Stephen Leigh & S.L. Farrell

Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality

Writing With An Actual Life

I heard an NPR segment the other day which stated that, according to a recent survey, over 80% of the American public believes that "they have a novel in them." That may be true -- and I suppose those of us who actually manage to write those novels and sell them should be glad that the vast majority of those people never manage to actually write those novels. Most of them would tell you, if you asked, that they simply don't have the time to write—they're too busy with the rest of life.

Well, for most of my writing life, I had the same issues. I worked full-time; I had (and still have, by the way...) a wife and family; I played music on the weekends; I studied aikido, going to the dojo two or three nights a week. And somewhere in there, I also managed to write and sell a few dozen short stories and several novels.

Often enough, when someone finds out that I'm a writer, they'll say (confirming the NPR survey) that "I have this great idea for a novel I'd like to write. I just don't have the time." When I tell them that they actually do have the time, their eyes narrow suspiciously as if I'd somehow managed to invent the thirty hour day and am keeping it a secret from them

I haven't (though I'm working on it...). But honestly, twenty-four hours is enough.

Here's one fact: a very, very high percentage of writers (or musicians or fine artists) aren't able to make a living wage through full-time writing. The old joke that it takes years to become an overnight success very much applies. Most writers never get to that point. The Author's Guild did a study three years ago and found that their average member makes $4,000 a year. That's an average—some of their members make pretty hefty advances, which means that there are also lots of members who make less than that $4,000. In the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the professional organization for writers of that genre, there are something like 1,500 active members. My best guess (and it is a guess; SFWA hasn't done a survey) is that maybe twenty-five members (less than 2%) make 100% of their income from writing; it's almost certainly no higher than seventy-five members, or 5% of the group. So what's someone chances of being among that elite? Well, take three six-sided die and roll 'em—you have a better chance of rolling three sixes on one roll.

The probability is that if you want to be a writer and pursue that career, then you're going to have to find strategies to make it possible to write and still deal with bringing in steady money some other way. How'd I do it? I'll tell you, though with no guarantees that the same strategies will work for you... But first let me say this, because I think this is why over 80% of the general public thinks they have a novel in them but those novels never get written.

If you can stand not to write, maybe you shouldn't be a writer. Be honest with yourself: are you driven to write? Would you write stories even if no one paid you for them, even if you knew that they'd never see publication except perhaps on your web page, even if you knew that every editor in every professional market was going to send you a rejection slip on every story you sent them? In fact, are you writing now? If you are, then maybe you have a shot. Writing, for some of us, is a nasty addiction. I know I'd write even if I wasn't selling... because when I started out, that's exactly what I did. Like most writers of my acquaintance, I have a lovely collection of fatally flawed and awful stories in my file cabinet, along with an equally lovely collection of form rejection slips. So—are you writing already? Because if you're just thinking about writing, there's a good chance that's all you'll ever do. Writers write.

Now... there are a few instant solution strategies to the problem of income for writers. For instance, you could acquire a rich spouse, or at least one who makes enough money to keep you in the manner to which you'd like to become accustomed while you do nothing but write. If you have a reasonable chance of accomplishing that, you don't need the rest of this article—just go write! Maybe one of your rich relatives will die and leave you their estate. Maybe you can win the lottery. Maybe Bill Gates will decide that he'd like to support the arts by giving you a yearly stipend from his pocket change. Maybe...

Me, I fell in love with a wonderful person who unfortunately wasn't rich, I don't have any rich relations, I figure that I'm better off keeping my dollar in my wallet than in using it to purchase a lottery ticket. Denise works, yes, but our tastes go beyond canned tuna and small dingy apartments. We both needed to work, so we had to find real strategies.

The first lesson I had to learn was this: You don't have to wait for the Muse to come to you. When I first started writing, I was an Artist. I believed that the writer was simply a channel for some inner Inspiration and that my role was to wait patiently in my silk jacket smoking a pipe, cogitating deeply until the story popped full-blown into my mind. That even worked for a time just after I graduated from college. At that point in my life my full-time job was playing music; Denise and I had no kids, we lived in a $200/month apartment, and both of our cars were a decade or more old. Waiting for the Muse to arrive (and having a fair amount of free time) I could write a short story every few months or so. But... tastes change. You decide you'd like to have a house and maybe children. Bands break up and being on the road all the time is no fun, and a musician's income (like a writer's) tends to be both minimal and erratic. So I decided to leave music for a weekend gig and find a 'real' job.

