One day twenty years ago I was working on a novel when my wife came in shouting, “The house is on fire!” Now, I had a rule: when I’m writing on my novel, I’m not to be disturbed except in rare situations. When the house is on fire, that’s one of the exceptions.
So, I ran up the stairs to find that indeed the garage was on fire. I opened the back door to the garage and a wall of flames greeted me, boiling high into the air. I could see just enough to realize that the fire was so large, I wouldn’t be able to fight it, so I slammed the door (to starve the fire of oxygen) and called the fire department, then searched the house to find my son Ben (who was five). He’d set the fire, then hidden in his bedroom closet.
We got the fire put out before it engulfed the rest of the house and no one was killed, but I felt amused at how my wife and kids all kept apologizing for disturbing me when I was writing. In my family, with the wife and kids it had become so ingrained that “you never disturb dad when he’s working,” that they couldn’t get over it.
For many reasons, this attitude is common with writers.
Writing has to be a #1 priority. Otherwise, your priorities “slip.” It’s easy to say, “Well, family is more important than writing,” so you take a week off for Christmas to visit relatives or take three months to take care of an ailing mother.
Or maybe you say, “My health is more important than writing,” so you begin working-out for four hours a day.
Or you tell yourself, “I deserve a vacation,” and you quite literally take a permanent break. (One #1 New York Times Bestseller called to ask if I would consider ghost writing a novel for him. I could tell he was burnt out. A couple of days later he retired—and just never came back.)
Eventually, your writing can slip down your list of priorities until it’s not a priority at all. Doing your dishes, opening your email, and playing a videogame can seem like they’re more important than work. But when writing is #15 on your list of priorities, you can’t do anything at all.
You see, if writing isn’t a high priority, then your subconscious mind can’t focus on it. It will focus only on what it sees as a high priority—up in the #1 or #2 spot.
So if you want to be a writer, you have to set writing as your highest priority.
But you can’t do that, either. Trying to keep writing as your very highest priority leads to burn-out in just a few days. There are better ways to handle it.
I was at a major convention years ago and went down to have breakfast. At the restaurant, I found Poul Anderson (multiple Huge and Nebula Award Winner) sitting with his wife, waiting for the waiter to bring their food. I said “Hello,” and asked if I could join them. Poul was typing away, but his wife said, “He can’t answer you yet. He has to get his three pages in for the day.” So I sat and chatted with his wife until he finished his three pages. His rule was simple: you don’t communicate with others, even to say hello, until you finish your work in the morning.
He was right. As Dr. Jerry Pournelle once pointed out to me, “The desire to write is born out of the need to communicate. If you ever find yourself unable to write, just shut up: don’t read a paper, don’t talk to anyone, and wait for the voices of your characters to start speaking.”
So the cure for the inability to write is to shut up and write.
But you can’t write non-stop forever. You need time to recover, to recharge your creative batteries.
So you have to make writing your #1 priority but only for part of your day. You might say, “I’ll do it first thing in the morning.” Or when I was working full time, I made sure that I got two hours of writing in before I went to bed each night. In other words, I would set a writing schedule and make writing a habit.
I’ve found that if I say, “My writing day starts at 7:00 AM” and make sure that I’m sitting down, ready to write on time, my day goes smoothly. I usually have word-count goals linked to my writing goals. It’s not enough to just sit in my chair. I need to have something to show for it.
I also like to take writing retreats where I focus entirely on writing for several days. When I go on a retreat, I’ll say, “This next 10 days is just for writing my novel,” and that becomes my #1 priority. I don’t answer emails, don’t take phone calls, don’t read or go sightseeing, I just write, usually with some daily light exercise in the afternoons. I go out for one or two meals a day and eat light for the other meals.
However you do it, though, writing needs to become your #1 goal on occasion. So set that goal now: When are you going to make writing your #1 priority?
The Compleat Writer
We are getting the new “Compleat Writer” program set up. We recently discovered that our server couldn’t take more than about 300 people viewing videos at the same time, so we are going to a new service. I’ll be giving out video tips for the Compleat Writer, so here is a sample of our first video.
This month I’ll be adding a new seminar to the program, too: “Five Tips for Writing to a Massive Audience.”
Because it is Christmas Season, the Compleat Writer Bundle is on sale for $139 per year, but just for the next couple of days. You can purchase it with the Superwriters’ Bundle here: http://mystorydoctor.com/online-workshops/
New Live Workshop—
Twenty years ago I used to be in charge of the writing track at DragonCon, one of the largest conventions in the US. We had a core of about 20 young writers who seemed to come to just about every panel that we put on. So when I put on a nice panel on “Characterization,” twenty people showed up exactly.
Then I invited Tom Doherty, the head of Tor/Saint Martin’s to speak on how to write a bestseller, and decided I better get a bigger room. I asked for a room that would hold 200, and the con officials said, “No, we need a lot bigger room than that.” We scheduled a room that could hold 2000, and sure enough, the room was too small. We had to turn away perhaps a thousand people.
The thing is, I watched those 20 writers who attended our panels over the next couple of years. Nearly all of them broke into the industry and got publishing contracts. But the 2000 who just came to learn the secrets? Psssaw. None of them got published. They weren’t serious enough.
So I’m putting on a workshop on “Creating the Perfect Cast.” The basic idea is that you can’t write a novel with just one great character, you have to create characters who work beautifully together. If you really want to write, and you can make it to the workshop, you should consider coming. Check it out here: http://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/