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 recently quit a part-time teaching job.
I swallowed hard and calmly said, “Yes.” While conversation moved onto holiday plans, soccer matches 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, filing away images and descriptions.
Think writers just write? Think again. These are just a few of the behind-the-scenes tasks writers tackle on a regular basis:
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 skittish 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 on the bus, 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.
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, phone interviews 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, social and economic climates were like. Even when creating fiction, research is necessary in order to create a realistic story line 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.
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. King 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. J.K. Rowling has famously admitted that Chapter One of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone went through more than 15 drafts. Even if you’re not working on a book-length project, the process of polishing your work is both crucial and time consuming.
Once your manuscript is ready, it’s time to figure out how and where 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 types 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.
Websites lend legitimacy to a writer’s career and body of work; 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.
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, time 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. Trade offs are part of the game.
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. I love middle-grade nonfiction, so I regularly visit libraries and bookstores to see what readers gravitate toward. Sure, I enjoy this task, but I also recognize that well-read writers are better, stronger writers. It’s part of the job.
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.
Mary Boone is a Tacoma, Wash.,-based writer and editor with a broad base of experience. She headed up communications for a Top Tier Fortune 500 Company, handled media relations for a liberal arts college, and has written more than 40 books for young readers. Check her website at www.boonewrites.com or follow her on Twitter at @boonewrites.