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!

Trapped by the (inter)net

Before the post, I have a question: Are there words, other than curse words, that make you cringe? I read that the word moist is the most disliked word in English, but I don’t mind it. I do intensely dislike two other perfectly good words: scurry and smirk. I’m trying to get past my aversion because I’d like to be able to use them. Do any of you have words that get unpleasantly under your skin, that you shrink from using, that cause a shudder when you read them?

On June 12, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you focus on your writing instead of getting distracted by the internet? My computer broke down so I have to borrow my husband’s, which means that I have to have internet access to get to my files. It doesn’t help either that my main WIP is being reviewed by beta-readers at the moment so I need to start something new in order to keep up the writing habit. Anyway, what tips do you have for staying focused and actually writing?

I got mixed up when I copied the responses over to my list, so what follows may not be in the order in which it came in:

Song4myKing: I do have one trick that helps me – location (I use a laptop). Upstairs, at my desk, where internet is sometimes a little flaky anyway, I’ve instituted a personal “no internet except email” ultimatum. Even if the email sounds like something interesting on Facebook or Pinterest and includes a handy link. When I want to do something on internet, yes, including reading a blog about writing, I do it downstairs on the family computer, or bring my laptop down. Bringing my laptop down sometimes has the unfortunate effect of the laptop staying downstairs for a few days. But I think over all, writing-only time has improved, and internet time-wasting has decreased since I started.

Kitty: What type of computer is it? Do you use Google Docs or Word? If you use Word (or whatever the Mac/Linux equivalent is), there shouldn’t be a problem working offline. If you’re using Google Docs and a Chromebook, there’s a “work offline” feature in the built-in Google Drive app. If you’re using Google Docs on a PC, then there’s a Google Drive app you can download, but I’m not sure if it has the same features as the Chromebook one.

These are super helpful!

I confess I haven’t been very focused in the last week or so, and I haven’t often met my day’s writing goal. Tomorrow looks pretty good, however, for low distractions. It’s interesting that future time generally looks less cluttered than present or near-present.

Here are some of the ways I keep distraction down. I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn, but I hardly ever go near them. I’m not on Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat (do I have that one right?) or anything else.

It’s not at all that I sneer at these programs. I fear them! I think I’d love them and get sucked in, so I just keep them out of my life.

I have been struggling with a computer-related addiction, however, which I mentioned once before here. It’s a form of solitaire called Free Cell, and I play it too much. It presents a little puzzle that takes anywhere from three minutes to fifteen to solve. After you play a while, you almost always win, but some of the games are hard. I can feel my brain buzz when I even think about playing. I do manage to keep it down. I never play more than one game at a time and I usually interrupt myself on the long ones, but it’s hard, and I have dire imaginings of myself in a small cell, gibbering, and playing Free Cell again and again on my phone. When my rehab counselors take the phone away, I play in the air with imagined cards. The way back is a long, uphill slog.

I’m also incapable of ignoring emails and text messages–or, while the weather is still fine–the real-life implorings of Reggie to come outside and play with him.

My main method of getting in enough writing to keep me from a severe guilt attack, is to keep track of my writing time. Say I start at 8:03, I type that in to my Time document. And say that at 8:07 an email comes in, and it’s one that interests me. I type 8:07, read the email, go back to my Time page and type 8:10 and continue writing. By the end of a writing day, I may have twenty start-and-stop listings, and I know exactly how much time I actually put in. My minimum is two-and-a-quarter hours, but I try for more. If I make the minimum, however, I can feel okay about the day.

And if I don’t make it, which I sometimes don’t, I forgive myself–essential for being able to get started again the next day.

Oh, and there is a kind of computer activity that I count as writing. If I Google something I need to know for my story, I don’t call a time-out. For example, in my WIP, Ogre Enchanted, my MC is a healer, and I’m often looking up herbal remedies. I don’t think I should be penalized for that! But I try not to be sucked in to expanding my search or lingering more than I should.

I’ve also been sending fifty page chunks of manuscript to my editor, because I want to know if I’m going off-course. I don’t have a deadline for that, but it is a goad. I want to get her the pages. I want to power through another fifty pages, which will get me closer to “The End.” I want to impress her with my productivity. If I let myself get lost online or with Free Cell, none of this will happen.

You may not have an editor who’s willing to look at your work as you’re writing it, but you may be able to exchange work with another writer in chunks like this. Or with a family member, a teacher, a librarian.

For poetry, I’m in a little critique group that meets every two weeks, which means that I have to come up with a poem, and that focuses my mind. Let me just add–off-topic–that needing to produce a poem wakes me up to the world. I never know where my next poem will come from, so I pay attention.

I have other assists that you all may not have. The book I’m working has a deadline (January 1, 2018), and that is a powerful motivator. When I get it done, my editor will, I hope, want another book. There will be another contract and another advance, because I earn my living this way.

Even if you don’t yet get paid for your writing, you can regard it as a job, or as prep for your future, and you can use that notion to keep yourself moving. But don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with if you don’t meet your goals. Forgive yourself and climb back in the saddle.

A lot of you participate in NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo camp. This is a great way to keep yourself out of the online rabbit hole.

I love this blog, as you all know. I love the questions you ask and the help you give each other, but please don’t let it be part of the problem. There’s kind of a pull, when someone asks for aid. But giving it shouldn’t come at a cost to your own work.

And none of the advice above should fuel self-criticism. Everybody writes at his or her own pace.

Here are four prompts:

∙ This comes from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It’s very old–eighty years, maybe, and old-fashioned–written for adults, but nothing in it will hurt anyone, I don’t think, and it’s useful. She offers this exercise, which I’ve modified: Wake up twenty minutes early every day until the next post and write for the twenty minutes. Pee, if you must, but don’t dress, drink coffee, turn on the TV, or look at anything online. If possible, don’t talk to anyone. Work on your WIP or journal or write notes or a rant, whatever. Report how it went after the next post.

