Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write!

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A couple of days ago Tanya Huff wrote about NaNoWriMo, and I commented that one of the things I didn’t like about NaNo is that it leaves some people (non-writers, mostly) with the false impression that writing a novel is easy. “I could write a novel,” they say. “I mean, look at all those people doing NaNoWriMo. It only takes them a month. How hard can it be?”

That issue aside, the thing that I think NaNo gets right is that it encourages people to sit down every day and produce. What we need to do now is to stop thinking in terms of NaNoWriMo and start thinking in terms of NaNoWriYear. Because as much as it is helpful to study the craft of writing, to read blogs like Magical Words, to read writing-related books, to attend workshops (which can range from a few hours to a few weeks), nothing but nothing but NOTHING is going to teach you how to write like the act of writing itself will. And after the act of writing, the next most important thing is the act of reading. Good books show you how it should be done; bad books show you how it should not be done. Either way, you win. Over 95% of what you need to know about writing can be learned from the simple acts of reading and writing.

I got a copy of the SFWA Handbook in the mail recently (subtitled The Business Side of Writing, By Writers, For Writers), and while a lot of the contents are very basic, there was one article that caught my eye: “Selling Your First SF/F Novel” by Jim Hines. In this article, Hines expands on a survey he recently conducted and published the results of on his website (www.jimchines.com). The data from the SFWA Handbook article that particularly stood out to me was this: having surveyed a large group of authors about how long it took them to sell their first novel, Hines asked (among a lot of other questions) if the authors had gone to conventions, joined a writer’s group, gotten a graduate or undergraduate degree in writing, attended weeklong or longer workshops, etc etc, or none of the above. After several passes at trying to interpret the data that kept getting him unexpected results, he broke things down according to how many of the above items the author had selected (if they attended a workshop and also got a degree, that counted for 2, if they were in a writer’s group, went to conventions, and did a workshop that counted as 3, etc etc). The results broke down this way:


Number of answers selected                 Mean Years to Sell 1st Novel

0                                                                         12.8

1                                                                          13

2                                                                          11.6

3                                                                          13

4                                                                          18.1

5                                                                          15.8

In his article, Hines then wrote: “Once again, the results were not what I expected. Why would time increase for writers who had done four or more of these things to try to build their careers? One interpretation is that some of us get caught up in the trappings of being a writer… By spending too much time and energy on these activities, we begin to neglect the more important “butt in chair” time. Because in the end, if you’re a struggling writer… the most important thing you can do is write.”

A few days after reading Hines’s article, I was reading a book called Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko. In his introduction, he wrote, “Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the world-record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers.

“In a study on 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Keith Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality.”

All of which reminds me of a quote I heard once – I’m pretty sure it was by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it to confirm – but he gist of the quote was: “If you want to learn to write, commit to writing one short story every week for an entire year.”

All of this amounts to the same thing. You want to be a better writer? Sit down, shut up, and write.

It can’t be said any more plainly than that, so rather than writing a neat little wrap-up to this post, I’m going to end it here and let you get back to work – where you belong, if you’re serious about being a writer.



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16 comments to Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write!

  • One interpretation is that some of us get caught up in the trappings of being a writer…

    So true, that. Years ago, when I joined the South Carolina Writers Workshop, I let myself get involved in the administration of the group at the state level. I ran for a position on the board, and sent out a weekly newsletter, and felt all sorts of accomplished, until I realized that with all I’d been doing, I’d let my own writing slip. When my term was up, I didn’t run again. And it was the best choice I made.

    BIC must come first!

  • Two years as president of the Writer’s Group of the Triad for me. On the one hand, it lead to some good networking opportunities, which in turn lead to some great networking opportunities. On the other hand, none of it got any writing done.

  • Excellent post. And it reminds, there’s something I’m supposed to go do right now…..

  • Thank you for putting this into words, Edmund. It’s been bugging me lately, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

    The “trappings of being a writer” is such a deceptively attractive problem. I’ve seen it on Twitter and Facebook especially, but also at my local writer’s conference … as if acting writerly and talking/tweeting about writerly things will somehow magically translate to the page. But I feel like a jerk for even talking about it simply because I’m *not* published yet, so how am I any different?

    I haven’t been spending nearly as much time on either. I barely even update my blog on a regular basis. I’ve got more important things to do, like actually write. Sure, I’m a regular poster here, but here I learn something valuable every day, so I consider it more than worth it.

    I’ve already said my piece (that I’m using NaNo to help myself get over some personal blocks / internal editors as well as my ability to freeze at the computer, and so far, it’s working). And the NaNo community has led to a year-round weekly group gathering, where we actually do sit down and write (and talk about plot and character issues when needed). But overall, I’m just sitting and writing and that’s the feeling about it that I like the most. A feeling/habit I intend to carry with me *after* NaNo.

    Whether or not I’ll do NaNo next year remains to be seen.

    So I hope this comment hasn’t come across as too presumptuous, but thank you for bringing this issue up.

  • Right on the money, Ed. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare wrote not just Hamlet but, on average, two plays a year for twenty years. You don’t have to choose between being prolific and being good (even great), and the two–as you say–often go together.

