Success Is Dessert

On March 26, 2021, MissMiddle wrote, I was wondering, how many hours do you write per day? I recently read that the most successful authors write for 4+ hours each day. Do you think that’s necessary? I’d love to see a post about how much to write each day and if you already have one it would be great if someone could direct me to it.

At the time I wrote back with this: I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a long time to answer. My minimum daily writing time is 2 1/4 hours. I try to go longer and often do, but sometimes I don’t make even my minimum. I don’t think 4+ hours are a necessity, but consistency is important. If you have little time, try carving out at least 15 minutes a day for writing.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Not long ago, I kept failing to make my time goal. Nothing big was going on, just little diversions that I gave in to. I forgave myself, because forgiveness is the bargain I’ve made, and I think it’s a useful and benevolent one for everyone to make. Otherwise, we pile on blame. We think we don’t have the discipline or the talent to be a writer and we stop writing. But forgiveness turns off the self-recrimination spigot. If we forgive ourselves, tomorrow is free and clear, uncluttered.

When I do make my goal, I feel a little shinier than when I don’t. I think that’s okay.

Mine is a time goal rather than words or pages. If I work the contracted time, it doesn’t matter whether the writing went well or horribly. A page or word requirement would add an additional milestone I’d have to meet to get the shine. Some days I mostly write notes about my story or do research (which I count) and I wouldn’t get to, say, two pages in ten hours. I know by now that if I put in the hours, eventually the writing will figure itself out and I’ll finish a book.

There is no fixed length of time one has to write every day to be successful. We don’t even have to write every day. We’re all different. The only imperative is that we write frequently enough to produce stories. How many stories and how often also vary from writer to writer.

Having said that, though, discipline is essential to writing and to getting better as a writer, which we can’t do if we don’t, er, write. When I’m revising, I can keep at it almost endlessly, but when I’m starting a new story or writing notes about it—the hardest part for me—sticking to the work can be torture. Discipline is no problem during the easy phases!

A daily goal of some kind is helpful for the hard parts. We want to establish a habit. If we get used to writing for, say, half an hour a day, the act will become like brushing our teeth, part of what we do, and we’ll feel strange and unlike ourselves when we don’t do it.

But it isn’t enough for me to say, Just pick a goal and make it a habit. In my own experience as a failed visual artist, I know that expressing our creativity is hard. Not being creative, When I googled Why is creativity hard?, I found this lovely quote from Lewis Mumford who wrote The Myth of the Machine: “Anyone who says ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’ is seriously underestimating their skeleton.  More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.”

What’s super difficult is hauling that creativity from our bones out into the world. During my long writing apprenticeship, I made lots of friends among my fellow wannabes, and I watched quite a few give up for one reason or another, but not because they weren’t creative.

Googling led me to an article in Psychology Today called “10 Reasons Why We Struggle With Creativity” by David DiSalvo—but before you google it too, know that I think it’s for high-school-and-above people. Two of the ten reasons jumped out at me. The first sounds discouraging even self-defeating: that we can attain the self-confidence to produce creative work (writing for us) only by failing to produce work we have confidence in.

The secret weapon, though, is that now you know. We have to fail, probably again and again, to succeed in the end. Most of you know that it took me nine years for one of my stories (Ella) to be accepted. And it’s not that everything I write is a success. In every book, I fail myriad times. Right now, working on my memoir, which I think I’ve mentioned, I’m finding it astonishingly hard to make it chronological, as a beta reader has said I must. I keep wandering off on tangents. But by now I do have confidence. Understanding the necessity of failure will let you fortify yourself. We tighten our stomachs and yell into the wind, “This isn’t working. Too bad.” Off we go, trying again or starting that new idea.

The second reason goes with the first, that the failing we must do sets off memories of other failures and a cascade of self-criticism. How can we ever succeed if we’ve already proven ourselves to—fill in the blank: have only stupid ideas, sputter out every time without finishing, write awkward sentence after awkward sentence, be unable to build a world, stink at endings, stink at beginnings? I can go on and on. I bet you can too. We have to fortify ourselves against our excellent memories. We can replace memories with facts. How long did it take the Wright Brothers to figure out flight? How long did medicine stumble before germ theory was discovered? Failure should be embraced!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write for fifteen minutes a day for the next seven days. You can vary the time. If you have to, do it before you go to sleep.
  • Pick an unfinished story of yours and work on it. Doesn’t matter if you fail to improve it. Remind yourself that in the meal of writing (or creativity), failure is the appetizer and entrée; success is dessert.
  • Write about an athlete training for the Olympics. Make the athlete fail the trial. Decide what they make of the failure and do about it. The ending can be triumphant—or not.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. That was a really good post! The habit that I use is trying to write 500 words a day. And like you said, it just became a part of me, and I don’t feel myself when I don’t do it!

    On a side note, I was wondering how much editing that you really have to do? I have never edited any of the stories that I’ve written but I know that I’ll have to if I want to be published one day. It would be great if you could write a post on this one day.

    • I’ve always really struggled with editing, so the thing that really helped me is this:


      I found that when I try to edit, I have a hard time knowing what to cut, what to fix, and typically end up just fixing spelling and grammar mistakes instead. Which is supposed to be the last stage of editing, not the first. Instead, I try to rewrite a scene, or sometimes even an entire act. And it works! I find that now that I’m familiar with the story, writing it a second time allows me to be more deliberate with things like set up and payoff, character introductions, theme, and more.

      If rewriting the entire thing is too daunting, I would suggest starting with the scenes that already feel clunky. That way you already can get excited about making the scene work better. Once you have those changes made, you can then work on the rest, making smaller changes that help keep the continuity with the larger changes you’ve made.

