|Step one: denial.|
Step two: ?????
Step three: Profit.
Image description: Coffee mug with text "I'm not addicted
to writing. We are just in a very committed relationship
1- Remember that you don't have to write.
You really don't have to write. Really. You don't have to write at all. But even if you do write, you don't have to have the dysfunctional relationship that most of your author heroes have with writing where their work-life balance is kind of fucked up and they're sort of addicts whose drug of choice is words. You don't have to do it if you don't like it that much–even if you are good at it. You don't have to write more often than you enjoy writing. You don't have to do it in a way that's dedicated to improving and output and feels a lot like work. You can even do it simply for your own enjoyment, and never mess around with the soul crushing work of trying to make money. And if you do make money, it can be a sideline gig–not necessarily something you have to do for fifty hours a week trying to scrape together enough audience that someday you might not need that day job as well.
You decide your own level of committment.
If you want to torch your social life, live like an aesthetic so that you don't need to work full time, and spend a full-time job's worth of hours clacking away for just the chance at career income, welcome to the poor life choices club and may the odds be ever in your favor. We sincerely hope you like writing for its own sake because the lack of groupie threesomes is deplorable!
But if you just want to write a few hours on weekends and enjoy the video game/movie money that you get from selling the occasional short story–possibly while you putter on your novel for a few years–that's okay too.
Now, if you are struggling with the ability to write a certain amount, your decision might feel like it's out of your hands, but really it needs to be made with even more conscious and deliberate thought because everything you might decide to give to writing will "cost" you more. This decision becomes more important than ever if it's going to take you twice as much effort to go from casual writing to trying to get paid as it might someone without the same kinds of circumstantial fetters.
Most aspiring writers never face this simple question: how much do they actually even like writing? What do they want to give to writing? Will it be a hobby or a job or a career? It's like the mirror test in Never Ending Story that reveals one's true nature, but they never even get past the laser sphinxes. (What? 1984 pop culture references are too old for you? That's not that long ago. Only...um....carry the three...OH MY GOD!)
|What happens to folks who want to BE writers but don't like writing that much: day three.|
Image description. GIF of armor's helmet opening to reveal a charred skull
and Atrau recoiling.
2- This is a piece of the puzzle. And most of it is out of your control.
Writing every day is very important, but it's a piece of the puzzle and should be seen as such. Success, in whatever way you define such a thing, is usually based on a lot of things. If I were to make a list of factors which statistically affect a writer's success more than anything else, reading would be the top of the list. But what comes next might surprise you. If your goal is simply to be published by a major publisher, statistically speaking, being raised middle class (or higher) would actually be more important than writing daily.
No, I'm not making that up.
Such wealth tends to afford opportunities for time off to write, writing programs that will force productivity, schooling (maybe even writing school), can pay for really great developmental editors, can shop the book and fail for years without making money from it, and so on.
Also...consider this: based on what makes money and gets published, being white, male, and cis would be pretty high up there too. Being heterosexual would rank even though there have been some inroads in gay and lesbian literature.
No one is out there giving the advice "Go be upper-middle class." (Every once in a while you get some really salty old writer who is completely out of fucks and lays the shit down with a gruff: "Wanna be a writer? Marry rich. Fuck that person so good that their eyes permacross, and when you ask if you can work part time and write, they'll say, 'Follow your dreams baby! Just keep laying me like that in the meantime!'") We put all our eggs in this daily-writing basket because for many people it's one of the only things they are in control of. We can't change our gender or our race. There's way less class mobility than anyone in this "meritocracy" wants you to think. But we can sit down and write every day.
At least many of us can.
For those that can't, keep in mind that the calculus for traditional success is based on a lot of systematic problems. Not being able to write every day is not the single most important factor, nor is an inability to do so somehow under your control just because our culture has difficulty talking about disability as anything but a moral failing.
3- Be realistic about your limitations when defining success.
I don't want this to sound like "lower the bar." But everybody has to decide what they mean when they say they want to be a successful writer.
Most writers never do this. They never sit and think about what they want. Do they want to publish a novel? Publish a trilogy? Make some money? Get a fan letter? I once sat on a panel with someone whose yardstick for success was based on one thing alone: if someone out there wrote fanfic about their books. (That is, someone cared enough about those characters and that world to add to it somehow.) Have a cult following? Make a million dollars?
|Image description: Justin Bieber groupies.|
Most writers, if they think about what they want from writing at all, always want more. If they get the book, they want a big five. If they get the big five, they want a best seller. If they get a best seller they want a NY Times review. If they get a NY Times review, they want a great one. If they get a great one, they want a career of bestsellers. And suddenly you have some of the most successful writers of our generation still comparing themselves to the likes of King and Rowling (or Bulawayo and Alexie if you want to go to the "literary" side). It's never quite enough.
