On February 8, I started writing my latest novel, the fourth book in my Dragon Apocalypse series, currently untitled. As I write this, I’m roughly 20,000 words into the first draft, just starting the fifth chapter. When finished, this will be my fourteenth novel. (Ten currently in print, one that will see print once I complete its sequel, and two that will never see the light of day, because they’re pretty bad.)
It used to take me a long time to write a book. I spent over two years on my first novel, only to produce a barely readable mess. Drafting my second novel dragged on for a similar time. It was frustrating, because I’d look at published authors I admired and see them putting out a book a year, sometimes two books a year. At the time, the advantage they had seemed obvious: They were writing full time, and I still had a day job, and could only write in stolen moments. I’d think of just how productive I could be if I didn’t have to go to work each day.
Of course, one oft repeated bit of advice I’d hear from professional writers was this: Don’t quit your day job. At the time, I assumed the advice was purely negative, and meant, don’t quit your day job because you’re not good enough to make it as a writer.
Now, I see the advice in a more positive light. Don’t quit your day job, because it’s not a necessary step to have a rewarding writing career. I still have a day job, and regard it as a very useful tool for supplementing my writing career with health insurance and a 401k. The idea that my day job ever seemed like a real obstacle to writing is hard to grasp.
Perhaps I imagined that, free of a daily grind, I'd sit before a computer for forty hours a week and crank out page after page of prose. I’ve done that, twice. For my novels Burn Baby Burn and Cut Up Girl, I managed to crank out complete first drafts of novels in a week or less by putting in back to back eight, ten, or even fifteen hour days. I definitely learned one thing from the experience: Writing a full novel a week, week after week, would ruin my brain and my body. Worse, it would likely ruin my novels. In both cases where I wrote books in such a compressed time frame, I could do so because I had lots of advance daydreaming under my belt. I knew the broad outlines of the books, had dozens of scenes, and had characters who’d come to life in my head.
I think the books I wrote fast came out pretty good. In fact, some days I consider Burn Baby Burn as possibly the best book I’ve written. At the end of each marathon week, however, I was utterly drained. Pouring so much material onto the page so quickly left me feeling like my skull was filled with cotton. I couldn’t read, couldn’t concentrate, definitely couldn’t write, for days, even weeks. If I’d attempted to write something new the following week, it would have been pointless dribbles of uninspired words. My body didn’t fare much better. The human frame isn’t designed to sit and type constantly, hour after hour. After I wrote Cut Up Girl, my hands were numb for weeks. My back ached, my legs were sore, and I had trouble sleeping.
Fortunately, it turns out that it’s possible to build up a significant body of fiction devoting much, much less than forty hours a week to the task. Looking back, it’s easy to see that while my day job took up a lot of time, I spent even more time in pursuit of entertainment. I watched a few hours of television each night, I played video games into the early morning hours, and would hang out with friends on weekends playing long sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. Now, the choice seems obvious, that my writing time could have, and should have, been carved from the hours I spend in pursuit of amusement.
These days, when I’m writing a first draft, my goal is to devote ten hours a week to writing. This usually consists of a two or three nights of an hour or two, then a push on Sunday to put in however many hours are needed to reach my weekly goal of 10,000 words. The more I write in the evenings, the more I can count on having my Sunday afternoon free to go hiking or biking with my wife.
Ten hours a week is a challenge some weeks. This week, driving to work, BOOM, I hit a pothole so hard it bent the rim of my tire. After work, instead of driving right home and writing, I had to spend a couple of hours getting my car repaired. Most of the distractions aren’t even unpleasant ones. Friends invite us out for dinner, or a book I’m reading is so engrossing I spend my evening flipping pages instead of typing them. My wife and I are also dedicated to fitness, so, especially during the winter, we can wind up dropping everything just because it’s not raining and not absolutely freezing and we have a two hour window where we can get in a decent walk.
Despite the distractions, ten hours a week is a pretty doable number. I know from experience that I can write roughly 1000 words an hour when I’m producing a first draft. So, at 10,000 words a week, I can complete a first draft in only three months. Of course, a first draft is only part of the battle, so I’m going to need another three to six months of work to chisel and polish that initial pile of words into something that looks like a readable novel. Still, producing two books a year, or at least a book and a half, is quite doable at a production rate that doesn’t leave me with carpal tunnel syndrome or permanent brain damage.
So, if you're a writer just starting out, and you spend way too much of your waking life worried about how your day job is standing in the way of your true calling, start small. You shouldn't dream about writing 40 hours a week until you've proved to yourself you can write 10 hours, or even just 5. Odds are, you possess the most important body part a writer needs to succeed: a butt. Put it in a chair, and start typing.