It all begins that way. You write.

At least you write if you call yourself a writer. If you are one of our rare “just readers” readers, at ease.

But if you call yourself a writer, write.

I called myself a writer since I was six, when I decided when I grew up I wanted to write novels just like Enid Blyton’s. I filled several exercise books with (frankly appalling) children’s adventure novels, before I graduated to (frankly appalling) science fiction and mystery. Somewhere there in my late teens I realized I didn’t have enough world-experience to write good novels or even short stories that sounded real, so I wrote short shorts that were moral and preachy (and apparently could have won a Nebula, if I’d been writing them in English) mostly from the countercultural side because that was all the rage in the seventies and I was a kid. So you know, the saintly drug user dies and everyone realizes how mean they were to him, or aliens come down and redistribute wealth. (Yeah, it was burned. Why?)

That kind of thing is thin gruel, so I wrote it only – as with my poems – to either show off or exercise one of the peaks of emotion that hit adolescents.

I didn’t write every day. I didn’t write every month.

Until I got married. My husband you see is a musician. Though he sometimes lets it lapse for a year or so, because we’re moving and the piano is elsewhere, he practices. Every day. He understands the value of practice.

So when we’d been married three months, he said “How come you don’t write? I thought you were a writer?”

I made the usual newbie excuses: inspiration wasn’t there; I didn’t have ideas; I never knew how to finish stories.

And he said, “Writers write. It doesn’t matter if you’re ever published. If you’re a writer, you write every day.”

So I did. And eventually I started sending things out and collecting rejections, before collecting acceptances, before making enough off this that my getting the day jobs I could (secretary. Free lance translator.) is moot because I make the same now. The hours are terrible, but I work in the warm and (right now) in my pajamas.

Now it’s been almost thirty years since I got that kick in the rear, and here’s what I’ve learned in that time:


  • No writer has just one story/world in him. If you think you do, you haven’t given your imagination full rein. The reason you should is that like knowing your native language better when you know another, you know your first world better in the light of the others. I’m starting to think I might be able to – now – write in a commercial form the world I first wrote eight unsalable novels in.
  • No block is never ending. So far the longest blocks I’ve had: one year and then two years were predicated on very serious illness plus a raft of scary life events. Even those passed/are passing as the underlying problem gets taken care of.
  • Finishing is difficult for everyone. There’s a hump in the middle of every story (or one third in for me) and you have to consciously push past it. If you do, you get the biggest rush ever as everything comes together towards the finish. It’s better than any high drugs could give you. Try.
  • Practice makes perfect. No, let me say that again. Practice makes perfect. I don’t care how wretched you are, if you write every day you will improve. Now, I’m not saying you’ll be Shakespeare, but live long enough, write every day and I guarantee you’ll be readable.
  • Your goals should be goals you can control. Don’t make up goals that say “I’ll sell a million copies indie” or “I’m going to sell to TOR and win a nebula.” Those goals are dependent on many circumstances. You can hope for them, sure. But you can’t control them. Instead your goals should be “I’m going to finish two novels” (or three or four or ten) “this year, and they will be better than last year’s novels.”
  • If you don’t put your work in front of people who might buy it, you will never know if they would. Send that stuff out, or put it up indie.
  • Rejection is what happens on the way to success. And before you say “I had twenty rejections, no one ever bought me.” I used to send out a story a week. For six or ten (I can’t remember) years I got 100 rejections by March every year. I used to keep them in laundry hampers with the year marked on top. As for indie, one of our regular bloggers here had a novel up that sold clear nothing for a year and then suddenly made the writer thousands of dollars. Someone discovered it and told a friend who told a friend. You never know. Allow your stuff to have a chance at success.


But most importantly, write. Write every day. Write like you mean it.

Writers write. That’s what we do.


  1. I’m guilty of what Dean calls burst writing. Sometimes I go weeks just too tired to write (family stuff), and sometimes I have 15,000 word weekends.

    This is not a habit I recommend. I’m trying to break it. Since Superstars I’ve written or rewritten nearly 19K. But I don’t know how long I can keep that pace up.