Maybe you have to give up the idea of the Stephen King career if you can't write more than five hours a week reliably or don't want to treat writing like it's a job. (That guy writes ten pages a day when he's off his game.) But you sure don't have to give up the idea of being published or making (a little) money. You sure don't have to give up the idea of having a reader walk up to you and say "Thank you for writing this. This meant something real to me."
4- Writing daily isn’t necessary to be a writer.
You know what you have to do to be a writer? You have to write. End of line. Done. Finito. That's all she wrote. Kick the tires and light the fires. I AM OUTOFHERE!
That's the end of anyone prescriptively being able to tell you what it takes. If anyone wants to be an elitist sphincter wipe about gatekeeping what being "A Writer™" means, they are being a shitheel, shouldn't do that, and you have my permission to hit them with a hardbound copy of House of Leaves.
Writers have this....thing. They sure do like to be elitist fuckers. "That person is so commercial. My writing is more substantive." "That writer doesn't have many readers. Look at how many books I've sold." "They're okay, but never made any money." "Oh they're fine if you like that sort of experimental stuff. I prefer something people might actually read." "That writer is too avant guard." "They're okay...for genre." My personal favorite: "Oh you're a...blogger." (For maximum effect, imagine about a half a second pause between "blog" and "er.") Everyone wants to bolster their own claims of grandeur within the maelstrom of gazillions of writers (and no short supply of would be writer delusions, it's true) by taking everyone else down a peg or three as "not really real writers." But it's so much fucking bullshit.
These people who turn writing advice into prescriptive nonsense and gatekeeping are just full of themselves. Is writing every day good advice? Yes. (Actually it's great advice.) Does that make anyone who doesn't "Not a Real Writer"? Fuck that. And fuck anybody who thinks they get to arbitrate that sort of thing.
And here's the punchline to this shitty joke about who the hell died and made them the king of the really real writers: They're never going to bequeath you this status you crave anyway. I know people with three books and an MFA who write for hours every day and still struggle with imposter syndrome. I know people with five New York Times best sellers who still flinch at the idea that they're not real writers yet. Sometimes you just have to learn to find that sense of who you are by reaching in.
Being a writer (A really really real True Writer™) doesn't have to be anything more than writing. And if you get artistic fulfillment out of writing twice a month, enjoy that. That is what it's all about because it's sure not about money or fame.
A lot of writers never got through the Valley of Self Validation. They spend their lives looking to other writers to give them that nod that they think will be what they need to feel real. And they just keep looking. And they miss a lot of what writing makes great because instead of enjoying their relationship with it, they're chasing something that's always going to be just out of reach.
5- Get as close as you can.
Okay. Time to give the devil its due. Writing every day is a really good way to not only to get better at writing, but to build a body of works and once you start having an audience, it keeps you relevant. It's good advice.
It's great advice.
This is the reason so many people love NaNoWriMo even though they can't keep up with it for the whole month. It forces them into a container of extremely effective discipline. (Ironically they then are annoyed by the idea of writing every day for the other eleven months.) What Nano fosters is a daily expectation and many of these writers discover that coming to the page day after day starts to expand their creativity and productivity. Suddenly they're writing at a clip with the proverbial wind in their hair and it feels great.
Yes, indeedy that's the snake oil I've been selling for years now.
So get as close to it as you can. If you can't write three days a week, write the other four. If you can't write five or ten days a month, you write the other twenty or twenty-five. Permission and understanding with your limitations is essential to your self-care, but a boot in your ass might be needed during the other times. Grab ten minutes here. A half hour there. Write a sentence–just one damned sentence. Do what you can do.
A lot of writers who can write every day fall the fuck to pieces when they can't for some reason. Family emergency hits and it's like watching someone punch the bottom of the Jenga tower on the first move. (Ironically, the elitist sphincter wipes will suddenly understand fully the inability to write daily. This compassion will, of course, disappear as soon as they can do it again.) Writers who lose the ability to go full bore don't just fall behind on some of the writing, but all of it. A monkey wrench in their gears and they can be out of commission for weeks or even months. It's because they never learned how to do as much as they could. It's all or nothing, and that fucks them up.
6- Mind the gap.
Remember when I said that writers had to have a brutally honest relationship with themselves? Yeeeeeeaaaaah. About that. That sound you hear is the music. Time to face it.
No one gets to tell you that your reason for not writing doesn't count. (And fuck their bullshit shitface shit if they try.) You may even have to learn to be a little gentle with yourself for the sake of self care, and not push so hard that you end up making things worse....
