An Undisciplined Writer

Did you know that Walter B. Gibson, creator of the wildly popular character The Shadow and prolific author of hundreds of stories and novels, one time typed so much his wife was forced to intervene because he broke his damn fingers typing?


I learned this on my buddy JimFear138’s most recent podcast, where he talked to another friend of mine, Rawle Nyanzi, about all things genre (and why genre doesn’t really matter these days; check out J.D. Cowan’s recent post about this if you’re interested in the premise).

Anyway, the point is that these guys in the 20s, 30s, and that general era wrote fast. And they produced quality.

This, of course, translates into money. You can see why guys like Nick Cole and Jason Anspach have been so successful with their Galaxy’s Edge series, both with the fans and financially.

Information like this, of course, has the tendency to produce self-reflection, and I realize one vital fact about myself: I am a very undisciplined writer.

Seriously. I don’t really enjoy the actual act of writing. Maybe it’s because I don’t like sitting still for that long. I don’t think it’s necessarily a focus thing, because given the right objective, I can be occupied for hours.

And writing can be like that, when I get into a groove. It’s just that getting into said groove can be a challenge.

This gets me wondering if it’s a free time issue: Free time is so limited, as it is for most of us, that I almost have a checklist of things I’d like to do–work out, read, check some website I’m fond of–before I get to the writing, which can sometimes feel like work. So I’m scheduling writing time–I keep this blog going, after all, I’ve written several novels, and I’m getting others ready for publication–but I can’t shake that I could be doing more with my time.

Is it a balance issue, then? What if I wrote to the exclusion of other things I like to do with my time? I know what would happen: I’;d feel as guilty as I would if I, say, worked out to the exclusion of my writing and other things that interest me.

And then I look to my heroes in writing the way I looked to my heroes in music, and realize I don’t measure up.

For example, when I tried to make a go as a musician, I’d look to my idols like Frank Zappa, Prince,and David Bowie, how ridiculously prolific they were, and get sort of depressed by my own inadequacy.

Likewise, looking at guys like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the aforementioned Walter B. Gibson, I start to fall into the same trap.

But the important things to remember are that these guys did this for a living, and they weren’t getting paid the big bucks (or having the massive TV/movie deals) the way guys do today. So they had to write to pay the bills.

Me? I’m doing this solely for the love of it . . . for the time being.

Stephen King and Dean Koontz are two super-rich authors I can think of off the top of my head who pumped out tons of books in their heyday, even when they’d already received financial success. I can’t help think of guys like George R. R. Martin, though, who acts as though he actually hates writing.

Enough musing! What to do about it? Here are some things that work for me, both physically and psychologically. I hope they help!

  • Put the phone away. Literally get it out of sight. I’ll zip it up in my laptop bag, put it in a drawer, or leave it in another room. I know what you’re thinking–“You’re computer still has Internet, smart guy!”–and that’s true. Yet for some reason, I find it a lot easier to ignore the allure of the Internet on my laptop than on my phone. I know it makes no sense, but there you go.
  • Don’t write hungry. If I want to eat, I want to eat. I’d rather eat something before writing than have a snack while writing. Why? Because eating something will keep your hands occupied when you should be typing. Drinking seems to work for me–usually a seltzer or something, but occasionally an adult beverage or two–but some people find that alcohol impairs their ability to type.
  • Find the best time. I write best in the morning or the day, but I have the most time at night (or on lunch break). So I try to plan accordingly by doing my workouts at lunchtime instead of after work, giving me more time to write after I eat, put my son to sleep, and hang out with my wife.
  • Stay consistent. I just feel better, even if I only work on a page, than entirely skipping writing for the day. A little bit each day is more satisfying and fulfilling to me than doing 50 pages once a month, just to pick a random example. It is a grind, like anything else that’s worth doing.
  • Get obsessed and stay obsessed. I could also call this “running a cost-benefit analysis in your head”: Whatever you’re doing, think: Could I be writing instead? What will make me feel better? More importantly: Which thing will bring me closer to my goal?

This combines of a goal-oriented approach and a system-oriented approach: Construct your system and stick to it, tweaking when necessary, to achieve your goal. We like to think of art as purely feeling based, in that, “I can only work when I’m inspired!” But that’s garbage. Even art takes hard work and discipline.

You also need to have the discipline to know when to take a break. Just ask Mr. Gibson how much writing he got done with his broken fingers.

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