  2. Years ago, when I didn’t write a lot or consistently, I used to fret that I only had one story idea/world. I empathized with a commenter here last year who said he wanted to save his good idea until he was a better writer. I hoarded my “only” idea and worked on it for way too long. When it started becoming clear that I could actually finish that book, I was surprised to find that I had a couple more ideas/worlds. The more I wrote the more ideas I got and now I can’t see keeping up with them. It’s a good problem to have.

      1. I try to stick with the Heinlein admonition to finish what you start. I do have an exception, which is drop it all if you have something that works for NaNo, because NaNo is priceless to me.

      2. I have several ideas (not tons, but more than just a few), but can’t decide what to work on.

        Different writers handle that differently, of course, but what I like to do is have two or three “active” projects that I switch between, then a few more “back burnered” and still more “simmering” in the back of my head.

        If I have several active projects each one gets turned out a little slower, but I tend to have higher total productivity. If I’m only running one project I might turn out 500-800 words a day. (I am not a fast writer.) When I have two I might do 1000-1200 on one today, then the same on the other tomorrow. So project one takes a bit longer to finish than if I concentrated on just it. Same with project two. But I get both of them out a bit faster if I do them together.

        The real problem with multiple projects is that you might use it as an excuse not to finish any of them. You get partway into one, then divert to another and before you finish that one go on to yet another. And so on. Lots of projects started but none finished.

        You have to have the discipline to finish the projects. If you want to run more than one in parallel, that’s fine, but _finish_ them.

        Again, you have to find what works for your. But the first step is to set yourself in that writing chair and start writing.

        1. I like to do two at a time – I was writing Daughter of Texas alternately with The Quivera Trail, until I had to go all out on Daughter because of the release date (coincident with the 175 anniversary of the Alamo). When I get stuck on one, I set it aside and work on the other. At present I’m working on another two – a Gold Rush picaresque adventure, and another set thirty years later, about a young woman escaping a seriously dysfunctional family. The lead character in the first is an older man, courting the heroine in the second … and it’s kind of interesting, being able to fill out his past.
          This way, I can have a book a year, but take two years to write them, what with the research and all.

  3. Sarah’s comments are why I don’t call myself a writer. I got plenty of “ideas” in my head but haven’t *really* tried to put them into a story. [Even if Steve wants me to finish *his* story.]

  4. Finishing for me is ummm… UGH

    I have a real problem with Oooohhh…Shiny….

    And a deep dislike or reading/writing shorts and just purging a few ideas in ten thousand words or less is not an option I’ve been able to force on myself.

    I’ll get there though. Somehow.

  5. Quit looking over my shoulder! I’m writing, I’m writing, the WWI thing has fallen into place this week after an almost two-month block (caused in part by lack of research), and I’ve now got four more stories at least set in this world, plus the paranormal logging thing that I had no idea was in my mind until three weeks ago.

    1. No, I figured it out. The top of the Beautiful But Evil Space Princess’s new Black Desk contains a special deep reflective surface that allows her to see into the offices and workspaces of those who attract her . . . special interest.

      1. Oh, dear lord save me from that!

        I haven’t dusted in months, there’s a dirty cup on my desk and my garbage is overflowing! I’d be humiliated!

  6. I’m another of those people who have so many ideas that they have trouble sticking to one of them long enough to get it finished. Way back in jr. high, when I first started carrying a notebook with me and could write while on the bus or during a boring part of class, I’d get an idea, write a few pages, then get another idea and go run off to write it too. Pretty soon my notebook was crammed full of beginnings, and I had no endings to show for it. While I was in high school, I tried to curb it by just making notes on the new ideas and focusing on finishing the stories I was working on — but three decades later, I still have trouble with it. I can toss off a beginning with casual ease, but actually sticking to it and getting through to The End is so hard with dozens and dozens of other projects clamoring for my attention (not to mention the business and family obligations).

