Writers Write and So Much More

“So, you’re just writing now?”

My lunch companion’s question was innocent enough. After all, she knew that I’d just quit a part-time gig teaching writing at a public high school.

I swallowed hard and calmly said, “Yes.” While conversation moved onto holiday plans and my daughter’s college applications, my mind kept coming back to her words: Just writing.

Why hadn’t I jumped onto the table, flailed my arms about, and shouted what I truly meant to say: Yes! I’m writing – and so, so much more!

I am certain that my friend was in no way belittling what I do, but I’ve heard it before. People have this weird – almost romantic – perception that writers spend their days curled up in comfy chairs, sipping tea, and waiting for inspiration. Not exactly.

The working writers I know are equal parts wordsmith and hustler. They work days, nights and weekends. Even when they’re not working, they’re working – scouting for ideas, looking for connections, polishing sentences until they’re bright and shiny.

Think writers just write? Think again. These are just some of the behind-the-scenes tasks writers tackle on a regular basis:

Brainstorming

I have notebooks in my car, my purse, on my nightstand, in the den – all for the purpose of capturing ideas.

Ideas are born everywhere and they’re slippery little fellows, so you must act quickly when you sense one. Inspiration for articles, books, characters, settings and plots can come from anywhere: A conversation overheard in a coffee shop, an episode of a 1970s television sit-com, the way rain bounces off the window sill.

Creating a backlog of ideas is an important part of writing. Of course, not every idea becomes a story, but without ideas a writer would have nowhere to start.

Researching

Research varies, depending upon what kind of writing you’re doing. Writing a book about the United States’ first African-American astronaut? You’ll soon find yourself up to your eyeballs in old news clippings, scientific journals, and official NASA documents.

Writing a fictional short story about a young girl living in London in the 1840s? You’ll need to research popular girls’ names and clothing of the era. You will have to learn how people got around the city, which neighborhoods existed, what the political and social climates were like, what the economy was like. Even when creating fiction, research is necessary in order to create a realistic storyline and believable characters. Imagine that your young English girl loves hearing the chimes of Big Ben, but alert readers know that couldn’t be because the landmark wasn’t completed until 1859. Those readers are going to begin to question everything about your story. A lack of research makes for an untrustworthy author.

Writing/Rewriting

Once enough research has been done and you know where you’re headed with your story or article, you can begin writing. Production varies greatly from day to day and writer to writer. In his autobiography, American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote that when he was finishing Following The Equator in 1897, he was writing an average of 1,800 words per day. In an interview published in 2002 in The Paris Review, English novelist Ian McEwan said his daily production was considerably lower, at around 600 words per day. If you land somewhere in between these literature legends and are able to write 1,200 words per day, it will take you 75 days to complete a 90,000-word manuscript, IF you don’t get stuck or frustrated or sidetracked. And that’s just the first draft.

Even Stephen King, who has published 56 novels, writes three separate drafts. In his book On Writing, he explains that he writes a first draft, then lets it sit for a month or more while he works on other projects. After a four- to six-week brain break, he rereads his manuscript, paying close attention to theme, character development and plot holes. He then writes draft number two. Kings sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their feedback to create his third draft.

Three drafts is just the beginning for many novelists. Perhaps it’s not the entire manuscript that needs rewriting, but rather a chapter or two that require eight, nine or more revisions – it’s not unheard of. Even if you’re not working on a book-length project, the process of polishing your work is both crucial and time consuming.

Pitching

Once your manuscript is ready, it’s time to figure out how to get it published. Writers spend hours reading trade publications and doing online research to find agents who might be attracted to their work. Are these agents accepting new clients? What kinds of manuscripts are they looking for? How do they want work submitted? Some writers are lucky and connect with the very first agent they query. Others must go through the process over and over, until they land with an agent who believes in their work. And, even then, there will likely be more notes and more revisions before the manuscript can be sent off to editors.

While waiting to hear from publishers, most writers dig in on their next projects – another book, magazine articles, business writing to cover the bills. Those clients don’t often just present themselves. Writers must contact publications and corporations in search of paying work. The pitching never ends.

