“I could be a successful writer, too, if only I had the time.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard aspiring writers bemoan their lack of time, their inability to get any writing done with distractions, with family and work obligations. Since it’s not likely anyone will give you any more time, in order to be a serious writer you have to find ways to make the most of the time you have, and how to be as productive as possible.
Back in the heyday of pulp fiction magazines, when freelancers tried to make a living by writing stories that paid half a cent per word (at most), they had to produce, produce, produce. “Be prolific or starve” was their motto. Armed with manual typewriters and carbon paper, the most popular and prolific writers managed to crank out entire novels in only a few days, or stories and novelettes in a single sitting.
Today, with an arsenal of writing tools that includes word processors, email, scanners, internet research, and lightning-fast printers, it’s got to be easy for modern authors to be even more prolific, right?
Life is crazy and hectic for most of us. We’ve got jobs, fitness programs, mountains of correspondence by snail and email, video games, TiVo, cell phones, Blackberries, family and friend obligations, and a million things to read online. How does an aspiring author find the time to write?
And when you do find the time, how do you make the most of it?
In subsequent blogs I will be describing eleven techniques that I and other prolific authors use to increase their writing productivity—ways we have discovered to keep a writing session going a bit longer, or to squeeze out a few more words or pages in each sitting. Because I’ve gotten suggestions from different writers, they aren’t all applicable to every situation—some are even contradictory—but try the techniques. Some may work well for you.
new paperback cover for Terra Incognita #2 (due out June 2011)
This blog series is part of a lecture I’ll be presenting at the Superstars Writing Seminar in January 13–15 in Salt Lake City, a three-day intensive workshop focused on business and careers in writing. Other instructors include Brandon Sanderson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, David Farland, Rebecca Moesta, and Eric Flint. We hope to see you there. www.superstarswritingseminars.com
Note that Early Bird pricing goes up on December 1.
A few years after my first novels were published, David Brin asked me if I would collaborate with him on a short story. At the time, David was at the height of his career, winner of numerous awards, a New York Times bestselling author, one of the most respected names in the field. I, on the other hand, had far fewer credits. Although we had known each other for a while, I was still surprised by the offer. “Really? Why would you want to collaborate with me?”
“Because I want to figure out how you can be so prolific.”
So, we plotted and worked on the story, back and forth, but it never really came together. Finally, after about three months, David said to me, “All right, I’ve figured out how you can write so much. It’s because you write all the time.”
Granted, I love to write, and I’m even a little obsessive about it (okay, maybe very obsessive), but I’ve never understood why a full-time writer should expect to put in any less time “at work” than anyone else with a challenging full-time job. A teacher is expected to be at school before the buses arrive, teach classes all day, stay until after the students have gone (sometimes coaching after-school sports), and grade papers, often into the night. A doctor sees patients all day long, usually eight hours or more. A lawyer spends the entire day (and more) writing briefs, researching cases, meeting with clients, filing papers, appearing in court.
Why shouldn’t a writer put in a full day of work?
Right now I’m under several tight, concurrent deadlines (what else is new?). I have an office in my home, but that is often fraught with distractions. I occasionally take the laptop and hide in a local coffee shop, conveniently “forgetting” my cell phone in the car and turning off the internet access so I can concentrate on my editing. Other times, when I have a particularly heavy slate of writing/editing to do, I will go away for a few days, find an out-of-the way lodge or empty ski condo off season, where I can get a lot of uninterrupted work time. That’s where I am now, out in the mountains at a ghost-town ski resort (it’s at least a month before the lifts open).
On the morning I left, I spent two hours at home gathering notes and writing down ideas for a new “Seven Suns” trilogy proposal. Lots of big concepts, character sketches, plot ideas, which will take me a while to whip into shape, an overall blueprint for three 700-page novels. Then I packed my suitcase, drove to the grocery store to pick up supplies, drove to the accountant to retrieve our recently completed tax returns, and came home to have lunch with Rebecca. She is finishing her rewrite on our second Star Challengers novel, which she’ll email to me the day after I hole up in the lodge.
I drove two hours into the mountains to get to the ski resort, while listening to an audiobook on the way (a current bestselling thriller, so I can keep up with the market), and had a phone conversation with Brian Herbert about some background details in The Sisterhood of Dune, which I would be editing. After I checked in, mid-afternoon, I walked around the area for a while, thinking a bit more about the new Seven Suns proposal, then set up the computer in the room. I edited three first-draft chapters in The Sisterhood of Dune, two of mine and one of Brian’s, because that’s the order they appeared in the outline.
