I once met a friend of a friend who wanted to become a novelist.
We chatted on the phone and I casually asked: so how many hours are you writing a day? I thought I could encourage him to develop a writing habit, but what he said shocked me.
8 hours a day, he said.
6 days a week.
He had quit his job and decided to become a writer, and he figured the quickest way would be to pour massive amounts of time into it.
Now, if you're expecting a finger-wagging message from me: and we all should be more like that guy ... you're going to be disappointed.
Because that's not what I felt.
My first thought was guilt. Wait, why am I not writing more? I mean, I do this professionally. And here this newbie upstart is whooping my writing time.
And bewilderment: sure, I can have a single great day and write for 8 hours, but to keep that up for a whole week, for a whole month? No way.
As I thought about it more, I realized putting that kind of pressure on yourself is dangerous:
- A pace like that is prone to burnout. Sure, you can keep up that pace for a week, maybe even a month, but at some point you're going to realize that the craft of writing is an ultramarathon, not a 400 meter sprint.
- To get your best material, write when you're strongest. When I go on a writing retreat, I often find that by hour four I really, really need a break (because my sentences have broken down and my mind feels uninhabited).
- Give your book space to breathe. Sometimes you need to let your mind go fallow in order to approach the work with new eyes. Sometimes you need to recharge by reading in order to get your next new idea. Sometimes you need time across the span of your book so you can edit it properly.
Plus, if you have a job or kids or a relationship, then there's no way you're going to be writing for 50 hours a week.
And that's perfectly okay.
See, this 8-hour-a-day novelist was trying to be efficient. He thought that he could compress an entire lifetime of writing into six months.
But efficiency is not the best way to become a novelist. In fact, writing often resists efficiency -- you throw material away, you head in the wrong directions, you delete a character.
Yes, you have to work steadily to finish a book. But if you're not putting up superstar numbers, just remain confident that the turtle won the race, not the hare.
Oh, a few years after that conversation, I asked my friend how it was going. He had quit novel writing and become a computer programmer.
John Matthew Fox
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