With a real job, you have to be there forty hours or more a week. I couldn't sit and wait for the Muse to show up or I'd never write If you want to be a writer with a real life, you can't wait for inspiration; you have to go out, hunt down the Muse, and drag her back to your computer. Writers who wait for inspiration are generally those who suffer from Writer's Block.

So how do you accommodate full-time work and a writing career?

Write every day. Find a time every day in which you can write. We'll talk more about that later, but the bottom line here is that writing should already a guilty addiction—something you greatly desire to do, that you need to do. Now you have to also make it habitual. You have to establish a pattern for yourself, one that you can keep. Maybe there's an hour every day after dinner you can steal and make your "writing time." Maybe you can wake up an hour earlier than the rest of the household, or stay up an extra hour when everyone else has gone to bed. The key here is consistency—establish a pattern of writing.

Set a realistic goal. I'm not entirely certain who told me this (but I believe it was Mike Resnick, and I'm going to credit him for it)—it was many years ago and some convention somewhere, and I was bemoaning my own lack of writing time. By that time I'd published enough short stories to be an active member of SFWA, but I'd already realized that if I wanted to be a full-time writer, I would have to write novels. That seemed an impossible task, given my schedule. Mike listened patiently enough, but finally interrupted me. "Do you have enough time to write a measly page a day?" he asked. "Just 300 words or so." I acknowledged that yeah, I probably did. "Well," he continued, "if you write a lousy page a day, at the end of the year you'll have written your novel."

Think about it: 300 words a day equals 109.500 words over the course of a year. That's about the usual length of a science fiction novel, though less than your average Big Fat Fantasy—you might have to go a year and a half for one of those. Still, that's impressive. If you can find the time to write a single measly page a day, you too can write a novel a year. Heck, if you can do 500 words a day, that's 182,5000 words a year. And if you can sell those words...

A novel a year: yes, that assumes you're not working on anything else, and we're ignoring the task of revision. Still, that's what steady-but-slow progress can accomplish.

Engage the people around you in your writing process. If those close to you understand how important the writing is to you, they'll be more likely to allow you to find your time. If you can make them active participants in the process, it's even better. Denise is my first reader, and she's excellent at it—when I want to know if what I'm writing is working, I print out the pages and hand them to her. She reads all my drafts, which means she gets to read the novels or stories I'm writing nearly as much as I do. My kids, now that they're young adults, are rapidly becoming my second readers—and I get good feedback and criticism from them. If your family or your significant others feel some 'ownership' in your writing life, there will be far fewer problems and more understanding... and thus more writing.

Write with passion. This was a hard lesson for me, honestly. It's tempting, as you're trying to make some success and bring in income, to take on projects for which you don't feel a great deal of passion. I'll be brutally honest and admit that I've done it, and more than once. The last (and hopefully final) time was with Dinosaur World series of young adult novels. I took on the project more because of the money offered than because it was what I wanted to write. I thought (stupidly) that I could write them quickly without caring much about them, and still find time to write other things. None of that turned out to be true. I didn't want to write schlock and garbage, especially since they'd be published under my name, and so I couldn't write them quickly or without care. Even without passion, I honestly tried to make them the best books I could. And I couldn't find time to do anything else, even with bringing in John J. Miller, a friend and fellow writer, to co-write two of the six books. Dinosaur World sucked out close to four years of my writing life, during which I wrote very little else. I got the money for the books, but that was all I got.

Money isn't enough. Writing stuff you don't care about won't help your career. Write what you burn to write. Write your books and stories, not someone else's. Write to make your stories and novels the best you can possibly make them at your level of skill. If what you're writing isn't a story or novel that you'd write whether they were paying you or not, then perhaps you shouldn't be writing it. It's much easier to write when you can't wait to sit down at the keyboard and see the words pop up on the screen.