  • Excellent, Edmund! I like. BIC, BIC, BIC!
    Being prolific can actually make you good.
    The more you write, the more you learn about writing.
    You learn to write a novel by writing a novel.
    I was pres of SouthEastern Mystery Writers of America and on the board of Mystery Writers of America for 2 years. It was good to be done with the job and title and responsibilities that kept me from writing, and just write.
    The trappings don’t matter.

  • Stuart – Good boy.

    Moira – Not presumptuous at all. Sounds like you understand perfectly. Just keep implementing it.

    AJ – I think I first heard it from a photographer friend of mine: If you want a great shot, take 50 or 100 of them; one is bound to be great. Eventually as you get better, you’ll only need to take 20 or 30 to get that one great shot. But throughout the process, you’re always taking pictures.

    Faith – “The more you write, the more you learn about writing.” That’s it in a nutshell. The rest is just details.

  • And therein lies the rub.

    As someone with a family and a full-time professional, non-writing, job the time I have available to pursue my writing is extremely limited. I’ve found Magical Words to be a welcome resource for writing advice, encouragement and especially community. However, I several months ago I realized even the time I’ve spent participating in on-line communities, learning from others about writing and about the publishing industry, is time I could and should be spending writing instead. I still subscribe to Magical Words, but I’ve had to back off from actually participating on a regular basis. It’s a bitter pill, and although I haven’t given up entirely on checking in now and again, I trust in the end that actually getting more words on the page is worth the effort.

    Thanks for being there.

  • Thanks for checking in, John. There are a lot more people in your situation than not; I think if we surveyed everyone here and found out who was making a fulltime living from just writing fiction and who had to do outside work to make ends meet, you’d be surprised. But I agree with your choices/priorities, and wish you much success.

  • Great post. True some of us get so caught up in learning to write that we don’t remember to write. Think about if you could get a degree in riding a bike. Would it get easier to ride? Nope, you jump on and keep riding until you realize you are actually doing it.

    I generally spend November producing the first draft of a story I edit throughout the year.

    Back to my word count for the day.

  • Okay, I’d love to be able to say that I didn’t comment yesterday because I was writing, but actually I was doing household chores.

    Great post, and a lesson I will take to heart in the coming year. My plan is to write and write and then write some more, so that when my next release comes out early in 2012, I’ll have a bunch of stuff ready to sell.

  • Great post Ed! Like John, I work full time (but no kids) and so I don’t have the time to tweet and I don’t follow anyone on twitter, I read some writing blogs and friends’ blogs, but not many. I read MW. But not a lot else. I don’t have a blog that I update much. The closer I get to actual publication, the more I’ll think about and create those sorts of things, for publicity, but there’s no need for publicity without a publishable project, so the time I have for writing, I spend writing. And, in the near future, writing query letters and (long sigh) synopses.

  • Great job, Emily and Perry. My intention with this post was not to make people bad for not writing every single day, but to try to point out that the best way to learn about writing is BY writing. That’s all.

    David, I’ll be stopping by your house later this evening to do an inspection. If the toilets aren’t clean, you’ll be hearing about it.

  • Many years ago I had the amazing fortune to speak with Terry Pratchet when he came out to Australia to do one of his speaking tours. I was at that stage, a starry eyed eighteen year old, with aspirations of being a ‘writer’, though my skill set made me a vastly more accomplished computer nerd (which I still am to this day). I said that I wanted to be a writer and his response was quite simple: “Well, start writing. That’s what it is to be a writer. Anything else and you are not writing.”
    At the time, being young and full of myself, sure that I actually knew everything, it didn’t really stick in my head. Only now, fifteen years later, do I realise the truth of his statement and it is just exactly what you’ve said in your post. If you want to be a writer you need to write.
    Same advice I gave my friend who wanted to quit smoking, I said to quit you actually need to stop smoking, that’s what it means. Is it as hard to just sit down and write as to just stop smoking? I have no idea and I’m not really sure where I’m gong with this…

  • I love to write. Not writing drives me nuts. If I don’t have the opportunity to write and it stretches out to a few days, I start to get pretty grumpy. When it stretches to weeks, I can actually get depressed.

    Like John (above), and so many others, my days are filled with non-writing work — unless you count patient charting (and I don’t). When I get home, I take over as Mr. Mom for my two little ones while my wife works. The little cuddly monsters understand zilch about giving daddy writing time. If I try to write while in my Mr. Mom garb I’m lucky to get five uninterrupted minutes. That leaves no opportunity for getting “in the zone,” and by the time I have them all tucked in, I’m tuckered myself.

    What I most look forward to is when my wife’s off and she suggests I take a “library day.” I pack up the laptop, hit the corner store for a Sugar Free Rock Star, speed to the library, reserve a small study room, get all WiFi’ed up, and immerse myself in writing for anywhere from four to seven hours. Love it, love it, love it. I wish I could get at least one Library Day a week. I’m working toward it, but it hasn’t happened just yet.

    So, Edmund’s point isn’t lost on me, not by a long shot. Unfortunately, my actual BIC time comes few and far between these days. Wanna ask me if I’m grumpy? You bet ya.

  • Scion, Cool that you got to meet Terry Pratchet. And amazing how we can look back on our lives and realize hw we were unprepared at the time to hear/comprehend some very good advice.

    J.M., I’m the same way (grumpy when I don’t get to write). Been grumpy too much lately; I think it’s part of the reason I wrote this post. I was talking to myself, telling myself what I needed to do. Here’s wishing you many ‘library days’ in 2011.