Marketing

Websites lend legitimacy to a writer’s career and body of work. Maintaining and keeping those websites up to date takes time. There are blog posts to write, reader emails to answer, client proposals to address. Now, more than ever, writers must also engage on social media – connecting with readers, fellow writers, agents and publishers. It all takes time.

Speaking/Teaching

Many writers supplement their income and boost their profile by speaking to community or school groups, doing readings at bookstores, or teaching classes at colleges or through writers’ conferences. I find that sharing my love of writing feeds my soul and makes me more energized, more proud of the work I do. Of course, those speaking engagements don’t schedule themselves. Writers must work with schools and conference leadership to find the best fits for their talents. And, of course, a day away teaching means you probably won’t reach your writing goal for the day, which means your first draft or revision will take even longer to complete. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

Reading

Even when it looks like a writer is relaxing with a good book, she’s working. Reading widely is some of the most important work a writer can do. It’s important to sample the classics, know what’s new and hot, and understand the most popular works in your genre. I try to read my way through the National Book Award finalists and Michael L. Printz honor books each year. Sure, I enjoy this task, but I also recognize that well-read writers are better, stronger writers.

So, yes, I am just writing right now.

I am crawling into my comfy chair to sip tea, send out a query, edit a chapter, research legal defenses for my law-breaking protagonist, update my website, answer reader emails and plan a workshop – all before I begin the actual task of writing for the day.

 

Combating Work-From-Home Solitude

I have been a work-from-home freelance writer/author for about 15 years. The freedom is amazing and the flexibility has allowed me to work around my kids’ never-ending school conferences, concerts and sporting events. My husband envies my 30-second commute and my friends wish they could fold a quick load of laundry during their lunch breaks.

It is a good life. It’s also a solitary life.

I have no coworkers, no office parties, no company lunches. It’s just me and, when she drags herself up to the attic, my dog Iris. It can get pretty lonely.

Sure, I could rejoin Corporate America but I’m smart enough to know that not all co-workers are good co-workers. So, instead, I turn to these tried and true tips for battling the isolation. If you’ve felt it, you should try them too:

  1. Plan Lunch Dates

When I first started working from home, I pledged to set up one lunch date per week. Pretty soon, work got busy enough that I switched my goal to a biweekly luncheon, then monthly, then – well, you get it. Priorities. Whenever you start feeling you can’t spare 60 to 90 minutes to talk with a friend about something other than work – that’s when you most need a break. Commit to a schedule. Start with two dates – for lunch or walking or coffee – each month and, if you can, build from there.

  1. Work Off Site

I’m not at my most productive when I write in a coffee shop. But sometimes it’s less about productivity and more about being around other people. Pack up your stuff and work off site for a morning or afternoon each week. Greet others in the coffee shop or library or shared office space. Before you know it, you’ll begin to know regulars and conversation will blossom. Let it.

  1. Look for Reasons to Get Out

As a writer, I can conduct many of my interviews over the phone. It’s easy. It also adds to the disconnected feelings I sometimes get. Whenever possible, I try to meet up with the subjects of my research. Researching copying costs? Drive to the store instead of looking online. Looking for a book? Spend some time at the library instead of ordering it online. At least a couple times each week, come up with a “business” reason to get out and about.

  1. Network

Join a group like Rotary or Toastmasters. By attending regular meetings, you’ll make new connections – some of whom may be potential clients and others who may, like you, be looking to build a support network. Don’t join the first club you come upon. Look for one that aligns with your interests and has members with whom you’d like to spend time.

  1. Turn on the TV or Radio

I admit it. I have the TV on in my office all the time. I rarely watch it, but the noise makes me feel like I’m not completely alone. This background “conversation” helps keep me sane. Music doesn’t have the same effect for me – I need to hear other people talking. I’m not picky about content; I’ll play shows about cooking, home décor, reruns of 1980s TV shows. My only rule is that if the show is so interesting I find myself actually watching it, I need to switch channels.

What are your tips and tricks for battling work-from-home loneliness?