In the meantime, I’ve drafted three novels. He says, oh but I have a full-time job and we just had a baby. you’re unemployed. (I SWEAR he said it nicely. he honestly didn’t notice what this implies.) I told him in my politest voice possible, I set a timer and write in 30 minute stints throughout the day. I typically only do two, sometimes three. Now, you were saying?
I’ve never read a stitch of your work, but I’ve read blogposts, heard advice, etcetera from writers I have read. Yet NONE of them were able to articulate the answer to this question in the audacious spirit necessary to get lazy would-be writers to realize where they should be.
Just yesterday, a friend of mine commented on my commitment to my writing. I told him I was no more dedicated an individual than him, I merely made the choice to write every day. In other words, there was nothing in my personality that caused me to write or somehow mystically forced my hands to the keyboard.
Thank you for this! I shall pass it on to him, and treasure your advice always!
I hope to meet you someday when on a tour of my own or some convention “working” instead of “attending”. :-)
I think that it’s not about being lazy. Personally, I think it’s about being afraid.
I’ll bet there are people out there with underlying fears who are going to read your post, carve out time, set a daily page goal. Promise themselves this time it’ll be different.
Then, somewhere in their murky subconscious, they’ll remember that they don’t want to suck in public, don’t want to be judged by their family, remember how everyone said they were stupid and talentless and whatever.
Then, they’ll play Xbox, or watch TV, or clean their kitchen. And then beat themselves for being lazy loser assholes who don’t really want to write.
Until the fear is addressed, you can set aside all the time in the world… you’re not going to write.
Now I feel better about painfully tapping out 100 words each way (150 if it’s a good day) on the thumb pad of my iPhone on the ferry during the weekday commute. It’s odd, but I find I can’t write on weekends—so I save them for long-term affairs I can’t enjoy during otherwise taxing work days, like cooking.
This technically feels like a bad prioritization, and may contribute to my writing continuing to suck, but eventually I figure I’ll write enough words to not suck.
Reading through the comments a couple things jump out at me. Nobody said anything about writing well. If you can squeeze out the time to get crap down, you can squeeze in time to edit it later. Everybody poops. In other words, it’s never going to be decent the first time even if you’re mentally fabulous and have all the time in the world.
And while I don’t intend to be mean singling you out, Jen Anderson: there are plenty of women, myself included, who could give or have given that litany, and we still do the work. It’s not oversimplifying. Those are excuses. While the domineering patriarchy of society may weigh on you (no pun intended), you still get to choose, by yourself, exactly how you spend every single minute you’re given. Some of them CAN be spent writing. If you don’t get a seat on the bus, go to bed ten minutes later. There are always ways as long as you are honestly willing to fit them in. I don’t mean it to be rude, but I feel like you’re missing Scalzi’s point entirely.
(And all those fears? Also excuses. I have a physical gripping fear of calling people I don’t know on the phone, but I still schedule my own doctors’ appointments. We are in control of our own lives more than we give ourselves credit for.)
IMO, those who can’t find the time, et al, are often those who “want to be a writer,” but don’t want to actually write. Frankly, writing is often dead boring, just as practicing scales or rehearsing the same scene 12 bazillion times is mind-numbingly tedious, but writers, musicians, and actors deal with the boring bits as a necessary part of the job (or craft).
I once took a class with a world-class potter who spent hundreds of hours with very tiny tools piercing small, repetitive patterns in damp clay, for a single lantern. The result was stunning, art of the first order, but the most common comment of lay-people who saw her work was “I wish I could do that.” She just smiled, every time.
This reminds me of an anecdote I read somewhere about a fellow who, on meeting a famous golfer he idolized, told him “I’d do anything to play golf like you.” The golfer looked at him and said, “I have.”
Friggin’ awesome. So awesome I’m going to have to print this post and tack it to my inspiration board next to Charles Bukowski’s poem “Air and light and time and space”.
Thank you, John, for the inspiration, the motivation, and most of all, the shame. Which finally pounded it into my head that I have no excuse.
Well said! The only way to be a writer is to write. It really is that simple.
I have been much to hard on myself. I make time to write 1000 words a day. I get up an hour earlier to write and stay up an hour later to write. I always carry a journal (one of which has become my first non-fiction) so if I have to wait in a doctor’s office, traffic or anywhere I am always jotting down ideas, creating lists or just describing the weather. I write because I want to be a writer. I want my writing to pay the bills. Anything after but..is always bullshit.
Awesome post on the fact about writing: either you do it or you don’t…
Wait I take that back and correct it:
Awesome post on life: either you do it or you don’t.
The fact that this post met with resistance suggests an unpleasant facet of our society:
Somewhere along the line, “You can be anything you want to be” oozed into “You can think you are whatever you want to be, even if you aren’t.”
I am severely stung, like slapped in the face stung, I have so many ideas but so many more excuses which seem very silly and/or sad now.
