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A Clockwork Writer

Oh, hi.  I’ve been busy trying to make my life more rational and ordered (also battling a massive cold, but that’s something else) which means, of course, I forgot it was Wednesday.

All things considered it could be worse.  I might not have remembered till the evening.

Let’s talk about … ah… ordered creativity.

Like most of you when I was young and stupid — two conditions that often go together — I believed creativity was special, a touch of the muses, a kiss of the divine, and I only worked when I felt it.This is true, more of less, if you wish to create for a hobby.

I once had a writer who had published one (count, one) novel ten years ago tell me what was wrong with current publishing is that they expected you to publish a book once a year, and no writer worth her salt could produce that fast.

Eh.  She told me this the year I wrote three novels (to attempt to break in) while minding two toddlers.

Look, how fast or slow you write seems to be part of your internal rhythms, your internal clock.  You write as fast as you write, and it tends to correlate to how fast you do other things.  If people routinely go “you can’t have cleaned the entire house in two hours” they will probably also tell you that you can’t write a novel in a month or two weeks.

But anything that’s creative can benefit from practice.  Just practice.  For instance, I’m still clumsy and slow every time I drag the sewing machine out to make something.  That’s because you can count on the fingers of one hand the times I made time for it in the last year.  OTOH I’m much faster and more expert than I was as a teen.  That’s because we went through years where if I wanted a pretty dress it was cheaper to make it (and I’d inherited a bunch of fabric and notions from my grandmother-in-law.

I’m still relatively slow at making covers, but not as slow as I was when I started trying this out.

And when I started out writing, it took me six months to write a short story.  I’ll be honest with you too, most of what I did was beat that poor innocent story to a pulp.  You see, I still didn’t have much of a sense of what made a good story much less what readers might want.  So mostly what I did was super-copyedit, ie. beat that poor short story to a pulp and remove all the flavor from it, leaving it with the general taste and consistency of boiled oatmeal.

It was only when I stopped doing that, that I started selling consistently.

I’d like to tell you that what happened there was that I realized I was making my stories flavorless and anodyne, but it wasn’t.  What happened — as so often happens — is that friends set a challenge: write a short story a week.  I’m competitive as hell and prideful as the devil.  They couldn’t beat me. So I started writing a short story a week.  Since I was also writing novels at the time (Darkship Thieves was written the first year of this, and by the second year, I’d sold a novel on proposal and had to write it, and its sequel) I set aside Saturday morning for this.  See, my writers’ meeting was in the afternoon, at my house.  So I’d get up at the hour I normally got up to take older son to kindergarten, write a story in the three hours while the house slept, then when they wakened, start cleaning.  Which meant I was all done by 2 pm when people arrived for our meeting.

The first few Saturdays, I will confess to you that I sat at the computer and started into the abyss.  There were no ideas.  There was nothing.  Sometimes I resorted to the old trick of looking up three words in the dictionary or a phrase in the Bible and writing a story from that.  (Bibliomancy is not just for divination anymore.  And honestly, any large and diverse book will do.  The collected works of Shakespeare, Tennyson or Kipling work pretty well, too.  In fact I keep a massive pile of poetry books, in English and Portuguese, in my office for the purpose.)

I’ll also admit to you the first short stories sucked so badly they were in danger of becoming black holes.

But I was recently reading through my short stories to decide which go in which collections (three now) and realized that about three months into the forced-on-Saturday short stories, my quality took a massive jump. Checking my records, that was about when I started selling a short story a week, and sometimes more.  And climbed up from 1/4 cent a word to 10 cents a word (at one time.)

The weird thing is that the “forced” ones were more quirky and better than the ones I’d slaved over for months.  They were more uniquely mine.  They were more compelling.

Another curious thing happened: even if I took a Saturday off, the “inspiration” arrived on the clock.  In the days when my husband tried to take vacations by telling me to leave the laptop at home, I’d get up at the crack of dawn in some hotel, and while husband and sons slept, write short stories (sometimes novels, too, but not usually Saturday morning) on notepads, the extra leaves of cheap mystery books and on one signal occasion, on a roll of toilet paper.

I’d trained my muse to show up at six am on Saturday, and dang it, it did.