    1. I had that same problem – lots of beginnings and never finished. I fiddled around a good many years this way. The thing that helped me break out of that was blogging, actually. I set myself to do three 500+essays a week for the original milblog … and what with one thing and another the discipline of that got me to actually finish the first book.
      Then, of course, I was afraid that I really did only have that one story … not to worry, the next project exploded into six books with two more to come set in the same ‘world’ and a series of short adventures set in a slightly different one.
      I look at the shelf above my computer where I have copies of them all, and I think, “D*amn, I wrote all that?”

  7. At the present, I’m averaging about 1000 words a day, six days a week. I’ve got about 30000 on the book I’m working on (not really in any particular order). I’ve got a book with my editor friend to look at, and another one on indie (which I still need a cover for). I’m hoping to speed up with more practice, but I’m still plugging away.

    If I find a job, my word average will probably go down for a while, but I hope to at least keep going.

  8. I started (not counted school assignments) when I was in fifth grade, mostly cheap Star Trek ripoffs, heavy on “Marty Stu”, oh, one retelling of Tom Sawyer that was practically an abridgement. I didn’t finish any of them. Really, I was trying to write novels and just didn’t have grounding for that.

    My mother suggested that I try shorts but for some reason I never went anything with those back then. Then, in the summer of 1977 (between my Freshman and Sophmore years of high school) I finished my first piece that was relatively substantial. A screenplay. A science fiction screenplay. Okay, it was a rip off of Star Wars. It was a bad rip off of star wars. Written entirely by hand (I didn’t have a good typewriter at the time) there was only one copy in existence which was soon lost. I wish I knew where it was. Because, you know, if I knew where it was I could destroy it. So long as I don’t know, the specter of somebody finding it and threatening to release it to the world unless I perform some unspeakable act for the finder hangs over me.

    It was bad.

    I was back to partially done stories for a while but at this point I started looking seriously at shorts. I read collections (had not discovered the magazines yet) from the library–the “Orbit” anthology series, the “Nebula Winners” and others.

    Then, in my senior year, I started writing a new piece. It grew and grew. Five hundred pages (still handwritten, but I had a rather small hand back then so it was novel length) I had a completed manuscript. It was still bad, but it had some ideas in it that I may revisit someday.

    From then I went into the Air Force. I started writing more while in, not so much while I was in training or assigned overseas, but when I returned to the US for my last two years I got serious about it. I started writing shorts. I started submitting them (I’d discovered magazines by this point). I started having them rejected.

    It took another five years before I had my first sale. I sold a handful to Analog, one to the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and a few non-fiction pieces. While not much, this was enough, in fact, to get me exempted from the English language requirement at the college I attended (only person ever to do so). But that’s the thing, when I started college I really didn’t have the time or energy (especially the energy) to write fiction much. Then after college it was job and work. For a while I worked on a webcomic (and I really suck as an artist). But it was only in the last few years that I got serious about writing again. I can’t say I write every day, but I write most days. I have had a few professional sales (some we don’t talk about any more 😉 ) and a few pieces I’ve taken “Indie” which at least some people have enjoyed.

    So, when cons have that panel on “Mistakes beginning writers make” I almost always volunteer for it because I am one. I’ve just been one for the last 37 years.

  9. One of my great fears even well after I started was that I would “run out” of ideas. I lacked the confidence that I would be able to come up with new stuff consistently. So once a story had been rejected by all the pro and semi-pro markets (this was before indie was a realistic option) I would redo, rewrite, polish and try again. And again. And again. I kept hanging onto these old stories rather than going on to something new for fear that I’d “run out” that much sooner.

    Eventually, I learned that some of the worlds I’d created just dripped story ideas. There were just so many things I could do moving forward or backward in time or to different locations in the same world. And then I found, thanks to that writing book Sarah recommended, that I could sit down cold, pick some starting point (say, “I want to set this story on the Moon, in my FTI world during the colonization phase, and maybe have a teenage protagonist”) and just noodle around until I’d generated a “story idea.”

