The One Thing That Matters for Fiction Writers

And why our brains are trying to protect us from doing it.

If the excuses in a writer’s brain were people . . . Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

I have this theory about the fiction writer’s brain.

It will do anything — anything — to protect the writer from the hard, sometimes painful work of drafting new fiction.

A first draft is called rough for a reason.

The idea that all it takes to be a writer is to sit down at a typewriter and bleed is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway — but it was actually Paul Gallico (The Poseidon Adventure) who said it first.

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.

Writing is hard. The brain has a protective imperative. That’s what fight-or-flight is all about, right? So it makes sense that a fiction writer’s brain would try to protect its host from having to do it.

That’s my theory, anyway.

It makes sense, especially when my brain is flooding me with a thousand reasons why it’s perfectly reasonable for me not to write new fiction right now.

(For reasons, read excuses.)

It’s a little crazy that some of my top-level excuses for not writing new fiction involve writing other things.

After I learned that a friend earned $5000 writing for Medium in December, I made a goal of upping my game here by writing everyday in January. Just to see what happens.

Yeah. I counted yesterday. I’ve written 77 Medium posts in January. Good job, writer’s brain.

You have seven people to support, my writer’s brain reminds me. And here’s a fantastic idea for a new post. Your new book can wait. This is important. Avoiding bankruptcy is a good reason not to spend your time picking new fiction words out of me with a toothpick. And at least you’re still writing.

(Side note, my brain has unhelpfully become nearly obsessed with checking my Medium stats this month. Work on your story just as soon as you check to see how many fans you have today for the fifteenth time before noon. Fans are good. We love fans.)

I just got my editorial notes for the last book I somehow snuck past my writer’s brain. Obviously, I need to do that work. And editor at a major publisher is waiting on it. Clearly, writing something new has to go to the back burner. Never mind that I run around telling everyone who will listen that they should spend at least ten minutes every day of their lives writing new fiction.

Editing counts, my writer’s brain says. Editing is more important. You’ve already been paid for this book, the drafting is done, look how fun editing is. The new book can wait.

There are books to read. And it actually is my job to read them. Every writer needs to be a big reader. My writer’s brain suggests that I ask Stephen King about that if I doubt her.

Social Media calls to me. I need to groom my dog. That candy isn’t going to crush itself, you know.

The world is falling apart, I have to watch the news. It’s my civic duty. Duh.

Just ask my writer’s brain.

My point is that there are always reasons not to write new fiction. And there are even stronger reasons if haven’t gotten to the point yet where someone is willing to pay you for your work. Because then? Then your writer’s brain gets to constantly tell you that this is just a hobby and everything on Earth is more important than that.

Since what I want is to be a novelist, writing new fiction is the most important part of my job.

Some of that other stuff is important, too. I need to pay the bills, after all. I need to edit that book, and I need to do that now.

But good excuses are still excuses.

This whole thing will grind to a halt if I don’t consistently create something new.

I know what to do. Write new fiction for at least ten minutes everyday. It’s so simple. Turn off everything else, but all the other projects away, and just write for ten minutes.

Every day.

Even if my writer’s brain is screaming at me that I’m wasting time that could be spent doing at least three more important things. Even if she’s got all of these incredibly good points. Even if there are other things pressing against me for attention. Even if those things actually really do need my attention.

Write new fiction for at least ten minutes every day.

Do it for enough days in a row and your writer’s brain will acclimate. It’ll sigh and get out of your way so you can just get it done. And most days, ten minutes sets into motion something even more powerful than your writer’s brain.

Momentum.

And your ten minutes will turn into more.

But if it doesn’t? That’s okay. Write for ten minutes a day. If all you write is one page a day, you’ll write a novel a year.

And that is how you build a body of work.


Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.