Advice to Graduate Students

I earned an MA from the University of Manitoba in 2005 and a PhD from the University of Calgary in 2009. While completing my PhD dissertation (a book I have not yet revised for publication) within four years, I also drafted five books. I threw two of them away, and published the other three (with subsequent revisions): Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives.

Yet I am no productivity god. I wasted a lot of time, and wish I had done more. There are many graduate students who are also creative writers, and struggling to determine how to balance their studies and their writing. Here’s my hard-won advice.

I have framed it in response to an e-mail I received some time ago, from a self-described “budding author.” His basic question concerned going to do an MA (with an academic focus, not a creative thesis) yet also wanting to remain a creative writer.

How to focus on creative work and academic work at the same time? How to be a writer and a scholar at once?

Set Clear, Attainable Goals.

No matter what you work to achieve, you need to set goals that are clear and attainable. (For more on goal-setting for writers, see my interview with Chadwick Ginther).

The worst kinds of goals are vague, unattainable ones, like “hit the bestseller list.” Which bestseller list? When? How will you take meaningful action towards this vague goal? If you punch a copy of Quill & Quire, have you accomplished your goal? If you artificially manufacture some situation where your book ends up on the bestseller list (which is a current trend among self-help writers), will you check off your goal? Or will that fail to satisfy you ?

“Publish a novel” is a better but still-bad goal, as is “Complete my MA.” They are not terrible goals — at least you know when you’ve accomplished them. A novel gets published or doesn’t, and an MA hangs on your wall or does not.

A better goal is “Complete final polish on my first novel manuscript before the world ends on Dec. 20, 2012” or “Defend my MA thesis before I get married on Jan. 15, 2017.

Sometimes you’ll hear the annoying acronym “SMART,” as in “Create SMART goals.” Annoying though it might be, the advice is sound. You want your written (yes, write them down!) goals to be:

  1. Specific — You want to “finalize the manuscript for Vampire Sex Music,” not “write a book.” What does it mean to “write a book”? If you write a first draft, do you check off the goal? Or is a final draft your goal? Or a third draft?

  2. Measurable — You need to know when you complete a goal. If “lose weight” is your goal, then go to the bathroom. Mission accomplished! “Lose 5 lbs” is a better goal (in terms of being measurable — it’s a bad goal in other respects, since you could just sit on the couch and lose 5 lbs of muscle).

  3. Attainable — “Publish a novel” is a bad goal because it requires an outside party to intercede. In this case, a publisher needs to accept your novel, and in fact they will be the ones to publish it. (If you want to self-publish, then the goal would be attainable.) All meaningful goals should be possible to accomplish without the intercession of others. Although more wordy, something like “produce and submit a final draft until it is published” is better than “publish.”

  4. Realistic — If you have never written your name, then writing a novel is perhaps unrealistic (unless you have a long timeline). Often people are more unrealistic with their deadlines than with their abilities. I find that too many people are under-ambitious and in a sense too realistic given their abilities, but some people have a deranged sense of the marketplace or industry or their own selves. Research is usually the key to determining if something is realistic or not.

  5. Time-Sensitive — Everyone works better with a deadline. If nobody gives you a deadline, give yourself a deadline!

My goals going into the PhD programme were as follows:

  • Complete all of the required course work within the first eight months
  • Complete each stage of the program as fast as possible (I set additional, more specific timeline goals for each stage)
  • Complete all requirements for graduation within four years (I ended up going a few more months, because I was offered extra funding for those additional months, and I didn’t want to turn down free money)
  • Apply for every grant or scholarship for which I am eligible (deadlines specific to each) — both academic and creative
  • Complete a book and submit it to publishers before I graduate (i.e., within four years) … as noted above, I ended up completing and submitting more than one, and two were accepted for publication before I graduated
  • Complete and submit as least three academic essays to academic journals (I ended up publishing all three)

Despite wasting a lot of time playing Wii, I did all this stuff. I did a bunch of other stuff as well, other goals I set after I entered the program. I don’t say this to brag, just to show you that if you are realistic about it, and you set clear and attainable goals, then you can accomplish a lot.

Notice that my goals are both creative and academic.

Note that I didn’t set a goal to publish anything. Again: you can’t control whether or not somebody accepts your work for publication, and even if they do accept it, you can’t control when they will publish. (I am still waiting for an essay I had accepted over seven years ago to be published!)

All my publishing-related goals were to “complete and submit.” Even if I’d published nothing, I would have met these goals. However, I was determined to publish (I wanted to publish a book before I turned 30 — thankfully, Ex Machina came out just one month before my birthday!), so I kept “submit” in my goals.

The Deep, Dark Secret of Graduate School

Are you ready?

Ready for your life to be changed?

Ready to learn secret knowledge kept hidden in the darkest wood, buried a hundred miles below the roots of an ancient tree, in a lead-lined tomb?

Okay … if you think you’re ready. Here it is:

Nobody cares about your grades. Getting good grades is your least important concern.

Not an unimportant concern, but your least important concern. In other words, when you are in graduate school, straight-As are the bare minimum.

Everyone else will get As. You’d better get them too. But if you spend all your time trying to do well in class and get As, then you are wasting your time.

What you need to do is set yourself apart, without being an aggressive or competitive jerk. What people care about, when you enter the so-called “real world” after graduate school, is everything else that you did. In other words, while you are in graduate school, you need to concern yourself with gathering publications, awards, and experience.

When you finish graduate school, and are sweating in a stuffy auditorium while you wait to receive your degree, look around you. Look at all those people graduating with you, in your cohort. Now multiply that group by every other cohort at every other university graduating at more or less the same time.

Guess what? All those people have straight-As. They all passed. They all have degrees now, just like you. You’re all brilliant. But how many of you have actually done anything, other than getting good grades?

If you don’t do anything outside of graduate school, you look like a total loser to a potential employer and you’ve been putting your life on hold for no payoff. Lose-lose. Which leads me to remark:

Don’t put your life on hold!

There are no substantial rewards after graduate school. The jobs are scarce, the jobs don’t pay well (for the education you actually have and the time you put in), and you don’t get the respect you deserve. Not even from your Mom.

Moreover, putting your life on hold is a great way to look myopic and like you can’t manage your time properly. If you can’t get through graduate school without having time for outside activities, then how can you possibly teach a full course load and conduct research? Never mind have an actual, um, what do you call those things … “life.”

When I hear “I can’t imagine forgetting about my novel for a year!” I shudder. This is exactly the kind of thinking that is foisted on people. “You must put all aside and focus on your studies!” saith the dean.

But I will say it again: I wrote five books in first draft (two in final draft) including my thesis, and finished within the four-year (and a few months) “minimum.” And I’m not that special.

The reality is this:

Completing your novel, instead of putting it on hold, is the most important thing you could do for your future career.

If your novel is your thesis (i.e., if you’re doing the creative thesis option), then I would hope that this would be obvious. But even if it’s not, as in this example, even if you’re doing an academic thesis, then your novel is still the most important thing.

Why? Because everybody else is also going to have a completed thesis when they are done. Because everybody else has As. Because everybody else got award X or scholarship Y.

Everybody else is going to publish in at least one refereed journal (and it goes without saying that you’d better submit academic work to journals, along with getting As and winning awards, and writing your novel or poetry book or whatever).

How can you set yourself apart? Not by competing in-class to prove your intellectual superiority. You’ll look like a jerk (actually, you’ll be a jerk) and people will shun you. Not by getting an extra RA or TA job. Everyone else did that. But who else is completing and (hopefully) publishing a book? Or a schwack of essays?

