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!

Keeping On Keeping On

Before the post, this is a good time to mention the annual writers’ conference (in the fall) from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL), which I think is the best, most helpful one-day writers’ conference in the–galaxy! (Alas, you have to be at least eighteen for this.) Here’s a link: The FAQ page is especially helpful. Be sure to take note of the deadlines, the cost, the scholarships, and the fact that the deadline for scholarship applicants is earlier than for people who can pay full freight. What’s so great is that it’s a mentorship program. Mentees are assigned mentors, who are usually either agents or editors and occasionally authors, like me, who go almost every year. Your mentor reads up to five pages of your WIP and meets with you about them for forty-five minutes to discuss them. There’s also a session of groups of five mentees with their mentors to discuss the industry and answer questions. Plus a speaker and a panel. I highly recommend it–and I can meet you. We can have lunch together!

When I appealed for questions, Raina came through with several great ones. Here’s the first: How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done.” I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.

On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Right now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can totally relate to these questions, and I’m itching to hear the answers.

Gee, Raina, I think you have this. A couple of posts ago, you wrote about your method of keeping track of your writing time, which is very much like my method. I’m thinking your method doesn’t apply as well to revision for you. I’ll write about that, as well as the more general problem.

Melissa Mead, I’m not sure if I have answers. I just have thoughts.

Two years ago when I was seventy, at my annual checkup, my (now retired, younger than I am) doctor predicted that I’d be healthy for another thirty years. If his crystal ball is right–as it may not be–I’m mid-career, since I started writing (not being published) thirty years ago. Yippee!

And yet, I wake up some mornings wondering if I could start another, different career at my age.

Is this burnout? I don’t know. I know I had trouble deciding on my present project, about the Trojan War. Everything, including this one, seemed too much like what I’ve done before. But I love Greek mythology, and now I’m into it. And I have an idea for another historical novel after this one.

The point is, writing is hard for many writers, including me. We keep learning–forever!–which may be the best thing about it, but new challenges always crop up, and what worked for the last book probably won’t be helpful on this one.

I’ve written about this before here, but below are some strategies that enable me to continue writing:

∙ I have a daily writing-time minimum goal of at least two and a quarter hours. The goal is a goad.

∙ If I don’t meet the goal, I forgive myself. This is super important. If I don’t forgive myself, it’s harder to start the next day.

∙ I’m especially kind to myself when I’m just beginning a book, because that’s the hardest part for me, so I cut myself some slack. Raina, you may do the same for revisions, which may be the time for you for a little coddling. Praise yourself for as much as you do manage.

∙ I don’t allow myself to make global judgments about my work. No, This is so cliche. No, Nobody will want to read this. No, This stinks. Even, This is great is prohibited, because it’s too likely to lead to, What if I mess it up?

∙ I steer clear of thinking about how monumental the task ahead of me is. A novel is big and daunting. We should concentrate on the task at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I shared my WIP so far with my friend, the writer Karen Romano Young (whose marvelous contemporary fantasy and paean to libraries has just come out–A Girl, A Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon), and she shared hers with me, both in the early stages. The critique was super helpful, but equally helpful for both of us was the deadline. I wrote hard to have as many pages as I could to give to her. We’re going to meet again later this month.

So a critique buddy, a writers’ group, beta readers can help us keep going. The advantage of an exchange with other writers is that we’re all equally vulnerable. You see how imperfect my draft can be, and I see how not-ready yours can be. Neither of us feels stupid, or we both feel equally stupid.

What can we do to make revision more tolerable if we hate it?

∙ We can take small bites, as I do when I’m starting a new project. Half an hour of revision may be tolerable, followed by working on a shiny new story.

∙ We can think ahead of time about what we’re going to tackle and set a limited goal, like today I’ll work on the argument between Jeff and his brother. Or, more generally, today I’ll concentrate on dialogue.

∙ Thought control is especially important here. No, It isn’t getting better. No, How many drafts will I have to go through before I’m satisfied, if I ever am?

∙ This is general, but it may apply especially to revision: No book is perfect. Mine aren’t. We strive to write the best book we can, which is all we can do. We can expect to get better over time, but we’ll still never write a perfect book.