Realistically, sometimes the money can be tempting. If that's the case, then my best advice is to have a side project going that does engage your passion. Reward yourself by spending time writing it.

Remember that even when you're not writing, you're still a writer. Even when you're at work. The fodder for stories and characters is all around you, all the time. Look at your co-workers. Imagine them as characters in your stories. How would you describe them? What are their quirks, their idiosyncrasies? How do they dress, how to they approach their work, what are their attitudes? Watch the interactions, the way people talk on the phone or deal with their bosses (or bosses deal with their underlings). Examine the flirtations, the power games, the customer interactions. Who's interesting to you? Why are they interesting? What characteristics do they have that appeal to you, and how would you describe that in a story? Take mental notes (physical ones can be dangerous if they're discovered). Use them in your tales—just don't use the real names...

Constant observation will make you a better writer. Here's an example: I was in the dojo and one of our female students came in, and we started talking as she took off her coat and put down her gym bag. She bent over to take off her shoes, and as she did so, she put her hand over the neck of her blouse. No, that wasn't because I was staring (you with the dirty mind :-), but just an instinctive, habitual movement—something a woman would do habitually and a man would never think about. But... it was one of those telling gestures, and I know I'll use that sometime in a story somewhere with a female character—because it will feel real.

One of the primary tasks of a writer is to create believable, genuine characters. To do that, you need to fill your creative tank with as many characters and characteristics as you can find, and you find them in life. You can't—and shouldn't—ever turn off the 'writer' in your head.

And to go along with that, you must always be prepared to write. Even if just for a moment. A writer shouldn't ever be without a pen or something you can use to jot down those random ideas or observations. Maybe you can get away without writing things down if you have a a fabulous photographic memory, but I know I don't. Besides, writers write, remember? I find that I don't have to write down a whole description or paragraph—if I just jot down a brief sentence, that will usually bring back the scene, the person, or the idea to my mind, and I can use it.

Write in stolen scraps of time. You've already decided that you don't have to wait for the Muse, right? Good. That means that any time you have a few minutes, you can write. I've written on lunch breaks, on the bus going to and from work, on the toilet... Having a laptop computer greatly enhances this, because you can fire up the story you're currently working on and keep going, but that's not a necessity. There's this fabulous invention that was made some centuries ago called pencil (or pen) and paper. Pencils are cool input tools—they even have a "delete key" on the end—and they're a heck of a lot cheaper than laptops.

You might look at ways to actually steal a bit of time. I'll admit that over the years I've done some writing at work when I was supposed to be doing other things, always prepared to cover the writing window with a work-relevant memo—but that's not a strategy I can recommend, especially if you want to keep your job or if you can't get the rest of your work done. You could try sleeping less—perhaps you can get by on a half hour or an hour less a night, and use that for writing, but you don't want to do that if it means you can't think clearly: a tired mind is usually not a creative one. I used to get a lot of writing done between eleven p.m. and midnight, when the rest of the family was in bed. Lunch hours are a traditional time for writers to exploit. If you're really good at not needing the Muse, then any ten minutes anywhere can allow you to write a paragraph or two, and that's another paragraph sooner you'll finish your story.

But most importantly, set your priorities and stick to them! For me, family comes first: everything gets dropped if I'm needed there—I'd advise you set the same primary priority if you want to write and still stay with your spouse or significant other. Work was always the secondary priority—not because that the way I wanted it (I manifestly did not) but because the income was essential to us. You have to do give your "real job" at least enough attention to remain employed, and it's easier to have a job than to find one. I suppose there are also occupations that are "writer-friendly," though I doubt that most pay well. Being a security guard in a closed building at night would seem to be an occupation designed to increase your writing output...

Writing was the next level, almost on a par with the real job. Everything else came afterward: and I do mean everything. If you want to watch the latest television show but that's your time to write... well, you need to make a choice. If you're going to write with a life, that means that television, movies, and other recreations take a back seat. Your priorities might be different; you have to set them according to your own values and what you want to accomplish. If you want to be a writer, however, writing had better be high up there.

Or otherwise you're going to remain one of those eighty percent of people who have that great novel inside them—where it will forever stay.