Shortly after that, I trained my muse to show up on weekdays when the boys were at school, and write like a dervish till I had to pick them up.  These were the years of the six books and tenths of short stories a year.

And then I fell off the horse.  Part of this is that I’d set my schedule externally.  I.e. I’d made it a function of the kids’ schedules.  Which means when they finished high school, and had the more fluid schedule of college, I felt lost.  To make things worse, about that time hypothyroidism showed up, and then about three years ago, sleep apnea (worsened by my worsening asthma.)

None of this was helped by the fact that over the last five years the career has delivered more kicks in the teeth than even I was used to.  (We old time writers have stainless steel teeth, the better to endure with.)

I fell off the horse.  I trained myself not to sit still, but to run here and there, doing things around the house, letting things distract me.

We all know what you do when you fall off the horse: you get right back on, right?

Yeah.  Now the hypothyroidism is probably ALMOST fixed, and the sleep apnea is being controlled (not helped by the cold making my nostrils mostly ornamental this week) that’s what I’m doing.

It doesn’t feel like it will work.  It never feels like it will work.  But I know it will and it does.  So I’m setting a time (9 am to 5 pm simply because it’s conveniently matched to my husband’s work time.  Not dependent on it, but matched, which means we can have time together.) I’m putting ass in chair.  I’m making a list of things to accomplish every week.  And I’m sticking to it.

I might never be a great writer, but careers aren’t made of masterpieces.  Also, what you consider your masterpiece might be so personal that readers don’t “get” it or even hate it.

Careers are made of a lot of “eminently readable” books.

And all I ever wanted was to make a living, what with being a hack and all.

If anything, it seems like indie publishing encourages and rewards greater production.  Yesterday I joined a “promotion for writers” group (because you’re always a beginner in something) and the first tip someone gave was “write a lot.”

So, okay, I will do that.  I will pixel train my muse to show up at a certain time (paper training it means someone will need to type it in, and is expensive.)  We will do this again.

Once more unto the breach my friends.

The writer is on the clock.



  1. c4c

    April 11, 2018
    • Draven #


      April 11, 2018
  2. Hugs and B12!

    April 11, 2018
  3. Christopher M. Chupik #

    “Careers are made of a lot of “eminently readable” books.”

    Depends on the career . . .

    April 11, 2018
    • REAL careers, not froth and publicity. If you want to be a writer, you gots to write. I know, it sucks, but it’s the only way.

      April 11, 2018
      • thephantom182 #

        Dammit Sarah, I’ve only written one sentence on the book today so far because I’ve been screwing around on YOUR BLOG. I blame -you-, clockwork person! My utter lack of productivity is your fault.

        [running away now!~:D]

        April 11, 2018
        • Recently I’ve been hitting Sarah’s post first thing in the morning. Better than caffeine some days – and the coffee cup doesn’t kick me in the arse quite so effectively. It has been getting me to work and putting off other places until I’ve accomplished at least something.

          April 12, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      True, but “careers are made of being a part-time lecturer at the local community college, six shifts a week at the local Starbucks, and one unreadable short story a year so that you can get your Assterisk nomination” isn’t really the sort of inspiration of which blog posts are made.

      April 11, 2018
  4. Ideas… ambush me at awkward moments. Like oh, just having passed a semi while driving on on US -287 and not being in a position to write down or otherwise record the idea.

    Writing – works best after 11:00 for stories, earlier for blog. Why? Because I got into the habit of writing non-fiction, or doing non-fiction work in the mornings, and relaxing with fiction writing in the afternoon. But it is something I try to do daily if possible, otherwise as often as possible.

    April 11, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      Is it something about 287? Because I’ve had a couple of my best ideas come while driving down 287 also!

      April 11, 2018
      • No idea. The climax of the new short-novel [Sarah says it is a short novel. it is a novel] hit me while listening to “The Hog” by the Wicked Tinkers, and then a different short story idea attacked a few minutes later to “Donald McGilivrey.”

        April 11, 2018
        • Zsuzsa #

          Hmm. My latest came while listening to “The Bonny Swans” by Loreena McKennitt. Maybe the solution to writer’s block is to drive up and down 287 while listening to your iPod on random (preferably in an area frequented by semi-truck, so your muse knows that you can’t afford to be distracted).