Almost nobody. When people look at your CV, they should have to turn the page. They should have to turn 10 pages. They should maybe have to turn 20 pages. They should have to turn more pages than they did with everyone else’s CV.

At the same time, bear in mind that they are hiring people, not pages. Who would you rather hire:

  1. Somebody who has been hell-bent on graduate school to the expense of having a personality?
  2. Somebody who managed to tag all the bases, including drafting up a strong thesis, and craft a novel? (Or run a magazine, or produce a short film, or whatever.)

Who sounds more interesting, more organized, more capable, and more fun to chat with in the common room?

Nobody is impressed by my transcript with all its As and A+s and awards, aside from seeing the SSHRC on there. It looks just like everybody else’s transcript. Except, maybe, that I completed my studies on time.

Complete the program on time, and as fast as you can.

There’s a lot of bullshit competitiveness in grad school. Sidestep it all. Be nice to people and make friends. And quietly complete the program as fast as you can, faster than your peers.

You’re not struggling against them, you’re struggling with them, and against yourself. Nobody cares about your grades, unless they are low. Not even the department you’re in.

What do they care about? They care about how far along you are in the programme.

When I started my PhD, the first thing I did was look over all of the departmental policies. I read all of the policy documents I could. It was a nightmare, but I learned my most important lesson. I learned that the policy was, all other things being equal, when the department had money to give out, they would give it to the person who was the furthest along in the programme.

So, I completed all of my course work in eight months. Nobody else did. As a result, I received tens of thousands of dollars of free money, simply because out of my cohort I was the furthest along in my programme.

Even if there are not specific policies that would benefit you in this way, getting your work done efficiently and effectively will give you more time to have one of those lives you keep hearing so much about. And it will impress the people around you. You’ll be competitive without having to compete.

When I was done, my thesis needed a lot more work. I’m slowly doing that work now, in between other projects. I could have done all of this work earlier, but the goal is not to craft a perfect, publishable thesis. Your goal is this:

Craft a workable, defensible thesis — then get the hell out of there!

Polish and rewrite and get your thesis perfect and publishable on your own time. You’re getting a degree, not publishing a book. You can publish your book later. The longer you stay in the programme, the worse you look to an outside observer.

Nobody expects you to get your book accepted the moment you’ve graduated. They expect you will have to rewrite it anyway, and “get the dissertation out” before it’s publishable. They had to rewrite their dissertations, why shouldn’t you?

Other Concerns

In the original email, I was asked about an MA program, but I talked about my doctoral studies because the answers are relevant to both MA and PhD programmes.

The above is an overview of my general advice regarding graduate school. Below are more specific answers to particular questions and comments.

“Did you feel like you were compromising your creativity?”

No. I was careful. I minored in literary theory, which is broadly useful in academia and also of use and interest in a personal approach to writing. And I majored in Canadian literature, which helped me get a sense of where there was a gap in the literature of this country and where I might attempt to find a niche as a writer myself.

For me, this made sense and fed my interests; another writer might justify another field in another way.

If you’re going to have two careers, you need to make them complement each other. It’s hard enough to have a single career. You don’t need the hassle of a second one. You have to find a way to merge them and to view/present your creative work as an asset, not a distraction — as a form of research-creation (without crafting boring, theory-heavy books).

I didn’t do anything in graduate school unless I felt that it was going to help me as a writer in some way. Or improve my teaching abilities (because I love teaching and think it’s important to teach, a form of community service, like this website). And I made the time to write, regardless of how busy I was, even if I only wrote for 10 minutes.

So though I often bemoaned my lack of time, as I continue to do now, I was still slowly progressing on both creative projects and academic ones.

Where I did compromise too much was in not doing the creative thesis option immediately.

I entered the PhD programme with an academic thesis project and held onto it for almost a year. It was a mistake. I should have jumped in. It would have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Not because writers should always do creative theses, but because my academic thesis was a worse idea. You should just go with the best idea, whether academic or creative.

Your most impressive project should be your thesis. Your second-best project can be your secondary focus. It sounds obvious but it’s not always obvious when you’re on the inside.

You can’t be tactical and careerist in your choice of projects. It will show in the work. You need to be doing your best work, no matter how sexy that work might seem in the marketplace. Your best work is always your best option, because it shows you at your best.

“I’m learning increasingly that writing is not only about talent, but mental perseverance, time management, organization…”

Hallelujah! This is, to my mind, the biggest misconception about art in general —that you don’t need to be organized, persistent, or efficient … just “talented.”

Whatever that means.

Talent is for wimps. Whoever told me that “Hard work is more important than talent” was right (it was either Maurice Mierau or David Bergen).

“[What about] negotiating between the writing mind and the scholarly … not only the varying mental spaces, but also how to go about establishing a routine that can accommodate both…”

It’s hard, but for me it’s not the transitioning that’s hard, since I have an analytical mind and don’t write from a place of emotion, necessarily. It’s the “only so many hours in a day” thing that’s difficult. I struggled with this then, and I still do, but even though it’s hard, the answer is simple: you have to prioritize both (though of course at different times, since by definition you can only have one priority).

(And, as noted above, you need to think of your writing as a branch of your broader research and think/plan/work accordingly, without getting into a headspace where you end up producing clunky, academic fiction, or wispy, non-rigourous academic work.)

I have written elsewhere about what to do when you have too many ideas, and you can more or less substitute the word “projects” for “ideas” here. The key is that, in your working life, your priority will shift. You need to understand and accept that: again, remember that by definition, you can only have one priority at any given time.

The trick is to make your priority an important, non-urgent project — and train yourself to work on that before the urgent, less-important things that can occupy your time.

Every day, try to take at least one concrete step towards completing this priority project. I define a concrete step as writing a certain amount of words, but you might want to include research tasks or other activities.

I insist on having clear priorities that are pre-defined, so that I don’t get wrapped up in what I feel like doing. I also set quotas for the week or day. Actually, I let my writing software, Scrivener (Mac | Windows) set my quotas for me.

I try to do more. But I focus on not doing less.

Even if I feel like garbage. Try to remember this: even if you write nonsense that you’ll later delete, this is better than writing nothing. It helps you think, and it helps you build discipline, and it helps to practice.

If you write a single usable sentence, then you’ve done more than if you put it off until tomorrow, when you’ll (supposedly) have more time or feel refreshed.

If you only work when you feel like working, then maybe you should quit. Stop deluding yourself. You’re a hobbyist.

Which is fine! Just own it.

Don’t act like you are more than a hobbyist. Don’t stress yourself out about these things, and don’t waste time reading articles like this, because they aren’t relevant to you. Relax and enjoy your hobby.

If you don’t want writing to be your hobby, then guess what? It is now your job. Even if you don’t make any money doing it. (I didn’t say it was a good job…)

So you have to go to work even when you don’t want to. Your job as a writer deserves and demands at least as much dedication and loyalty as your job at Tim Hortons, which you drag yourself to even when it’s raining and you’re tired.

Also, importantly:

Don’t trap yourself in reading/researching when you should be writing.

You need to do both. But your reading and research should not get in the way of your writing. Even if you are doing preliminary reading/research to prepare to write something (like an essay), you should be writing something else (maybe a different essay) or writing notes and draft material alongside your reading.

It will be easy (ha!) because you will:

Write according to a schedule.

I have written about this at great length, but the short story is that if you write according to a schedule you will be much more productive (like, produce 3-5 times as many pages) than if you write in large yet irregular blocks (writing like this, people tend to only write slightly more than “controls” told to write nothing unless circumstances force them to write).