∙ If you have a meal by yourself or can make yourself alone, write while you eat. I do this at lunch and sometimes breakfast. After I eat, I often get sleepy, but chewing keeps me awake. Don’t look online. Just eat and write. Do this until the next post and report back.

∙ Try my practice of recording your writing times. Set a daily goal and keep track. If you don’t make it for one day, forgive yourself and go back to it. Report on how this went.

∙ Keep a Bridget Jones (high school and up) type diary of your writing life. Or write about a character who’s a tormented writer and write her story for her.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Time to write

Before I start I want to mention the book I just finished, Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories by Nancy Willard, a wonderful collection of essays about writing. It’s not so much a how-to as reflections. I recommend it to anyone high school and above. You can certainly try it if you’re younger, but I think it will have more meaning later on.

On November 23, 2010, Mya wrote, Homework load seems to increase every year through high school, and though I badly want to write, sometimes I can’t seem to find the time. So I was wondering, how do you organize your writing time? And there is also the fact real life can drain so much energy that makes you too tired to type a single word. How do you get inspired once more, and relax into the mood?

I don’t have the tiredness problem. I have lots of energy. For that, my suggestions are mostly general health ones, like getting enough sleep (not always possible), eating sensibly, etc., etc. The only other thought is to journal. If real life is getting in the way, it may be helpful to write about what’s going on. Vent. Scream and rant on the page. Then you may find you’ve cleared space for your creative work.

A few years ago my long-time critique buddy got very sick. She’s better now, but she had a brain injury and isn’t writing the way she used to and can’t evaluate my work anymore either. Aside from the sadness of this, her absence has slowed me down. She and I used to meet weekly, and I always wanted to have work to show her, which was a goad to keep me going. I’ve written several books since she and I stopped sharing, but it’s been harder.

Next week I’m starting with a new critique pal, which I hope will help me the way my friend used to.

So that’s one strategy, to hook up with another writer or join a writing group, which I’ve written about in earlier posts. In order for this to work, your writing partner needs to be someone encouraging, someone who likes your work. There’s no better incentive than thinking, I can’t wait for him to see this. He’s going to love it. But if your critique-mate is hyper-critical and seems not to admire your work, you may actually write less, and you may regard your sessions together as the equivalent of oral surgery.

When I was starting to write, one of the most helpful books I discovered was Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It was written almost a century ago, and the language is dated, but the ideas aren’t. At one point the author instructs the reader to set aside a particular fifteen minutes a day for writing. No matter what may come for a week, a month – I don’t remember which – you have to write during that time. Then she tells you to write for fifteen minutes at different times, random times. The idea is to accustom yourself to writing whenever possible in any circumstance and not to depend on a muse or a mood. If you can write only in your office or only when there’s absolute silence, your opportunities narrow. I write in airports, on planes and trains, in hotel rooms. Sometimes it’s hard, like if someone nearby is talking on a cell phone, but usually I can block out the noise.

Dorothea Brande has another suggestion, which I haven’t followed, but which I offer because it’s probably worthwhile, and that is to write right after waking up, before you’ve had your coffee or changed out of your jammies, and especially before you read anything, preferably before you speak to anyone. The idea here is that your mind will be empty of your conventional way of thinking and surprising ideas will pop up.

Mya, I am not good at organizing my writing time. I write while I eat breakfast and while I eat lunch and at night when I have my snack. That’s an hour or so. And then I write in between, but I’m very distractible. If an email comes in, I look at it. People rarely have to wait long for an answer from me. Phone rings, I pick it up. Right now, in addition to working on my next book, I’m preparing two speeches, and tomorrow I’ll spend most of the day on them. I’m not a role model. Better to follow authors who set a page goal for themselves and stick to it. These admirable folk turn out their quota even if they have to stay up till three in the morning to do it, or if they have a fever of 104, or if their furnace dies. Or follow the authors who write for four hours a day, every day.

A book that’s wonderful on the subject of discipline is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (middle school and above). Lamott is eloquent and funny about staying focused and how hard that is. Besides, her writing is a pleasure to read.

Still, whenever there’s nothing that seems more pressing, which is often, I write. I take my laptop with me when I think I may have down time, like when I have a doctor’s appointment. And in my slow, erratic way I complete books. My publishers and my readers might be happier if I wrote more, and maybe someday I’ll figure out how to do that. Until then, I’m plodding along.

I’m much better at revising. When I’m revising I don’t get up to look out the window every half hour. I stick with it, because I love revising more than I love grinding out a first draft. Revising never lasts long enough; I enjoy it so much I finish it quicker. We’re all different, of course. You may hate revising.

Anyway, the point is to keep writing. If you continue to write, you’ll finish one story and then another and then another, and you’ll build up a body of work, something to be mighty proud of.

Here are some prompts:

∙    Try these exercises based on Dorothea Brande’s book. For the next week, write for fifteen minutes as soon as you wake up. For the week after that, write for fifteen minutes when you get home at the end of your day. And for the following week, write at a variety of times and places for fifteen minutes every day.

∙    There are a zillion books and movies about blocked writers, probably because the authors and screenwriters are writing what they know. It’s your turn. Aster, your main character, is taking a creative writing class and has to write something and can think of nothing. Her failure spills over into other parts of her life: friends, family, pet frog, after-school job, whatever. Write her misery and then decide whether or not to rescue her. Of course you can move this into fantasy, so long as writing is involved. Aster can be a gnome who has to write a book about mining.

Have fun, and save what you write!