Why writing every day may still be the best advice

A week ago, I blogged about how writing every day may not be the best advice. I pointed out how following that advice had helped me when I was first starting out, but it had also hurt me later on. I pointed out how sometimes it’s better to work smarter than harder. After all, why throw out 80% of what you write if by taking a little time to properly outline things, you can write a clean first draft?

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Compound Effect, and it’s made me rethink some of those ideas. The main point the book makes is that it isn’t the big things that make the most difference, but the small, regular things compounded over time.

Is it still a good idea to work smarter? Yes, definitely. If by taking the time to prewrite a book, you can avoid throwing out 80% of your work, then by all means that’s more important than hitting your 2k / 3k / 10k words for the day, or whatever. But here’s the thing: there’s a smarter way to write every day too, and it has to do with momentum.

If you’ve been in a writing rut, it’s very hard to go from 0 to your daily word count goal in a single day. Over time, that goal becomes a ceiling instead of a floor. It’s all very psychological. Your writing time fills up with procrastination or busywork, to the point where it takes all your energy just to hit that daily goal.

All of that changes if instead you say “I’m going to write 500 / 200 / whatever words more than I did the day before.” Even from a rut, it’s not that difficult to go from 0 to 500 in a single day. And once you’ve hit 500, it’s not difficult to hit 1k. Compounded this way, you can soon break through that ceiling and still have energy to hit everything else.

It’s an interesting approach to daily writing goals, one that I’m trying out right now. But for it to really work, you do have to write every day, otherwise the compounding never happens.

When I first started this blog back in 2007, I used to write a lot about momentum. I was very much a novice writer, but even back then I could feel how much easier it was to write when I was on a streak than when I was starting from zero—and a streak can start with a day of just a few hundred words.

The things to avoid are busywork and useless guilt. If your writing goals have become a ceiling that you just can’t break through, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate. Work smarter AND harder.

And now, for no particular reason at all, here’s a Sabaton music video.

Why writing every day may not be the best advice

When I started writing back in college, the prevailing advice was to write every day. And to be fair, at the time, that was very good advice. I was just getting started on my writing career and had a lot of learning to do. My writing improved by leaps and bounds as I strived to make progress on my WIPs every day.

Now, though, I’m not so sure that writing every day is the best thing to strive for.

It’s not that I’m against the idea of practice. Writing is one of those rare creative professions where people don’t think you get better the more you do it. Of course, that’s flat-out wrong. The best musicians put in hours and hours of practice, as do the best chess players, or the best soldiers, or the best sports stars. Writing is no different. If you don’t put in the time and effort, you won’t get the results.

At the same time, there’s a tendency among aspiring and even journeyman writers to become consumed with guilt because they missed their writing goal for the day. This is counterproductive. Goals don’t exist to give you satisfaction or guilt, but to give you direction. Satisfaction comes from what you achieve in pursuit of a goal, not in the goal itself.

So that’s one aspect of it. But there’s another aspect, and that’s how effective it is (or isn’t) to write every day.

Between high school and college, I worked as a gofer on a masonry crew. One of the things my boss used to say was “work smarter, not harder.” He often said it rather tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still an important concept. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re doing it wrong.

This applies to writing as well. What does it matter that you write every day, if you’re just going to throw out most of it anyway? Is that really the best use of your time and energy? If by taking a week to establish things like plot, character, world-building, etc, you could write a much cleaner and better first draft, does it matter that you technically weren’t writing every day during that week?

Write smarter, not harder.

Now, I’m very glad that I did write every day back when I was starting out. My first (and possibly my second) million words were mostly crap, so it was better to put in the time and get through it as quickly as possible, just for the learning and growth.

But now that I’m an established journeyman writer, I find that the results are much better if I take the time to do some basic prewriting before I attack the first page. My first drafts are cleaner. The story comes together easier, with fewer problems. I don’t have to do “triage” revisions, where I’m throwing out characters, subplots, or even major plot points simply because they don’t work.

In Brandon Sanderson’s writing class, I once asked what I needed to change so that I could write my WIPs straight through without getting stuck in the middle. Brandon asked me if I was still finishing them, and when I said yes, he basically said don’t worry about it. That was good advice then, but it isn’t anymore. I’ve reached the point where writing smarter is more important than writing harder.

Anyway, those are my thoughts at the moment. Things change a lot when you’ve been writing for 10+ years, and unlike all the resources available for aspiring writers, there isn’t a whole lot of stuff out there to help guide you through the later phases. I’m basically figuring it out as I go.

What I would do if I were starting out now

In a word, short stories.

Write a bunch of short stories. One or two a week if possible. Keep that up for a year or two, tapering off at the end to transition into novels. But keep writing short stories even after novels have become the main focus.

Make a serious effort while writing short stories to master both the craft and the art of storytelling. View it as an apprenticeship period. Experiment. Try out new things. Join a writing group, preferably of experienced professional writers, and have them rip your stories apart. Soak up as much constructive feedback as possible, and apply it to the next story.