The most important thing to do if you plan to be a writer and a scholar is to remember that AND. You have to commit to BOTH.

You don’t put one on hold while you work on the other. Trust that your success in one area will feed into the other — I’ve been hired to teach creative writing courses based solely on my publication record — and get yourself organized, get disciplined, and work efficiently.

Commit yourself and treat both your studies and your writing as a job.

Serious writers and scholars schedule time to write and don’t know what other people are talking about when they talk about inspiration.

So-called writers and scholars work when they “find the time” or when “inspiration strikes.”

Those people are pretentious losers. Don’t let them influence you. Don’t use them as role models.

The joke of the universe is that some of them have a lot of talent. And so, they get by. Imagine how well they could do if they actually worked, and honoured their talent rather than squandering it. The joke of the universe is that since they get by, they don’t even realize they are squandering their talent. Just imagine if they did not.

You have to imagine, because you will never know. Because they never will. They will always just get by. They will take your job, and churn out the same crappy essay for the next ten years, and get promoted, instead of doing something that matters to the world.

And so they will always be pretentious losers, even as they drink expensive wine while you swill box wine. None of which is any of your concern. Your concern is the work.

Don’t Attribute Dialogue

Conventional dialogue in fiction follows a formula: “I am saying something,” said Character X, “and nobody can stop me.” That part in the middle, said Character X, is called dialogue attribution. The phrase attributes the dialogue in quotation marks to Character X, using the verb said. Writers write attribution all the time, but why? Why would anyone ever write dialogue attribution?

Conventional Wisdom

Many of the articles about dialogue attribution, or even just about dialogue, focus on the quality of the attribution rather than questioning the existence of attribution itself. The bugbear here, for many good reasons, is the adverb. Writers caution other writers against sentences like this:

“Maybe,” she said vehemently.

The problem with adverbs in dialogue attribution is the same as with adverbs anywhere: they are either redundant or, more dangerously, they mask the presence of a weak verb. So, instead of “said vehemently,” it would seem, I should use a more precise verb, liked “shouted.” But this is no better:

“Maybe,” she shouted.

Why isn’t this better? Well, dialogue is an odd case where the adverb’s appearance masks not the use of a weak or imprecise verb, but an error of another order. “Said” is weak and imprecise, but it is acceptable in dialogue attribution — in fact, much of the conventional wisdom here is that you should only use said, which is fine as far as it goes.

The problem, of course, it that it doesn’t go far enough. But before I get to that, let’s identify the real problem here, which the adverb tries to mask: “Maybe” is not something you say vehemently, not something you shout. (Normally. It doesn’t do all the work itself, when maybe it should.)

The dialogue itself is weak and imprecise, and the adverb is attempting, after the fact, to mask the problem, by telling the reader how they should have read the dialogue, since it was too poorly written to have been read properly in the first place.

So what’s the lesson? Restrict dialogue attribution to “he said” or “she said” and so on? It almost sounds good — except that the very presence of dialogue attribution weakens dialogue and muddies character action.

Moreover, dialogue attribution is always unnecessary if dialogue is well-written.

What Dialogue Attribution Does

This may seem obvious, even tautological: dialogue attribution attributes dialogue. Let’s interrogate this further. The function of “Bob said” is to tell us that Bob said something. Why would a writer ever need to do this?

The answer, of course, is if Bob is saying something that another character could have said. There are two basic situations where this might occur. The first is the most common:

Action in the Scene is Too Minimal

In other words: the context of character actions, the geography of the scene, or other factors that boil down to what we shall call action remains underdeveloped. For our purposes, we’ll call action the prose that surrounds the dialogue and describes what characters are doing and where they are located relative to one another, and so on.

When there is enough character action, dialogue attribution becomes unnecessary, because readers always assume that the character taking action in the text closest to the dialogue is the speaker of the dialogue, except in rare cases. For example:

“You’re dead meat.” Bob ran his tongue along the knife’s blade. Sarah winced.

How do we know that Bob said “You’re dead meat”? We don’t. We assume it. Why don’t we assume that Sarah threatened Bob, then Bob defiantly ran his tongue along a knife’s blade, and big-talking Sarah winced in response? Because Bob’s name is closer to the dialogue.

It is really that simple, in most cases. Notice that we don’t need “Bob said.” In fact, let’s rewrite to add it.

“You’re dead meat,” Bob said. He ran his tongue along the knife’s blade. Sarah winced.

Not only does “Bob said” add nothing, it detracts. I have to put a comma after “meat” instead of a period, so it is less declarative. The reader does a split-second replacement of “He” with “Bob” in the second sentence, so that sentence’s tone shifts down to seem ever-so-slightly less threatening.

One of the great “rules” of writing is that every word you add pulls power away from every other word. “Fewer words, better words” is the editor’s credo. (For conventional writing; with experimental work, you may have other editing goals, as we shall see below.) Cutting the dialogue attribution entirely is good editing practice in this sense.

It also helps you avoid a problem in first drafts, which is that if I was used to writing things like “Bob said,” I would probably write this:

“You’re dead meat,” Bob said. Sarah winced.

I don’t actually need the line “Bob ran his tongue along the knife’s blade” — the coolest part of the section. I don’t need to describe the character’s action, because I wrote “Bob said.” So, maybe I won’t. If I write dialogue attribution, I can get away with crap like this. But I cannot get away with this:

“You’re dead meat.” Sarah winced.

Sarah didn’t say it — Bob did — so I don’t want the reader getting confused. So I need boring old dialogue attribution, or I need character action. We’ve already seen which works better. Or I could do this:

“You’re dead meat.”
Sarah winced.

Here, at least, the blandness of the scene (without Bob’s tongue on the knife’s blade) is more obvious, and something I would catch in revisions, probably. But if “Bob said” accomplishes precisely as much as empty white space, then it is easy to see how worthless “Bob said” truly was.

Now what’s the second problem?

Characters Say Things Other Characters Could Say

If written well, the way a character speaks and the things a character says should be so specific to them that dialogue attribution is unnecessary. We know Bob is speaking because he says things like “The world has a slowness to it and though we rush we cannot overtake this,” while Sarah says stuff like “You sound like how Cormac McCarthy might sound if I bashed in his skull.”

Speaking of McCarthy, let’s see how he operates. Here’s a great dialogue exchange from No Country for Old Men (McNally Robinson | Amazon):

Where’d you get that pistol? she called.
At the gettin place.
Did you buy that thing?
No. I found it.
She sat up on the sofa. Llewelyn?
He came back in. What? he said. Quit hollerin.
What did you give for that thing?
You dont need to know everthing.
How much.
I told you. I found it.
No you never done no such a thing.
He sat on the sofa and put his legs up on the coffeetable and sipped the beer. It dont belong to me, he said. I didnt buy no pistol.
You better not of.

Here you can see that McCarthy is only using dialogue attribution to kill time where a pause should go (it is more or less the equivalent of writing “he paused”). Look at all the character information that McCarthy packs into this exchange, subtextually, without stating any of it.

Because of how they talk, we now know (or, rather, we can assume) that they are married, that she’s younger than him, that they don’t have a lot of money, that they live in the American South, that she trusts him but not entirely, that he won’t lie to her even though he doesn’t feel the need to tell her the whole truth.

When Characters Don’t Talk to Each Other

Not only does jettisoning dialogue attribution force you into a position where you need to better describe character action and write better dialogue that is more specific to the characters, it also operates like a poetic constraint that can help you develop experimental dialogue forms.