....but at the end of the day you also have to patrol that border from the other side.
You can't let your reason become your excuse.
I wish I could tell you it's not easy when you've got a built in reason not to write No one around you will judge. (If they do, you Deep Blue Sea those fuckers right in mid speech like the genetic killing machine you are.)
|"Does Marcellus Wallace look like a shark?"|
Image description: Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea
But you also have to be honest about if you probably can write and are using a built in reason not to. It can be deliciously seductive when you can even mostly fool yourself. Only you know the truth Grasshopper, and I'm not here to judge, but you have to be super honest with yourself.
Because the wonderful world of writing success (whatever that means to you) doesn't give a shit whether you have a completely valid reason or not. No agent is going to turn down your book, but then recant when you explain that you actually can't write every day. So it's up to you to hit those targets as hard and as often as you can.
Most writers never hit this point of candid self reflection. They're always just a bit self-deluding when it comes to themselves and their work, and for most of them it's a fatal disconnection with any hope of writing success. That book of theirs is almost done. They're just about to have the time to really commit to a second draft. They are sure they don't need another revision even though they got a stack of form rejections. They just know they are going to be the next Dan Brown even though their great idea has been stuck on chapter 6 for a decade. They never quite cultivate that inner voice that says "You are not that great, your shit is not that brilliant, and you fucking need to get your ass to work."
7- One of the main reasons writers advise daily writing is because sitting down is discipline and creativity is a habit.
There are several reasons to write daily.
Improving craft. Building a body of works (which even if you don't use directly, you can draw from). Expanding your vocabulary. Even emotional processing.
But two of the reasons most responsible for the unswerving ubiquity of the advice to write daily are that it cultivates the discipline to write for longer and that it taps into whatever primal neurological functions are responsible for creativity.
When we first start to sit and write, we're probably good for about ten to fifteen minutes, and that ten to fifteen minutes comes at lurch. We struggle for that first word, gain a spurt of creative flow, and are done faster than an awkward 80s movie virgin dude.
Text on a wavy background:
"You can't use up creativity.
The more you use, the more you have.
The second component might be even more incredible. Creativity is a habit.
It's like brushing your teeth or doing fifteen push ups before you go to bed at night. If you're not used to doing it, it feels very unnatural and strange. You have to remind yourself–maybe put a post it note on your mirror. You might forget for a few days. But if you keep doing it, pretty soon you're going to start thinking about it before it's time. And the same thing happens with creativity. You do it at the same time every day, and it's not long before you start to get creative BEFORE it's time.
And this is why writers (and all creatives really) advise trying to work at the same time every day. Before you know it, you start to "create" before it's time. Or if you prefer the poetic imagery, your muse will be tamed and will be there waiting for you at the appointed time. For writers that means the words and ideas are gushing sometimes an hour or more before it's time to sit down. Once your muse has been tamed, it'll meet you where you tell it to.
All kinds of people who don't think they are creative at all have tried to do something intentionally creative for a few minutes each day at the same time and ended up after a couple of weeks–lo and behold–discovering that they have amazingly creative wellsprings and fantastic ideas.
But we have this sort of cultural unwillingness to understand creativity as a habit. We don't think of it as something anyone can develop. We are constantly focused on "practical" time management and cramming our schedules full of workouts, self improvement, and professional development. It wouldn't even occur to most people that the idea of spending an hour a day trying to think creatively could be anything but wasting time.
Then we turn around and think of creativity as "genius." It's why people fall over creatives and say "Where do you get your ideas?"
|But I want to be The One. I want to be a talented genius!|
Why is this important if you can't write every day?
The ability to keep writing can be drilled. It's probably easier to extend this period of linguistic focus naturally and doing so over the course of daily writing is the most natural way to do so, but you don't have to.
You can sit and write as fast as you can for as long as you can before you lose concentration. It may have to be free writing because you don't want to be sucking on the end of your pen and wondering what your character's motivation is. If you've never done it before, it'll probably be around ten or fifteen minutes. Then you stop, take about a half an hour break, and do it again. You may want to limit yourself to three or four "sets" before taking a serious break of several hours or an overnight. Pretty soon, you'll notice that you're writing for longer and longer each time. Eventually, you may even find that your ability to write is chiefly governed by things like hand fatigue, hunger, or sleepiness.
Someone who can't write every day can do these deliberate exercises on those days when they can write. In much the same way that a serious athlete with a full time job puts in extra training on the weekends.
Creativity is a habit, and writing is one way to tap it. For a writer, writing is probably the best way to tap it because it will always have a strong connection to words and language. However, the important thing is to do creative in some way. And this is where a lot of the wisdom comes from about "If you can't write every day at least BE A WRITER every day."
