Nov 18 2008 12:34pm

Tail Bone to Chair: Part One

(The title refers to something I said in my earlier post on writing series.)

These days, I’m lucky enough to be a full-time writer. That means that when I wake up in the morning, I have no other paying job competing for my attention. However, when I started writing, that wasn’t the case. When I look back, I see that habits and skills I cultivated at the beginning of my career continue to shape how I write today.

I started seriously applying myself to writing fiction immediately after I finished graduate school. By “seriously” I mean that, instead of noodling along on a story, finishing it or not as the mood struck me, I set out to complete what I started, to polish it to the best of my ability, and to send out the finished story.

Until then, I’d given my graduate work my first priority. However, practically on the day I handed the final revised chapter of my dissertation to my adviser, I resolved that before life filled all the time that had gone into writing and researching The Persephone Myth in D.H. Lawrence, I was going to slot in fiction writing.

I did, too, even as I worked several part-time jobs, searched for a full-time post, and dealt with the usual demands of daily life. Then and there, I made three decisions. Although I’ve adapted them as my life has changed, these basic choices remain the keynotes of my writing habits to this day.

1) Writing Gets Priority. This may sound simple, but it’s actually very hard. Life seems to nibble away at writing time. For almost all my adult life, I’ve been in a serious relationship. I’ve owned and/or maintained my own home. I’ve always supported myself. No kids, but pets, gardens, gaming... I love to read. All huge time eaters.
But no matter how drawn I am to these other things, I write. When I had another full-time job, I wrote seven days a week. Now that writing is my full-time job, I write five. This holds even when I have a “working weekend” doing book events or conventions.

Writing gets priority.

2) Avoid Boxes At All Cost. I put this decision second only because I had to be serious about wanting to write before it could come into play. However, in many ways this is my creed.
Even before I started meeting writers, I had read many accounts of the curious rituals writers get themselves involved in. This writer could only write in complete privacy. That writer had to have a certain drink or food. Another one had to wear certain “writing” or “lucky” clothes.

From day one, I resolved that my ritual would be no ritual. Privacy would need to go out the window. At the start, I lived in a small apartment with another person. Even later, when I had a larger place, much of my time was spent on a college campus. I shared my office. Students wandered in and out. So did my highly interesting colleagues.

Therefore, my “room of one’s own” would need to be between my own ears.

The same ruthlessness had to be applied to the question of equipment. When I was finishing grad school, the hot new PC was the IBM 286. Bulky. Immobile. Expensive.

I touched-typed easily and quickly, but nevertheless I realized that the machine was a chain. I decided to pursue fiction writing longhand. Sometimes I simply carried a folded sheet of paper in my pocket. Most of the time, I managed to keep my current project on a clipboard along with my notes for whatever classes I was teaching.

Because of these two decisions, I wrote everywhere and every day. My first five novels were written longhand. So were hosts of short stories. I wrote while my students took quizzes. I wrote while waiting for appointments. I wrote when my gaming group met and my character was “off-stage.” Memorably, I wrote an entire short story in a faculty meeting.  (“Relief,” published in the anthology Heaven Sent.)

Most importantly, I wrote.

Sure, I had to retype those longhand manuscripts, but early in my learning to write this was a good thing. Retyping forced me to carefully consider each word. I did a lot of revising as I retyped.

Remember Decision Number One: Writing Gets Priority?
By that I mean fiction writing. Not letters or grocery lists or even, as much fun as this can be, blogs.

So I’m going to stop here for now. Part 2 will be posted later this week.

I’m off to write fiction.

rick gregory
1. rickg
But... But... get your tailbone back to the chair and tell us more! Hold it... I see what you did there. Sneaky...
Matthew Jarpe
2. mjarpe
I like how you put that about not getting stuck in a box. I took Gardner Dozois as my inspiration in carving out my writing time. He carried around legal pads and wrote on park benches, sitting in doorways around the neighborhood, wherever inspiration struck him.

Now, in terms of quantity he's not much of an inspiration. But quality ...
3. dwndrgn
Sigh. I wish I had some sort of talent that I could use this MO for, it sounds perfect (or as close as us mortals can get). Best wishes on whatever you are fictioning at the moment.
4. mjw
Jane, I tried taking your "twelve sentences" idea to heart. I've set goals of 500 words or two notebook pages of fiction a day before, but I'm a grad student -- I can't always make myself do that. But twelve sentences I can do at lunch.

In eight days, I've churned out about 20 pages of comics script. (Yes, that's way more than 96 sentences.)

There's really something about just making yourself return to it. As you observe, once you've done that much, you usually want to do more. And I've been doing it longhand as well, away from email and RSS readers and so on, and that helps amazingly.

... anyway, not much insight there; this is mostly just to say thanks. Tailbone to chair, etc.
Jane Lindskold
5. janelindskold
mjw, I am delighted to have been of service!

You've given me a smile for the day.
Mitch Wagner
6. MitchWagner
My thumb rule is 250 words of fresh writing, or 1,000 words of revisions, each day.
7. rogerothornhill
Your rules are dead on--especially about what writing gets priority. I have two minor blogs but they only get postings every several months when either (a) I'm way ahead or (b) I have hit a serious block with the stuff I'm supposed to be working on.

I don't get to write all the time, but when I do my rule is 1000 words a day, four days a week, six hours a day. Any less and the typing drags behind my thought, but any more and I'm not paying the right attention to the details. If I wrote year round, though, I'd probably go much much slower.

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