Monday, January 16, 2012

Writers Don’t Wait. They Write!

A couple of weeks ago, I paused to recognize a personal milestone: it was ten years ago this month that my first novel was published.

It was a media tie-in; specifically, a Star Trek novel. It was the first time I’d ever attempted writing anything approaching that length or level of complexity. The opportunity came about after I’d sold stories to each of Pocket Books’ first three Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contests, and the editor of those books asked if I was interested in writing a Star Trek novel for him. Heck yeah!

So, I spent a couple of months corresponding with my editor, who also acted as my mentor during the process of completing a story outline. Once he was satisfied and the licensing people at Paramount Pictures also gave their thumbs up, I went to work writing the actual book. Several months later, I turned in my manuscript, and then I waited. More than a year separated my manuscript delivery and the book’s scheduled publication date. During that time, I waited for editorial notes. I waited for the copyeditor’s notes. I waited to see galley pages. Wait, wait, and wait some more.

Meanwhile, a writer friend of mine was telling me that I should be working on my next novel. “Writers don’t wait,” he said. “They write. Get back to writing.”

It’s not as though I was sitting completely idle. While I was waiting for those various things to happen with my first novel, I still was working. In addition to the day job, I wrote with my friend and frequent co-writer, Kevin Dilmore, and we completed a couple of novellas for Pocket’s line of Star Trek e-Books, along with a magazine article or two. Those things took a couple of months to accomplish, after which I once more found myself waiting. My editor contacted me from time to time, and I tended to the various edits, revisions, and so forth which come with writing a novel.

However, I didn’t give serious thought as to what I might write for a second novel. Heck, I even felt sort of guilty for dividing my attention among other projects while this first novel, my baby, gestated in the hands of my publisher. Much of what I’d heard or read from other authors was that you agonized over a novel; you sweated it, bled for it, lost sleep over it, and when it finally was ready for publication, you sent it off into the wild to fend for itself. Then, and only then, did you start to contemplate your next trick.

“That’s crap,” said my aforementioned writer friend, himself a veritable writing machine who possesses what I call “Fingers of Fury” as well as many more years of experience and publications to his credit. “In the time you’ve spent waiting for your one novel to be published, I’ve written two. Write, rookie! That’s what you do if you want to be a writer.” Other writing pros I respect gave me similar advice, which soon started to sink into my thick skull and boil down into one simple nugget of wisdom. Yep, you guessed it: “Writers write.” This is particularly true when you write on assignment, such as for a newspaper or magazine, web sites and, as I was about to learn, media tie-in books.

Soon, the editor of the Star Trek e-Books line contracted me and Kevin to write additional novellas for him. Then, the editor of my still-forthcoming first novel came calling again, asking if I was ready to try something different. The process of outlining and story building began anew, after which I was working on my second book and what was to become my first original science fiction novel. Things were different, as by now I had plunged neck-deep into the world of “professional writing,” and that’s how it’s gone during the ensuing ten years.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that if you want to be a working writer, don’t spend all of your time and energy on a single project. Even as you’re working to finish one story, be thinking about what you’re going to do next. Over the last ten years and as I’ve (supposedly) labored to improve my writing craft, I’ve become much more adept at juggling multiple projects with overlapping or even competing deadlines while working in service to several masters.

If that sounds like it could be draining, is. Therefore, a companion piece of advice is to not overdo things. Writing is just like any job, in that you have to pace yourself and take a breather now and then, in order to avoid burnout. This is definitely a risk if you, like me, write as a “second job,” and I’ve made this mistake a couple of times.

Back in November, I had several deadlines which all converged on the same three-day window. I already was tired coming into the month after an extended period of demands placed on me by my regular day job, family, and other writing deadlines. I decided after meeting the November deadlines that I was going to give myself some time to recharge. So, with just a couple of small exceptions, I treated December as something of a “writing holiday.”

But, now we’re in a new year and the itch is back. I’ve started working on a new story, even as one or two others yell and stomp their feet for my attention. Yeah, I’m ready to get back into the thick of it. Though I currently have no pending deadlines or editors tapping their feet, I’m forging ahead. I’m tired of waiting.

After all, I like being a writer, and writers write.


KeVin K. said...

If "Fingers of Fury" is who I think he is, we shared a sunny kitchen table at a writing workshop in 2003 or '05 (he was an instructor). I was really annoyed by his habit of drumming his fingers frantically on the keyboard until I realized he was writing. Scary.

Writers can't not write. However, they -- we -- are also good at finding reasons not to write right now. Research, sharpening pencils, alphabetizing the spice rack, blogging, and waiting for feedback from editors are all common excuses. The first and last have the added advantage of sounding legitimate, but none of them is. We can do all of those things, of course, but if we're going to be professional writers, we need to do them after we've hit our writing commitment for the day.

Dayton Ward said...

"Fingers of Fury" is very likely who you think he is, and has written a novel in the time it's taken us to exchange comments. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

I actually kind of always did this, but primarily because I always had so many different stories I wanted to tell, in so many genres. I could hardly finish one thing before wanting to start another.

Liane Spicer said...

I've learned this the hard way. Now my problem isn't deciding what to write next, but which of my WIPs I should focus on at any given time.

Great advice.