Now, I gotta tell you.... Most able bodied, neurotypical, time privileged people see that advice and seize on it as a pretty good reason not to do the work. I mean they LOVE this idea. They will not be brutally honest with themselves. And they will convince themselves that thinking about their characters for two minutes while they wait for their raid guild-mate to "BRB--bio" is totally their day's effort. It's their Get Out of Jail Free card for actually writing, which is why I don't talk about it much.
But we can cultivate our creativity without actually forming words. It won't help you with the skill and craft of writing the way actually writing will, but it will help you with that habitual creativity so that it's there and working for you on a day that works.
The trick here is about thinking creatively. Opening one's mind to what if. Being creative at the appointed time isn't just letting yourself daydream, though. This is hard to explain and why creativity takes some cultivation, but you want to let your mind "wander" without letting it go "out of bounds." You go where the tracks take you, but don't let your train completely derail or jump tracks. It might be particularly useful to imagine your characters in other books and how they would react. (I once had a blast on an airplane where I couldn't write imagining how Hamlet would deal with being in the Hunger Games. It didn't go well for the over-thinker, let me tell you.) You probably can't cultivate a deep and rich habit of creative writing flow from JUST thinking about it, but you can make sure that on days you can't write, you don't lose any ground.
Most writers never learn why they're sitting down to write every day (and preferably at the same time). They sort of just trust that the magical unicorn fairies will show up like always and shoot rainbow splooge of inspiration all over them. Consequently, they never really know how to handle it if they can't write for some reason. They don't realize that a few timed writing exercises and spending twenty minutes in a quiet room imagining their character in a Percy Jackson novel might do the trick.
8-Tap flow Floating Half Hour
Want to hear a secret?
It's true! Sometimes in my life (like right now) I set up schedules that are based on getting up early or writing late because the more everything else is falling apart, the more I need to cling to a disciplined and set writing time. Currently the wake up time is 8 or 9am and I hiss at the day star, question my life choices, but then slink to the computer with a grumble and try to work until mid afternoon. But most of the time, even though there's a sort of general writing time, I am constantly fiddling with the nobs to get a little extra sleep, take care of something that needs doing during office hours, do emergency tag ins, or just take a nap. If I can't write in the morning, I can sit down at night. If not night, that spot in the afternoon.
It's always better to sit down at the same time every day, but that's not always possible . The next best thing is to get your creativity (your muse if you prefer) to work on your schedule. You make that muse be your British Lady's Maid/Valet and not the other way around! That's right folks! After all this talk about creativity showing up at the same time every day, I'm going to hit the big reveal–that's only half the story.
Never since Kaiser Soze has the big reveal been so big.....and revealy.
One of my very favorite books on the process of writing–Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande–extensively outlines the way that writers yearn to have the words simply come when they sit down to the page. But early on in the book she talks about the floating half hour of writing. This is an exercise (much more detail about how and what to expect in the link) where a writer sits down at a different 30 minute window each day. The time moves throughout the day but is scheduled to the day before and considered a "debt of honor" by the writer.
Soon, you find that the words come when you sit down to the page. Every time.
Of course the floating half hour might run into precisely the same kinds of obstacles as writing every day does, and it would be important to give yourself permission for self-care in these situations (as long as you stay brutally honest with yourself). But depending on what the reason is that you can't write daily, you might be able to do this exercise in a limited way. Perhaps you give as many days as you can in a row before the circumstance manifests that makes it impossible, and do it again as soon as you can.
Most writers have not mastered their muse. Their muse has mastered them. The resistance of internal forces to creative expression as soon as it begins to resemble actual work can be quite significant. They write when they are inspired (or not if they aren't) and the idea of simply sitting down when one has time has a strange sort of dread to them. If they have mastered it often it is through a daily regimen that is schedule dependent and has a hard time with even the smallest alterations.
9- Don’t Make it so damned hard. (Yes, that's a link...to an article about JUST this.)
Part of the reason I don’t like NANO (you know...other than all the other reasons) is that it takes this ridiculously difficult daily word count and hangs people's sense of whether or not they've got what it takes on that. Daily writing is great advice, but people hear that and start to get really nervous.
Most writers have off days. They get sick. They have a break up. They literally can't even. When that happens maybe they don't want to sit for five hours in front of their comedy sci-fi novel about Chippy the Chipper Warrior who is just so fucking happy and funny and NICE to everyone that she ends up defeating the genocidal Glurgenots with kindness and being the lord of the universe. Some days are just not Work in Progress days.