At the same time, don’t spend so much time reworking old stories that you aren’t producing new ones. Learn how to keep a rigorous production schedule. If a story is totally broken, toss it out! Get to the point where you can hit 2k words consistently every day, and knock out a story at least every couple of weeks or so.

In a word, learn how to be prolific.

Experiment with standalones, but also build a couple of universes with recurring characters. Write a few series, both sequential and non-sequential. Focus especially on the non-sequential series, though—the ones where any story can be an entry point. Learn how to find the sweet spot between writing a satisfying ending and leaving a hook for the next one. That sweet spot is different for every genre.

Submit every story you write to the traditional short story markets. Start with the highest paying markets and work your way down. Pay close attention to average response times on sites like the Grinder and don’t submit to any market with an average response time of more than 30 days, no matter how high the pay rate. The goal is to get each story through all of the pro- and semi-pro markets in about a year. If a market can’t get back to you in a timely fashion, it’s not worth your time. Ideally, you want to be receiving multiple rejections every day.

Once you’ve got about twenty or so stories that have come off of submission, start self-publishing.

Use the first couple of stories to learn how the process works. Figure out how to format, do cover work, and write up all the metadata on your own, then do all you can to streamline that process until it becomes automatic. You can outsource some of the more difficult stuff, but learn to do as much as you can on your own. Don’t spend more than about $50 per story to publish it, preferably more like $30.

Once you’ve got a process down, set a rigorous release schedule of 2 stories per month. Keep to that schedule religiously. Don’t worry too much how the stories are selling: they probably won’t sell well until you’ve got a couple dozen or so out. Just focus on getting them out.

Keep an email list, with links to subscribe in the front and back of all your books. Build that list as much as you can. Most of your early marketing efforts should go to building that list, and cultivating a relationship with the people on it. Don’t rely on Facebook, because you don’t own that site and can’t control it. Same with any other social media. Do all you can to bring your readers to a place you control.

Start blogging. Build relationships with other bloggers. Strive to post something new every day. Make it the kind of site that your readers will want to come to. Be sure to have pages for all of your books, as well as a series page that lists every story in every series, in chronological and written order (side note: I really need to write up a series page).

Experiment with free pulsing and price pulsing. Experiment with price points. Experiment with bundles. Experiment with everything.

ORGANIZE YOUR DATA. Ohmygosh. You’re going to be drowning in data after just a few months. Keep all of your sales reports, and compile all that into spreadsheets showing how many sales you got of each title each month, how much you earned from each title each month, etc. Data, data, data! Learn how to thrive with data!

Write a formal business plan, and update it constantly as you go. Write down all the strategies that work, as well as the ones that don’t. Write down all the strategies you want to try out. In case it wasn’t obvious, write down your release schedule. Write down your to do list, organized by urgent / not urgent and important / not important quadrants. Write down everything. WRITE IT DOWN.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you’re releasing bundles alongside or even in place of your short stories. Don’t unpublish anything. Maybe update the covers, if you decide your early ones are really really bad. But don’t worry about it too much. Just focus on being as prolific as possible.

As long as you keep moving, you’re going to get somewhere. So always keep moving. Even when you have a disappointing sales month, or a spat of bad reviews, or whatever, just keep moving. Even if you’re moving in the wrong direction, that’s better than not moving at all.

At some point, you’re going to start to see some success. You may even have a breakthrough. At that point, you can start moving on to novels. Hopefully you’ve written a couple of them by now. Your first one is probably utter crap, so toss it out and focus on the good ones.

Hopefully, you’ve written it in the same universe as a bunch of your short stories. That will make the marketing easier, but its not strictly necessary so don’t worry about it too much if you haven’t. Also don’t worry too much if the novel isn’t in a series of its own. It’s better if it is, but standalones have their place too.

Try to write in trilogies, or to write standalones that can easily be turned into trilogies. The first book should stand on its own, the second should end on a low note and hook into the third book, and the third book should blow the reader’s mind away. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is a great example of this.

If your career hasn’t taken off by now, you aren’t experimenting enough. That, or you’re cutting too many corners. One way or another, you’re going to have to put in the work.

That’s pretty much it. Have fun!

Larry Correia on creating “offensive” characters

Larry Correia has a fantastic post up on the pitfalls of political correctness when writing fictional characters. He not only nails it on the head, he takes a nail that’s been twisted in three different directions and rams it into the wood with just a couple of well-placed taps. Seriously, if you’re interested in writing at all, you should check the whole post out.

The main gist of it can be summed up by this quote:

Smart writers are going to focus on entertainment. They’re probably going to offend everybody at some point. But at least they won’t be boring while they do it.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, the unforgivable sin for writers is being boring. As a writer you can get away with damned near anything as long as you are entertaining a big enough audience.

