Time to Write

A week or so back, John Scalzi talked about Finding Time to Write.  He said in part:

“Do you want to write or don’t you? … 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…”

Eleanor Arnason responded on the Wyrdsmiths blog, arguing that while this process works for Scalzi, not all writers are alike, and for some it’s a bad idea to force it.

“I have often had the experience of not being able to write. Wherever the writing comes from is empty. I have to wait till it refills. Could I force the writing to come? I’m not sure. I know there are times when the words come with difficulty, and they are dead on the page.”

All writers are different, and each of us needs to find the process that works for us.  However, I come down with Scalzi on this one.  I have two young kids at home, a wife in grad school, and a full time job.  My writing time is my lunch break, a 60-minute block every day from noon to one.  If I waited for the muse, or for my mood to be right, or for anything at all really, it would take me four times as long to finish a book.

So I taught myself to write every day.  I trained myself to be able to switch into that mode of thinking.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Often it’s frustrating (though it’s more frustrating having to stop at 1:00 and go back to the day job!)  But writing involves both skill and habit, and I believe both can, to a large extent, be learned.

What about the quality of the work?  Arnason goes on to say:

“Could I have written more if I’d been more disciplined? Maybe, and maybe I would have produced pages full of dead words, and stories that were not — ultimately — about anything.”

It would be easy to take this personally, with the implication being that since I force myself to write whether I’m in the mood or not, my work is more likely to be crap.

(I can already hear the smart-ass comments.  “Well Jim, I’ve read your books, and now that you mention it…”  Yeah, yeah.  You’re very funny.  Bite me.)

Arnason doesn’t say everyone who writes this way produces crap.  But I wonder if that’s part of the key here.  One of the things I had to learn in order to write the way I do is that it’s okayto write crap.  That I can’t wait for the words to be perfect; I have to write, knowing there will be flaws, and trusting that I’ll be able to fix those flaws.  That’s what revision is for.  And while everyone’s process is different, I know of no commercially successful writer who doesn’t have to revise.

I do agree with Arnason on her final point.  Writing is hard.  Making the time is hard.

But there’s a difference between “I can’t write right now” and “I don’t feel like writing right now.”  The latter is common.  Happens to me all the time.

I write anyway.  I don’t have time to wait for the well of creativity/ideas/writing to refill itself, not if I want to get my next book turned in on time. And when I write, I often find that the well wasn’t dry after all.

I recognize that everyone’s process is different, and I don’t expect every writer to follow the same rules and habits as me.  What works for you?  Discussion and disagreement are welcome, as always.

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  1. 1. Saracen

    Arnason is wrong and Scalzi is right. I’m sorry, but it’s that simple. Her comments are simply reinforcing the belief that writing is some mystical experience that requires the well of creativity to be refilled by the “muse” or whatever anyone wants to call it.

    Even if we love to write it’s still work and must be approached in the same way now and then.

    There are billions of people who get up and go to work everyday when they don’t want to and do so for jobs they don’t love. Yet they still manage do do a good job and sometimes even well beyond that.

    And then there’s the fact that sometimes, even when you’re not in the right frame of mind or the well feels empty, that you start writing and then you find yourself in a groove and the words that you thought weren’t there start to pour forth. By not even attempting to write the opportunity to allow this to happen is lost.

    Then there’s the fact that the act of writing isn’t just the actual putting of words on paper, but the planning, revision, character creation and research that happens.

    Even when I don’t feel like writing (Which is often when it’s not your main job and your job that pays the bills occupies 60-70 hours a week of your time.) the acts of planning my future scenes or doing research is enough to also trigger a spate of unexpected writing and creativity.

    Besides, as Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I can write badly at anytime, why wait for inspiration to do it…

  2. 2. Tom Hansen

    Thanks Jim for your post.

    I fall into the second category as well, having job/wife/kids and trying to write my first book. I find that forcing myself to write almost always produces good results. The first 10 minutes might be painful (not always), but eventually I find a groove and before I know it my time spent/word count for the day is completed and I walk away happy.

    I was surprised to see you still have a day job. I know I’ve read that most authors do but it still surprises me when certain authors that I see as “made it” are still working two jobs.