For dinner I heated up some leftover gumbo that my friend Paul had made, then worked on formatting the ancient Word files of my novel Assemblers of Infinity, a Nebula nominee that I wrote with Doug Beason. We’re putting some of my hard-to-find backlist titles up as ebooks; I have all the electronic rights to the novels, but they all require some cleanup and reformatting. Because the files were so old, the prologue and epilogue were corrupted, so I had to rekey them from my paperback copy of the novel—about ten pages. (Not fun.)
Then I watched the DVD of the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein film (research for a short story I was commissioned to write). After that, I took a bath and read four submitted manuscripts for Blood Lite 3, which I’m editing.
That’s a day at work, a fairly typical one. A lot of hours spent, and quite productive, but I wouldn’t say it’s much different than, say, a corporate executive, the owner of a busy restaurant, or a hospital administrator. A successful author doesn’t get to just write for an hour or two and then dink around the rest of the time.
This is my job. This is my career. This is how I make a living. And like anyone else who has a freelance occupation, if I don’t do work, I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver what I promised in a contract, I’m not likely to get work again. A professional writer treats a day at work like a day on the job.
It’s the difference between a career and a hobby.
Don’t miss the next Superstars Writing Seminar, Jan 13-15 in Salt Lake City: no-nonsense business and career advice for the serious writer, taught by six bestselling writers, Kevin J. Anderson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Brandon Sanderson, David Farland, Eric Flint, and Rebecca Moesta. Note that the early-bird price for the seminar goes up at the end of the month.
When I moved to Colorado thirteen years ago, I set up a writing office that looked out at the spectacular Rocky Mountains. The scenery, the fresh air, the lower cost of living, all were undeniable advantages. Then my brother-in-law gave me a book about the 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet high, along with maps and instructions on how to climb them all.
Nothing thrills a goal-oriented person more than a List. I was hooked and immediately took up the hobby. Over the next five years, I did indeed summit all those peaks. I learned a lot about mountain climbing . . . and its relationship to writing.
Atop San Luis Pass with San Luis Peak (14,014 ft) in the background
I grew up in the Midwest, a place not known for many lofty peaks. Without first-hand experience, I had the rather distorted impression that “mountains” were pointy gray triangles with a zigzag of snow on the top, as depicted in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Since then, though, I’ve become an expert of the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of mountains, and I’ve realized that climbing these complicated and often difficult summits has many parallels to a writing career.
Caution: Metaphor Ahead. As anyone starting out knows, a writing career is a very steep path to follow. The terrain is complicated, the trails not clear, and often forests block your view until you actually get to the top. While struggling up a tough grade, you keep your eyes only on the summit immediately ahead, forcing yourself to push on just to reach the top of that ridge.
First personal rejection
First publication in a small press magazine
First professional publication
It wasn’t until I began mountain climbing in earnest that I understood the frustrating and heartbreaking frequency of what are called “false summits.” You can glimpse the apparent high point of the trail, barely seen through the trees, and expend all your energy focused on the goal. The top is there, getting closer—
And when you finally arrive, you see that what you thought was the top of the mountain, your hard-earned destination at last, is only a small subpeak. Beyond that ridge, what you previously saw as the high point, the trail continues farther and steeper toward a much taller and tougher point. You just couldn’t see it because the false summit in front of you got in the way.
For many writers starting out, that first hard-to-obtain summit may be getting published, even in a fanzine, or receiving a personal rejection note from a professional market. But once you’ve achieved that, you have to catch your breath, take in the view . . . and see that you’ve merely managed to reach a crest of the surrounding heavily forested foothills. The majestic snow-covered mountain peaks are much farther away.
First novel sale
Qualification for Professional Society membership
First photo or review in a science fiction news magazine
Many writers at this point simply turn around, enjoy their pleasant day hike, and go home. Others push on to the next ridge, closer to the treeline. From your new vantage atop the foothills, that tree-line peak certainly looks like the summit.
From then on, you struggle to reach that next point, and once you’ve succeeded—your first professional sale, qualification for membership in a professional writers’ organization, a novel sold to a publisher—you’ll have a better view. You can see more of the surrounding terrain. But you also realize that this still isn’t the actual summit. There’s an even higher ridge ahead, up in the rocky tundra with a few patches of snow.
Again, some writers stop here. The true mountain climbers, though, eat their beef jerky, drink some Red Bull, and keep going.
First multiple book contract
Quit your day job and become a full-time writer
First major award or nomination
Anyone with experience in the mountains knows there are plenty of pitfalls and dangers. I’ve sat on the top of 14,014-foot San Luis Peak watching the approach of angry thunderclouds, but when I took my hat off to drink from my water bottle, every strand of hair on my head and arms stood straight upright and the air crackled with static electricity. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat as the lightning moved in.