I am going to write at least 250 words before the end of today towards my book that has been hovering aroun 700 words for three years. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day.
I have a lot of “I’d like to, but,”s in my life. I’ve recently begun changing that from “but I don’t have time” to “but I’d rather spend my time doing X” which is the truth. I do have the time to be a writer, for example, but I’d rather catch up on a few great tv series, read sci-fi, etc, all of which I can do while indulging another passion–crafting. So I get 2 for 1 & lose another possibility and at the end of the day I guess that’s the way I like it. For now.
It’s been noted above, and elsewhere many, MANY times…90% of everything (at the very least everything written) is dreck the first time out. If you don’t write it for fear of it being crappy, you get to avoid facing the crappiness of the first output [aka “the norm”] at the cost of being afraid (yay) and unproductive (yay).
Even if what you write is pure unadulterated top-notch pearls of the first order, someone somewhere won’t like it anyway. If you want to write, if you like to write, stfu and do it and the naysayers be damned. You then get THREE really keen presents: 1) you wrote, and supposedly had fun in the process; 2) you get to edit what you wrote as well as write something else, which means your writing opportunities just doubled (yay); 3) supposedly, after a couple of iterations, your edited work will be more pleasing to you, and perhaps others (yay), hopefully thereby giving you more joy.
God, I love it when you swear.
I usually agree with you but here I am finding myself a bit upset.
The problem is that I am one of those bright hopes that failed to materialized. I went to Clarion, everybody went gaga about what a good writer I was, seven years later I have published two short stories. Two. I haven’t even finished a novel.
I whine and whinge about it now and then, but I wouldn’t dream of asking an Established Author how to get writing. I know how to get writing. I’ve done it.
The problem is that I had an outbreak of major depression, which is now much better thank you for asking, and unlike Jay the result is that I am still alive but the voices inside my head that led me to write had shut up.
I even suspect I know how to get them back, and it would be to go off the meds. The last time I got off the meds it was not good, however, so I find myself wondering if I should aim for non-writing happiness or writing misery.
I’m not asking YOU, mind you. OK, if you have a magical formula for making my writing become a burning need as it used to be, then do please share. Otherwise, I find it a bit upsetting at this point to be told to shut up because I am a spoiled little wannabe.
Why, do you ask, is not writing a problem? Well, pretty much for the same reason not having sex would be a problem: because even when you stop wanting it, you remember how fucking great it felt and would really really really want that feeling back. Also because I am, when it comes down to it, and to dispense with false modesty, a very good writer, and as many people with a natural facility for something, exercising that talent used to make me very happy and fulfilled.
I’ve tried Cory’s 250 words btw and it works. It’s just that BEFORE writing was full of reason and point and now it feels… empty. I used to weave plots when I was walking, hear character’s voices when I lay down to sleep. Now I have to turn the BBC on because otherwise I get bored with that dull internal silence.
I find it hard to read fiction, too. I find myself thinking do I care? Can I be bothered? what’s the point? I keep going to my writing groups and telling the other writers: yes yes yes, it’s all very competent, but in the end, what’s the point? Where’s the passion? What did you want to say?
I think if I wrote for a living I’d probably be able to do it, but people have been ready with praise and not so much with money, whereas they seem to want to pay me money to copy and check a 30×30 table of figures in Polish. Which makes me a lot more miserable, but there you go.
So yeah – if you know how to dispel the dullness and the silence and the feeling that all is a bit pointless, I’d welcome any advice. Maybe it is the meds.
One can choose different forms of writing to a novel. It is still relatively early days yet but I choose short stories….. by short I mean 2 typed
A4 pages or less. Such stories end up less than 1000 words. Don’t take long to be read.
these maybe can be expanded to a longer length
So true! And not just about writing, but about anything you aspire to do. Either do it or not, don’t make excuses (now to take my own advice)!
I am one of those people who tried it for a while and realized it wasn’t for me. It had less to do with finding time or inspiration and more to do with accepting that I suck at it, and should probably find something else to do to pay my mortgage. But, at least I tried.
I think I have the opposite problem – if I don’t make time to write I get insomnia :/
To be fair it is sort of my job now (if you call making enough to feed us a job) but even before that I used to take a little tiny notebook onto my shifts with me and disappear into the loo to write!
I also tended to write in the margins during my degree lectures and things, on the bus on the way to school etc…
My main issue is that I have an editor bottle neck due to a slight issue with spelling :/
Thanks for the article
Hi John, in about your 4th paragraph, you write:
“This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them.”
I think what you mean there is “or am NOT a musician” (following the logic to its conclusion).
Thanks for the post. I agree 110%.
For me writing daily is like exercising daily: something I want to do, something I should do, something I enjoy immensely once I start, but something I traditionally procrastinate away day after day after day, baring the occasional aperiodic burst.
This has frustrated me for years.