Understand that what you're trying to do by writing every day (or almost every day) is the same thing that an athlete would be doing to jog or hit the gym for a light workout during the off season or that a musician doing some scales and a couple of songs on vacation or even someone who tries to speak in a language they're worried about forgetting at least a few minutes a day or a couple of hours a week. You're trying to stay sharp. Practiced. You're trying to keep your edge–or at least not lose it so fast.
The same thing goes for writing every day. You don't have to make every single day a peak performance of six grueling hours in front of your work in progress. (You probably aren't going to get your novel written in a year if you can't sit down and write for a few hours a day, but maybe that isn't your goal.)You can take a day off. You can not write on your book for a week. You can do six days a week instead of seven. You can make your session ten or fifteen minutes long on weekdays. Sometimes it's enough to just keep your craft and skill from atrophying with disuse.
"Write every day" can feel insurmountable if you are expecting Stephen King caliber output every day. But if you stop and think that "writing" might just involve a thoughtful Facebook post where you really think about the language, a few minutes on an e-mail that you compose with some care, or a small journal entry where you play with language a bit. Maybe then the whole concept becomes a little more manageable–despite difficulties.
Most writers never really get this about daily writing. It's all or nothing. It has to be on "the book they want to publish" and it has to be a mind numbing session where they crank out five pages, otherwise they are not worthy of REAL™ writerdom. It never occurs to them that many of the reasons daily writing remains such spectacular advice could be achieved in just a few minutes, could be done on things they probably were going to have to write anyway, and doesn't have to be so damned hard.
10- Do whatever works.
|Image description: Three Stooges gif of someone slapping all three of them at once.|
Most writers never confront this idea that they need to figure out what works for them. They cling to the process of their idols like they are taking a pilgrimage that must be followed exactly or they struggle to pour themselves into some container of One True Way™ they perceive. While some advice is impossible to ignore ("Read a lot.") A lot of knob fiddling can go on to find the individual process that works the best.
As long as you maintain that self-honesty (which is between you and you), no one else has any right to decide if how or when or what you write is worthy or not.
11 Maybe try non-traditional routes
Hey so I totally get that getting an agent and a book deal is an incredibly validating experience and many writers consider it if not the end all goal, at least the first major goal in a series. And if that's your dream wedding and white picket fence, don't let me harsh your squee. Never give up! Never surrender!
However it is important to remember that traditional publishing is motivated by cost analysis. If you can't sell enough books to pay for your book's print run, you need to write something that is SO good, a publisher can't bear to imagine a world without it. Both of those come from someone's decision whether or not to publish.
That means gatekeepers.
|It's always a bad sign when the agent does this.|
Image description: Gandalf icon with text "You shall not pass!"
Gatekeepers read your book and decide if your book is either A) going to make money or B) good enough to lose money on. It can be daunting to consider that one may have to work for literally tens of thousands of hours only to hit a gatekeeper who might shut the whole game down because they don't like your voice.
Non traditional publishing has flung open the doors for all kinds of writers. Yes, there is more dross than ever before as writers ignore editors and go for instant gratification, but there are also choirs of voices that have been pushed to the margins basically since the printing press who can now be heard. The process of finding an audience is more immediate in many non-traditional routes. The immediate feedback can be motivating. And it is possible to tailor one's own schedule a bit. (I often have days that are less writing and more FB/Blog/promotional based when I am feeling particularly ADD/spacey.)
But let me just make this perfectly clear: if there's any group out there who will congregate in large numbers, ravenously consume your fiction no matter how sporadic its schedule of release is, won't care that you didn't take another three years to put it through four more drafts, (and may even give you some money to keep going), they definitely exist online.
12- KEEP YOUR UNIQUE VOICE UNIQUE
Last thing I want to say.
Only you can write like you. Only you have your particular cocktail of experiences and voice. And even if you're not writing autobiographical characters, your writing will be touched by your experience and your life and your unique take on the world.
The world needs that.
Whether you know how difficult maneuvering through a pedestrian world is with PTSD or you know how anxiety and depression team up to eat whole days of life up or you know what it is to be poor and work non-stop to make ends meet in a world of colleagues who had a leg up every step of the way, the world NEEDS to hear your voice. They need to hear your take on things. They need to see life through your eyes. That is something that no one else can do but you.
You might not be able to sit down every day at the same time at your writing desk and put in your monocle and pour a glass of brandy and write like the able bodied, neurotypical, mentally healthy, time privileged folks who seem so comfortable judging your dedication and effort, but you have one thing they don't.
You have your unique voice. And the world needs that.
|Image description: post it with text|
"The world needs your new novel, author.
It's time to get it written.