What is Work?

I am a full-time writer, whatever that means. What it doesn’t mean, at least in my case, is that I report to an office space for a specified time, let’s say 9 to 5 with or without overtime factored in, to fulfill specified tasks. I do go to a desk (my office) to write on my computer (having given up writing my first drafts in long-hand when my twins were born), but that’s not the only place I work. And it’s not the only “work” I do as a writer.

Besides the administrative work, the publicity work, the answering correspondence work, the tidying-up-the-workspace work, and other such varieties of work, a fair bit of my time does not actually involve sitting at a keyboard (or with pen and paper in hand) and producing one word after another. Indeed, a question I dread is “how many pages did you write today” precisely because the number of pages I wrote today may not reflect how much work I actually accomplished.

That’s the problem: much of the work I do doesn’t necessarily look like work.

For instance:

Undirected daydreaming.
Many of my ideas for novels have emerged out of undirected daydreaming. Without it, I would have much less to write; maybe I would have nothing to write. But I guarantee that to most people, it does not look like work.

Lounging in the recliner reading? I’m not being lazy. I’m doing research.

Directed thinking.
Perhaps I have a blocking problem. How does character A get from the front door to the back door and where does A’s encounter with character B take place? I may sketch out a rough architectural drawing of the house. Or a diagram of the field where a battle takes place, and then the movements of forces across that field. Or I may just sit and think through a problem that has suddenly (or not so suddenly, as I may simply have been procrastinating dealing with the problem until it became firmly fixed as an obstacle to further forward motion) confronted me in the unfolding narrative. Or I may walk around the house cursing and muttering (aka ‘talking to myself’ which according to my spouse is a form of mental instability) as I run through different potential solutions.
Yes, this is working.

Undirected thinking.
Lies halfway between directed thinking and undirected daydreaming. Having come full stop because of a plot problem, I may up and take the dog for a walk, or engage in some other physical activity that releases my brain from its directed focus but which keeps the engagement going on just behind my ears. Typically, on such a walk, without ever quite thinking directly about the problem, the answer will explode into my mind in a revelatory fashion, as in: whoa! That’s it! Or: yeah! that would work!
If I thought and thought about the problem directly in these cases, I would never work it out.

So that’s also work, although it doesn’t look anything like working. But if I didn’t do it, I would never finish a novel because I would never work down to that part of my brain that can put connections together while I’m looking the other way.

What writing work do you do that looks to other people as if it is not actually work?

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  1. 1. CE Murphy

    I take showers.

    For whatever reason, much like going for a walk, I seem to have epiphanies in the shower. I have been known on occasion to actually go take a shower in the middle of the day, having done it once already that day, just to try to shake something loose in my brain.

    It really, really doesn’t look like work, but it is.

    Otherwise, a lot of my work looks like yours. I do have the danger of a truly magnificent view out my office window, and it’s pretty easy to actually not work at all while I’m staring out the window. My desk isn’t lined up with the window, so I have to put some effort into staring out it, but yeah, I can spend quite a lot of time Not Working For Real if I get caught up by the view.

    Writing is hard! :)

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    Showers don’t work for me, but soaking in a bathtub does seem to free my subconscious to solve that tricky plot point. I also do a lot of plotting right after I go to bed. That period of time where I can lie down, close my eyes, and not think about work or errands is a good time to concentrate on where the story is going.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Composting. Sometimes what I really need to do is take a problem or idea, ball it up, and chuck it into the back of my head while I do something else entirely. Eventually it sprouts something and I go back to work — but leaving it alone for a while is the only way to move forward. (Very zen, ne?)

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Staring at the beautiful view is how I get a lot of my work done. My summer office is screen porch that backs on a park with the river beyond. A lot of my best thinking is done just staring peacefully out at the view.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Walking, walking, walking, at a very fast place through the streets of Brooklyn talking to myself. Some day an ambulance is going to pull up onto the curb, sedate me, and cart me away just as I’ve finally thought my idea through.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Walking works for me, too, though I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to. I used to walk my dog — sometimes five times a day — when I struggled with a book. I think he preferred it when things weren’t going well with one story or another….

    He died a year and a half ago, and I find that I don’t rely on walks to free up ideas anymore. More undirected daydreaming now. The other thing I do is open a new document in word and just start to type, to work through the problem in a stream of consciousness ramble. No ever sees these things but me, of course. But they do help. And, yes, they are work.

