Structure

Posted on September 14th, 2011 in process

Writing is a difficult job in some ways.  Working as a TV editor you work to other people’s timescales, other people’s briefs.  Sure, you can have quite a major contribution depending on the job and the director you’re working for, but ultimately you’ve got a set task to do in a given space of time.  Or, more often, a whole set of small tasks to do within a set schedule.  You have an office, a time to arrive and a time to leave and usually a daily assessment of progress.  Writing is very different in that, although you’ve got some oversight and input from your editor, they’ve got a whole list to manage and a whole set of other authors and projects, and in general you have the one big goal of producing a finished book and no one else really imposing any particular shape on how that’s to be done.

Separating work life and other life is something that’s a difficulty for anyone who works from home, but it’s particularly so when the task is so long-term and amorphous.  You have notional deadlines, places in the publishing schedule, but in the end no one can supply one of your books but you, so as long as you sell copies it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get really aggressive with you about supplying that manuscript.

It doesn’t help that most of us writers start out as hobbyists, amateurs, enthusiasts, burning the midnight oil after a day’s work at the day job to get a chapter finished for nothing more than our own amusement, hoping perhaps one day we’ll get published, maybe even make a living from it.  Things change as it shifts from being a leisure pursuit to a work one, and when, perhaps, against all expectations, you’ve finished that book or series you always dreamed of writing and have to think of something new you want to write, digging a little deeper for ideas and methods.  Inspiration and enthusiasm wane, perhaps, over the grinding years, and the shortfall has to be made up by earthier virtues of craft and application.

At the same time a huge amount of work-related tasks appear which are not actually writing.  Interviews, blogging, promotion, dealing with agents, editors, rights, touring to support a release, going to cons and events to meet readers and other professionals, responding to email.  The more successful you are as a writer, the more of this kind of work there is to do.

There’s a romantic notion that writing, along with other forms of art, maybe, should somehow be free-form, unpredictable, chaotic, maverick, not subject to the same kind of rules as any other kind of work.  That writing should spring from a sort of heavenly inspiration.  I’m not sure I see it that way.  When you get a great idea, feel suddenly inspired, are visited by the muse, it can be a wonderful thing and the words can suddenly flow, hands hardly able to keep up with thoughts, you look up and night has fallen and you’ve pounded out a few thousand words you’re really happy with.  But in my experience it doesn’t happen that often.  So you have to find a way to make progress when you’re not feeling inspired.  You have to spend time grinding it out.  Slapping down ideas and deleting half, or three quarters, or four quarters of them.  Writing rubbish sentences instead of beautiful ones and chipping, and chipping, and chipping away at them until they’re . . . at least better.  What’s that they say about inspiration and perspiration, again?

After The Blade Itself was published I was still working as a tv editor just about as hard as I had before, fitting in the writing around it.  It wasn’t until I signed my second contract, for Best Served Cold and The Heroes, that I was able to start turning down editing jobs in order to give me more time to write.  But I’m not sure that my writing speed necessarily increased all that much, if at all.  I still didn’t have any structured approach to the job, didn’t engage in any meaningful timekeeping or analysis of how I was working, kept on with the hobbyist approach of picking at it, piddling about on the internet an awful lot, in a sense working all the time but at a very low intensity.

Although I’ve become more or less a full time writer over the last couple of years, I’ve had the major distractions of two new children, a big move, and a massive building project, and haven’t really been able to get into a routine.  A more disciplined approach is well overdue.  So from now on I’m going to be aiming to do two blocks of two hours’ work a day.  Focused writing time.  Chair time (or perhaps standing time, since I usually write standing up, as it happens).  Planning, revising, or drafting, and nothing else.  No email, no piddling on the internet.  In some ways that might not seem very much, but believe me you can get a fair bit done in four hours if you’re genuinely focused and I find, unless you’re really feeling inspired, it’s hard to get much more than that done in single bursts.  Whether I can maintain that tight focus day in day out we’ll have to see.  Then I’ll also have an hour where I do public facing tasks – responding to email (which has been sadly neglected of late), blogging and maintaining the website (also neglected), interviews and the like, and an hour dealing with business and organisational things, as well as attending to the general crap that accompanies modern life.

I will chain myself to the clock, and free myself through the imposition of tight rules.  Also lock the door so that my kids can’t distract me when I’m supposed to be working.  Hopefully I can cut down on the vast amount of procrastination that dogs the life of most professional writers and, if not work faster, at least work smarter and less stressfully, perhaps having more time in the evenings to play with my kids, be a functional human being and live life to its fullest.  Meaning watch the X-Factor on catch up, of course…

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  1. Got a quick question here, Joe, do you still use a notebook with a pencil, i.e. writing on real paper or are you solely focused on sitting behind a PC?

