Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Productivity and the Muse

There are lots of reasons why a writer might feel discouraged. Rejection is a big one. Writer's block (or the phenomena that pass for it) might be another. I personally have a difficult time with productivity, or to be specific, how little of it I feel I have.

I'm not fair to myself. Does this sound familiar?

Writers have different writing styles, and they have different writing processes. My process happens to involve an enormous amount of background work for each story, followed by planning and scene-sketching - for the whole story if it's a short story, and for at least a section of several chapters if it's a novel. My plan can flex, but I like to know where I'm going.

Sometimes it's a good thing that I have lots of background work to do, because this kind of work is stuff I can do while I'm doing other things. And I have lots of other things to do. Typically I get three hours a day to write, five days a week. The hardest part is that I can't always count on having this time - unpredictable things like illness will derail my process for several days at a time.

I write scene by scene. When I have a draft, I get critique. I usually then have to take the draft apart on first revision and change something major (how major depends on the story). I write stories that go somewhere, that have character arcs for multiple characters. It takes me forever. I watch people around me talking about all their story submissions and/or acceptances and I know that's not something I'll be able to achieve for a number of years, or possibly ever. Even if my time goes up, I'm still not going to change into a flash fiction writer overnight.

I imagine though that other people experience different kinds of frustrations with their productivity. Like writing a whole bunch of stories and not having them land anywhere. Or having to trunk things because they don't know what to do with them or where to sell them.

The thing is, the Muse works differently for different people. I find if I try to change my style, I can't function at all. To some extent you have to go with that.

On the other hand, I have learned some things that help. One is that I've learned to keep my Muse awake - i.e. not to lose my drive and inspiration - by making sure to do at least one writing thing every day. That includes pulling out what I've written last and looking over sections of it. This makes it tons easier to resume what I was doing when the free time presents itself.

I also had some really great advice the other day from my friend Deborah Ross (of Darkover fame). I'll paraphrase what she said. She told me when you feel like your productivity is down, you may be counting the wrong kinds of progress. Getting a story finished is wonderful, but if that's the only kind of achievement that counts, you'll spend a lot of time frustrated. Just keeping the Muse awake should count as progress. Each sentence you write should count as progress. The important elements of worldbuilding and planning should not go unrecognized on the progress-meter either. All of these things contribute.

It was really good advice. I can't say I've stopped feeling frustrated by the unpredictability of my writing time, but counting progress differently has helped a lot - so just in case you've been feeling frustrated too, I thought I should pass this on.


  1. I like your point of counting each small step as progress. That's much more encouraging for writers. Great post.

  2. I think many writers struggle with this. I know I do. In my case I sell a story...and then go years without selling another, and after a while it is hard to work up the energy to try again.

    I think it is good, as you seem to do, to figure out what kind of story you like to do, and stick to it. Unfortunately the short story market is geared towards short (under 4 or 5 thousand words) pieces, and I know I have spent a lot of time trying to write stories that fit into that niche. While I'm sure I learned from those attempts, I am happier when I am writing novelette-sized space opera, so I am going back to those. It means longer time to write--maybe 3 or 4 a year, if I am really producting--and if Analog doesn't buy it and Asimov's passes, there aren't many left who will even consider a 13K-word story.

    And instead of putting words to page/screen, I spend far too much stuff going over and over those considerations in my head...

  3. Thanks, everyone. I need to think about it this way for my own sanity...

    CWJ, I have other types of stories that I write, but none have landed yet. Still hoping that will change, but obviously there's no trouble in going with a trend that works. I always struggled with the 4-5K length trend, but my stories always come out 7K or longer. Mostly I need to be at peace with my process and with the needs of a particular story. My latest is 13K and unlikely to come down much from there; it also took me over a year to write. I just pray that Dr. Schmidt likes it when I send it in.

  4. I'm so glad my comments were helpful. One of the wonderful things about networking with other writers (of whatever level) is the support we can give one another.

    I've blogged on a related productivity issue, "How Many Hours Do You Write Every Day?" here: http://blog.bookviewcafe.com/2010/03/09/the-writing-life-how-many-hours-do-you-write-every-day/#more-7418

  5. Thanks again, Deborah. And thanks for the link, too.

  6. I think it’s good to count everything as some sort of progress. I imagine Nano counts everything for a reason.

    A lot of pro writers say nothing but fresh words count, and I think that’s silly. Maybe world-building only counts for 2/5 of a word, or character profiles 1/5, or outlines 3/5. But it’s still something. You have to do that work sometime, and there’s no point penalizing yourself for doing it, especially when you’re filling in gaps where you just can’t produce “fresh” material.