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    I get very irritated on those rare occasions when, dropping off to sleep, an Important Solution arises in my half-aware mind. Because then I MUST get up and go write it down. I will not recall it in the morning otherwise.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    Sam, but surely in New York City, people walking around talking to themselves are kind of within the curve of normal? *g*

    However, I do exactly the same thing, except I try not to talk loudly. I just mutter.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Kate –

    Even in New York City people get a little leery of large men muttering to themselves in the open. Though I assume, were I to be doing this in St. Paul, I would already have been hauled away. So there’s probably a little more leeway in NYC.

    And I hate those last minute solutions before I fall asleep as well. You do have to get up and write them down. And then sometimes they hardly seem worth it when you reread them the next day

  10. 10. B. Durbin

    Get up? Isn’t that what bedside notepads are for?

  11. 11. Kelly McCullough

    Sam, nope, I used to do that pretty regularly in St. Paul with no effect. Heck even here in my little University town in WI nobody hauls me away. Actually, that might because it’s small enough that everybody knows who I am and assumes I’m harmless.

  12. 12. Martyn Drake

    While not a novelist (although nearly a technical writer for a series of computer related books), I do come up with various ideas – little self contained “compartments” which could form part of a story if I were to actually sit down and write it. These usually come on when I’m by myself and having had a bit of mental stimulation beforehand – such as watching TV, listening to music, or catching up with the newspapers of the day.

    I think the strangest place that an idea (and thankfully it has only been ONE idea to date) has formed has, unfortunately, being during the act of lovemaking. I won’t go into details, but my mind just… wondered for a split second. And it was a funny idea too. Just thank goodness I didn’t scream, “Eureka!” at the time – I’m sure my wife would have had me committed at that stage, and possibly the sofa would be the only companion I would have had for a while.

    Ain’t life grand?

  13. 13. Cliff Dunbar

    To rescue my protagonists from the twisted plot corners I paint them into, I take a walk by the lake in front of my house. I go at night, and sit on one of the benches and stare at the palm trees and the moonlit ripples.

    It sounds nice, but I don’t actually see any of that stuff. I’m lost in my fictional alternate universe. This is hard work, but I’m sure the dog-walkers who interrupt my musings with their well-intentioned greetings don’t see it that way.

    The revelations I get in the shower and on the can and at bed time are qualitatively different from my lakeside machinations. They are the crafty turn of phrase, the poetic imagery, the aesthetic and economical delivery of a sentence I have already written, but which could have been done better. Those must be written down immediately, because they will never be recovered.

  14. 14. Stefan Fergus

    As someone just starting out as a writer (very early stages), it’s encouraging to know I’m not the only one walking around cities muttering to myself. In Durham (in the north of England) there are plenty of mad people, so no one tends to bat an eyelid when I come sauntering along testing a line of dialogue or colourful description of something unpleasant.

    Showers, not so useful as I tend to have them in the morning, when I’m basically dead. Notepads by the bed – have 4! All filling up with last minute Eureka moments that often get discarded or filed away for later use. Having a blog also helps, but it’s written very stream-of-conscious, which means often it’s jumbled and incoherent (not good, for someone trying to be an author).

  15. 15. Frank Wu

    Reading. Lots of reading. Non-fiction, fiction. Politics, religion, science. Lots of short stories. Surfing the internet is research. Sometimes, at least.

  16. 16. John Mark Ockerbloom

    On the muttering to oneself in #5 and #9: I’d imagine if you get one of those little Bluetooth cell phone accessories and put it in your ear, you’d seem perfectly normal muttering to yourself on the sidewalk. Who’s to know you’re not actually talking to anyone else?

  17. 17. S.C. Butler


    Now there’s an idea. I actually have a friend who’s writing a series of stories with a character who does just that while he’s chatting with ghosts. So no one will think he’s mad.

  18. 18. vijayendra

    I fool myself with the research ruse too. For me, the biggest hurdle in the way of writing is reading.

  19. 19. chrisweuve

    I tried notepads by the bed, but that didn’t work — too much coordination required when I am half-asleep. So, I adopted the same solution I did as for the car — digital audio recorders. Nothing fancy — just something that records, stores as individual files, and plays back.

  20. 20. Rebecca Schultz

    Work is dificult lol

  21. 21. S. M. Payne

    (aka ‘talking to myself’ which according to my spouse is a form of mental instability)

    My grandmother always said this was a sign of a genius. Which is good, because all of my family does it. :)

  22. 22. CC

    I set aside time to go to bed early and think there. The reason it works for me is because when I’m in bed, I don’t think about the thing I should be doing then. Writting or homework or studying or chores…The only thing I’m depriving myself of is sleep.
    And I’m honestly okay with that, because 90% of the things I’ve come up with in that hour or so I set aside, have come in handy. Give it a shot and let me know how it works.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.



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