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
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.