    Finally, I’d reached the point where I no longer had to worry that I’d run out of story ideas, that the time would come that I’d have to say “I’m done” because I had nothing left to write.

    Only took me 37 years. 😉

  10. I understand not writing for Tor – what if I want to write for Baen, instead?

    Of course, to do that I’d first have to have something to _show_ Toni . . .

  11. I did consider poetry when I was 17. Trouble was, I choose Latin as the language and iambic pentameter as the rhythm. I wisely chose to become a ‘reader’ shortly thereafter.

  12. I’ll admit that I haven’t been doing nearly enough writing lately. Depression tends to get in the way of writing, unfortunately. Luckily, I just broke through a barrier earlier today that had been in my way for some time, so I’m writing now and eager to keep pushing through on the next book on my series. Now, if I can just get it written and then figure out how to get it edited…

    Back to the topic of discussion, I had a friend reach out to me for some advice. Apparently, since we’ve known each other for 15 years, I was a safe choice for advice. One thing he mentioned was writing when he was inspired to write. Generally, I’m a “to each their own” kind of guy, but I had to kill that quick. I told him that if you want to be a writer, start treating it like your job. It might just be part time, but you need to have a schedule and keep it. I told him to set at least five days per week as a goal, and to have a target word count for each week.

    Not sure if he listened, but I’m always leery of the need to be “inspired” to write. Inspiration helps, but if you need that just to write, you’re going to pull a Harper Lee and wait 50-something years before your next book comes out. The problem is, you’re probably not going to get To Kill A Mockingbird sales from your first book.

    1. I think I need less inspiration and more perspiration. There are a bunch of ideas I have, a smaller portion of which are practical (no, I did not inherit that natural talent for visual arts my mother and grandfather have), and an even smaller portion might be readable.

      Depression ain’t fun, so hope things get better for ya soon. Whatever works to get you out of it (excepting obvious Bad Things), do what you gotta.

      1. Thanks, Dan. I appreciate it. Only time will heal this one. When you lose your Mom and biggest fan, well…

        Luckily, I know for a fact she wanted me to keep writing, so keep on writing I shall do.

    2. I wish I could remember who said it to me, but I think this applies: Don’t wait for Inspiration, get your shot gun and butterfly net and go hunting for it.

      Personally inspiration… that ‘flow’ comes the more I sit down and write.

  13. Here’s a question – how bad is it to write sections in no particular order, compared to the order they will be in the overall work? Then try to stitch them together?

    Yes, I realize that this CAN end up in disaster, but the sections were already pretty well worked out, and they have an assigned place in the overall scheme of things.

      1. Though it’s probably better to put some note saying where you intend for it to go at the beginning of it, and not depend on your memory.

    1. I do this, sometimes – when I have a particular scene or episode in mind, already worked out, I’m itching to write it while inspiration is all fresh, and it already has an established position in the overall story arc. It’s no problem to leap ahead, write it all, and then go back and “catch up” … rewriting as necessary, of course.

    2. I think it really depends on the writer.

      For me, this is generally the path to disaster. However, other writers do it with no problems whatsoever. It really just depends on you.

      1. I think it really depends on the writer.

        The writer? I think it depends on the day. Mostly I’m a rather linear writer–start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop–but on occasion a scene that happens later in the story simply demands to be written now. Happened that way with “The Spaewife”. I was barely into the story when the climax scene came to me while driving home. I immediately wrote it up at the end of the file (with a tag in between to separate it from the leading edge of the main text). And there it was. (And if I may say so myself, I really think “The Spaewife” is the best thing I’ve written yet although I don’t really that to this particular reason.)

        So, today, I write linearly. Tomorrow? Who knows.

        1. David, is the following quote from your post intelligible, non-linear, or am I merely a dope who can’t parse a sentence?
          “I really think “The Spaewife” is the best thing I’ve written yet although I don’t really that to this particular reason.”

          1. I may have been less than clear. It made sense in my head.

            I think “The Spaewife” is the best thing I’ve written yet.
            I don’t think that I wrote the climax scene early in the process and filled in the rest later was the reason for that.

