“You seem to want to write, so write…
Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and knew the name of every dog in town – still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution.”
Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
“One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn as a writer is that while virtually any story can be a good book if done correctly, not every story should. It’s possible to have an amazing idea and still lack the interest necessary to polish it to publication level shine. I can not tell you the number of books I’ve plotted, written 30k words in, and then abandoned because I simply could not stand to look at them another second. Every single one of these ideas looked great on paper, and maybe in another author’s hands they could have been golden, but in the end I just didn’t care enough to push through. As someone who makes her living through writing, these stalled books are doubly disappointing. I’m pretty fast now at plotting and writing, but each of those stories still took time and work that I will never be paid for. It’s like working a job for a month only to find out at the end that you’re not getting a check. Even if you enjoyed yourself and everyone had the best intentions, you can’t afford to work for free.”
2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, Rachel Aaron.
Once upon a time (about half a year ago), I thought that there were two types of writers: aspiring writers and published (by which I also include self-published) writers. For years, I worked on one story I was passionate about. By mid-January, I held a physical copy of Initial Conditions. Yes, it was exhilarating. After a decade of writing and rewriting, it was no longer a story I wrote “so that it won’t be lost”. It became a real book, available to be read far beyond my writing group and family circle. For the first time I felt like an author.
After a couple of weeks, the dazzled expression of a freshly minted “author” started to wear off my face. I began wondering, “What’s next?” I had more to tell about Danielle, Jonathan and certain professors from King Solomon University. I wanted to continue writing, but I lost that starry-eyed outlook that drove me to complete and then publish a novel.
I was on vacation during the spring break. When I came back, I tried to resume writing. To say it gently, the meager word count was the least of my problems. What I wrote was boring and made little sense. Even worse, when writing, I felt that I’ve already told the story I was meant to tell, that anything I’d write will be like reheating leftovers. I shifted my focus to “research”, which is a convenient term for procrastination.
Nothing worth telling happened until a very wise guy sagely suggested that I’d try to write something completely different. Something that wouldn’t take very long, and have a wider appeal. This idea seemed so ingenious I asked him if he borrowed it from The Cinema of George Lucas (“During the production of THX Coppola challenged Lucas to try to write something ‘warm and fussy’ for his next project, and Lucas embraced the idea.” The outcome was American Graffiti.) The very wise guy said that it’s just common sense.
While I was looking for an exiting subject to write about, David Gaughran blogged about what it takes to move on to the next level of writing fiction. Following his recommendation, I bought Rachel Aarons’s 2k to 10k. This short book (which I also recommend) explained to me why Initial Conditions took so long, and offered some remedies. (In a nutshell, it showed that one can write much faster by knowing what to write before writing it. Another way to boost writing is to do it daily, during one’s prime writing time.) David Gaughran’s post and Rachel Aaron’s book also made me realize that a hobbyist and a professional writer differ not only in the amount of books they write and sell. The entire premise seems to be different. A hobbyist writes what s/he wants to read, when s/he feels inspired. A professional writes constantly and fast, with a target audience in mind (that also explains the prevalence of series in popular genres).
It gave me some food for thought, but did not guide me as to how I to combine what I’m enthusiastic about with writing in a popular genre. What may be more relevant is Aaron’s advice on increasing productivity:
“There are many fine, successful writers out there who equate writing quickly with being a hack. I firmly disagree. My methods remove the dross, the time spent tooling around lost in your daily writing, not the time spent making plot decisions or word choices. This is not a choice between ruminating on art or churning out novels for gross commercialism (though I happen to like commercial novels). It’s about not wasting your time for whatever sort of novels you want to write.”
I don’t know whether the prospect of becoming a hack deters anyone, but it certainly wouldn’t bother me. Asimov was a very prolific writer. Like hoards of his other fans, I read and reread his stories, without caring whether it took him hours or years to write. Those who worry about “literary” whatsoever, here is what Stephen King wrote on “How much writing constitutes a lot?” (from On Writing):
“That varies, of course, from writer to writer. One of my favorite stories on the subject – probably more myth than truth – concerns James Joyce. According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
“James, what’s wrong” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
“Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.”
“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they do in!”
According to King, a reasonable goal is writing at least a thousand words per day, at least six times a week. What about not having inspiration? “Don’t wait for a muse.” King advises. Writing should be treated just as “another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”
Even though King doesn’t say so, his advice seems what distinguishes a pro from a hobbyist. If one can sustain this kind of writing for years, s/he becomes professional.
Charles Schulz has also been quoted as saying “writers block is for amateurs”, though the rigors of a daily comic are a bit different to general writing. (It’s easier in some ways, harder in others.)
I did work out from Asimov’s estimate of how many published words he wrote per average day and his top writing speed that he could do his work in about twenty minutes per day, though that is seven days per week. That requires knowing all your words ahead of time, though.
I’m curious. Can you post your estimate about Asimov’s words/day here?
Thanks for following my blog – another scientist! I love bringing some science (albeit medical) into my books. You should write whatever turns you on, science especially. You also picked two of my favorite writers, one who inspired me when I was 6 or 7 and the other who challenged me in college.
Thanks for dropping by, and good luck with Death in a Red Canvas Chair.