One of my favourite tricks is threading strings of dialogue together where characters are talking to themselves but appearing to have a conversation on the surface. Here’s an excerpt from a story called “Costa Rican Green”:

“It is good to see you. It’s been so long.”
“It’s good to see you too.”
“The wind is picking up.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“The wind is salty, so strange.”
“Here, let me show you some pictures.”
“Amazing.”
“I want to stop and write out some postcards.”
“Maybe I can send that letter.”
“This is my dog — but you’ve seen my dog in pictures already.”
“It would be nice to swim tomorrow, if it’s warmer.”
“Have you ever gone snorkelling?”
“I wonder how the water tastes, if it tastes like the wind.”

The next line of dialogue in this scene is quite long. What I’ve done here also is cut all action around the dialogue so that it appears with no context. The result is an ambiguity about who is speaking (although it is more clear if you have read the rest of the story).

In this moment, I am starving the reader of action and scene description because I want to pack it into the chunk of dialogue that appears next. Here are the next lines in the story — note how the action of the characters is being suggested by the dialogue and the scene is described here as well.

“Look at that. Those houses. They’ve fallen into the sea. All that stone. Just broken off like that, one wall standing, the rest below. Come here, look. Do you see? I wonder how it happened. Solid stone, must be cement. See down there, in the water, parts of the floor and the roof, sticking out. There must be five houses. Maybe there were more before. I wonder when it happened. Look out those windows. All those grey walls, then the road and the trees beyond it. Or if you look the other way, into the house, there’s no glass in the window, and nothing inside, just the sky and the sea where there should be a wall. No doors. All the doors must have faced the sea. Think of all those doors now, buried in the sea bed. I wonder if they are opened or closed. Do you think that anybody was hurt? Where did they go, after? I don’t see any other houses around here. We’re too far from the town, just the beaches and the cemetery and these houses. Put that camera down. I wonder about those doors.”

In this moment, the line “Put that camera down” clarifies who has been speaking but not until the end. Of course, the recording character (with the camera) is also the narrator (recording now through text) so I am playing a bit of a metafictive game here. The ambiguity about who has been speaking gets clarified at the end because then it draws attention to the silence of the other character (he picked up the camera and stopped talking) and the dynamic between the two.

You can play around with the form of the dialogue and experiment with its construction more fully when you have more room for ambiguity. Dialogue attribution, by its very nature, robs the scene of ambiguity.

Over-Attribution

Here is the most normal case of dialogue over-attribution:

“Where did that pistol come from?” Her voice trembled with curiosity as she yelled to him in the other room.

How does a voice “tremble with curiosity”? Never mind the awkwardness of all of this. Notice how McCarthy did it better.

So far, I’ve only discussed how worthless dialogue attribution is, and how it is worse than worthless in that it actively encourages bad writing. But what if I wanted to break my own rule? Here’s how I would do it: by over-attributing, by going to an extreme with dialogue attribution.

Why might I do this? Well, there could be any number of reasons. Here’s an example of how you might over-attribute dialogue for a particular effect:

“No,” she said as she plunged the knife. She said it again. She said it again and then said it again. She said it again and again, and again and again, and she said it again and again and again and each time she plunged the knife. 

Here the dialogue attribution starts to operate like a species of onomatopoeia. Sometimes, when you do something, it is best to overdo it, if you do it at all.

Of course, you should never underestimate the power of not doing it at all.

Comic Script Templates

Fred Van Lente

The great GMB Chomichuk led me to a great page, containing some comic script templates you might enjoy, courtesy of Fred Van Lente. Also, to a good comics blog by Jim Zub, which also contains some good comics format tips. Comic script format is, like television script format, not standardized across the industry, so these are more resources than rules.

Having Too Many Ideas

Beginning writers often worry about ideas. The question “Where do you get your ideas?” has become a cliché, a question writers hate to answer, and the reason everyone hates it so much is this: non-beginning writers know that “getting ideas” is the easiest thing about writing. The difficulty, if you write regularly, is not getting ideas, but having too many ideas.

Having too many ideas may seem like a luxurious problem, but in fact it delivers to the serious writer a number of difficult challenges:

  1. You have to select which ideas you will pursue. You won’t have time to write all the stuff you want, and realize all of your ideas — not even all of your great ideas. This is a hard concept for beginning writers with few ideas to wrap their heads around. After you start writing with some regularity, ideas are not the issue — time is the issue. There isn’t enough time in the world to realize all of your good ideas.

  2. You must accept that you will let good ideas die. The darker side of the previous point is that you also have to decide which ideas you will never pursue. You have to become comfortable with letting not just most of your ideas die, but most of your excellent ideas.

  3. You have to commit to a project. The temptation, when you have many ideas in front of you, is to work on one until it begins to get tiring or difficult, and then shift gears and work on a different project. Writers that do this have difficulty finishing projects. They may make progress on many projects at once, but often feel like they are getting nowhere, that they have very little to show for their tremendous efforts.

  4. You must therefore sift good ideas from bad ideas, and then rank or prioritize your ideas. This is easier said than done, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I want to examine the third problem in this post, while touching on the fourth problem — how do you pick a project from your lengthy list of ideas, commit to it, and finish it?

Evaluating Ideas

One of the problems with evaluating ideas is that the quality of the idea is somewhat insignificant. You can create a good piece of writing from a bad idea, and a bad piece of writing from a good idea. You can even create a masterpiece from a bad idea, like Shakespeare did with Hamlet (one of the worst, most disorganized plots of any Shakespeare play, and yet what I consider his best play).

Your enthusiasm for an idea is also somewhat irrelevant. Your enthusiasm will flag. What will get you through the terrible slumps — and there may be many — when you hate your idea? Only discipline and commitment.

You may be tempted to think through career or market possibilities. This is always a mistake. Nobody knows what will sell this week. Nobody knows what will sell next week. Sometimes I meet writers who talk about jumping on some trend to make money. When the parade is marching down your street, it is already too late to join the parade. You cannot anticipate trends, you can only be swept up in them. If you already had a vampire novel out, or about to come out, when Twilight hit, then the trend might have worked for you.

Similarly, if you are making decisions about what to write based on some vague notion of what the market expects, you will simply sand the rough edges off of your idea — thus eliminating everything that made it a good idea in the first place.

There is no real way to evaluate ideas in terms of their intrinsic value, since they have none. However, you can evaluate ideas in terms of how useful they might be to you, by asking a few questions of each idea.

  1. How has it been done before? Almost every idea has been done before. You may need to do some research to determine what lives your ideas have previously lived. This will help you refine the ideas, to develop them in light of their previous incarnations, and make them more “yours.” You may also decide to abandon your idea after realizing it is far less original than you imagined. Research also has the benefit of giving you new, and often better ideas.
  2. Do you think you can do it? If you are confident in your ability to take an idea from conception to completion, then you might want to abandon that idea. When you don’t have to stretch to pursue your ideas, they may end up boring you, and they won’t build your writing muscle. If you want to develop as a writer, you need to tackle ideas that force you to risk something creatively. The more difficult writing becomes, the more rewards you will see when you finally solve your creative problems.

  3. Will this idea generate more ideas? What you really need from an idea is the potential to generate new ideas — a work of art is the culmination of an entire creative process, during which you will need to be generating and discarding and developing a variety of ideas. Sometimes, you will hit on an idea so strong that it is like a miniature idea factory: when that happens, you might have a concept on your hands, an idea that might give birth to and structure to some larger project. That’s what happened to me with Clockfire — I had an idea that I started investigating and developing, and it blossomed into a book.