      2. I think it really depends on the story. Some stories seem to require being very organized to flow well, while some others are the ‘stitch me together like a quilt, mama!’ types, and end up entertainingly awesome, like a Franks. =3

        (and yes, I also do “the write the scene if it’s really chewing on the brain to be let out.” I may not have a book for it, the character names are mere placeholders, but the scene NEEDS WRITING OR YOU WILL NOT SLEEP.)

    3. This is how Wen Spencer describes her writing style. I’d say you don’t argue with results, or as the saying goes, “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.”

    4. If your subconscious insists on innovating as you write(characters that are supposed to be smart tend to do this to me when I give them emulator time), writing out-of-order risks having to make a ton of continuity edits when you try to stitch it all together.

      1. And writing linearly would make this less of a problem? Riiiiight. 😉 If your character wants to change his story, he’ll do it, no matter what order you write it in. 😀

        1. Different writing mechanisms, I guess. My characters have a much easier time changing their future than changing their established past.

    5. One of my favorite movies is ‘Pulp Fiction.’ I had to watch it several times before I really got the story, but the individual scenes are SO fantastic, that was no problem.
      So, was ‘Pulp Fiction’ written the way it’s played on the screen? Is there anything written that’s GOOD that’s written like ‘Pulp Fiction?’ Note: seems to me that before New Wave thoroughly alienated me, I did see some stories that were random, but they weren’t any good.

    1. You and I are among the rare ‘just readers’ on this blog. Rare, but not unique.
      NOTE: that doesn’t make us special snowflakes, and it’s not ANYTHING like saying others aren’t true readers because they soil the purity of reading by engaging in writing. Although RAH did say “Write if you must, but do it in private, and wash your hands after.”
      (SPECIAL NOTE: I don’t know if ANY of you appreciate how difficult it is to write with a big fat-butt Manx cat sitting on your arm, gradually extending her domain to include first your left hand and second portions of the keyboard. So when too many ;’,> occur in my post, it’s because SugarBelly chose that moment to stretch.)

        1. One of the dogs comes and puts his paw on my wrist when I’m typing. We have to have a talk about it regularly. The other puts her chin on my hand. It’s a lot more disarming.

          1. *has different mental images in 4-koma gag strip format, in reply to ‘it’s a lot more disarming’.*

            One is cute: little dog like a dachshund jumping up to catch writer’s sleeve for attention / food.

            The other is hilarious. Think huge dog, like a St. Bernard, patiently waiting for feed, bowl at feet, while distracted author-owner goes tikitaktaktak away…

            Then St. Bernard loses patience, gently takes author’s arm between jaws and carefully but irresistably hauls author off to kitchen.

        1. Pshaw, I have a nursing baby helping me out. This is, note, better than a baby who is awake and in a mood to try the taste of keyboard.

  14. I used to be one of those guys who started a lot of novels but never finished them. The project just seemed too big, with no ending in sight. (That’s one reason I wrote comic books in the ’80s and early ’90s rather than novels.) Then I hit on the idea that worked for me. It might work for others, too, so here it is.

    I started up a fiction blog and told friends and relatives I was going to post new material every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I started off small, posting 250 to 300 words each time. These days, I post anywhere from 800 to 1400 words. Since starting this not quite three years ago, I’ve completed four novels and am closing in on the completion of my fifth novel. The reason this works is that I take obligations very seriously. I’ve committed to posting three times a week and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my two dozen online readers down. As a handy side benefit, a forced deadline can work wonders for breaking writer’s block (or it does for me, at least).

    Also, is the proper place to mention that my second novel was released last week on Amazon (last I posted about one of my novels I was asked for title and author details, so I hope it’s okay to go ahead and tell everyone that stuff: Scout’s Oath by Henry Vogel) and that I’ve got a verbal agreement with my (micro) publisher for my fourth novel? My third novel is already under contract and will be out later this year.