As for knowing whether it’s burnout or something else, well, do we ever finish anything? Or is it just this book that has us stymied?

If we never finish, maybe we should try a different kind of writing, like plays or short stories or poems. Or maybe we should try other art forms. Or we can figure that we’re not in a finishing frame of mind and write as far as we can and then start something news. Then we’ll have lots of threads to return to.

If it’s just this book, then maybe we should put it aside until we’re drawn back to it.

As for writing when writing is your job, having a contract does help. I make my deadlines as far in the future as I can get away with, because the idea of being late horrifies me, so I suppose that’s a goad, too. So does not knowing what I would do with myself if I stopped writing.

By now, happily, finances aren’t an issue so much. I get a small pension from my job before I quit to write full-time, social security, and royalties, and they all add up to enough. I’m not sure if finances were ever a factor. Earlier, I figured that if I wasn’t earning enough from writing, I would find a job. After all, I did have a job and write before I got published.

Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has done something terrible, which she regrets and feels ashamed of. What her dreadful deed is is up to you. The do-over wizard arrives and gives her a chance to repair the past. After she’s gone back, matters are different but not better. Write the story with at least seven do-overs until a solution is reached that satisfies her. Have her make discoveries about herself along the way.

∙ Cinderella’s stepfamily are portrait painters. Cinderella is expected to be one, too, and she wants to be! But nothing she paints is good enough, and the art exhibition is coming up. Her stepmom and stepsisters tell her that her work isn’t ready to be shown. Write the story.

∙ The miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear, and the king will execute her if he doesn’t get his gold. In your story, have her do whatever it takes to stay alive–figure out how to do that spinning, or something else. Give her a happy ending, but it’s up to you whether it goes well for the king and the miller.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On April 28th, 2011, Squid, writer, wrote:
1- Where do you write? Virginia Woolf famously said it’s important to have a room of one’s own… How do you arrange your supplies, do you write indoors or outdoors? I’d like to know.
2- What supplies do you use? Do you write first drafts longhand, or do you type them? What journals and pens do you use?

And on January 7, 2012, April wrote, I’m curious for more peeks into your life. Perhaps you could divulge a little more in another post? For example, I read the linked post today about writers’ various quirks. What are some of yours? How do your husband, family, and friends react to your quirks, or to your writerly profession in general (both in the past and presently)?

I write anywhere. Well, not in the shower, but in airports, on planes, in doctors’ waiting rooms (routine exams – I’m not sick). Wherever I shlep my computer I write if I have at least fifteen minutes. At home, I write in my office or on my laptop, which lives in the kitchen when it isn’t traveling with me. In the kitchen, it’s on a counter. I could put it on the table, but I once read that it’s not healthy for people to sit for long periods, so when I’m downstairs, I write standing up. The laptop is called Reggie, named after the dog character in The Wish, years before we got our puppy Reggie.

In my office I sit, except when I get up to pace or to stare out the window. The view is lovely no matter the season: stone walls, ancient tall hemlock, antique outhouse (we do have indoor plumbing).

Right now I’m at a poetry retreat waiting for the day’s session to start. I’m in an austere place, a former orphanage on the grounds of a current convent. My room was once an orphan’s bedroom, and it’s small! There’s no desk, only a bed, wooden chair (no cushion), metal gym locker, narrow bed, high dresser, no private bathroom, alas. I’m standing on tiptoes to type on my laptop atop the dresser.

I wonder what my father, who was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage, would think of me being here. Laugh? Roll over in his grave?

The reason I work anywhere is because I trained myself to be able to many years ago after reading Becoming A Writer (middle school and up, I’d guess; the language is old-fashioned but the ideas are modern) by Dorothea Brande. I travel a fair amount, and I don’t want my work to grind to a halt whenever I leave home. People who can  write only when the moon is full and the stars are in a certain alignment don’t finish many books. In an airport, under a giant TV blasting endless headlines, weather, and commercials, I can work. I’m irritated. I wish the thing would shut up, but I work.

I don’t write outdoors much. In winter it’s too cold, obviously. In warm weather there are bugs and beauty. Beauty distracts me!