      I recently finished writing the second draft of my screenplay using this method, and it was so fulfilling! I loved seeing my story come to life anew. Hope this helps!

  2. Your posts are always thoughtful and inspirational. All my journals include inspirational quotes from my favorite authors. Usually the mentoring and creative ideas come from MG authors such as you.
    My writing is usually about 250 words because ‘tween characters are exhausted when they finish sharing their thoughts with me. Beth

  3. My goal is to write at least a chapter a week. That way I have more leeway if something comes up and I can’t write/concentrate one day. If I finish my chapter, I’m allowed to work on a different project. I have a writers group where we submit one chapter a week for critique, plus my kids want to hear me read each chapter as soon as it’s written, so those all help with motivation.

  4. I have a question for Christie. Is your new book a children’s book? I looked at the link on amazon, and it said it was YA, but I don’t know the age that’s considered YA anymore. For example, I got Ever from the library once and it was in the YA section, but it said ten and up.

    • The main character is 17. There is some violence (considering it’s happening in a war), but I was comfortable reading it to my younger children. So it is YA, targeted primarily for 16-18 year olds, but my 10-year-old son and 50-ish mom both enjoyed it.

      In general, YA is considered around 15-18 (with the main character usually being 16-18), but plenty of people not in that age group still read it. What people think is appropriate for that age group can vary dramatically. YA is generally considered to still be children’s books.

  5. Okay. I’m twelve, and read mostly YA [Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and I also loved The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill] so next library trip, I’m going to look for it. I love fairy tale retellings. [The Land of Stories b Chris Colfer, Whatever After by Sarah Mynowski]
    I’m so excited to read it!

  6. Does anybody have any advice on writing Irish accents? I thought at first that Hagrid from Harry Potter had an Irish accent, but in rereading the books, I realized it’s not.
    [I’m sorry for posting so much. I have nowhere else to go – unless you count the section on writing novels at my library – when I have writing questions.]

    • Eoin Colfer is Irish, so you might try his books (MG-YA, depending on the series), although I’m not sure how many of them are set in Ireland rather than England.

    • I can’t say I have advice on accent, or at least not on whether there’s a good way to spell things to show the pronunciation. Brian Jacques did a lot of different accents with his Redwall books, but I take it most of them are from different parts of Great Britain, and probably not Ireland. You could take a look for inspiration, though.

      But what I really recommend is using Irish terms. Like “plaster” instead of “band-aid,” “jumper” instead of “hoodie,” “chips” instead of “French fries,” and “crisps” instead of “chips.” You could probably find lists online. But do your research on how the terms are used, and watch out for homophones–i.e. the Irish “lorry” means “truck,” but “truck” can refer to several different vehicles in America, and a pickup truck is not a lorry. I embarrassed myself with that one when I was in Ireland last summer!

      Don’t go overboard with the terms, though. You’ll want to just give a bit of Irish flavor, and not a language lesson.

  7. I love Eoin Colfer, but completely forgot about those books! I think that Artemis Fowl are the very best ones. Thanks Katie. I’ll reread the first one tomorrow

  8. If anyone’s collecting weird writer stories, here’s one:
    I was looking through my old stories trying to find the name of a particular healing plant and found one from 2017. As I was reading it, I realized that the MC was basically a less-angry version of Zuko from Last Airbender. The crazy part? I didn’t have any idea Last Airbender even existed for another three years. In other words, I basically wrote an alternate reality for a character in a TV show I’d never seen and didn’t recognize the name of.
    All I can say is that I was on an LOTR kick at the time and was trying to make the MC not-Faramir. Clearly, I succeeded.

    • I have a similar one. I developed my ideas for six elements based on the six colors back in middle school. When I wrote my first book, there’s a small, scrappy girl “earth-bender” who’s neglected by her parents and joins the main characters despite her attitude and sometimes friction. She’s not blind, but she ended up a lot like Toph. I didn’t watch the show until I’d written the first three or four books in the series.

  9. Gail Carson Levine, I think your stories are wonderfully written and well detailed. I wanted to know if you had any tips on giving characters vivid personalities and enhancing the details used in a work?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you! These are very big questions! I’d suggest looking at the categories here on the blog and see which ones may be helpful.

  10. How do you avoid getting distracted? I have a current novel I’m working on, but I keep coming up with new ideas and getting distracted.

  11. I would try writing your ideas down. Not the full thing, just the base or summary of them. I did that when I got ideas for the later books in the hopefully series of my WIP. I keep a Word document titled “Notes” in my folder. I’ve found that it really comes in handy.

    • Yep, I do that too. Usually, once I’ve described the shiny new idea, it’ll leave me alone and let me focus on my top priority project. I also keep a list/spreadsheet of projects I want to do so that I can track priorities and status of each one coming up.

  12. The Argentine writer Hugo Wast wrote a book about writing called “Vocación de escritor” (Writer’s Vocation). There he advises writing a promedio of 450 words a day. But those words have to be the result of maybe many hours of work, writing and rewriting, they have to be useful. He also says you have to be consistent; it is better to write every day just 400-500 words than to one day write 3000 words or more and then be exhausted: next time you will be lazy and you’ll take a day off (or many days).
    Also, Maugham said that he never worked more than 4 hours: he always started at 8:30 a.m. and finished at 12:30.

  13. Delyla P. says:

    How was everyone’s Camp NaNoWriMo? How many of you participated? Did any of you finish yours?
    I ended up finishing mine plus some, which I’d never done before, and am super proud about.
    I can’t wait for July!

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