Back in December 2009, my wife drew the proverbial line in the sand: I needed to get serious about writing and write, or I needed to quit and not go back. Taking this ultimatum to heart, I decided I wanted to write. Badly.
So I made 2010 the “Year I Got Serious,” and I promised myself that if I quit during this year, I’d put writing behind me — for good.
Problem was, I hadn’t changed my approach. I still believed in the myths — the need to outline in detail, the need to have character sheets, the need to write slowly, the need to rewrite extensively. So by April, I was floundering. I was afraid this was the end. I was going to quit, which meant I’d never go back to writing again.
Meanwhile, I was reading Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. At the time, he was writing a few posts a month on the “myths” of writing. He called the series Killing the Sacred Cows of Writing. I was reading the series on a regular basis. I disagreed with everything he said because, well, he was a media writer, not a real author like so-and-so.
But by mid-May of 2010, I was desperate. I hadn’t written for two weeks, and I wondered if I was ever going to write again. The thought made me very sad. Then I remembered an old saying I first heard from the self-help guru Anthony Robbins: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.
With writing, I’d been doing the same thing over and over for close to 10 years, and the results were always the same. I was following the myths, and therefore I was producing very, very little.
So one Friday in May, I sat down with a large mug of hot coffee, a fresh yellow legal pad, and a blue pen. With my MacBook open, I went to Dean’s sight, found the first post, and started reading. I read every post he’d written, and skimmed through the comments. I made notes. I saw ideas repeated in different ways and in different contexts. Several hours later, with an empty coffee mug and pages of notes, I finished.
What I came away with was a deeper understanding of Robert A. Heinlein’s Rules of Writing:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put your work on the market.
5. You must keep your work on the market until it’s sold.
I also came to understand that the absolute best way to practice Heinlein’s Rules and become a better writer in the process is by writing short fiction. So at the end of that Friday in mid-May 2010, I made the decision to write a story a week and to follow Heinlein’s Rules. I wrote. I finished. I did a spell/grammar check. I sent it out. I’ve been writing ever since, with no thoughts of quitting.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been problem free. Over the years, I’ve come to see that I have a problem with novels. I can’t even begin to count how many I’ve started, but I know how many I’ve finished — three.
By way of comparison, consider that last fall alone, between August and December 2012, I started and stopped five novels.
After thinking about it, I came to see one common element with the novels I finished: I had some kind of outline, nothing too much more than my plot in bullet-point. “Plot” is the linked events of the story, and that’s what I had. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, etc.
So a few months ago, I decided to start a brand new project. I spent about two weeks gathering ideas, developing them, and creating an outline. After a month of writing, I’m 30,000 words into the novel, and things are going well.
But that’s only part of the story. The last 15,000 words have been written over the last 7 to 10 days. What caused the change? A series of posts by Dean Wesley Smith in which he details writing a ghost novel. Following this series opened my eyes to a couple of myths I still cling to:
1. The writing of a novel should be slow — no quicker than 1,000 words a day. Where did this myth come from? Beats me. But think about it: If an average-sized novel is about 90,000 words, 1,000 words a day means you’d write four novels a year. Is four novels a year a lot? For some people … and apparently for me, too … on some level. But if takes me about an hour to write 1,000 words — and it does — that means I’m only putting an hour of writing into my day. That would be very good if I had a 50-hour-a-week job. But I don’t. I’m an at-home dad, and I have at least four to five hours a day to give to writing. But I only have that much time if I think about my writing schedule in a different way. This leads me to my second myth.
2. All writing must be done in a large chunk of time. Read Dean’s post, and you see that he writes in what I call “sessions.” Thirty minutes here, sixty minutes there. How have I thought about writing? Not like that. If I didn’t have at leas 90 minutes in a row free, I didn’t write. This is one reason why I don’t write on weekends. A house full of people means I generally don’t have 90 minutes in a row free. But if I think about writing in short sessions, I bet I could get in at least 250 words on Saturdays and Sundays. Probably more.
3. A novel is an event. This is a myth Dean touched on in his Killing the Sacred Cows series, but I never understood it until this past week. On of my biggest problems with novels is that I see them as events — something that needs to be planned, organized, structured, written slowly, rewritten extensively. Never realized this myth was still with me, but it is.
4. Novel need to be rewritten. This falls into the “novel is an event” category. The novel is so important, I need to work on it and work on it until it’s perfect. Umm … no, I don’t. Fact: A novel is just a long story. Fact: I’m a horrible judge of my stories, long or short. Fact: There’s no such thing as a perfect story or novel. Other than needing to have a plan, I don’t need to do anything more with a novel than what I need to do with a short story: write it, layer in any plot elements that come up in the writing, then give it to my wife. I don’t need to reread it to see if it makes sense. My wife can do that, and I can address those issues.
5. A novel must be outlined. Yes, this is a myth I’ve held on to for a while … but what I’m finding is that I need some kind of outline. The difference? The myth says that, unless you’re as good as Stephen King, all novels must be outlined. That’s not true at all. However, I might need to outline my novels. I have a stack of unfinished novels and a stack of finished novels. What separates them? All the finished novels began with a very basic outline. And what I’m learning writing my current novel, for which I have an outline, is this: I don’t need much more than a bullet-point list of events.
So, what are my epiphanies … my revelations about my own work.
1. I need stop seeing writing as something that needs a chunk of time, but, rather, see it as something I can dip into whenever I have the time. With a little more focus on this and practice, I bet I could get my daily word count up to around 4000 words by the end of the month.
2. I need to apply Heinlein’s Rules to novel writing, not just short stories. This means: I need to write, finish, spell/grammar check, then give it to my wife. There’s no reason to go over it, time and again.
3. I must stop seeing a novel as an event. I’ve got to stop writing “slowly.” I’ve got to stop thinking about taking a “break” between novels to write short fiction. I’ve got to stop thinking a novel should take a long time to write. Summer is coming up, which means I’ll have a house full of kids and summer activities to contend with. But if I can get in 2,000 words a day — should be no problem if I remember to write in bite size sessions — there’s no reason why I can’t write at least one novel beween the beginning of June and mid August. Really, there isn’t.
4. Planning novels need to be kept to a minimum. With my current work in progress, I planned far more than I’m using. I’ll need to assess what I used over the next few weeks so I don’t make the mistake of wasting time and energy on throwaway stuff. And while planning/outlining isn’t necessary, I do seem to work better on a novel, and have more success with them, if I have the basics in mind.