Writing is all about craft, and like any artistic endeavor, you must practice to perfect it. Editors and publishers know when a piece of writing is working, and good readers can tell the difference between an amateur and a seasoned wordsmith. For most writers, perfecting the craft of fiction takes years. It takes great devotion to the genre. It takes serious commitment.
As Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher and author of several philosophical novels, said, “Commitment is an act, not a word.”
For a serious writer, what does that commitment look like, and how prescriptive is it? Must you write every single day of your life? If you don’t, are you being unfaithful to your calling?
How do successful writers go about their writing life?
Well, we asked.
As you might imagine, writerly circumstances, practices, and advice vary. But one thing authors certainly have in common is the matter of time spent with the page.
The question is: How do you best manage time, however much you have? And what if you have zero time – or it sometimes feels that way?
When you can’t find time
“The hardest thing ever”
Novelist Rachel Weaver, author of Point of Direction, directs Lighthouse North in Louisville, Colorado, a satellite location of the Denver-based Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Besides her professional duties there, she has family obligations to boot. Finding time to write “is the hardest thing ever!” she exclaims. “Between work and family, I don’t have a ton of writing time. I try not to beat myself up with how slowly my projects come together. Mostly, I love having a creative outlet; it makes the rest of my life feel better. However much I can foster it is well worth it.”
Looking back, she recalls a time when she was much more productive, writing as many as 10 handwritten pages a day of new material or revising a chapter per day, but these days it comes down to just doing what she can. “I try to block out several days a month to work on my projects, but mostly I write for a few hours here and there, in between everything else,” she says.
To get serious writing done, she needs absolute quiet. Some writers like the cozy ambiance of a coffee shop, but such a place is too noisy for Weaver, as is home. She’s found the perfect place to write: “I rent a shared office space in Louisville and often wear huge noise-canceling headphones so that I can sink into the scene I’m writing completely and forget about where I am. You might be wondering, ‘Why not just wear the big headphones at home and save the monthly rental?’ Well, there’s no laundry at the office, and that really helps me focus.”
One thing she does when she finds writing time is to set a word count goal for her messy first draft. “This helps me get out of my own way by turning off the editor. I can’t worry over making a sentence perfect or the plot just right if I’m angling toward getting a certain number of words on the page by a deadline.” She also builds in the reality of not meeting a certain target. “I usually set it a bit lower than I know is achievable so that I can celebrate blowing the goal out of the water. The point is, don’t beat yourself up with deadlines and word counts.”
Weaver believes a writer’s life is much larger than the actual writing. “Sure, we are all aiming toward a finished book, and it’s fantastic to finally hold it in your hand, but that’s only about 20 percent of the overall reward of being a writer. The other 80 percent of the reward comes from the process of living in the world as a writer, which requires you to remain inquisitive about everything, to watch people closely, to think long and hard about what is true and what is not, to feel deeply, to find a place within yourself that is very still and contemplative, and to practice hope and trust that it’s all going to somehow fit together, even though you may not see how yet.”
“Little pockets of the week”
Alix Ohlin is author of four works of fiction, including Signs and Wonders, a story collection in the Vintage Contemporaries series, and Inside, also published by Vintage. Ohlin chairs the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program in Vancouver. Directing a writing program keeps her so busy, she looks for time to write “in little pockets of the week.” To find or manage these, she gets innovative.
“I’ll sometimes stop at a coffee shop on my way to work and give half an hour to writing. I’ll also sometimes schedule time for writing as if it were a meeting – it creates a sense of obligation that’s quite helpful.” She likes the promise-keeping aspect of this arrangement: “I wouldn’t cancel on another person waiting for me at 11 a.m., so why would I cancel on myself?”
These spurts of activity have actually worked quite well for her. “I’m a big believer in a kind of interval training for writing – a short sprint of high-intensity concentration can do a lot for a project.”
There are other ways, too, she says, to keep up your writerly commitment. “I think having a ‘destination’ can be helpful. Make a plan to trade work with someone else at the end of the month. Little ways to hold yourself accountable, and to reward yourself for putting the work in, make a difference. Writing can feel lonely and unstructured, so finding some forms of connection and shape – a deadline with a writing group, a dinner out with a friend once you finish chapter 5 – can be wonderful counterweights.”
Busy as she is, Ohlin nonetheless does strive to “shoehorn some writing in” – more sustained writing sessions than her short, intense ones. Morning hours are best, she says, “before other concerns of the day can dominate my brain, and also when I’m the most caffeinated.”
Like Weaver, she sets word count goals. “If I’m writing a novel and have a fair amount of momentum, I aim for 500-1000 words at a time. Any more than that, and I find that for me the writing gets very loose, wordy, kind of undisciplined.” In some cases, though, she sets her goal much lower. “If I’m writing a scene that’s difficult for me emotionally, or feels scary or risky in some way, I’ll narrow the range down to 250, to make it more manageable.”
Overall, Ohlin sees writing as more than sitting in her work space and keying in text: “I try to have faith in the writing time that isn’t spent in front of the computer: thinking about my work while walking the dog, for example, or in the shower. That’s writing, too.”