  3. 3. Maryse C.

    I totally understand where Arnason is coming from. I forced myself to write during a retreat this summer, and I wrote utter bullcrap. Yes, I can salvage what I wrote with some serious editing, but it’ll never be inspired. I lost my time.

    However, I think that by writing everyday (good day, crap day), we install a discipline that diminishes the chances of having a crap day. When your muse is trained, you are capable to write good things (maybe not brilliant, but at least good, and definitely editable) on a regular basis.

    And if you can’t install this discipline, it doesn’t mean you don’t have it inside you to be a writer. You may just not be ready yet.

    Well disciplined writers should not forget where they are coming from. Yes, you can treat writing like a serious business; but it still started with a mystical spark.

  4. 4. Ryl

    Part of my mind is in perpetual writing mode: mulling over story arcs, characterization, dialogue, and so forth. As it keeps me open and available to the Muse, I keep the notepads and pens always at hand.

    “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
    ~ Chuck Close

  5. 5. Brian

    Scalzi is dead on. And I for one needed the kick in the pants.

  6. 6. Kaitlyn R. Miller

    Well, I certainly don’t wait for the well to refill. If I’m feeling devoid of creativity or ideas, my choices are, in order of preference if not usefulness: read a book, work on some other piece of writing, go for a walk, or talk to interesting people. Ideas might come from inside, but that’s not the only place they come from.

    I find that sitting down and making myself write works a lot better than waiting for inspiration would, just because the act of writing, and of reading what I’ve just written, makes the inspiration flow. I might have no idea what’s coming next in my story, but if I write about the characters doing something (even if it’s just reacting to what just happened), then I find out what’s next!

  7. 7. Seabrooke

    I feel like Arnason and Scalzi are addressing two different things. Scalzi is talking about rearranging your schedule and making time to write when you perceive that you have none. Arnason is talking about putting your butt in the chair (or not) and typing even when the muse isn’t talking. Scalzi never mentioned anything about the muse.

    I know people who say they would like to write, but argue that by the time they get home from work, and they’ve made dinner and done the laundry and this and that, it’s bedtime and there’s just no time for doing any writing. That’s different from someone who says they would like to write, but they’re just not feeling inspired right now even though they have the time.

    I think you need to battle both to be a successful writer. You have to make the time, and then you have to make yourself write when you have the time.

  8. 8. Mary

    Neil Gaiman observed

    “What is really sad and nightmarish (and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it — utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer’s Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers — as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! ”

    Full interview here:
    http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/mar99/gaiman.htm

  9. 9. Jim C. Hines

    @Tom – Oh, I expect to have a day job for quite some time. I’ve had a few years where the money was almost good enough to live on, but my family and I would never last without health insurance. So I keep the day job for the benefits.

    @Mary – That’s a great quote. Makes me start to wonder if Gaiman is even capable of being inarticulate. Seriously, I don’t know if that man could stumble over his words if he tried!

    #

    As a follow-up, I can say that I really didn’t want to write today. It’s been a long, draining week at work, and the needle was on empty. I did about 700 words anyway, and they’re not great … but I got some ideas down, and it helped me get the first scene of a new story sorted out. Definitely not my most brilliant work, but it gets me closer than I was before.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    I’m with you and Scalzi on this one. Poets might be able to wait for the muse, but not working writers. And especially not working writers with families and jobs.

  11. 11. Gustavo

    Jim, you know I love to argue with you, but when you’re right, you’re right. And here, you are absolutely right. Writing is as much about discipline as it is about inspiration – possibly even more. I’ve always admired the way you churn out novels on your lunch break – and also feel that your success is well-deserved, and an inspiration!

  12. 12. Bree

    I don’t think this issue, like most things, is as clear cut as people seem to be saying. And I agree with Seabrooke that Arnason and Scalzi are addressing two different things. When I read the first quote from Arnason I thought she was talking less about the day-to-day writing frustrations and more about the times when some big life event comes along and derails you for a little while. I didn’t read her full post, so I may have misread her, but that’s where my mind went.

