R LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
Lesson 5. The Greatest Job in the World (is Still a Job)
Good morning, class! Welcome back! Take your seats!
Gosh, it’s quiet in here this morning. And there’s Caroline’s chair…empty. Hm? No, I’m all right, I’m just…thinking.
The subject of today’s lesson is the Writer’s Work Ethic, which is particularly funny to me because I was supposed to write it yesterday, but I didn’t feel like it, so I didn’t. Heh. Irony.
Anyway, I wanted to start off by repeating something I first heard at a writer’s panel at a sci-fi convention many years ago and last heard at a panel at a romance writer’s convention just two years ago. It goes something like this:
90% of all people who have a great idea and want to write a book, never start. 90% of all people who start to write a book, never finish. 90% of all people who finish a book, never publish it. 90% of all people who publish a book, allow criticism to convince them never to write another one.
When I first heard this, I remember being confused. Want to write a book, but never start? What does that even mean? I was twelve at the time and had already written one (terrible) story, so naturally, I was an expert in the fine art of writersmanship. I knew exactly what my job would be like.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to a deeper sense of understanding with just how ominous those statistics, inexact as they may be, truly are. I’ve met those people, those happy, hopeful, anxious people who tell me they have a great idea and would I be interested in hearing it, because it would make a great book, only they just don’t have time to write it. I’ve met the ones who are perpetually stuck on Chapter Two because they need to do more research. Self-publishing has thinned the numbers of the third group, but tho- endangered, they are not yet extinct. Hell, I was one of them for many years. And I’ve met the last, the ones who are the first to direct your attention past dozens of 5-star reviews to the one 1-star rant and read aloud all the most devastating points, peppered with comments like, “I guess there’s a reason the vast majority of writers die broke and unknown.”
After all these years, those numbers are just as true as they ever were, but now that I’m older, I think of them in a slightly different light. To me, they no longer point toward the diminishing odds of success, but rather, serve to illustrate the difference between a writer and an aspiring writer. An aspiring writer is one who waits for encouragement, for time, for acceptance, for validation. A writer writes. Success doesn’t enter into it at all. In writing, as in so many things, recognition has more to do with luck than perseverance or talent.
I write, and like a lot of writers, I know a lot of writers. So when the subject of how to write is invariably raised, I have the benefit not only of my own experience, but that of others. This is really something of a mixed blessing. I’m a competitive person, as I may have mentioned in the past, and although I know intellectually that writing a book is not a race—
—I can’t help comparing myself to them at times, especially in those areas where I fall disastrously short. I know writers who can write multiple books at the same time, with different characters, different worlds, hell, different genres; I have a hard time even reading another book when I’m writing. I know writers who set daily quotas for themselves in excess of 5k, 8k, even 10k words a day; unless I’m doing a word-sprint, I don’t even notice my daily word count. I know writers who go to write like they’re going to work, as in, they have an honest-to-God writing room, where nothing happens except writing and where they go in at a certain hour and write until a certain hour and then come out; I keep the book I’m working on with me and write whenever the mood comes over me, and while that may be most days, it’s certainly not every day, nor is it only between such-and-such hours.
In short, we all have different ways of doing things, but one thing the writers in my group do have in common is that we take our job seriously. When I get up in the morning, I go to work. I just don’t always put on pants. You wouldn’t believe how many jobs out there require a person to wear pants just to work there. Bunch of fascists, stifling my creativity. Not to mention my grundle.
I don’t work every day, and as a matter of fact, if I’m having trouble with a scene, I will deliberately not work on it for at least a day and longer if I can stand it, just so I can go back to it with “fresh” eyes. However, this is one of those rare jobs when it’s actually very difficult not to work. Even if I’m not physically tapping away on keys, I’m frequently doodling characters or scenes, or just thinking about the book. Not about what to write, mind you, but just…off in Storyland, watching to see what happens. In all honesty, I expect I spend about half my waking hours living in my own head.
This is getting off the subject, but I often wonder what real people think about. No, really. What do you do with all that quiet time riding in a car or folding laundry or walking the dog if you don’t have a book to live in? Do you just…think about the scenery or the towels or the dog? Imaginative as I think I am, I literally cannot imagine that.
There are a lot of people out there who seem to think that what I do isn’t a ‘real’ job. I guess I can kind of see their point. After all, I have neither a boss nor employees and I don’t interact with my customers. I have no office, no set hours, no uniform. I can take a coffee break whenever I want. No one steals my lunch from the company fridge. There’s no commute. I can sexually harass myself all day and the HR department can’t do anything to stop it. I have more freedom on the job than just about anyone else I know, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work. In fact…
In fact, let me show you what an average day in the life of R. Lee Smith looks like.
Yesterday, I woke up ridiculously early, at about 11 a.m. It’s—
Does anyone else hear that distant humming sound? It almost sounds like words. “Shut… your… stupid… smug…” Hmm. Oh well. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I woke up at 11 a.m. I realize how that sounds, but bear in mind, I got to sleep around 8 a.m. I’m nocturnal and have been as long as I can remember. Sleeping at night is just…just unnatural to me. So I woke up and it’s word-sprint day.