  2. Jan,
    I’ve got an iphone these days and from the point of view of noting down ideas I have when out and about I find that faster and easier than pad and pen, plus I don’t have to carry the pad and pen. I used to plan on pad but these days I find computer is a lot easier, I type a lot faster than I can write, I can cut and paste stuff, and if I suddenly get an idea for some dialogue I can slap it down and paste it into a chapter later. I do still use paper if I’m having trouble with a chapter, though, or want to think about what should be in it in more detail before I write. Just that difference in approach can sometimes get you thinking in a different way. There’s something about the feel of pen moving across paper which focuses the thoughts…

  3. Think it is always the problem with the picture from outside of a job, that it somehow looks like a mysterious romantic picture. But when you got a glimbse on the full picture you’ll see that there will be a bunch of sidework around the whole stuff.
    Got an artist under my friend an I can see how much time he spends on planning an exhibition. Looks like a sideproject but takes easy month of hard work not spent at the bench.

    I would never find the focus to write for so long and know how hard it was for me to finish my diploma thesis. Oh wait… I should start writing my PhD… Damn procastrination.

  4. You write standing up!? What on a tablet, standing over the keyboard, pen and paper?

    I know what you mean, I so far have 4 short stories accepted for publication and all of them written sat in front of the TV with the family around me. Way too many distractions.

    Need to find a quiet space.

  5. Phil,
    I have the luxury of a motorised desk at which I can either sit or stand. Moving between the two is good for back and neck, trouble with which I am cursed. I tend to sit for email and revision, when drafting I motor the desk up and stand. Feels more active, more engaged. I like to pace around a lot while thinking, and standing is better from that point of view.

  6. motorised desk. sounds fantastic.

    I am still at the stage of struggling to write around a day job. sometimes I do wonder if I am ever going to get from the amateur stage to anything more serious. we shall see.

    regardless, I actually came on here to say A) your books are awesome and B) so is your blog. so cheers!

  7. Sounds like you’ve got a plan and you are going to make it work.
    From one self-employed to another good luck.
    As I’m on an admin day I think a spot of Mass Effect 2 before I make that casserole, then I’ll be right on with that pesky paperwork.

  8. Excellent!

    So your volume of output will soon exceed Brandon Sanderson’s?

  9. @Graham

    Lordy, I hope not. Mr Sanderson is a fine example of the principal quantity rather than quality. Mr Abercrombie is doing just fine at his own pace.

    ‘Course Mr Martin’s latest offering kinda knocks that theory on the head. (how many years? for WHAT?!)

  10. Is another way of looking at it that you are in the position of being able to be distracted? Providing you make sure you average a couple of hours writing a day, does it matter if you get caught up in other things? One day sodding around with the kids, and no work, then you catch up the next day? Presume the joy of what you do is that you can set your own times and all you have to be aware of is a deadline date?
    And presumably you write not only because you are good at it but because you enjoy doing it? So you appear to be busy in a ‘good’ way! But I have to say (from a selfish reader perspective) that you need to be less of a lazy, idle git and pump in at least six hours a day and deliver a minimum of a book every 10 months.

  11. Joe, you may be interested in the following: http://regardingwork.com/2011/09/01/100-ways-to-get-more-done/ .

    There are some very good tips that I have incorporated as an attorney, i.e. a writer who does homework for a living.

  12. Joe, if you need a place to focus there’s always the manacled chair in my basement.

    Seriously, I’m your #1 fan.

  13. I suppose that despite the perceived glamour and the celebrity that comes with writing it is still a job.

  14. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of ‘structure’ in your life in relation to writing.Some of the best writers have followed a very chaotic path in order to produce masterpieces.
    Don’t forget that the main difference between you and me is that I cannot for the love of God put to write and give shape to what I am thinking but you can.Otherwise I too have a notepad and an i-phone.

    ha!Focus!Couldn’t nail the bugger,not in a 1000 years with all the info that’s pouring into me head from sources everywhere.

    Secluding yourself won’t work,why don’t you combine standing up with walking?
    People will stare at you whilst talking to yourself,but you’re a writer,right?
    You can get away with anything!

  15. as long as you sell copies it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get really aggressive with you about supplying that manuscript.

    Well, there was that one time Douglas Adams was locked up in a hotel room by and together with his editor and only let out several weeks later after he’d actually finished writing “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish”…

  16. I’m a sculptor not an artist but I think one of my fave quotes from Picasso still applies: “when my muse strikes I hope she finds me working”

  17. Given that I am posting on your blog while I work, I definitely understand the lure of the internet and procrastination.

    Two hours a day is a great goal. I hope you can stick with it. If not, well, I’m sure you’ll get there.

    You’ve saved yourself a lot of grief by having all of your stories complete–mostly. (I mean, sure, we’re all waiting for Ninefingers and Glotka to reappear.) But no one is waiting to find out how the story ends, so you don’t have to put up with a bunch of people demanding that you work hard like GRRM does.

    By the way, when are we going to read more about Ninefingers and Glotka? Kidding, kidding.

