The title of this book is Writing Is Not Work, and I threw in a chapter called Work Ethic. Seems odd, doesn’t it? A wee bit, admittedly, but there’s a reason for this.
Writing should never be work. Shouldn’t feel like work, look like work, quack like work. Make writing fun, and you’ll “work” on your fiction more. This is still my argument, and has been throughout the book.
And to be clear, sometimes you have to be two-faced with the people you live with. Tell them you have to “work on your writing tonight”, and they’ll respect your time and need for privacy while at the writing chair. When you’ve shooed all the loved ones out of your office, put on your other face and have fun while making stuff up.
For those of us participating in NaNo (and those writing all year-round, I hope), there’s another dimension to this “make writing fun” theme. I’m referring to the process of getting to your office and sitting in the chair.
By this, I mean dedication and persistence at a task. I wish the English language had another word for work, one that means or implies “work that’s fun to do”. If such a word exists, I can’t think of it readily, and I doubt it’s common enough to make sense to most people.
So, work ethic is my best way to express what I mean, unfortunate as that may be. In American culture, “work” and “work ethic” have blue collar connotations: the craftsman who sweats and toils for long hours at a job he does not necessarily enjoy doing.
Try your best to scrub that image out of your brain. Writing can be a job and a career, you can “work” at your fiction, but never turn it into something you dread. Always approach writing with a mental attitude of excitement and joy. Teach and train your mind to see fiction writing as playtime. Might take a long time, maybe even require professional help, but well worth the mental adjustment.
Those who have completed NaNo (wrote 50,000 words in 30 days, or whatever your personal goal was) know that completing the event involves a great deal of dedication and persistence every day, for the entire month. Doing a little bit every day is better than speed typing a lot in one or two days. Few people can complete a novel in five days, so it’s better to just keep at it, working at a steady pace.
(A novel in five days is possible, by the way. If you don’t believe me, look up an author named Michael Moorcock and search for essays and commentary on how he used Lester Dent’s master plot formula.)
The key with completing a novel is to keep at it, no matter how you feel about it on any given day. This is work ethic. Set a goal, stick with it through thick and thin. When you fall off your goal (everybody falls off), you climb back on and try again.
Your mood on any given day will not affect the quality of your words. Hard to believe, I know. But I’ve written through enough headaches and heartaches to have seen this first hand. I always think what I wrote on my “off-day” was terrible, and the next day looking back I saw no difference in quality. So write when you do feel like it, and when you don’t.
Once you’ve gotten to the writing chair for enough days and diligently written sentence after sentence, you’ll have a novel that didn’t exist before. The question is, how do you develop a work ethic for a fun activity like writing?
In the chapter Time & Speed, I demonstrated how to make good use of time and “write fast”. Use those same lessons to make a daily or weekly goal. Wake up early and write 500 words is a good goal. Set your daily goal to be achievable, but make sure to challenge yourself. If the 500 words in the morning is suddenly feeling too easy, push it to 600.
Keep this in mind: you want to go for an average.
Some days you’ll miss. Other days you’ll over-achieve. Some days you’ll be able to hit 5,000 words. Most days might not be so productive. But at the end of the month, if you have 50,000 words total, you’ll have averaged 1,667 words per day.
And when you average out your word counts over longer periods—months, or a full year—the days you miss become rounding errors. But only if you get to the writing chair regularly and make the keys go clickety-clack.
The “Rules” of Writing
So, you want to be a writer. What are some habits you need?
First and foremost: You must write.
Duh. You’re not a writer if you aren’t writing. So figure out a schedule that’s works for you and the folks you live with. Stick to that schedule. Get used to writing wherever and whenever you can. On the bus. In the airport. At the doctor’s office. In the coffee shop. At home in your own office.
Now: You must finish what you write.
You can’t say you’ve written a book until you’ve finished one. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, bird by bird. Be an artist. Go where the story takes you and finish what you started.
You have the book completed, edited, proofed, and your mother loves it. But now you want to be a published author. What now?
Two more little rules to live by…
You must put the story on the market. Send it to an editor. Not a developmental editor (or a plot doctor, whatever they’re called now), but an acquisitions editor at an imprint or a magazine. This is somebody who can pay you money for your story, in return for the rights to publish it.
Or indie publish it. Set up your own imprint as a doing-business-as (DBA). Learn how to make cover art, to format e-books and trade paperbacks, how to be a business person.
Okay, got it. Now what?
You must keep the story on the market. If you submitted the novel to an editor and she rejected it, send it to another editor. Repeat after each rejection, until the novel sells.
Or, if you’re an indie publisher, you just keep the book in all the worldwide distribution channels. Don’t touch it! Maybe change the cover art every five years, but otherwise just keep it out there and indie pub more books.
Students of science fiction history will recognize I gave a quick synopsis of Robert Heinlein’s business rules above. These rules apply to the business of writing as much now as they did in Heinlein’s heyday. Writers write and finish what they write. Then they put their stories on the market for others to enjoy. That’s the nature of the industry.
Many of you will also notice I skipped a rule in there. Oops. Well, there’s a reason I’ve side-stepped this topic until now, near the end.
Heinlein’s infamous rule number three is: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial demand.
Note, he didn’t say (to my knowledge) never rewrite. Only refrain from.
Perhaps some context will help. Two things about Heinlein…
One, for much (maybe all) of his career, Heinlein didn’t have a word or text processor. He wrote on a typewriter. That means a rewrite was a literal start from scratch with blank pages. Such an undertaking is time consuming on a typewriter.
Second, until the book distribution collapse of the late 1950’s, Heinlein got paid by the word. It was typical in those days for publishing houses and magazines to pay one cent per word, and many pulp writers made fortunes selling stories at that rate. (Many of the most prolific authors in the pulp era wrote upwards of a million words per year, for decades. At one cent per word, that was a lot of money in those days.)
If Heinlein rewrote his stories, he would’ve had a problem with diminishing returns. Meaning, with every rewrite, he’d get less penny for his bang (okay, bad typewriter pun). He’d have to work twice as long to make one story sale, when without a rewrite he could use the same time to complete two stories.
The number of rewrites you need for any given novel is entirely personal, and subjective. I have my own methods and opinions. I think the problem with diminishing returns is still an issue in our modern age, so my opinion is anything beyond two drafts is redundant and probably unnecessary. (Although I’ll say I’m a two- or three-draft writer in public, which is kind of true, if you include the proofing and typo-fixing stage.)
(Word of caution: rewriting is a critical voice activity, unless you’ve trained yourself to rewrite in creative voice. That’s harder than it sounds. There’s a reason many otherwise excellent books become dulled when rewritten too much… the author’s critical voice destroys everything the creative voice put into the story.)
That said, every writer is different. Some writers need the extra rewrites to fully develop an idea. Others only need one draft. And then there’s everything in between. Any path is fine, as long as it’s your own and you know the reasons for choosing your path.
The point of this little excursion into Heinlein’s rules was to get you to think about your productivity and work ethic. To be a writer, you must write. No other way around it.
Finish every story, publish, start new stories. Have a work ethic when you sit down at the desk.
Trust me, the more you write, the more joy you’ll get from your “work”. Have fun, write with joy.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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