    1. Henry, I just downloaded it and will read and review it as soon as I finish Duty from Ashes.

  15. I’m probably “unique” in that I have fairly good reasons for “lack of time.” Because I’m about 80% paraplegic (can stand and walk a couple of steps, but very little function below the waist), I “live” in a Nursing Home. As a result, my “free” time is severely impacted. If I “go the toilet,” I have to wait for someone to get free to assist me afterward. I have to eat, _when_ they serve the food, not when _I_ want to eat. Right now, I have “Physical Therapy,” three times a week, for an hour. IOW, I have about an hour, to an hour and a half per day that I can spend writing. The rest of my time is spent dealing with “business and personal emails” in the mornings. Evenings I have an hour to spend on Facebook, for socializing. _If_ I could afford to “live on my own” (hiring aides to help me do things, at a cost of >$150K/year), I’d have more time to “write.”
    In spite of all that, I have four books with comments coming Friday that I hope to get to editors, in late March. So, all of you that complain. “I don’t have any time to write.” Quit goofing off. If I can mange to do it, so can you.

  16. I don’t have time for this, so I don’t even know why I’m asking.
    Baen’s Bar has a Slush Pile for submitting novels for critique. Is there any place that does the same for short stories?
    I’ve got 4000 words I wrote five years ago, and I just looked at ’em again, and I thought, what the heck….find out.
    I submitted it to one literary agency, and got a rejection, and stopped there. I can’t tell from the rejection that they even looked at it.

      1. The Grantville Gazette is specific for stories in the 1632 universe or the other time strand Timespike, right? My story might not fit either, since the characters are in a National Guard MP Company serving in the rockpile. At one point, Grantville Gazette was not permitting introduction of any more characters or new technology. I’ve only read the original timespike novel, and one of the follow-up stories.

        1. Universe Annex is for non-Grantville stories. It’s the last vestige of the old Jim Baen’s Universe. You submit stories for critique; and once a month or so (maybe less) the editors pick one that they like, buy it, and publish it on the main site.

    1. Baen’s Bar’s Slush Pile can be used for shorter works (and has been used that way).

      1. When I submitted it to them, it was as Chapter One of a novel. If I was starting today, I’d look for a different agency, but then again, maybe in 2011 they WERE a different agency. Certainly my story doesn’t fall in with the sort of thing they asking for on the 2015 website.

        1. Most agents I’ve dealt with want the first three chapters, a detailed synopsis, and a cover letter of some sort (usually a pitch). And there are tons of agents out there.

  17. Practice makes perfect. No, let me say that again. Practice makes perfect.
    I’m not reading any comments before making this one (so I don’t know if anyone has said anything similar,) — my paternal grandmother always made the comment “Practice makes messes.” I’m not sure everything she was getting at with that, but I think the point that your practice is going to have messes, knowing that in advance, should make you less disappointed when you see them on to the way to that perfect.

      1. Hard to do with an eBook. Hmmm, maybe if I modulate the data stream through a microwave laser, I can forcibly imprint the book in their minds? Either that or boil their brains….

            1. Heat ray? That’s so 1950s. I have a space-time inversion ray. But I AM afraid to use it, because sometimes things go wonky. Hmm… maybe I need to rethink this…

              1. The 1950’s was the Golden Age for Mad Science, you could make an Atomic Anything and hold the world for Ransom. These days it takes your entire annual budget just to scrounge a couple ounces of Plutonium.

      1. Was watching an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (it’s research. I swear!). The magical gimmic for this episode was “talent in a bottle.” My thought was “talent is nice and all, but without the training and practice in using it, it’s pretty useless.”

        So, yeah, practice.

  18. Sarah, I really want to thank you for this post, it helped get me off my ass. Although I haven’t written every day since you posted this, I have written almost every day since you posted this and it is becoming a habit. Thank you.
    BTW I commented on 2 earlier threads under the name Mars.

    If you’d like to see a little bit of what you have wrought upon the world I’m posting some of my work in progress at https://marswrites.wordpress.com

    If you pop by just remember, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT. 😉

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