Yes, but….

Roger e-mailed me a link to this advice column:

I’m 25, living in a city I love, working a job I love, and writing. Writing has been my dream more than my passion for most of my life, but I’m good at it and I’ve finally gotten the discipline to put my butt in the chair every day and bang out a few words. Unfortunately, I’m good at my job, too.


Writing is what I love, it’s what keeps me going. I can’t write and manage this cafe. I don’t know how to broach this with the owners, who are clearly set on grooming me to take on some of the day-to-day managerial duties from them. Help!

And the reasonable reply from our advice person?

You say you cannot write and manage this cafe. That is not true. You can write and manage this cafe. What is required is a routine. You have to create the time and place to do your writing.

You can do it. I would suggest you start now. Get out a calendar. Look at your work hours. Look at the time that is left where you are not working. Sketch in some hours to write. Try out various hours. See what works.

More, but that’s about it. All very sage and reasonable and right…and I really do kinda feel for this person, because I’ve been there. Carving out writing time isn’t the easiest thing in the world when your mental image of writing is of long hours spent cranking out words on a word processor, producing thousands of words a day. Now, many writers manage to do this, but I suspect it’s because they got through the earlier part of the struggle — the part where you’re spending 40+ hours a week making money doing something that’s not writing — and producing a lot less output until they got there, with ‘there’ being, a place where they could support themselves on their writing and thus have time to really write.

So writing is a good, in fact nearly perfect, example for the old adage that the reward for doing good work is the opportunity to do more work. However, when I say above that those writers balanced their jobs until they could really write, I don’t mean to say that by really writing, they’re producing their best work. For them, every word written is the best they can do, and if they get better after they manage to go full-time, great! But that doesn’t imply that they’r phoning it in.

When I am working on something new, I’ve set a daily quota for myself of 500 words a day. This is a small number that’s doable, and it produces over time a nice-sized chunk of story. It took me less than a year to write the first draft of Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title) at that pace (although there were quite a few days when I rolled off a lot more than 500 words). Goal-setting is essential if you want to write. But you have to be careful with the goals: they have to be tough enough to reach that you’re working for them, but easy enough to reach that you don’t feel like you’re never getting anywhere. If you read about how Stephen King produces 2000 words a day, don’t hold yourself to that standard until you can. Even he indicates that sometimes the 2000 words are a struggle that he hasn’t reached until dinnertime.

I approach writing now like a job, even if I’m not getting paid for it yet. That’s the only way it’s going to work. If I wait for ‘the muse’, or for when I’m just in that perfect state of energy after my shift at The Store, well…if I did that, I’d still be occasionally flailing around less than halfway through Princesses, instead of doing what I’m doing now: writing this post as a break from editing together the second draft.

So set a goal and be hard-nosed about it. Treat writing like any other job you’ve got to punch the clock to do. Figure out when your every day writing time is, and write then. It’s the only way.

For a more cranky version of these thoughts, check out this John Scalzi post, to which I return frequently when I need a mental kick in the arse.

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.

Ultimately, I doubt very much that there is a single writer alive, successful or unsuccessful, genre or literary, fiction or nonfiction, who didn’t struggle with the ‘writing in the off hours’ thing for a while. I’m willing to bet that many of them, if not most of them, still struggle with it. There’s a reason for that. So stop complaining about the struggle, and embrace it. It’ll make you a better writer. Or, at the very least, it’ll make you a writer who wrote something.

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4 Responses to Yes, but….

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thankfully, William Faulkner found time to write while employed by the Post Office.

  2. Roger Owen Green says:

    I was always taken by the late Steve Gerber's inaugural post, which contained this paragraph:
    I make my living as a writer. There is only one characteristic that distinguishes writers from non-writers: writers write. (That’s why there’s no such thing as an “aspiring writer.” A writer can aspire to sell or publish, but only non-writers aspire to write.) Anyway, writing for a living requires writing every day. Writing every day requires discipline. Discipline requires enforcement.

    That was in April of 2005. I started my blog a month later, for better or worse.

    And of course, re: writing, there's that Star Wars wisdom: "There is no try."

  3. Roger Owen Green says:

    Evanier linked to this re Heinlein.

  4. M. D. Jackson says:

    Scalzi's right, as grumpy as he comes across. You either are or you aren't.

    Today I am a ridiculously early morning person because fifteen years ago I read something very much like what Scalzi wrote (it was actually Mordecai Richler who said the same thing at the time) and that gave me the kick in the butt I needed.

    You can sleep when you're dead. For now there is writing to do.

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