One simpler way to evaluate ideas is to try to forget about them. If you can’t — if it has been years, and you still keep coming back to the same idea — then maybe there is something in that idea, and maybe you should commit to it.

I usually don’t pursue or begin writing anything (other than notes and a few lines) until I have let a few years pass, and then only if the idea still seems worth pursuing. For some writers, this means creative death. They mourn their lost ideas, which they did not pursue.

I love when my ideas die. This is a simple method of weeding out weak ideas that don’t even interest me for very long, after the initial shine of their newness has worn off.

Committing to a Project

After you have evaluated your many ideas and discarded most of them, you will still have too many ideas. You will still need to start prioritizing them and committing to a select few. A few factors come into play, and can help you decide what projects deserve your commitment:

  1. External pressures. If you have been given a deadline for a project, then you should prioritize and commit to it. This might be obvious, but I still find myself procrastinating and pursuing more enjoyable projects. Conversely, you have to be careful not to get caught up in the treadmill of your deadlines. You will find yourself completing a lot of minor projects that other people have assigned to you, and not making progress on your large projects. More on this below.
  2. Projects that live multiple lives. Some of your projects will go further than others, and have more of an impact on your goals as a writer. A simple example is a (good) poem. Once finished, it could: (1) be published in a journal on its own; (2) be part of a sequence that is published together as a chapbook; (3) be folded with this chapbook sequence into a collection as one of the book’s sections. Barring other factors, that poem might be worth committing to rather than a poem that you know will not be part of a sequence, etc.

  3. The project you most fear. As noted above, I like to commit to projects that I don’t think I can do. There are problems inherent in this approach, but I cannot think of a better way to grow as a writer.

  4. What have you already done? My curse for many years was that I worked on many projects at once. (My curse now is that I am still finishing those projects, and I have very little time for new projects.) My entire writing life changed when I instituted one simple little rule: I can only work on the book I am closest to finishing. I made this rule for myself in 2008. In 2009, I published my first book. I had a second book accepted before that one was published.

The last suggestion is the one that has worked the best for me. Since I started forcing myself to finish book-length projects in order of what is nearest to completion, I have averaged a published book each year. Before then, I struggled to finish anything for a decade.

Right now, I really want to work on a novel. But I am very close to finishing a book of short stories. And I “owe” a director a screenplay. So: the short stories first, the screenplay second, the novel third.

I try to imagine that I am two people: a writer and that writer’s jerk boss. The jerk boss hat goes on when I make decisions about what the writer is going to have to do, whether the writer wants to do that thing or not.

Prioritizing Projects

Now that you have committed to a list of projects, you still face the problem of which projects to prioritize (unless, of course, you are more ruthless than I, and your list is a short one that includes a single project).

I will provide an overview of the system I use to prioritize what I work on when. This is meant to be illustrative rather than prescriptive — your system might differ depending on your writing focuses and goals. You need a system, but not necessarily this system (although you could do worse).

I keep a revolving list of my Top 2 writing priorities. They break down this way:

  1. A major project, like a book or screenplay
  2. A minor project, like a single poem or a book review

“Major” and “minor” here just refer to length. As noted above, I try not to commit to any projects I don’t see as significant (“major” projects in their own right). Once in a while, of course, I am a hack for money (but only on “minor” projects).

I try to only work on the major project, and ignore the minor project. If I cannot ignore the minor project — for example, if the deadline for a book review is approaching — then I spend some time on the major project (a minimum of 15 minutes) before I allow myself to shift focus to the minor project.

Sometimes, if the major project is going terribly, I will just put in my time with it and then shift to a more fun minor project. So the major project proceeds faster or slower depending on how many more pressing deadlines I have, or how engaged I feel with the project that week.

Here’s what I’m doing these days:

  1. Major Project — A screenplay called Edenbridge — this is a priority because I am working on it at the behest of a director, and because of a grant deadline by which I have to complete and submit a sample of writing and an outline.
  2. Minor Project — This post you are reading, obviously. I have prioritized this blog post because I am teaching a creative writing class, and one of the students asked me to discuss this particular topic. This post is one of those “projects that live multiple lives,” in that it will serve as (1) class notes for a general discussion, (2) a more detailed look at the topic to aid that particular student, (3) some material for this website, (4) draft work towards future articles on the topic for freelance publication, and (5) draft work towards an eBook on working productively as a writer (an publishing experiment I want to try).

Finishing Projects

The important point, and the reason for this system, is that even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.

Let me repeat that. Even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.

Since I force myself to focus on things that are closest to being finished anyway, I make a fair bit of progress. Of course, this is possible only because of all the undirected, random progress I made on various projects in the past.

So, it is something of a false industry. The result is that I am viewed primarily as a poet, even though I write very little poetry, and mostly write fiction.

Nevertheless, how people view me and my writing is not my concern. My concern is writing.

How do you know when you are finished a project?

This is a question people ask a lot. I don’t have a good answer.

I decide that I am finished a project when I don’t know how to improve it any further, and it feels like no matter how much I work on it, the project is only changing superficially, not improving substantially.

This happened with The Politics of Knives. I worked on the book for many years. I felt like I was getting nowhere — not making the book better, just making it different. I didn’t know what to do. I solicited feedback from people, but the feedback all clashed. Nobody had a clear idea what was wrong with the book.

I didn’t know what to do with it. It was publishable, but not what I wanted it to be. I decided, in the end, to submit it to Coach House Books. I had such an amazing experience working with them on Clockfire, and they seemed well-disposed towards me. So I gambled. I suspected they wouldn’t want to publish the book as-is. But I also knew they would read the manuscript and consider it carefully, since they seemed to want to work with me again. My gamble was this: maybe Kevin Connolly would read it and realize what was wrong with it, and like it enough that we could fix it together.

That’s more or less what happened — Kevin suggested cutting out a section of the book where I had a series of single poems. The rest of the book consisted of poem sequences. I saw in a flash that the whole book should consist of sequences, and that I should rewrite each sequence to cross-connect with the others in oblique ways that might not be apparent to the reader.

Alana Wilcox also expressed concern that so much of the book had been previously published (there are odd rules concerning grants to publishers in Canada). She wondered if I had any newer work that I could include.

I realized then that I should pull out half of the book and replace it with new material. Alana was talking about something else, but she was right that the sections had been written too far apart and didn’t feel cohesive. Kevin seemed to get a little concerned at this point, because I started gutting and trashing sections that he considered strong, but then I replaced them with stronger stuff (aside from one proposed section that didn’t work, which he called out).

In the end, I “finished” the book and mailed it away … and then “finished” the book again en route to publication. My first book, Ex Machina, underwent almost no changes during the publishing process, by contrast.

Paul Valery once wrote that works of art are “never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death.” Sometimes you need to accept that you have come to the end of the idea and move on, even if you are not satisfied.

Praying for Permission from the God of Writing

A few weeks back, I wrote about How to Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule and that post almost immediately became the most popular thing ever written for this website. Recently, Elisabeth de Mariaffi (author of the most recent addition to my to-read list, The Devil You Know) mentioned that post on her website. In her article, de Mariaffi notes a sign on her office door that simply says “NO” to ward off interruptions. Inside, also pinned to the door, is a second sign, one “that tells the writer YES.”

I don’t have an office door, so I don’t have a sign (my headphones are my “NO”). But I do something similar to de Mariaffi’s “YES” — I pray to the God of Writing.