          April 11, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Right before bedtime for me,

      April 12, 2018
      • You guys know that’s a sign of resistance, right? I wrote most of Darkship Revenge in a high fever. Sword and Blood attacked me when on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
        This means I fight the books so hard, they can only land when I’m almost dead.

        April 12, 2018
        • Dorothy Grant #

          Really? So the fact that my current one is getting written either after my bedtime, or when I wake up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning whne I wake up is… normal?

          April 12, 2018
  5. Okay, got a spare moment now. I was doing the majority of my writing in the morning before the Squire woke up. For some reason I have been getting up between 5 a.m. or a little bit later for the past year and a half. Was working great. Then real life intervened and I have been coasting. Got to get back in gear and get hammering out the words.

    April 11, 2018
    • That’s probably the essence of the problem – things change, and we fail to adapt to the change FOR OUR WRITING. Other things get adjusted, but not that.

      For me, it was taking on sub assignments (not easy to even THINK in a room filled with kids). I will be setting aside some time – I’m traveling this weekend, it’s a good time to plan.

      April 12, 2018
  6. 23skidoo

    April 11, 2018
    • sam57l0 #

      so’s yer old man!

      April 11, 2018
      • Sam, I’ve read a book or two. Some of them have words and phrases in them we don’t often hear anymore. I even know “Thee” and “Thou,” and “goose egg.” I type “23skidoo” because I got bored typing, “c4c.’

        April 11, 2018
  7. Zsuzsa #

    All right, all right, I get the point. The baby is napping, I’ve got a Word Document open, and I should be producing words rather than reading even something like the Mad Genius blog.

    April 11, 2018
  8. What that old saw? To be successful at anything you have to be lucky. And the harder you work the luckier you get?

    Yeah, I need to disconnect the internet for set times of the day, so I don’t go squirreling off after tiny details and never get back to writing.

    April 11, 2018
    • Purple squirrels? Now that would be cute…

      April 11, 2018
  9. Sympathies on the cold, Sarah. My whole household’s got it. (Or pneumonia, or whatever death-bringing disease housemate decides to call it at the moment.)

    April 11, 2018
  10. Right now I’m in the frustrating position of having only bits and crumbs of writing time, since the big blocks are going to a whole bunch of back-office work for the business, some of it getting product ready for summer’s busy season, but a lot of listing stuff online in hope of getting some money flowing in during this dead period. So I’m having to do the sort of stuff that suits itself to those little pieces of broken time. Scenes from various novels that are so bright and clear in my mind that they practically write themselves.

    It’s sort of like trying to make an afghan by using that little hand-loom that’s designed to create potholders. Right now I’m creating lots and lots of those little six-inch squares, because that’s all I have the wherewithal to do right now. Eventually I’ll need to get the time to do the equivalent of laying all those six-inch squares out on a table so I can figure out how they all go together, how many others I need to make to complete the pattern, whether some really belong in a side project (like a cover for a throw pillow), and then actually sewing it all together and putting the trim around the edges so it goes from lots of little pieces to one cohesive whole.

    It’s a very frustrating process, because there are several works in progress I’d really like to be working on, but are at a point where they need the sort of sustained attention I can’t give them. In fact, it took me several tries to even find a WIP that lends itself to this sort of fragmented approach. But at least I’m making something resembling headway, which is better than nothing.

    April 11, 2018
  11. I discovered that words start flowing around midnight if I let them. But I’ve been trying to train myself to be productive at some other time because I have a day job that requires some get up and go. I see that part of the problem is making the switch from one hat to the other, but I don’t want to be explaining how to multiply matrices to my 8th graders while my brain is filled with the first science fiction idea I ever had so… I have to suppress the words during the day. And it is also true that some scenes will require serious immersion time… sigh

    April 11, 2018
  12. TRX #

    > the sleep apnea is being controlled (not helped by the cold making my nostrils mostly ornamental this week)

    The masks that cover your mouth as well as your nose help a lot in those situations. Downside, the Euro-standard face the masks as designed for seems to have a tiny Betty Boop mouth, and it took several tries to find a mask that would seal at the corners of my mouth. Still, way better than the nose jobs, and you don’t have to try to sleep with your throat locked shut.

    April 11, 2018
    • They do both, it still doesn’t work. I’m a determined nose-breather, it seems.

      April 12, 2018

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