I’ve been caught a quarter mile from the top of Columbia Peak in a white-out blizzard in early September, where I huddled shivering for an hour until finally, experiencing the first stages of hypothermia, I trudged out into the snow and stumbled down the slope to lower and warmer altitudes.
I’ve crawled across cliff ledges that would have made Indiana Jones proud, and rapelled down a sheer 600-ft dry waterfall, the only way down from the top of Little Bear Peak, Colorado’s most difficult Fourteener. I’ve even encountered a black bear on the summit of rarely climbed Culebra Peak.
Similarly, in your “career climb” as a writer, there are plenty of pitfalls—some that you can control and others that are simply forces of nature. Editors quit, publishing houses fold, you miss a deadline. A psycho serial killer announces that he drew all of his inspiration from your novel.
Proceed with caution so you don’t slip and fall.
First movie deal
Friends and acquaintances want to borrow money all the time
Other writers begin sniping at you for your “undeserved” success
Critics blast you because you’re “too popular”
I have found that each time I reach a peak in my career, there’s a higher mountain visible in the distance. Once you set goals for yourself and reach them, you can either rest on your laurels, or try to climb higher. Are James Patterson, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz comfortably perched and satisfied on lofty Mount Everest? Or do even they see more challenging summits in the distance?
Even though I’ve climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, Denali in Alaska is 20,320 ft, the highest peak in the US. Kilimanjaro in Africa is 19,340 ft, and Everest is 29,028 ft.
I may seen a lot of summits, but there are still plenty of higher ones left to dream about….
Don’t miss the next Superstars Writing Seminar, Jan 13-15 in Salt Lake City: no-nonsense business and career advice for the serious writer, taught by six bestselling writers, Kevin J. Anderson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Eric Flint, and Rebecca Moesta.
After the success of the first Superstars Writing Seminar in Pasadena, Kevin and Rebecca will again be joining bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, and Eric Flint to present another three-day set of intensive lectures. This time, the team will be joined by guest instructor Sherrilyn Kenyon, author of the popular Dark Hunter series; she’s had fourteen #1 New York Times bestsellers in the last two years!
The Superstars Writing Seminar is a practical, no-nonsense course on business topics for the professional writer. Topics include:
Economics of Commercial Publishing
How Editors Look at Manuscripts, Novels, and Short Fiction
Dissecting a Book Contract
How to Read and Understand a Royalty Statement
Dirty Secrets: What You Need to Know About Being a Professional Author
How to Leverage Your Intellectual Property
Balancing Acts: Writing World and Real World
Networking and Self-Promotion for Authors
Pitching the Big Proposal
Two Heads Are Better than One: Collaborations
How to Get an Edge with New Media
Movies, TV, and Authors
How to Increase Your Writing Productivity
—and more, including open Q&A sessions, a special limited-seating VIP banquet to get to know the instructors, and plenty of networking opportunities among the teachers, other writers, and fellow students.
Dates are January 13–15, 2011 (Thursday–Saturday, the weekend before the national holiday of Martin Luther King Day). Early-bird pricing is still in effect, but prices will go up at the end of October. For more information and to sign up, go to www.superstarswritingseminars.com.
Kevin J. Anderson—award-winning, international bestselling author of the new Dune series (with Brian Herbert), the Terra Incognita and Saga of Seven Suns series, X-Files, Star Wars, and numerous comics; he has published 100 books, with more than 20 million copies in print in 30 languages.
Eric Flint—A master of military science fiction and alternate history, Eric is best known for his 1632 and Belisarius series (with David Drake). An expert in electronic publishing, he was also the founder and editor of Jim Baen’s Universe online magazine.
Rebecca Moesta—Award-winning and New York Times bestselling Young Adult author of Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights, Star Challengers, the Crystal Doors series, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Little Things. She also holds a Masters of Science in Business Administration from Boston University and is the CEO and business manager for WordFire, Inc.
Brandon Sanderson—A New York Times bestselling author in his own right for his Mistborn series, Brandon was selected to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time. The first volume, The Gathering Storm, immediately reached #1 on the bestseller lists. He also writes successful Young Adult fiction and lectures on creative writing for BYU.
Dave Wolverton—Author of 50 novels, Guinness World Record holder for the largest single-author signing, multiple New York Times bestselling author (under the names Dave Wolverton and David Farland). Dave worked for nearly a decade as coordinating judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests.
Sherrilyn Kenyon—Bestselling author of the Dark Hunter series, The League, and the Chronicles of Nick. In the past two years, Sherri’s books have hit the #1 New York Times bestseller spot an amazing 14 times.