Now I feel some hope. Due to a set of life-changing circumstances too long to go into here, I now not only regularly exercise but I get cranky if I don’t do it every day.
My hope is to somehow transfuse this newfound urge to exercise every day into writing every day. When I see folks like Jay Lake or my friend Rachel Caine write through crazy work schedules, debilitating illnesses, rich family lives, and outside commitments, then I certainly can’t sit by and not try.
Thanks for the kick in the pants.
And connected to this is:
Stop twittering about writing (“Oh, I’m hoping to get some #amwriting done.”) and WRITE.
If you have to twitter about it, we’d all rather hear: “I just wrote a story. BAM!” or “That’s one more chapter of the novel DONE.”
~ on a side note, I wonder if anyone would faint if they compared their twitter word count and that of their work in progress in any given week.
Your last paragraph is amazing. Thank you just saying what needs to be said about it.
I like this post. Have a question for you, though… What happens when you are published and you do show up at the page, every day, and you stare at the screen and you’re blocked?
I find something else to write instead. If one thing isn’t going to move, have other things to work on.
If nothing at all is going to move, then I chalk it up as a sign that I need to do something non-writing else that day. I might read instead, or go out and do something completely different, or just spend the day on facebook games. Then I get back into it tomorrow.
So I’m late to the post, but I think I’m going to have to print this out and read over it whenever I find myself thinking ‘I just don’t have time to write today.’
I don’t understand this ‘I’m too tired to write’ nonsense. I’ve written 500-100+ words a day since… as far back as I can remember. I’ve never had a problem getting out copy. But plotline… that is a bitch! I love writing, but still haven’t been able to find one decent (not cliche) plotline that would sell. Maybe I should switch to writing textbooks or short stories instead!
@163 Anna…I feel your pain, because it’s mine, too. Except for the getting two stories published bit.
I’ve been holding onto the Toni Morrison quote I remember as “If you can’t find the story you want to read, then you must write it” or something like that. Until I can make one character come to life, with a point of view as consistent as any inconsistent human being’s point of view can be, I’ll be stuck. I think. It’s either make Jane speak, or go back to writing essays.
I am no longer sure that it helps to read other writers. Their voices get inside my stuff, at best, and at worst, I realize how good they are and how good I’m not.
And then I remember that they practiced.
Keep your faith, and keep pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or whatever makes your voice one that can reach out of the silence and roar in the mind.
Anthony Trollope, one of the most prolific writers in the English language, wrote most of his novels while working full-time at the post office.
There is nothing like a “reality check!” So True. Thanks!
I love this and thought it was some amazing reading for my new boot camp for writer’s. Thank you for sharing and for being so frank. We all make choices, we need to make choices that serve us. I pray your friend recuperates well!
It’s true, you’re right, and you’re fantastic.
I particularly approve of the following statement: “Let me repeat that for you: Jay Lake has been fighting cancer and has had poison running through his system for two years, still does work for his day job and has written novels. So will you please just shut the fuck up about how hard it is for you to find the time and inspiration to write, and just do it or not.”
Now… any idea on what to do when you want to write a specific kind of story (fiction/whimsical/etc), and are just staring at the screen? My method so far has been to open a blank page and just start typing words that pop into my head. Nouns and what have you, stream of thought type of thing. They eventually start to form into sentences but if I can’t get more than two full sentences out (punctuation and all), I’ll stop and go away for a bit. Come back later.
I think I’m asking you what you do when you get writer’s block.
why this happen
Great artists and writers will be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to paint their pictures and tell their stories. They are martyrs.
They could have had other jobs and earned a good income, but they chose to live minimally in order to complete their great works. You need lots and lots of time in a day to get it right, really right. An hour after wood when your mind is already preparing to wind down won’t work it’s creative fact.
Work two days a week, spend three days writing and have the weekends off. You have to sacrifice York lifestyle in order to accomplish your goal.
Unless you are filthy rich!
When I was not working for 3 months I finished the book I had been writing for 7 years, but since, I have not had time to edit it. I want to write now, but I finish my other work at 1am, am I am awake at 6.20, preparing to start again. Writing 250 words a day is rubbish. Do you remember what you ate 2 weeks ago? So how can you remember details of a story or plot, only 3500 words ago. Seems only journalists find it easy doing both work and writing.
Thanks for linking to this off today’s blog. I hadn’t read it. I wrote my first novel on weekends, too. I’m trying to get in the habit of writing in the evenings after the day job. It’s true what you say, you either do it or you don’t. They say everyone “has a book in them.” Well, that’s great, but that’s where it will stay if you don’t get your butt in a chair. Now to the even harder part–getting the thing published.
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Just wanted to say I love reading our blog and look forward to aall your posts!
Keep up the fantastic work!
“yes, but,” “yes,” or you were lying – tomorrow I start a minimum of 250 words a day. Thank you for a well put kick up the butt.