Writing ad Libitum

Writing at one’s pleasure. Anyway, that’s a rough translation of the Latin there. I make no claims to Latin scholarship, but I’d looked up the phrase after seeing it in a paper (rats were given food and water ad libitum) and it struck me that it’s a bit how I used to write. Used to.

Before I went pro with my writing, I’d write when a story struck me, and as a consequence, I have files (or had files, many have been lost or discarded) upon files of snips and scraps of tales that I wrote down simply to amuse myself. Writing ad libitum, as it were. Deciding that I was going to make a more professional tack with the writing took away from the ‘at my pleasure’ but it produced more polished, and egads! Actual finished work.

Because that’s the difference between professional and amateur. Not that a good amateur cannot produce some amazing stuff, but they only go so far as their passion for the topic will take them. A professional approaches the task with a different framework entirely. It’s not that writing becomes less fun – although there are days like that – it’s that you begin to approach your own work with more objectivity. It’s not strictly about writing what you enjoy, it’s also about writing what will sell.

Furthermore, it’s about pushing yourself when it’s not fun any more. Because as anyone who has seriously pursued a sport, or simply an exercise regime, you don’t start to see results until after you have pushed through the really hard, sometimes painful, and often dull bits. Then, on the other side, you get into the synergy of ‘this is fun again! And I can do so much more than I could before I developed my muscles…’ Which is what you’re doing when you practice. Physical development, for sports and exercise, mental, in the case of writing. That practice is what sets the pro apart from the amateur.

I realized the other day that Jetpack keeps some interesting statistics on my blog, and I added it up. Since I started the dang thing, way back in 2006, I’ve written over a million words on the blog. Just the personal blog, not my regular posts here, or guest posts elsewhere. Not counting my fiction. The last few years, since I got serious with the blog as a marketing platform in 2013, I’ve racked up six figure word counts every year, so most of that million words is just in the last five years. I got serious about my writing, and started to treat it professionally, and it shows. At least I think so. I’ve gotten enough compliments on my non-fiction work to swell my head a little, but also to let me know that I’ve improved. I’ve even gotten nice words from people who bashed me in the next breath because of my affiliations. So there’s that.

As for my fiction, it’s been languishing recently, in no small part because I haven’t been treating it professionally. I had shelved it so I could pay attention to other things, like the day job, and personal life, and you all have seen that ooze into my blog articles I fought to keep writing, and finally decided that it would be better to come back to it when I could pay attention to it. Which will be, hopefully, soon now. Work is going through a lot, so I tend to come home and fall over. Family stuff takes any spare energy. Weekends have become impossible to write on, other than blogging (and possibly not even that, with my personal blog). So… I persist. I insist that I will come back to writing, because at my core I am a fiction writer. I tell stories. I write ad libitum. That I get to make money with it simply adds to the pleasure.

The last thing I wrote sheerly for the joy of it?



There was a snowflake on her eyeball. It sparkled a little as I bent over her, close, but not too close, lest I should thaw it with the warmth of my breath. I could imagine what it would look like, the liquid giving her flat gaze a mockery of life, focusing on me, accusing. How could I have let this happen to her? I straightened up, expanding my focus, away from her, to the rest of the scene. There were no visible marks on her tiny body, on the footie pajamas she wore, or the bright, almost fluorescent, pink jacket with the puffy quilting. Perfect, just like she was. I bent back down and touched her cheek, gently, with my left hand. The one that couldn’t feel. Her skin was rigid, as unyielding as my own fingers.

I turned away then and headed toward the house she had come from. She would remain at her rest as she had been for hours, now. I walked slowly, reluctant to face what I knew lay inside, my breaths coming in visible puffs of white. Maybe if I blew out hard enough it would expand into a blinding fog and wipe it all out, a blank white surface to write a new story on. One with a happy ending for the little pink girl, with cocoa and marshmallows in.

I stepped through the open door, exchanging silent nods with the uniformed policeman who was standing there. He’d worked with me often enough to know not to speak until he was spoken to. And I knew him well enough to know that this place would have silenced him, anyway.

It was as cold inside as it was out, perhaps even colder. I made my way to the stair, ignoring the open arch to a living room, at a guess, and the swinging doors which would lead to a kitchen, perhaps. I had been briefed, briefly. My lips twisted in what might have been amusement, under other circumstances. Looking up the stairs, I knew that the next scene would not be as peaceful as the one outside. The splashes and arcs of blood, bright droplets frozen onto the eggshell paint…

I turned my head and spoke, not looking all the way around at him, my body still facing the path I must take. “Get images done of this right away, while it is still frozen. I don’t know how long it will last.”