    I think it is important to give yourself permission to not write for a while when something like this occurs. I also think it’s important to develop a habit of writing, because this makes it so much easier to have good days, good pages, and good drafts.

  13. 13. Jim C. Hines

    @Gustavo – Well, crud. Where’s the fun if we don’t get to argue?

    @Bree – There have been several times in my life I’ve stopped writing. My wife’s surgeries, my son’s birth, things like that. I agree that sometimes life happens, and other things have to take priority. That’s not what I thought Aranson was talking about, though. She talks about how she writes, looking back over forty years.

    I’m not going to tell anyone that This Is How You Must Write. For me, writing can be very hard sometimes. Harder still to write well. But the more I do it, the better I get. And with my goals, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration. I need to grab inspiration by the scruff and show it who’s boss.

  14. 14. Doug Hulick

    [Full disclosure: I am a member of the Wyrdsmiths, and so a friend & colleague of Eleanor Arnason's.]

    Bree and Seabrooke are a bit more on point, I think, in terms of comparing the two original posts (Scalzi and Arnason).

    If folks haven’t read the original post on the Wyrdsmiths blog, you might want to take a look. Eleanor was talking more about her method as an “artistic writer” vs. Scalzi’s “production writer” take (she also expands on it in the next post on the blog). It’s not a question of pro vs. non-pro in her case, but rather about how a person does what they do, even is they are a pro (which she is).

    I am also of the camp of “make it a habit to write every day, no matter how you feel”; but at the same time, there are days where it simply doesn’t happen for any number of reasons (Hey, I have school-aged kids and am also working on a book deadline. Talk to me the day after I’ve been up most the night changing sheets 4 times for sick kids. I know this from both ends, trust me :) . I think Scalzi’s post is aimed more at people who say they want to write but find excuses not to, while Eleanor’s is about coming to terms with how you write once you are already doing so. At base, she is looking at the difference in approach between a regularly producing “commercial” pro and a more artistic-centered pro. In that instance, it is not so much a matter of “get it done” but one of “how you get it done” she is contemplating, I think.

    I write fast(er); Eleanor writes beautiful. I’m not about to say which is better, just because our methods are different. In the end, we both write.

  15. 15. Jim C. Hines

    Hi Doug,

    I definitely agree that reading Eleanor’s full post, and Scalzi’s, is probably a good idea.

    I’m curious — when you say, “I write fast(er); Eleanor writes beautiful,” do you feel that the two are mutually exclusive, or that writers have to choose one or the other?

  16. 16. Doug Hulick

    Jim,

    Good question. I’m going to stick to using myself and Eleanor’s writing as handy comparison points since they are easiest for me to reference with some semblance of perspective.

    No, not at all. A person can produce beautiful prose at a break-neck pace. (Since he’s already been mentioned, look at Neil Gaiman’s stuff. The man is no slouch either in terms of production or of lyrical prose, for goodness’ sake!) Speed is by no means a limitation, nor is it a requirement, for writing a certain way.

    This is where I think it comes down to style, both in terms of the prose and the writing pace. Simply put, my style of prose is not as lyrical as Eleanor’s (far cry from it); but then, that is not what I aspire for, at least right now. Yes, there are passages in my work I am far more pleased with than others in terms of construction and flow, but my main goal is to tell a quick-paced, entertaining, well-told story. But I don’t think the speed of my writing necessarily determines the style of my prose, at least not at base.

    In Eleanor’s case, she is a slower writer than I am, at least on average lately. However, she is also much more lyrical and poetic. Is that because she writes slower? I don’t know — only Eleanor can answer that, and I think it’s something she’s contemplating in her original post. But if that is how she writes, and the result of that method is beautiful prose, then there *may* be a connection for her (see my comment re. Gaiman above for the other side of the coin). If she sped up, would her writing change? I don’t know; that simply is the way she writes, and has for the past several decades. And it seems to work for her.