  18. Hi Joe,

    I love your books and the blog –particularly entries like this one where you share your writing process. In a previous blog about word count you mentioned that your daily goal is 1,500 words. Can you write 1,500 in four hours and what kind of state are they in? Rough, presentable, polished? Do you write for two hours take a break and then write new stuff in the afternoon or revise the morning’s words?

    Thanks.

  19. Good luck on the new routine! It sounds almost like the routine Stephen King recommended in one of his writing books: four hours reading, four hours writing – or something like that. I hope you still find time to drop in over at Westeros.org.

    P.S. Hats off for writing standing up. I’ve never been able to do that well for a long time.

  20. With the nature of this confession your output is even more astounding. Writing standing up, now that’s a new one. I do understand with your morotized desk and your back trouble, my father had that for years and it was sheer torture for him, so I hope it doesn’t detoriorate, you’re one of my favourite authors and you’ve always delivered, so I’d like for you to stay happy and healthy for many years to come.

  21. Getting to a decent, quiet place is the hardest challenge for me. The time portion I can wholeheartedly relate to as well. Not even my local Barnes and Nobles offers such remedies of solitude for the artistic mind to properly flourish…

    I blame the horrible music. Who was this chaotic madman that thought a cello version of “Smooth Criminal” was a good idea?

  22. Sorry to hear about your back/neck problems, but the motorised desk sounds pretty cool. I’ve never heard of someone doing it standing up before. (Ahem).

  23. Can you get a desk that plays the Thunderbirds music when it rises?

  24. Thanks for this tidbit into the writing life.

    I like to write and do most of it after my wife and baby go to bed. Other times I steal time while at work and type in a minimized window with a few fingers on alt+tab.

    If I get 500 words down I’m happy.

    How long did it take you to complete The Blade Itself writing part time?

  25. This was like an author’s version of one of those, “It’s so hard being on the road,” rock anthems.

  26. Joe,

    Quick question. Is Monza’s “Calvez” sword more of a broadsword or a saber/rapier? Some scenes give me the impression it’s a standard, classic broadsword design whereas others make imagine a “darn she’s swinging that fast” cavalry/saber scenario. The UK hardcover shows a rapier draped across the map of styria, but the US cover just has this…fantasy-ish longsword edition over it.

    What do you say? Is it ambiguous on purpose for the sake of imagination and did you leave it as so? Because during the Battle at Fontezarmo (Talins, Part VII) I am beginning to picture the latter saber over the former longsword.

  27. …and it appears I’ve answered my own question.

    http://www.joeabercrombie.com/uploaded_images/calvez-final-796468.jpg

    Meh. I’ll still picture it as a broadsword.

  28. Rpbert H,
    Yesterday I did 1,600 words in the first two hours and another 800 in the second. That’s a very good day, but I was starting off a chapter and darting around doing whatever bits I wanted. Often that means slapping down dialogue as it comes to me. That produces a lot more words a lot more quickly than doing what I’m doing today which is starting to fill in the blanks and link the dialogue together with description and exposition.

    A-Drain,
    Hard to remember exactly, and I certainly speeded up as I went, but maybe three years all told?

    Adam,
    It IS so hard being on the road.

    Jacob,
    It’s intended to be quite a heavy-bladed rapier, one you can cut with. At times in Best Served Cold, particularly the battle outside Ospria, she’s described as using a different, heavier sword though, I think.

  29. have you tried the pomodoro technique? It can be a great way to focus. it works on bursts of 20 mins with a 5 min break, with a longer break every two hours

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

    Originally folks used kitchen tomato timers (hence the name), but on the Mac I quite like Vitamin-R

  30. Joe,

    Thanks for the reply. I originally picture it as more of a broadsword, but oh well. I just finished it recently. By all means, feel free to insert Shenkt into any future novels. He was my favorite character throughout the entire story, aside from Monza of course.

  31. Considering how disorganised you claim to be you write remarkably quickly. Can we expect a say Terry Pratchett level rate of production now that you’re sorting yourself out

  32. Considering how disorganised you claim to be you write remarkably quickly. Can we expect a say Terry Pratchett level rate of production now that you’re sorting yourself out

  33. Joe,

    Thanks for the response — although now I’m a bit sorry I asked. As a wanna-be writer who grinds out paragraphs over lunch, between conference calls and after the kids are in bed I feel like I just caught an unfortunate glimpse of Ron Jeremy at the adjacent urinal. Your writing is not just good but demoralizingly prodigious!

  34. Joe,

    This is the best blog post I’ve read in a long time. I work from home and I have some of the same challenges.

    I am an off-again, on-again hobby-writer (more off than on, lately) and I think that, leaving out questions of writing ability, what separates people like me from people like you is that when the writing is hard, you fight through it, knowing that you’ll get back to it and make it better, whereas I turn off the computer and go watch TV. Reading that writers as good as you struggle in this way actually inspires me to get back to it and scratch my way through the tough times.

    I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule and giving us this look into your job.

    Thanks,

    Liam

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