Now I could hear him speaking, into his radio, but I wasn’t listening to his voice, letting it fade into the background buzz. The death curse that lay over this place wouldn’t hurt me, or my people. It wasn’t directed at us. No more than it had been directed at the little tyke outside, who had been caught on the backlash by virtue of her blood, and trapped, no matter how well someone with half-sense had bundled her and told her to run, just run.

I stepped onto the stair. The magic was a scream inside my head, but I focused carefully and took another step. This was my job to do, and I would do it. The curse was a strong one, which alone told me that it would fade quickly. Magic must come at a price, to the surprise of the perpetually physics-bound. Just like their human laws, it had bounds which held it. Kept it from taking over the world, really, like some comic-book villainess. Not that magic was limited to women. Just that this was a feminine voice in my head, howling for vengeance.


      1. Don’t we all. Don’t mean it’s FUN. It’s a poor analogy, but Marines do that too. Some stuff that comes with the title ain’t FUN, but you do it because you voluntarily chose the job. I would not have thought that someone that wrote Pixie or Dragon would be able to imagine a story so dark. Those stories have their quota of death and violence, but are not so joyless. Reading this was like finding out the nice lady whose cakes you alway sought out, bought, and enjoyed at the church bake sales was a mortician. Nothing WRONG with that vocation, just incongruous.

      1. Bob, I did not intend to imply that the work was poor. Quite the opposite. Had it been that, it could not have had the impact that it did.

        1. You didn’t imply that it was poor, and neither did Pat. Some stuff is excellent, and hurts to read, perhaps too much. I’m a fan of Kratman. For some years I didn’t read his stories because my mental state was not up to it.

          There is such a thing a poorly written stuff, that is nihilistic, and exists purely to break the will of the reader.

          We all have things that are difficult for us to deal with. Dark humor is one way of coping, reading certain types of challenging story is another, and writing well written but difficult stories is another.

  1. Thanks for reminding us about some of the important things in professional writing. This will help me continue to push my non-fiction writing where I need to get it.

  2. Huh. Ad libitum is something of a foreign concept to me, I think. I grew up on the craft-show circuit, getting babysat by lots of different artists. The good news is that I enjoy and am good at making a *lot* of things (textiles, jewelry, words, food…); the bad news is that I can’t get my head around the concept of creating something *just because*. Closest I ever got was writing to pass the time during boring high school classes (to the predictable non-delight of my teachers).

    No deep significance there, just a weird observation.

  3. Writing ad libitum… I like that phrase. It’s much classier and more official sounding than the “Just For Fun Stories” that I usually use. I’ve always considered stories written just for fun to also be a good way to practice different ways of writing (like that multiple narrator thing William Faulkner did in [i]As I Lay Dying[/i]) or experimenting with different story ideas (like a sci-fi mystery-thriller with a detective who has a phobia about being in outer space sent out to investigate a crime scene on a starship). Sometimes those just for fun stories are just that – fun and done – but other times they can grow into something much larger.

    1. Alas, I used the wrong formatting tags… I’ll just go hang my head in shame over in the corner there…

  4. As in so much else, I’m a bit of an Odd. I write ad libitum, but for a set period of time each day (when Life allows). I’m not always working on what I “should*” be working on, but words are put on screen.

    *Right now, I should be working on either the sequel to _Of Merchant and Magic_ or the Chinese novel. Instead I’m wrapping up a Familiars novella.

    1. I should try this, because writing sheerly ad libitum, nothing lately has made it past 14K words in, and writing to a set schedule on a set story results in frustration and heartache.

  5. When I was twelve or so I sat down (for some reason) and read through a bunch of half-finished stories and discovered I “lost interest” whenever I had to transition from the first scene to the second.


    Once I forced myself to pick up that skill, it took a few more sessions of half-finished stories before I flushed every problem I had with finishing out of the underbrush. I still recommend the process to anyone who has trouble losing interest.

  6. I try to write as if I want to make a living at it (and I do) but I try to keep it fun. The exception would be when deadlines loom and I have to hurry.

    1. When Kid was a toddler, we lived in a place with an insanely finicky oven whose temperature bore little or no relation to the dial. She got very, very used to the smoke alarm: “Mom, the house is beeping again.”

Comments are closed.