    Frustration is a vicious circle, so anything that lessens it is good in my book. (pun not unintended)

  7. I've had plenty of day jobs I disliked or even outright hated. I never had the option of waiting on inspiration or begging "job block" as a reason not to go in, punch the clock and do the gruel. I don't want to denigrate anyone's struggles with her or his writing, but treating it like a job, while not fun, is a straightforward path toward productivity. Take away from yourself the opportunity to slack off or navel gaze. Set a minimum amount of pages or wordage to hit every day that you've specifically set aside as a work day. Writing in and of itself needn't be a joy. (Though I often find it such.) But the rewards for consistently producing work, which inevitably helps your growth as a writing entity, are boundless.

  8. Very interesting thoughts, Eric. I think you have a good point for some writers, inasmuch as it's valuable to take writing seriously and keep yourself aimed in a direction which allows it to happen. I do feel that you haven't quite captured the spirit of my post, which was aimed at a different type of writer - writers who, like me, lead lives with a high degree of unpredictability. Were I to set myself a word or page goal for days where I am *likely* to be able to write, I would feel like I'd failed each time I was unable to meet that goal, and this would make it harder for me to maintain the ongoing focus that I talk about above as "keeping the Muse awake." I think that sense of ongoing focus on writing is something we'd both see as having value.

  9. And, actually, I envy you Juliet having (in principle) 3 hours a day 5 days a week. I get about 2 hours a day 3 days a week, if I am lucky...mostly I rely upon insomnia to provide writing time.

    One thing I have taken to doing is keeping a "writing diary" where I log how many words I have written or made notes on editing I have done. It's a way to reward myself for keeping up effort. I don't set a specific goal each day, but simply note what I have done. I also keep track of submissions and rejections and make brief notes (i.e., "need to rework the scene where she escapes"). I use Google docs so that if I have a sudden idea at work I can log on and jot down the idea. It's kind of like a blog, except only for me :) .

    And work is part of the "problem," because luckily I really like my job. I just also like writing. Too many things too little time.

  10. Oh, CWJ, isn't that the truth! Thanks for explaining your strategy - and sorry about the insomnia. It's clear to me that every writer has a different equation of time, work demands, family demands etc., and it's all about working out the most productive way to fit writing into that. Without effort spent on figuring out how to fit it in, I know I'd have a hard time even doing as much as I do.

  11. Yikes... I feel exactly the same sometimes, and that means I end up "stuck in a rut" with my writing sometimes for weeks on end. That doesn't mean my Muse isn't feeding me new ideas, or I'm not writing other things (ie. blogging, SEO articles) so you're right -- every little step should count. So I only have 20 minutes to write down some plot points? That's still better than nothing at all. Thanks for the different perspective on "progress". :)

  12. Faith,
    I'm really glad you found these thoughts helpful. I figure that if counting progress in smaller increments helps keep a writer's morale up, that's got to contribute to writing success when they next have an opportunity to sit down and write for a good chunk of time. Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  13. Very good things to remember. I often get frustrated because I am a slow writer. Words don't come easily to me unless one of my passions has been roused, and even then, I tend to repeat myself or use clumsy wording. At least with writing, I can revise.

    I had a day last week where after several hours of labor, only 75 words had been added to my WIP. But in that time I wrote almost 700 words to find the 75 that worked. I'm not talking polished work either. Just the words that angled the scene and characters in the direction they needed to go. The next day I managed to write 100 words in about an hour and quit early for stress relief. The day after that, I finished the scene with another 700 words and got 300 words into the next scene. Some days words come at a crawl, some days at a brisk walk.

    If I strictly counted net gain of words to my WIP, I'd go bonkers. I'm glad I'm not the only one to find other ways to measure productivity.

  14. Jaleh, I have days like this. Typically though I sense when I'm going to have a "words that worked" kind of day and keep myself away from the keyboard until I can figure out what concept is going to give me words that are closer to the right track. That has to do with how I think and write, though, and isn't precisely a suggestion (some folks would find it the opposite of helpful!) Good luck with your WIP!