My desk in my office is a disaster area. I swear when I finish the first draft of used-to-be-called Beloved Elodie, I’m going to clean it up. If I need a pen, I have to feel through the layers to find it. On the desk is a memento of my father, a gift from one of his friends. It looks like a hinged wooden box. On top there’s writing that says, “For the man who has nothing, something to put it in.” The joke is that when you open the box, it turns out to be just a block of wood. There’s no cavity. My father loved the joke.

This is a poem I wrote about my office, imagining it as part of a museum show of offices of kids’ book writers:

My office

stands in for me, part of an exhibition
children wander through. Jason heads
for the wooden skull from Mexico.
Brianna goes, Ew! and Yuck, don’t touch that.
Ella likes the hand-made Christmas-tree ornaments
around my windows: the quilted heart in muted pinks,
edged by brass beads; the striped parrot;
the black paisley angel. Sara picks up the small,
lead Tinker Bell on my desk. Everyone marvels
at my origami swan made from a Tokyo candy wrapper.
Ms. Kramer points out my English usage books.
Outside, somebody calls, Wow!
J.K. Rowling’s office!

        They’re gone. No one paid attention
to my quiescent computer, with a hundred e-mails
locked inside. The children didn’t notice
the hand-hewn, 1790 oak beam or the 1920s
pewter lamp. They glanced past the photograph
of the rosebud with its red petals folding
in on themselves, its shadowy hole, the two
droplets of dew.

When I’m home I don’t listen to music while I work; I prefer silence.

If the writing isn’t going well, I get sleepy, and I have to take frequent breaks, to stretch, answer an email, anything that will wake me up. I like to write while I eat breakfast and lunch and my nightly snack because I can’t sleep and chew at the same time.

I almost always write directly on the computer, but when I use a pen, it’s a cheap gel pen on a steno pad. I don’t like ballpoints because you have to press too hard, and I don’t like Sharpies because the ink bleeds through to the other side of the paper.

I don’t have a big family, but my husband is delightfully proud of my books. When I’m stuck and suffering, David, who is supremely sympathetic, suffers too.

My sister and his sisters and my brothers-in-law like my work. His sister Amy directs a public library, and I went there to speak. Libraries run in David’s blood; Amy and four cousins are or were librarians (one is retired).

I’m trying to think of a quirky quirk for you. You all know from the blog that I don’t plan my books out ahead of time, that sometimes I wander around in a fog for a ridiculously long time. If I thought it would do any good, I would tie a shoe around my neck, touch Reggie’s nose, stand on my head (if I could) for an hour to make the writing flow. How about this? When I’m describing a facial expression, I’ll do an Google images search for the emotion I want to show,  but I’ll also make faces at myself in the mirror.

When I wrote the Disney fairy books I had to keep scale in mind because the fairies are only five inches tall. I had to ask myself, What’s a five-inch creature in relation to a quart of milk, to a caterpillar, a potato, a cherry? To remind myself I kept a five-inch bottle of hair goop on my desk the whole time.

Here are a few prompts:

∙    One of the exercises we did at the poetry retreat was to write a list poem, which is basically a list. So write a list poem about your writing place. To make it work as a poem, the items should be detailed, can be fantastical. Surprises are nice, and it’s good to end with an item that goes against expectation or packs an emotional wallop.

∙    Sometime before next week’s post, write outside your comfort zone. Write in the living room while the family is watching television. Bring your pad to breakfast and write while you chomp down on your pancakes or your high-fiber cereal. See if you can zone out of the distractions, see if the distractions themselves take you somewhere unexpected.

∙    Again, before next week’s post, write in an unaccustomed mode. If you usually write longhand first, go directly to a computer, or vice versa. See if there’s a change in your writing. Does the new method open you up? (You can then return to your usual way, but sometimes it’s good to shake things up.)

∙    Write a chapter in your future memoir about yourself as a writer, whether or not writing will be your career. What got you started? Write about your real past, but also imagine the future. What has been a turning point or what will be? Describe your greatest past triumph and your greatest upcoming one.

∙    If you like, post your own writing quirks here.

Have fun, and save what you write!