OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
At Harrogate Crime Festival last year, I heard Lee Child being interviewed on his incredibly successful Jack Reacher series.
When asked about his writing process, Lee mentioned being like a trucker. A trucker doesn't get up in the morning and wonder whether or not to get in the truck and do his job. He just does, and off he drives. So, Lee said, he just gets in his version of the truck and writes. It's a job, just do it.
This workman attitude also resonates through Steven Pressfield's book ‘Turning Pro,' which sits on my desk and which I re-read every new year.
In today's guest post, author Anthony St Clair expounds on this theme, opening with a casual chat that sparked the idea.
“So, you what, sit down and wait for the muse?”
My father-in-law’s question made sense. A master electrician and project manager, he heads up the installation of massive industrial electrical systems. But when he asked me about how I write and work, something clicked.
“No,” I replied. “When you get down to it, my job actually has a lot more in common with yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I view writing as less of an art and more of a craft or trade,” I said. “The ‘electrician muse’ doesn’t need to show up so you can do your job. You get up every day, put on your hard hat, and get it done.”
“I always thought writers need to be inspired.”
“Not anymore than you do, really,” I replied. “You plan out big projects and work on them piece by piece, day by day, until the larger whole is done. It’s the same for me. I plan out a project in advance. Then in the moment I deal with what’s happening on the page in a scene. I don’t wait for the muse. I don’t need a muse. I know what I need to do, so I work at it every day until the book is done.”
This small chat between me and my father-in-law evolved my understanding of my writing and of my role as an author entrepreneur. Over the past year I’ve published 2 books and have a third coming out later this year. All my stories are based in an ongoing, non-sequential series that already has more material than I could write in one lifetime. And 5-6 days a week I get up, put on my metaphorical hard hat, and go to work.
It’s easy to think of fields like electrical work or plumbing as being inferior to writing. They’re not.
As John W. Gardner, former president of the Carnegie Corporation, once said:
“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
The same holds for writing. So today I’m going to share four things that help me get my writing done. My goal here is to help you kick the habit of the muse and inspiration, and to motivate you to show up, write, and get it done, every day, in the manner that works best for you.
Put on your hard hat and go to work
Authors have an ongoing destructive love affair with the idea of the solitary, spontaneous creative binge. Our media love it too. You know how it goes:
OMG. Jane McWriterpants had this brilliant idea, locked herself in her room, drank 4 bottles of scotch and 20 pots of coffee, didn’t eat for 3 days, and came out Monday morning with a finished book. And did you see how many zeroes were on the check a publisher had sent her as an advance by lunchtime?
Isn’t that a great story? It’s something else: nonsense.
Architects don’t design buildings overnight. New houses aren’t built over a long weekend because the carpenter had a brilliant dream about lumber. Writers are no different.
At best, the spontaneous creative binge is an outlier. Mostly it’s just a lie.
It’s like the muse, which trips up many writers. The muse is counterproductive. You don’t need one. If the muse doesn’t show up to work every day, then fire the muse and keep showing up yourself.
Getting your book done means making it happen every day. Just like a building, there’s a lot to do. Part of your job is breaking down a massive project like a book into smaller pieces that you can work on every day, according to your needs and schedule, until you arrive at the end of the story.
Another lie of the spontaneous creative binge is that no planning is required. Some authors can pull this off. One of the best modern examples is Tom Robbins, who famously writes with no plan, but word by word follows the story until he’s done. You can just about typeset his first draft.
You are not him.
At least, I know I’m not. I’ve tried to just sit down and write. I fail. Most writers fail. Then they think they can’t write at all.
All that matters in writing is understanding—and applying—what works for you. What works for me is meticulous planning, but it’s also the planning that helps me be creative, find insights, and take new directions.
Planning a book does not mean an inflexible, unwieldy outline. Nor does it mean you have to know every minor character’s first job and second cousin. Planning a book means you have enough of an idea of what your book is about, who is part of the story, and why the story needs to be told, so that you can get up every day and keep making the book happen.
Believe it or not, planning also means being flexible.
Deal with what comes up on the job
Planning is important, but things don’t always go according to plan.
This is similar to working through problems on a construction site. You can have all the blueprints and meetings in creation, but until you’re actually working on the site with the real materials, you don’t know how things are going to go. You have a plan to rely on, but you also have to expect changes, be flexible, and adapt.
Each of my three books had points in the manuscript where what the story needed to do was not what I originally planned. I had to make changes not only to what I was working on, but sometimes to parts already written and parts I hadn’t written yet
Changes make me grateful for all the planning I’ve done. When I get to something that needs to change from what I originally planned, I can roll with it, adjust other parts of the story as needed, and keep going. By knowing in advance where I think the story will go, I can adapt when the story turns in a different direction.
Get it done
As Apple’s Steve Jobs once said, “Real artists ship.” Here’s what he meant: you can tweak and rework forever unless you stop yourself and decide you have reached a point where the book is good enough to release.
Or to put it another way, popular in American culture, “Get it done.”
We can wring our hands forever about a piece having flaws. Then an old journalism adage reminds us: “Done is better than perfect.”
Our job is to tell our stories truly and wholly, and to the best of our ability. If we can say confidently that we’ve done that, then it’s time to write “THE END” and celebrate.
Then it’s time to go through the next steps of getting the story into the world—beta readers, editors, designers, you name it. But for now, fire the muse.
Make your book part of your every day. Get it done.
Do this, and you stand a far greater chance of getting your flawed but finished story out into the world.
You can always do a better job on the next book.
And you will.
How do you get your writing work done when inspiration doesn't strike? Please share your thoughts below in the comments and join the conversation.
Globetrotter, homebrewer and writer Anthony St. Clair has walked with hairy coos in the Scottish Highlands, choked on seafood in Australia, and watched the full moon rise over Mt. Everest in Tibet. Anthony’s travels have also taken him around the sights and beers of Thailand, Japan, India, Canada, Ireland, the USA, Cambodia, China and Nepal. He and his wife live in Oregon and gave their son a passport for his first birthday. His latest book is Home Sweet Road, out now on Amazon and other ebook stores.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons hard hat area by Jason Eppink