The God of Writing

The God of Writing is a beat-up index card with the words “The God of Writing” scrawled on it. I stamped some Canadian maple leaves on there too, on a lark.

What does the God of Writing do? Like any good God, it answers prayers. I pray, then I flip the card over for the answer to my prayer. Here’s how it works.

Dear God of Writing, I despair, for the kitchen is a mess. This office is a mess. My whole life is a mess. I should clean up these messes, but I would like to work on a poem about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. God of Writing, would you please grant me permission to ignore this mess and write a sonnet about Leatherface instead?

godofwriting2

Asking Permission

I created the God of Writing in response to my Catholic guilt. Although I identify as an atheist, it is more correct to say that I am a lapsed Catholic, since I was once confirmed in the Church and have not been excommunicated. More importantly, I suffer as much as any good Catholic from good ol’ Catholic guilt.

Those unfamiliar with Catholic guilt find the concept bizarre, so let me universalize it for you. The best parallel is the guilt that you feel when you are enjoying something. Not guilty because it is bad for you — not a guilty pleasure — but guilty whether or not it is good or bad for you. You feel guilty because of your enjoyment, and the thing you’re enjoying is irrelevant. So, when writing, I feel guilty for writing. I feel like there is something else I should be doing instead.

But there isn’t! Does this feeling go away just because you are a writer, and in fact your actual JOB is to write things? Nope. It gets worse, actually. In fact, if I don’t write then I feel guilty for not writing. Then when I start writing, I feel guilty for writing.

That’s right — Catholicism perfected guilt.

What’s the solution? My solution is the God of Writing. I literally go through an idiotic ritual requesting permission from God to write, even though I do not believe in God. The mockery of the ritual, which I built into the ritual itself, helps salvage my dignity.

I don’t pray to the God of Writing often, but I do when I need to. Just like I imagine de Mariaffi takes the signs seriously only on her bad days.

Giving Yourself Permission

Whether you post a sign on your door, or pray to the God of Writing, you need to give yourself permission to write. Sometimes, you need to give yourself permission to write badly, just to get the bad writing out of the way and relieve yourself of the anxiety that so often attends writing.

If you are a writer, and see writing as your career or your hoped-for career, the need to write should be obvious. Yet it is not always easy to write, because so often you will work on a project that has no definite deadline or even any definite future. You want to write a novel, but nobody has asked you to write a novel, nobody seems interested in your novel, there is no guarantee that anybody will want to publish your novel, or read your novel, and maybe when it’s done not even you will want to see the novel published or read. There is often no definite deadline associated with a large project like a novel, and definitely not any assurance of money or fame.

As difficult as it is in a circumstance like this, you need to give yourself permission to write. Nothing you do is as important as actually sitting down and writing, if you are a writer. (When it comes to working, at least. Probably a lot of other things in your life, non-work things, are far more important.)

This is an especially difficult thing to remember and keep focused on when you are successful as a writer. Success of any sort, major or minor, brings with it a lot of work. Work that isn’t writing. When you’re filling out forms and replying to emails, and drowning in writing-related work, it is difficult to remember that writing-related is NOT writing and therefore you need to force yourself to pull away from that thing that is almost due and focus on that thing that will NEVER be due.

The problem is compounded if you do not see writing as your career. I talk to a lot of people who write on the side, while focused on some other career, and I notice that they have the largest problem with this, because of course they see writing as a distraction from their career. They want to write, but they feel like they can’t spare the time, they can’t justify writing just because they enjoy it.

What I try to explain to them is that writing is the thing that will make their career. They want to be an accountant — well, every other accountant is an accountant. How can they set themselves apart? By being the accountant that writes. They can build an entire side business this way, or just build a reputation this way. Their writing has incredible potential to advance them in their non-writing career.

Even if their writing seems totally disconnected from their non-writing career, they would do well to connect the two. Maybe you’re an accountant that writes fantasy novels. Great! Start building a client list of fantasy novelists! Write a book called Write Off That Cool Sword: Accounting for Fantasy Novelists and hit the convention circuit. Write off your travel! You’ll be drowning in business.

Money, Writing, and Magic

I could (and might) write a whole book about money and writing, so I will just say a few quick things in summary. Money and writing connect over this issue of permission because so often we neglect writing because the time spent seems like a bad investment.

People say that it is impossible to make money writing. That’s not true. What’s true is this: It is very easy to make a little money writing. It’s very hard to make a lot of money writing. What is impossible is making a “regular” amount — making the same money, with the same regularity, that you would make working at McDonald’s.

But so what? Let’s put aside the important, idealistic reasons you might want to write. Let’s focus on the narrow band of practical, careerist reasons you might write — since these are the kinds of reasons you will find to not write.

Writing is not a great way to make money — it’s a great way to create opportunities. (Sometimes these lead to money in roundabout ways, sometimes not.) Being able to write is like having a magical power that makes everything in your life easier and provides you a shortcut to accomplishing anything. But you need to learn how to wield the power, which isn’t easy. And the power demands a price: time and blood. And if you underestimate your power, it will leave you.

You need to give yourself permission to not make money writing, and then write anyway, and trust in the God of Writing. Then pay attention, and thank the God of Writing when its blessings rain down.

Alien Erotica

The Toast
2 April 2014

As an exercise in description and imagery, I invite students to describe some everyday event in the strangest possible way, as if an alien observer that didn’t understand the interaction was forced to describe its process. Here’s the ultimate endgame of that exercise: erotica written by an alien horrified by the human body.

What Writers Can Learn from Letterman’s Top 10 Lists

The more I write, and analyze writing, the more important escalation seems. While an elemental aspect of narrative, escalation also appears significant in poetry, even (perhaps especially) in experimental work that (on its surface) appears to have no clear structure. Often, these works are structured, in that they escalate.

Let’s look at one of my favourite gags, the September 22, 1989 Top 10 list from Late Night with David Letterman. This show, which pre-dated Late Show with David Letterman, was well-known for its oddity. One night, Letterman rotated the camera 360 degrees over the course of the hour, so that for part of the show everything was upside-down. There was even an episode in which Letterman was too tired to really do a show.

The Top 10 list of September 22, 1989 was “Top 10 Numbers Between One and Ten”:

  1. Seven
  2. Four
  3. Ten
  4. Three
  5. Eight and a half
  6. Nine
  7. Two
  8. One
  9. Eight
  10. Five & Six (tie)

Let’s examine the writing choices here, and see how the joke operates through escalation, by setting up and then smashing expectations. You have to keep in mind that Letterman would be reading these out loud, one at a time, so that the audience would receive them very slowly compared to how quickly you just read down that list.

As soon as Letterman says “Number 10: Seven,” the audience knows that the numbers will be listed out of order. It seems like the regular escalation, from 1 to 10, is being thrown away in favour of randomness. On one level, this is true. There’s no reason that we begin with 7 rather than 3. On closer inspection, however, Letterman’s writers have made two careful choices that re-introduce some structure, and allow for escalation.

With “Number 6: Eight and a half,” Letterman throws a wrench into the entire joke. This operates almost like a plot twist might. The audience thought this was a silly, simple disordering of the numbers, according to no apparent logic. Now, however, we can see that Letterman is not just disordering the numbers, but playing around within the set. We are not just dealing with whole numbers. Now it is clear that he could throw in another fraction, or a decimal, or something along those lines.

Note that he does not. Why not? Why can’t Letterman say something like “Number 2: Five and Four-Tenths”?

