Different Writers, Different Results

By Victor DiGenti

“I guess you must write what, ten or twelve hours a day to finish a book?”

The question emanated from over my left shoulder as Jim, my longtime barber, concentrated on trimming a thatch of hair in his own special way—just short enough to stand up and wave obnoxiously instead of lying down politely. His question, though, was a familiar one.

There seems to be a real curiosity about the mechanics of writing, as though it were some arcane rite practiced by Druids in black robes. When do you write, they want to know. How many words a day? Do you work in your pajamas? Actually, they don’t ask that, but I frequently do, if that’s not too much information for you to handle.

I told Jim I worked around the clock and only took short breaks to eat and get my hair cut, but it got me to thinking about how my fellow authors handled the mechanics of writing. So, I asked them. For the most part, the answers weren’t surprising, and illustrated the fact that professionals work professionally. Here’s what they had to say.

Shirley Rousseau Murphy, author of the Joe Grey feline sleuth series, told me she used to write 8 hours a day, but now works only 4 to 6 hours a day. “I write, or revise and polish, a minimum of 2,000 words a day, 3,000 on a good day,” Shirley told me. I also asked her where she wrote and if she used music for inspiration.

“My desk has a view of the garden, and my computer faces tall shelves filled with my favorite reference books,” adding that she liked lots of open desk space so her cats can make themselves comfortable. As to music, she prefers silence, except for the purrs, and uses another, more tasty form of incentive. “I do like a nibble of chocolate while I write, though. Chocolate is essential comfort food, and helps keep the brain perking along.”

I’m sure she did a lot of nibbling while writing her newest Joe Grey release, Cat Pay the Devil.

Not everyone is as disciplined. Randy Cribbs is leader of the Ancient City Writers Group for FWA, a retired Army officer, and winner of the 2006 Royal Palm Award for Illumination Rounds, which he co-authored with Peter Guinta. Although Randy’s written six or seven books, he’s decidedly more laid back in his writing habits.

“I’m afraid I’m not a normal writer,” Randy said. “I don’t set goals, don’t make many notes, and never write unless ‘it’ is in my head.  I basically build the story – characters, plot, everything – in my mind and then eventually, when it seems to be falling in place, I sequester myself in what my wife calls the man-room, overlooking the majestic St. John’s River and I write; usually until it’s done.”

In contrast to Randy’s habits, Lynn Coleman seems to need the pressure of deadlines. Lynn always has several books going at once, and uses publishing deadlines to keep her tapping away at the laptop. “I give myself a deadline that is due one month before the publisher wants the manuscript.” Lynn reports that she takes care of the more mundane things in the morning, then settles down to write until noon. After a break, she’ll continue writing or do some copy editing. Surely, this was the schedule she kept while writing her latest historical romance, A Place of Her Own.

Some people have to juggle different jobs and still find time to write. Clea Simon, author of Cattery Row, is a full-time freelance journalist, which helps to support her fiction habit. This usually takes precedence over her novels, but “to counter this, I try to give myself an hour or two in the morning to work on my projects.” In an email, she wrote that some days it’s easier to do anything but write. “Today, I’ve written about a paragraph. And re-trimmed a Valentine’s bouquet, gone grocery shopping, did the dishes, and put a load of laundry in.”

Sometimes when the words aren’t flowing, my mind will drift away and my eyes will track the spindly periwinkles blowing in the breeze outside my office window. Soon I’m fixated on my overgrown lawn and worried what the neighbors must think. That sometimes forces me to pull out the lawn mower. But not too often.

When this kind of writers’ block emerges, Murphy is a firm believer in getting to the cause of the matter. “A reluctance to get to work tells me, clearly, that I have not worked out the next few scenes to the satisfaction of my inner muse.” She realizes she needs to take a fresh look at her back-story and outline, and concoct something totally different.

Florida mystery author Bob Morris recently signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press for books four and five in his Zack Chastain Caribbean series, and he finds the pressure of marketing his books keeps him away from his writing. “Bermuda Schwartz comes out next week,” he told me, “and for the past month or so my writing schedule has gone to hell as a result of the enormous amount of work involved with promoting the new book.” Ah, the price of success.

There are as many different roads to the successful completion of a book as there are writers. Here are a few things I usually tell new writers:

  1. Set priorities. Ask yourself how serious you are about completing your writing project. If it’s something that keeps you awake at night, or gets you up early in the morning, as this column did for me, then it has to be a priority.
  2. Set goals. When I’m going full throttle to complete a book, my goal is five pages per day. Admittedly, I sometimes only write two pages, but other days I crank out ten or twelve. I work in the morning, usually five days a week, saving the copy editing and other chores for after lunch. Then I try to get out of the house and visit the YMCA to work up a sweat, or do some errands.
  3. Focus on the writing. It’s easy to tell ourselves that browsing through the library or spending hours researching a subject that plays only a small part in your book is actually working. For example, my recently completed book, Matanzas Bay, is a contemporary mystery set in St. Augustine. Too often, I’d make the forty–minute drive down A1A trying to capture the local flavor, when only one or two trips and a good visitor’s guide would have worked just as well.
  4. Don’t obsess over the little things. My office is a mess, I should clean it. That new Windows Vista program would probably be a big help with my writing. Where’s that Garth Brooks album? I can’t write without it. You get the picture. Your mind will constantly throw roadblocks in your path if you let it, so keep those blinders on and concentrate on the writing. Taking time out to nibble on chocolate now and then, of course.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up while you’re writing. We sometimes allow ourselves to fall in the trap of rewriting everything as we go along. Spending so much time hating what we’ve written and trying to change it, that we don’t ever finish. Like a long distance runner, keep your eye on the finish line and not the quarter-mile markers. I’ll review the last few pages when I return to the keyboard after a break, but as a rule, I try to get through my first draft as quickly as possible. After letting it sit for a few days or weeks, I’ll read through the manuscript and more easily find and correct poor and confusing sentence structure, plot holes, and other mechanical breakdowns.

Having shared my professional secrets with you, I have to tell you to do as I say and not as I do. Currently, I’m in the midst of several major projects, including planning a writer’s conference for the Florida Writers Association, so my writing has suffered. But the important thing is not to give up, and to enjoy the moment. After all, as I told Jim, my barber, it sure beats cutting hair for a living. Does anyone have a spare Band-Aid out there?

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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