Not Much of a Life…

In my Novel Writing class, I generally use one of my last classes of the semester to answer “Frequently Asked Questions” from my students, giving them the chance to get at stuff I might not have covered, or ask questions that might not have been asked in class, or to get at information that needs further clarification. I did the FAQs last week for the class, and one question I got this time (and usually get, honestly) was “Since we have to have give you at least 10,000 words of writing for this class, how many words did you produce over the semester?”

It’s a fair question, after all. I do expect a lot from the students in that class; they should expect the same of me. So I sat down and figured out what I’d done with my own writing over the course of the semester. Here’s what I gave them as my answer:

  • I wrote a poem or two
  • I wrote a blog post every other day or so (that’s a few thousand words there…)
  • I wrote lesson plans and created presentations
  • I wrote critiques of student work for the Novel class as well as the Intro To Creative Writing class (lots of those, generally five or six a week, at roughly 500 words a shot)
  • I answered e-mails… (lots of that, too…)

“Yeah,” someone muttered at that point, “but none of that’s fiction.” I grinned, because I wasn’t finished yet.

  • I proofed the galleys for DARK WATER’S EMBRACE (a lot of work, but no new words)
  • I revised THE WOODS to my agent’s critique, which went from about 62,500 words to close to 65,000: 2,500+ words
  • A MAGIC OF DAWN, my current work-in-progress, was at a little less than 10,000 words when we started the semester. It’s now at 19,500 words (9,500+ words)
  • I wrote (then re-wrote to editorial critique) a novella for George RR Martin’s latest WILD CARDS book: 27,750+ words

So for fiction alone, I had ‘forward progress’ of a bit more than 40,000 words during this semester. along with a close proofreading and two significant revisions.

I ended with this statement: “I obviously don’t have much of a life…” It got the expected laugh. And I told them that I pointed this out not to brag, but because they asked, and as an illustration that even if you’re working full-time or going to school full-time, you can still make time to write and get a substantial amount accomplished, if you want it badly enough. If you’re driven to do it.

But I’ve been thinking about that a little over the intervening week. I really am a bit OC about writing. I spend the vast majority of my time in front of the computer or near it, either working on school stuff or writing. The school work I do because it’s part of my job; the writing I do because it’s what I want to do. But…

It does mean that there’s no ‘down’ time. Ever. It means that there’s very little ‘free’ time. It means that sometimes Denise gets short thrift, because I’m in my office rather than with her. It means that things sometimes don’t get done around the house that should probably be done. It means… well, you get the idea.

I do sometimes wonder if it’s healthy. I do wonder if it’s the best thing I could be doing. Could I be a better teacher if I did less writing? Could I be a better spouse? A better friend? A better person?

But I can’t imagine not writing. To a large degree, I define myself by my writing. What am I?–I’m a ‘writer.’ So I do it . But I do wonder sometimes about the choice I’ve made, and think “What if…?”

What if…?

Oh, wait a moment! I wonder if I couldn’t I pull another story out of that?

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  1. 1. C.E. Murphy

    I am Right There With You.

    I don’t have another job–I write full time, which is a misnomer in and of itself–but even without a day job it astonishes me how much of my *life* is about writing. I’m trying really hard to change that: there is not, for example, any actual *need* for me to write 400,000 words this year (or the even more imposing 500K which was briefly bandied about, because it would bring my words written in the last 6 years up to a nice round two millions). The competitive/salesman part of my mind thinks that if there’s another month in the year, I should write another 30 or 50,000 words (despite having written 350K and despite actually facing what can nominally be called a lull in my schedule).

    It’s *completely* OC. And it’s very visible to me the things I don’t do if I’m so focused on writing–going to the gym, pursuing photography, taking yoga classes–doing, well, *anything* that isn’t writing, in fact.

    This cannot be healthy. It’s possible that for the first time in my life my new year’s resolution is going to be to write *less*. Keeping to my contracts and *living* a little more has *got* to be a better way to go about it….

  2. 2. S.L. Farrell

    Wow… 400K a year is a ton of words. I’m impressed!

    My usual monthly output is more around 15,000 words. Strangely, in the times I’ve been able to write full-time, my output really didn’t seem to go up all that significantly…

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Yes, Catie shocks the hell out of me and I worship at her feet. On top of that, her stuff is really really good.

    But you know, my students never want to know how much i write or have written. Isn’t that funny? And I don’t tend to volunteer it.

    This year I’m actually going to put out about 250K of fiction or more. Wow. That’s huge. No wonder I’m tired.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    The scene: a quiet back room at a coffee shop. Perhaps a dozen people sit around a large wooden table. Their faces are pale and drawn, their hands stained with ink or marred by keyboard callus. A bald man stands up, facing the group.

    “Hi, my name is Kelly and I’m…a writer,” he says.

    “Hello Kelly!” comes the chorus back.

    Yeah, right there with you. Though I am in the lucky position of being a kept man as my primary day job and thus responsible for all the life support functions in our household, it’s surprising how much I don’t get done that I should because I’m writing. Two books a year for the last three years and hoping to push it to three in ’09.

  5. 5. Terie Garrison

    I’m a technical writer by day and a novelist by night. Several of my colleagues like to say, ‘With your books and all, your life is so romantic.’

    To which I say, ‘Hmmm. Let’s see, I get up in the morning and check my e-mail, then write a little bit. I go to work and sit in front of a computer all day writing. I go home, have supper and a bit of a soak in the tub, work on the current book until I’m nearly asleep, then read a page or two of whatever it is I’m reading until I can’t keep my eyes open any more. (Oh, and surf the web more than I should.) Yep, that’s REAL romantic!’

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining! My life suits me well just the way it is. But ROMANTIC? Not hardly, not in ANY sense of the word!

  6. 6. NewGuyDave

    The folks at the coffee shop tell me it must be so nice to be a writer working on your first novel. I smile, nod and go to my table.

    I love the writing, but I have no job, no paycheck, and I’ve apparently waited for the economy to hit rock bottom before realizing that I should probably get back to work. It’s tough to go from a good paying career in sales to earning nil.

    What the hell, I’m neck deep already. I’m on my 4th draft and the story is looking better, even I’m still not anywhere close to subbing it out. Maybe by the time it’s ready to sell, the market will have rebounded and I’ll have a second book in progress.

    I wish my new word count was higher, but that would detract from the revisions, and the crits on OWW.

    It is motivating to hear what all of you are able to accomplish. Time to push a little harder and get more done.

    Back to writing…

  7. 7. Sandy S

    I can empathize with both Terie and NewGuyDave. I am a technical writer (and fledgling novelist) as well, but I have a wife and two children so working on my first novel in the morning is out of the question. I get a little done on my lunch break, but when I get home its time to be a husband and a dad again, so I only get an hour or so to work on my passion. Ah well, such is the life we choose. Keep plugging away and keep those keyboard jumping!

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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