Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Writing

In a world that bases personal productivity on hours spent at a project, it's easy to forget how to be productive.

We're trained from our earliest years to "spend time" with something.  As kids, we get punished with "time outs" and the minutes drag by.  As adults, many people program their lives around a 40+ hour work week.  (And yes, I know that several people work much more than that.  I've had people ask me why I work seven days a week -- I reply that it's because there aren't eight days.)

So with all this concentration on time, it's easy for a writer to think all they have to do is "spend time" working at a project.

Big mistake.

First of all, professional writing isn't an hourly job.  Even writers on salary who are only supposed to spend forty hours a week writing often spend more time than that.  Of course, there are some writers who can complete a writing work week in thirty hours, but as soon as their employers get wind of that, the work load increases.

A writer's production is subjective.  Depends totally on the writer and on the project.  Some people write more easily than others, and some projects are easier to write.

Over twenty-two years of writing, I've often made mistakes in my scheduling and projected output.  Thankfully I've learned from these mistakes, but then something else goes wrong.  Writing just isn't one of those jobs you can weigh and measure.  Too many variables exist within the writer, within the writer's world, and within a project.  And that's before a book makes it to editorial.

However, the greatest mistake I still occasionally make is to assume "spending time" on a project is the same as getting a project finished.  I can sit in my office, look at the clock, and put in twelve hours at my desk.  The problem is, unless I have a stack of pages to show for my efforts, I haven't succeeded in using my time.

I've learned not to rely on the clock to tell how much I've done at the end of a day.  Sometimes you get pressured by a clock because you've only got windows to work on a project, which generally means you need to shift some of your priorities so you can get your writing time in.  Or it means you have to lock your critical mindset away and blow through pages.

I keep a moleskin journal as of this year.  Something I can be responsible to.  I no longer merely put in time at the computer.  I've gone back to some basics that I learn, re-learn, then am forced to learn all over again.

Writing is production-based, not time-based.

I figure out my pace for a book (how many pages I can get on the average per hour), factor in how many hours I can work on it that day (based on family involvement and other commitments because as a self-employed person you end up with a fair share of those), and determine how many pages I need to do that day.

I try not to quit before I reach that page number.  Accepting less bothers me.  Unless I'm deathly ill or everyone in the family has forgotten what I look like.

My suggestion for beginning writers is to concentrate on production.  Learn your limitations and expectations.  Be a good boss and expect the best from yourself and learn to recognize when you've done all that you can do.

Look at the quantity of work you've produced, not the quantity of hours you've spent at it.  If you don't, you'll end up spending working time cruising through the internet and think you've holed yourself away from the world and spent the whole day working.

The only way you know you've been working is when you sit down to count the pages at the end of the day.

I grew up with a blue collar mentality and it's saved my butt over the years.  I sometimes forget my roots, but I always get back to them.

When I was growing up, guys used to do "piece-work."  That meant they got paid by the piece.  You do more pieces in a day, you get more money.

I knew a guy that used to repair skids, the wooden platforms forklifts scoop up, for 25 cents a piece.  That was tough work.  He did that in addition to putting in 40+ hours a week at his factory job because he needed the money for his first child.  He set a goal for himself every day to repair a certain number of skids.  That way he could figure on a certain amount of money every week.  When he still had time left, he did a few extra.  But he never went home till he finished what he'd set out to do, never figured, oh I did extra yesterday.  That kind of mentality leads to, oh I'll get more done tomorrow.  And then you fall behind.

It's something to think about if you're writing and getting frustrated.

Here's a link where you can find a word meter like the two in this entry.  They're free.

And they even have one for the occasional day when writing is frustrating.


Jaimie Krycho said...

Interesting you should mention this. When I was writing "Victoria's Gun," I spent a lot of time thinking and doing thorough edits as I went...and it took FOREVER. Finally, the evening I finished the story, I decided I was going to just write and worry about specifics later. It turned out better than I thought it would. Being happy with the projects I finish quickly is quite a challenge!

Mel Odom said...

Actually, talking to you guys in class and through email inspired this bit. Glad you're reading it. You'll probably see more that gets inspired by class. I'm paying attention to stuff you guys need to know that I'm surprised you don't.

And writing should be done without worry or criticism. Just get the story down. Changes get made in editing. Both processes are necessary.