A word-sprint, for those who don’t know, is a fun little exercise in which a writer or group of writers is challenged to write as many words as they can within a certain span of time. My writer’s group tries to do one of these every week. We ante up by actually reading what we wrote afterwards, even though the work is in its roughest form. The idea is not to edit one another’s work, but to lose our own fear of writing something less than the greatest thing we’ve ever written. If you don’t write, this probably doesn’t make sense to you, but I can’t explain it. If you do write, you’re already nodding and I don’t have to explain.
So after a quick shower and the ceremonial putting on of pants, I met my group at the local IHOPs, where we drank copious amounts of coffee and ate pancakes and talked about books. Sometimes, this is where the writing actually begins. We all brought laptops just in case, but Fate wasn’t smiling and it was too busy to sit for hours and work at the diner, so we just talked instead, revving each other up for the sprint.
At noon, we drove to our writing space. Now, we are incredibly fortunate in that one of our group has access to a building that is only used for business on weekends. The building is quiet, has comfortable couches, a coffee maker, a fridge, no internet, no phones, very bad cell service, and an excellent stereo system. We can pop in our various story soundtracks (yes, we all do that), drink coffee and lounge on the couch, while unable to check Facebook or Tweet or watch TV or otherwise get distracted by the real world.
My goal for the sprint was to finish Chapter Five of the book I’m working on. I did, then went on to finish Chapter Six. Then, although the sprint was still on, I kind of bowed out and started editing some of my other chapters and breaking down future scenes. I worked like this until the rest of the group finished their goals.
At about 7 p.m., we’d all finished our sprints. Word counts were tallied. I came in last at 2400 words, but I had exceeded the goal I set for myself and I was happy with that. First place was around 5k words, if you’re curious. We all took turns reading what we’d written. Again, the point was not to edit or criticize, so we limited our feedback to issues of style or voice, not content.
By 9 p.m., I was back at home, editing my sprint. I read the entire chapter to my sister as a kind of beta run. She gave me some particularly brutal yet absolutely correct feedback and then we played video games until 2:30 in the morning. She went to bed and I went to my room to listen to creepypastas and edit my chapter until about 6. Then I goofed around on YouTube for a few hours and went to sleep. I woke up at the far more reasonable hour of 2 in the afternoon, made some coffee, and got right to work on this post. When I’m done, I’ll finish making those changes to Chapter Five and move on to Chapter Six. I should have the book done by the end of the month (I don’t write in sequence, so most of the latter half of the book is already finished), and be ready to move on to the next one.
Now if you look closely, you’ll notice that’s seven uninterrupted hours of work, followed by almost five more at home. And yeah, that’s about average. Some days, I write for two hours; some days, twelve or more. Some days, I set my goal by words; on other days, by chapters or pages. Some days, I just edit. Some days, I just blog (and writing for the blog is so much harder, you guys. I don’t know why). Some days are for research, when I may not write at all, but instead read or travel or watch documentaries or otherwise work on notes. Very occasionally, I take a day off, but even then, I’m thinking about a book, whether it’s the one I’m supposed to be thinking about or not.
A lot of you out there are probably still thinking to yourself that this is not a real job. And you know what? You’re right. It’s not a job, at least, not in the same sense as the other jobs I’ve held down in my life, before I was lucky enough to stumble into this one. You know what it is?
It’s a habit. Hell, it’s practically an addiction. And you know how habits form? They form when you do them every day. So if this is the job you want, you need to make it a habit. Write.
“You say that like it’s easy,” some of you are muttering.
No, I don’t. It’s not always easy and it’s for sure not always fun, but it’s how the job gets done. Look, there are probably dozens of reasons why a person can’t write, but for every reason, there are at least a thousand excuses. You say you’re too tired? I say write a dream sequence. Those benefit enormously from being just a little loopy. Write it. You say you keep getting interrupted? I say a sentence here and a sentence there add up. Just five hundred words a day equals an entire 300+ page book by the end of the year. Write it. You say no one will ever read it, so what does it matter? I say you’re not writing a reader, you’re writing a story. Billions of people will never read my books or even hear my name in the whole of their lives, but I still matter. Write it. You say you’re waiting for inspiration? I say you’ll find it when you start writing. After all, how can you tell a story when you haven’t even met the people in it? Write it.
Next week, we’re probably going to touch on some of these points again as we talk about the pitfalls of the writing craft, but this week, I’d like to end this lesson the way I began, with a little truth in numbers. 90% of all people who have a great idea and want to write a book, never start. 90% of all people who start to write a book, never finish. 90% of all people who finish a book, never publish it. 90% of all people who publish a book, allow criticism to convince them never to write another one. But for the 10% of the 10% of the 10% of the 10% who stuck it out, those people, dear readers, are writers.