Because there wouldn’t be any escalation. It would be the same joke, repeated. Once Letterman introduces “Eight and a half,” he makes it clear that the joke is not that the numbers from 1 to 10 are being ranked out of their “natural” order. This is the joke premise, but it is not the joke. The “jokes” happen when Letterman departs from ranking whole numbers randomly, and introduces some apparent order.

Note what he says instead for “Number 2.” First, note the position. This is the penultimate ranking. It’s the obvious place for another twist. We expect some crazy number, since we previously were given “Eight and a half.” What do we get? “Eight.”

Both “Eight” and “Eight and a half” are on the list.

What does this matter? It matters because it means — and if we are paying attention, we understand that it means — that not all of the numbers made the list. “Eight” is sort-of taking up two positions. So, one of the numbers must be left out. But which number?

Notice how this simple listing of numbers has managed to achieve something like a narrative drive. It begins in apparent randomness, with a catalytic moment of sorts: when the numbers begin ranking out of their natural order (the state of the world has been disturbed, like it typically is at the beginning of a story). Then there is something like a “plot twist” when Letterman reads “Eight and a half” — you might consider something like a conflict to be arising here, where we begin to wonder if he’s really going to read out all the numbers after all.

Then, we reach something like a crisis moment — he reads out “Eight” and we now have to deal with the suspense of whether or not the list will be completed. How could it be completed? This is the formulaic structure of a Hollywood movie. Here is the point in the film where it seems like the hero’s goal can never be accomplished. Letterman only has one slot left, for two numbers.

The solution is obvious in retrospect, but elegant in execution: a tie between Five and Six. Notice how this move resolves the apparent conflict that began arising with “Eight and a half” and seemed unresolvable with “Eight.” You almost breathe a sigh of relief as you laugh out loud.

The Structure Below the Surface

Hiding this sort of narrative structure beneath text that appears, on its surface, to lack structure, is one of the most useful writing techniques I have come across. This is how David Lynch works. He puts together events that appear to make very little sense. However, they always feel like they make sense, because he slavishly follows narrative structure. Scenes begin, escalate, and end. They may do so in absurd ways, and not seem to accord to any sort of narrative logic, but they always feel like they are proceeding logically.

Or listen to the song “Jizz in My Pants” by The Lonely Island — notice how the song escalates. It takes less and less, smaller and simpler things, to make him jizz in his pants. Eventually, he jizzes before he even has a chance to tell you what caused him to do so.

What unites narrative and poetic logic is this very sense of escalation, of producing and developing conflicts — however small, silly, or strange.

Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule

When I meet writers, whether emerging or established, I ask them the same ice-breaking question: What do they find to be the hardest thing about being a writer?

The most common answer is finding time to write. 

I’m not surprised, because finding time to write is impossible. What surprises me is that writers even bother trying to find time to write. 

The answer suggests that writers don’t understand time, and don’t understand the basics of self-management. They may know how to write, but they don’t know how to work. They overlook or discount basic strategies — even though they might use these same strategies, with exceptional results, in other areas of their lives.

“Finding” Time to Write

There is one way to “find” time to write: Look at a calendar, and decide what day you will write, and what time. In other words, you cannot find time, and time will not magically appear. You can only allocate your time, in advance.

Similarly, there is one way to be a productive writer: Write according to a schedule.

The Importance of Your Schedule

Writers that resist scheduling writing time have many excuses. In his excellent book How to Write a Lot, psychologist Paul J. Silvia labels these excuses “specious barriers.” He identifies and refutes the most common of these specious barriers to writing, the first being trying to find time to write:

Why is this barrier specious? The key lies in the word find. When people endorse this specious barrier, I imagine them roaming through their schedules like naturalists in search of Time To Write, that most elusive and secretive of creatures. Do you need to “find time to teach”? Of course not — you have a teaching schedule, and you never miss it. […] Finding time is a destructive way of thinking about writing. Never say this again. (12)

Silvia’s book is aimed at academic writers (which is why he assumes that his readers are also teachers), but everything in the first half of the book applies equally to creative writers (who are often also teachers). Even if you aren’t a teacher, you routinely schedule things that aren’t writing, and you stick to your schedule — unless you simply have no control over your life (in which case, writing is the least of your problems).

A barrier that Silvia doesn’t address fully, but which people often bring up when talking to me, is the anxiety that attends the act of writing. Many writers I know (myself included — I’ve been there) feel guilty about not writing but also anxious about writing. The less they write, the more guilty and anxious they feel. When they do write, finally, they often do so in binges (usually before a deadline), and the experience is horrible due to the pressure of the deadline.

Yet they succeed (sometimes), turning in their writing by the deadline. Perhaps they aren’t proud of the work produced under this pressure, and negatively reinforce their own anxieties about writing. Perhaps they are proud of this work — thus positively reinforcing their bad habits. Either way, these writers reinforce their assumptions about themselves and their writing: (1) they work best when they binge-write, (2) they aren’t capable of keeping a schedule, (3) their anxiety about writing is uncontrollable or perhaps even necessary to their art.

All of which is nonsense. Silvia — a psychologist, remember — addresses the issue adequately in a little over a page:

Binge writers spend more time feeling guilty and anxious about not writing than schedule followers spend writing. When you follow a schedule, you no longer worry about not writing, complain about not finding time to write, or indulge in fantasies about how much you’ll write over the summer. Instead, you write during your allotted times and then forget about it. We have better things to worry about than writing. […]

When confronted with their fruitless ways, binge writers often proffer a self-defeating dispositional attribution: “I’m just not the kind of person who’s good at making a schedule and sticking to it.” This is nonsense, of course. People like dispositional explanations when they don’t want to change (Jellison, 1993). People who claim that they’re “not the scheduling kind of person” are masterly schedulers at other times: They always teach at the same time, go to bed at the same time, watch their favorite TV shows at the same time, and so on. I’ve met people who jogged at the same daily time, regardless of snow or rain, but claimed that they didn’t have the willpower to stick to a daily writing schedule. Don’t quit before you start — making a schedule is the secret to productive writing. If you don’t plan to make a schedule, gently close this book, clean it so it looks brand new, and give it as a gift to a friend who wants to be a better writer. (14-15)

Sometimes, writers resist making a schedule because they don’t have ideas for writing — this is perhaps the most specious barrier of all, since ideas for writing can simply be stolen (à la Shakespeare or Kenneth Goldsmith) or manufactured by force (as any writing exercise will prove). Nevertheless, some writers persist in the mistaken belief that they must wait for inspiration, even though:

Waiting for Inspiration Doesn’t Work

Most good writers already know this. However, many still cling to the fallacy that inspiration is necessary to produce any writing, or to produce good writing. Silvia points to research by R. Boice, who “gathered a sample of college professors who struggled with writing, and […] randomly assigned them to use different writing strategies” (24).

Although “college professors” is a very narrow, limited sample, the results are intriguing and instructive for writers of all stripes. The three writing strategies assigned by Boice were:

  1. abstinence — writers told not to write at all, “forbidden from all nonemergency writing”
  2. spontaneous — writers who scheduled 50 writing sessions but did not have to keep them — they could write anytime, and also only had to write during these sessions when they felt inspired — in other words, they could write as much as they wanted, whenever inspiration struck
  3. contingency management — writers who scheduled 50 writing sessions, were forced to write during each session, and were told not to write outside of these sessions

The results? See for yourself:

IMG_3249

The contingency management writers wrote 3.5 as much as the spontaneous writers, and 16 times more than the abstinent writers. Most significantly, writers “who wrote ‘when they felt like it’ were barely more productive than people told not to write at all” (24). In addition, “forcing people to write enhanced their creative ideas for writing” (24):

The typical number of days between creative ideas was merely 1 day for people who were forced to write: it was 2 days for people in the spontaneous condition and 5 days for people in the abstinence condition. Writing breeds good ideas for writing. (24)

I must acknowledge that Silvia does not suggest, anywhere, that the anxiety some associate with writing will lessen during the writing process. Common sense dictates that the more familiar and practiced you become, the less you will feel like an imposter or filled with anxiety, but many writers never let go of these feelings. Writing, in my experience, remains difficult and seems sometimes to be getting more difficult.