    I don’t know how quickly or slowly other people put their words on the paper, but I expect that style and pace are very unique equations for each person. Two people may put out 3000 words a day and have vastly different styles in terms of how things come off on the page; same for people who put out 250/day. For some, the pace may impact how the final prose reads*; for others, the only result may be people saying, “Hey, author X put out another amazing book this year. Sweet!” But no, I don’t think pace of production is a necessary corollary to the perceived beauty of the prose (“beauty” being highly subjective, anyhow).

    As for it being a choice: again, I think it depends on the writer. If slowing down seems to help you put down smoother, more precise prose, great; but if it does nothing but slow you down, why bother? It’s up to each writer to find out what works for them, be it speed of writing, or frequency, or what have you, and whether they are happy with the results.

    *= I don’t want to overlook the huge impact of things like revision, first readers, editors, and so on on the final version of a piece. Speed of production is only one small aspect involved in producing the (hopefully) polished work readers ultimately see.

  17. 17. Andrew A. A.

    The other day I was fishing (not writing) near a beach and I heard two women talking about their new workout programs. Neither particularily fit the profile of healthy but one was bragging how much she did that morning, “I did ten curls of 2 lbs and I walked the treadmill for ten full minutes. And I… Boy am I sore.”

    At first I was confused by this crowing. As one who tries to stay in shape (though I’ve fallen a few times — I’m not as healthy as when I was 29 for sure), in my mind the workout program sounded very minimal. Then I realized that her explanations were less about boasting and more about support from a friend.

    I’ve heard others complain about workout programs being too difficult or “I shouldn’t hurt like this in the morning.”, “Its not worth it.” and “there’s got to be a better way.”. Its hard to explain that this is a process to building health, tearing down prexisting bodily problems and reconstructing them into something hopefully healthier.

    I am a slow writer but a frantic story creater. New stories come into my head almost everyday and sometimes a dozen will fill my mind in an hour. Words are difficult for me at times; the eb and flow of prose and grammatical correctness especially. I have the freedom to write whenever I choose (lucky me) and I find that my discipline varies but my procrastination is constant. There are times that I need to get the idea on paper and other times I need encouragement from a friend to continue a storyline. And sometimes I just have no confidence in the well to keep it up.

    Perhaps, I would be better if the process didn’t hurt so much.

  18. 18. Stevie Carroll

    I’m another who writes during lunchtime at work. Not always, and it’s trickier at the moment as I’m temporarily in the corner of an open plan office rather than in an office of my own (I thought I’d found an empty room in which to write, but then it started being used to store stuff with no space for me to sit anymore).

    A couple of weeks without my writing break, though, and I’m ready to get down to it again on Monday.

  19. 19. Tom

    Saracen wrote: I can write badly at anytime, why wait for inspiration to do it…

    That is priceless. Bravo

  20. 20. Erin K. Coughlin

    When you write, you’re making progress. Even when you’re dry and you know it’s probably bad, you have something that you didn’t have before. Bad writing can be shaped into good. If you decide to wait for the Muse–who is truly a fair-weather friend–and don’t write, you don’t have anything.

  21. 21. Greg B

    I remember Christopher Moore talking in a podcast about how he sets out to write every single day.
    The interviewer asked him “What, so you never take a day off?”
    “Oh no, I have days off,” said Moore, “because somedays I get up and go to the keyboard and there’s nothing coming out. But I still get up and go to the keyboard every day.”

    It’s like quitting smoking, it’s like training for a marathon, it’s like dating someone. If you skip writing for a day, it’s easier to skip two days. If you skip for two days, it’s easier to take a week off.

    But if you allow that writing takes a variety of forms, and you carry a journal with you or whatever your preferred modus of writing is, you suddenly find that on days when you “Don’t Have Time To Write,” you DO have time to write. You just don’t have hours to lounge at a mahogany desk overlooking a Maxfield Parish backyard, licking at your quill pen and waiting for Calliope to bring you the wine of story. If you can only get five minutes of writing in on a day, you’ve written on that day. If you get a luxurious four hours to hammer away at the keys, you’ve written on that day.
    And while she claims to not have written anything bad, I will only say this: if Eleanor Arnason had written even when the muse didn’t strike, if she’d pushed herself more, maybe I wouldn’t have had to use Google to find out who the hell she was.

Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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