There is a contingent of readers out there who exist only to nitpick and bitch. There aren’t that many of them, but they make up for it by being loud. Many authors are under the mistaken impression that you can make these readers happy. You can’t. At best you can appease them. Temporarily. But you will cross their invisible line sometime and they will get all sorts of outraged.

The latest person to get outraged was Melissa Harris Perry, who denounced Star Wars because Darth Vader was (and yet at the same time wasn’t) black. Seriously. It’s like she saw this clip and didn’t realize it was satire:

But I digress.

The reason it’s impossible to please politically correct SJW-types is because the way that they signal their virtue to other members of their tribe is by finding something to be outraged about. This is a consequence of their belief that the only way to fix society is through social revolution, a point that Dennis Prager deconstructs quite effectively. It’s all about how loud they can scream.

As Larry points out, trying to placate these perpetually outraged people is a game you can’t win—not unless you’re already a member of their tribe. This ironically makes them far more prejudiced than most of the people they’re so outraged at. When was the last time you heard the word “white” used as an insult? Has the word “cisgender” ever not been used as an epithet? “Privileged” is another one—without knowing anything about you as an individual, they have already passed judgment and despise you.

Again, this is why I support the Sad Puppies: because they have the courage to stand against these perpetually outraged types who would tear down everything in SF&F that they can find offense with. The most imaginative genre in fiction is no place for self-appointed thought police.

There is one important area where I disagree with Larry. He rejects the Bechdel test out of hand, where I think it still has value. As a litmus test, I totally agree with him: I’m against any kind of a litmust test for stories. But from a writing perspective, I think it can still be a very useful tool.

The Bechdel test is something that I usually have in the back of my mind when I write: not out of fear of offending the perpetually outraged, but in order to write more complex and interesting characters who can stand as heroes of their own stories. I don’t think we’re at odds on that point, since Larry himself says the same thing in his discussion of how to write a strong antagonist. To that extent, I personally find the test to be useful.

The point is, if you want to be a successful writer, don’t try to please everyone. As soon as you start to experience success, someone will inevitably take offense with you just to bring you down a notch. Don’t let them get to you. In the words of Brigham Young:

He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.

“It was too short.”

This, by far, is the number one criticism I seem to get in my negative book reviews. I never quite know what to think of it. On the one hand, a reader wouldn’t say something like that unless they thought it was good, since if they hated the book completely they would say something like “it was blessedly short” (and yes, I have gotten reviews like that). On the other hand, some of them really get worked up about it, to the point where I doubt they’ll ever read anything I write ever again.

Just to be clear, I’m not opposed to negative reviews, and I’m not responding to any of my reviews in particular. As a matter of principle, I believe that reviews are for readers and not for writers. I don’t generally respond to reader reviews except in very rare cases, and never to tell the reviewer that they’re wrong.

With that out of the way, what does “too short” actually mean? I can’t speak for all readers, but for me, when a book is too short it usually means that something in the story itself felt unsatisfying. In other words, something felt undeveloped, or rushed, or cut short without ever coming to a conclusion (or, in the case of cliffhangers, at least to a natural stopping point). In other words, “too short” isn’t a function of words or of pages, but of the story itself.

I’ve read short books that felt like they fit their length perfectly. A Short Stay in Hell comes immediately to mind. That book is a thin novella, barely more than a hundred pages in print, and yet it comes together so masterfully that I honestly don’t know what else could be added to make it longer. I would love to have more time to explore that particular world, but as it is, the story comes together perfectly within its own length.

That said, there are other books that I felt were too short even though they did fit their own length. That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made is an example of an award-winning book–clearly well written, clearly well constructed–that left me unsatisfied because it felt too short. Here, though, it was less a problem with the story itself and more just that I wanted more time to explore the alien culture of the swales. I would love to read a full-length novel set in the same universe, if for nothing else than for the fascinating world-building.

This makes me wonder: are there certain forms of fiction that tend to get more ire from readers just because of the constraints of the form? Do some readers hate novelettes just because they’re novelettes, or serials just because they’re serials? Judging from my own reviews, that seems to be the case. Even if I wrote the best novelette in the world, they would hate it because it’s not a novel.

So what am I supposed to do when readers tell me that my books are too short? Should I set a minimum word count and not publish anything unless it goes over that word count? I really don’t think so, because that sounds a lot like padding. Instead, the only solution that I can see is to focus on telling the best story and to not even worry about the length until it’s finished (and even then, only to know whether to label it a novel or a novella).

In the case of series, sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether to bring a certain thread to a conclusion or to leave it unresolved as part of the overall series arc. Certainly, each individual story needs to have an arc of its own, even if it ends on a cliffhanger. I’m still learning as I go, especially when it comes to writing series. But it’s certainly a lot of fun for me, and I hope it’s fun for you too as a reader.

In short, there’s not much I can do other than keep telling stories as best as I know how, and learn what I can from each story in order to tell better ones in the future. If “too short” means that something was unsatisfying, I’ll do my best to learn from it. But I’m not going to pad my novellas into novels just to hit a certain page count. The story itself should determine its own length.