Nevertheless, this is irrelevant. The difficulty of writing will of course decrease with practice, but creative writers (ideally) are always working to raise their skills and so taking on tasks of increased difficulty, which from time to time will negate the benefits of practice. The end result? Either writing gets easier, and your skills barely improve, or writing gets harder, but your skills improve substantially.

Regardless, the best way to be productive (with difficulty or without) and to get control of your anxiety about writing is to demystify the process and normalize the activity through repeated exposure.

“The Schedule’s the Thing,” Like Shakespeare Should Have Said

Both Paul J. Silvia and David A. Rasch (another psychologist, this one a specialist on writers who struggle with blocks, procrastination, and related issues) agree that the details of your writing schedule (e.g., when you write, how long you write) are somewhat irrelevant in a general sense. If you have specific goals that require specific time commitments, then it might be a different matter, but generally speaking the important thing for writers is to institute a writing schedule, no matter what that schedule might be.

Silvia puts it this way:

The secret is the regularity, not the number of days or the number of hours. It doesn’t matter if you pick 1 day a week or all 5 weekdays — just find a set of regular times, write them in your weekly planner, and write during those times. To begin, allot a mere 4 hours per week. After you see the astronomical increase in your writing output, you can always add more hours. (13)

Rasch, in The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead, takes a more detailed look at the psychological barriers (specious and otherwise) that writers put up to avoid writing. The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead is structured like a workbook, and is of more use to writers with severe procrastination issues or other mental blocks that may prevent them from writing. (Ignore its cheesy cover.)

Rasch is less of a tough-love advocate than Silvia, but he still takes a behavioural approach and agrees fundamentally about how to be a productive writer. Here are a few of the things Rasch has to say about writing schedules and related matters:

Many writers with productivity problems have trouble with time. … Every day, through conscious planning or by unconscious default, you prioritize your activities and make decisions about how to spend time. It can be quite a challenge to determine how much time the writing portion of your life requires, and to incorporate that into a workable routine. (18)

I have worked with several writers whose primary challenge was taking the step of sitting down at their desk. Their anticipatory anxiety or other resistances create a mental barrier against taking the first step. Often they are entertaining an inaccurate and exaggerated estimate of the agony that will ensure if they write. (19)

I encourage blocked writers to make failure less likely to occur. For many reasons writing is frequently difficult to do, so respect that reality […] Make changes by taking small steps that would be difficult to not do. For instance, if your goal is to start writing every day, if you make the sessions short (15 minutes) you may find it hard to rationalize skipping the session. I encourage you to be pragmatic and do what works, whether or not it fits your image of what a “real” writer would do. (62)

An advantage of a regular schedule is that it eliminates the daily process of deciding when to write. Each time you have to make a decision about writing, it increases the likelihood that you will decide not to do it. The more regularly you write, the less dreadful it feels to face it each day. To the extent that you generate new, positive associations with writing through regular practice, you reinforce your efforts. (63)

Scheduling writing is not the only way to become more productive, but I have seen it produce powerful results for those blocked writers who found a way to move in this direction. Write daily. Write daily. Write daily. This is the single most important piece of advice in this book. (63)

Here is a nutshell summary of Rasch’s other advice regarding how to make a work schedule (I have simply recorded the subsection headings under “Make a Work Schedule”):

  • Write daily
  • If work avoidance is a problem, begin with short writing periods
  • Choose a time when your energy is good and distractions will be minimal
  • Resist the urge to overdo it
  • Track your performance

Rasch’s book is worth a read (he even deals with a problem on the other end of the spectrum, writers who write a lot and work long hours, who write often and without much anxiety, yet have little to show for it). He briefly addresses a host of issues, including dealing with criticism, actual psychological disorders like depression and how they might relate to writing, and so forth. Rasch provides a variety of strategies writers can use to be more productive and reduce their anxiety, and also helps the reader identify their actual issues with writing and get a sense of whether or not they might need to be addressed somehow beyond the book.

One simple piece of advice that Rasch offers, which I have found especially useful, is to make a “routine, simple pleasure contingent upon writing first.” I don’t drink coffee except when I write (sometimes I allow myself a coffee after I write; for example, if I want to go to coffee with somebody, then I write first). I appreciate coffee more, and I don’t over-caffeinate, and I write.

My Writing Schedule

I have to keep shifting my writing schedule each term, which is frankly a bad idea. But that’s my reality. I’m no saint, and I will often fail to follow the schedule as rigorously as I should. But I produce a lot of writing and I’ve published five books in the last five years, so I can attest to the fact that even a half-followed schedule will work wonders for you. Here’s mine in a nutshell:

  • I write weekdays, not weekends. I take two weeks off every year. (I track the days I take off.) This is, of course, my ideal and not my reality.

  • This term, I am writing from 10 – 11 a.m. every weekday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this is pretty much all the writing I can do — nestled right between my morning classes. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will keep this same start time but then keep writing as long as I can. As of this very minute, it’s a Wednesday, and it’s 12:44 p.m. Right this minute, I’ve written 2270 words today, since 10 a.m.

  • I set an alarm for 9:55 (my iPhone plays Elvis Costello’s song “Every Day I Write the Book”). When it goes off, I make coffee, then I start listening to Agalloch, then I start writing.

Your Writing Schedule, and Defending It

What is your writing schedule? Have you had success with a schedule, now or in the past? Have you had problems sticking to a schedule? Let me know.

If you haven’t yet done so, start a schedule. Try it for a week — just 15 minutes each day, as Rasch suggests. See how it goes. You’ll be surprised.

One problem you’ll run up against is people not respecting your schedule. That’s okay. Only you need to respect it. Jealously defend and guard your time. As Silvia puts it, when you start saying “no” to requests that conflict with your writing schedule, you will meet with resistance from others.

That’s life. Refuse anyway. As Silvia puts it, “only bad writers will hold your refusal against you” (16).

I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalee Caple about writing titles. Since I met Caple, she has completed a poetry book, The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg), a collection of short fiction, How I Came to Haunt My Parents, and a novel, In Calamity’s Wake. I don’t know how she does it, while working and raising a family.

Oh, wait, I do know! She is one of the hardest-working writers around, and one of the most dedicated. Her students at Brock University are some of the luckiest.

Natalee Caple is the author of seven books of poetry and fiction and the co-author of several incarnations of a full-length play titled i-Robot Theatre (based on Jason Christie’s i-Robot Poetry) with the Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre Collective. Her most recent novel, In Calamity’s Wake was published to international acclaim in Canada and the US in 2013. Her collection of poetry, A More Tender Ocean, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her book of short stories, The Heart is its Own Reason, was called “moving … arresting” by The New York Times. Her novel, Mackerel Sky was called “ breathlessly good” by the Washington Post. Natalee’s work has been optioned for film, and nominated for a National Magazine Award, the Journey Prize, the Bronwen Wallace Award, and the Eden Mills Fiction Award.