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bear by san

March 2017



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froud tapestry

This is probably not where Scalzi got the name of his blog, but for the moment I'm going to pretend.

There's a lot of writing advice floating around the internet, often received as The Right Way To Do It. And for many years, I've often felt bad about my process and been apologetic for it, and sometimes tried to change it, because IM DOIN IN RONG.

You know what? I'm not doing it wrong. I'm doing it right. I'm doing something that works, and produces books, which are books that for some inexplicable reason people are willing to give me money for, and screw it. I don't care if I'm punching cards in the right order. I care that I'm writing books, dammit.

I hereby declare today, December 16, 2008, the first annual freedom from writing guilt day. On this day, I empower everybody who is engaged in some kind of creative endeavor who reads these words to quit feeling guilty for doing it wrong. If your process is working--and by working, what I mean is, creating finished works with a general upward trend in quality over time--then stick to it! Do what you are doing! It's fine! you're doing it right! If it's not working--if you're stuck, or if you're not getting better, or if you are not finishing things--then change it up! Do something else! try things until you find a process that does work!

Here is some writing advice I will henceforth be ignoring:

1) You must write new words every day or you are not a real writer.

...whatever. Some days, maybe I won't write. Some days I might even take off, and call a weekend. Some days I might take off and do nothing productive at all. I propose, "You must complete and release new projects every once in a while, on a schedule that suits your creative capabilities."

2) If you are stuck, it's because you are overediting. Push forward

...whatever. If you are stuck, it might be because you need to go back and fix earlier work that's no longer supporting the story as it moves forward. It might be because you need to go research related material until you get an idea. It might be because you need some cooking time. It might be because you need to go back and fiddle with stuff for a while until it all clicks together in your head.

To refute an oft-quoted and asinine comment, writing is not digging ditches, and if you treat it like digging ditches, you will get... very nice ditches.

Ditches, it probably goes without saying, are not very good books.

I think in reality writing is more like baking bread. You have to control a lot of variables: the temperature has to be within acceptable ranges, the yeast has to be happy, the moisture content of the air has to be right. Or maybe mountain climbing is a better metaphor: you are up there at the mercy of the elements, and for success, preparation and luck and timing are everything.

This is not to say that if you are constantly getting ten thousand or thirty thousand words into something and stopping dead, and never finishing, you shouldn't maybe make yourself quit dicking around with those first three chapters and move forward. But if you consistently find yourself pausing a third of the way into the book to rearrange the first hundred pages, and then moving on, that's okay. It's fine. Go ahead and do it. You may be stuck because you need to

3) You must write a book a year.

whatever. Okay, you most likely must write a book a year to support yourself, in whole or in part, as a writer. But that's industry, not art. No less a light than Dennis Lehane has said it takes him two years to write a novel he's happy with. (He writes pretty good novels, I note: I'm a fan.)

4) You must not write too fast.

Whatever. Write as fast as you are comfortable writing. Some writers draft a novel in four weeks. (Mostly they probably don't write every day between novels: I suspect they tend to be binge writers, who do a lot of their processing in their head rather than on the page.)

I get this one a lot. "You write too fast! Your books would be richer if you wrote more slowly!"  Considering that most of the books I've published in the last few years were decades in the making (Undertow, Carnival, A Companion to Wolves, and The Stratford Man came from new ideas) and that one of the most consistent critiques of my work is that it's baroque, incomprehensible, and overly complicated (even the books I think are transparent and straightforward, like Dust) I suspect that spending more time on any given book would, well, result in stuff nobody wanted to read.

5) You must work on one project at a time.

Whatever. See number four.

And now I have an eight-year-old novel I need to continue revising. But first, tea.

I leave you with the only good set of musts I know for any working writer:

You must write.
You must revise what you write.
You must finish what you write.
You must release what you write.


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Is there not one more must? You must read.
Nope. Actually, I know a lot of writers who stop reading, especially fiction, as they become more accomplished. Other people's stories become an annoyance, a distraction from the ones in their own head.

I think if you never read, you're in trouble. But my fiction consumption has gone down by about five hundred percent since I got any good at this writing game.

Writing takes time.
BTW I agree with you completely. I was told recently that I'm not really a writer because I never tried to publish my writing. As if writing for myself only makes me less of a writer. Am I not still writing?

Edited at 2008-12-16 02:05 pm (UTC)
I get that a lot. A whole hell of a lot. Apparently nothing is worth doing that is not making scads of money right this instant.
  1. You must write new words every day or you are not a real writer.
  2. If you are stuck, it's because you are overediting. Push forward.
  3. You must write a book a year.
  4. You must not write too fast.
  5. You must work on one project at a time.
I know a lot of writers -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry, song, comics -- and I don't know anybody who works like that.
Agreed. Multi-tasking is everywhere. It's not supreme, but it works for many.
Thank you for the post, it is muchly appreciated.
Word. December 16 is going on my calendar.

I know I said this before, but thanks. For being you and saying "there is no wrong, except not to write." Those are words fledgling writers who don't write "the right way" need to hear.
I've never understood why people think the creative process should work the same for everyone. Isn't that an oxymoron?
Very good point.
I love the "whatever" answer. It works for me. *g*

You must be doing something right - you've written and published a bunch of really good novels, and you're still going forward.
I think Heinlein's version of your final list cut out the revisions . . .

(And now I have to force myself to write something. Which hasn't been happening.)
You ever read any unedited Heinlein? 0.0
What everyone else said and thank you.

This could be extended to other creative endeavors or even our day to day lives. I think accepting that the way we do things is a valid way of doing things is a great thing.
Thank you for declaring today a holiday -- I can always use a day to be thoughtful without a guilt trip!!

You are wise.
Thank you.
And "release" does not just mean what your publisher does with their marketing team. It also means that once it is in the world, it is no longer all yours. The verb was not picked out of a hat; it is there for a reason.
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