Opinion by Jim Denney
“You have two choices in life. You either die or do something with your time. You’re going to be doing something — why not write?” —James Lee Burke
Louis Auchincloss had a long career as a successful lawyer, yet he managed to maintain a simultaneous career as a successful novelist. His literary output was impressive — thirty-six novels (including The Rector of Justin and House of Five Talents), plus thirteen nonfiction books. His titles topped the bestseller lists and he was awarded the 2005 National Book Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In an interview with George Plimpton, Auchincloss said:
Lots of writers have to have whole days or nights to get ready to write; they like to be by a fire, with absolute quiet, with their slippers on and a pipe or something, and then they’re ready to go. They can’t believe you can use five minutes here, ten minutes there, fifteen minutes at another time. Yet it’s only a question of training to learn that trick. …
I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me.
Louis Auchincloss shredded every writer’s favorite excuse for procrastinating: “If I could only find the time to write….” Successful writers don’t find time. They make time. The problem most writers have is not that they don’t have time, but that they don’t make good use of the time they do have.
Tackle your tasks “bird by bird.”
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells the story behind the intriguing title of her book on creativity. When her older brother was ten years old, he tried to write a report on birds — an assignment he’d been given three months earlier. He had spent those three months procrastinating, and the assignment was due the next day.
Frozen with panic, almost in tears, he was unable to begin. He had paper and pencils and books on birds, but the sheer size of the task had him petrified.
Lamott recalls how her father wisely sat down beside her brother, put his strong arm around the boy’s shoulder, and calmly said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Anne Lamott never forgot that advice, and it served her well throughout her writing career. “Impossible” tasks become achievable when we break them down into smaller goals, and we achieve each goal little by little, “bird by bird.”
Try Meg Wolitzer’s eighty-page plan.
My friend Sibella Giorello (author of the Raleigh Harmon series) tipped me to this idea. Meg Wolitzer is a novelist and the author of The Wife, The Uncoupling, and The Interestings. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Wolitzer described her process for conceiving and writing her novels.
“I sort of follow an eighty page plan,” she said. “I write eighty pages without worrying about what I’m doing, or what anyone will think of it, or even what it is, exactly. And when I’m done with those eighty pages, I print them out and have a look at what I’ve got, as opposed to what I fantasized I’d have. Then I make drastic changes. Eighty pages is enough pages for a writer to feel she’s accomplished something, but it’s not so many pages that, if she decides to put aside the book, she’ll feel as if she’s wasted her life.”
Meg Wolitzer’s eighty-page plan is the perfect middle path for writers who don’t want to map out their novels in advance, but worry that writing purely by the seat-of-the-pants could leave them stranded and blocked. If you can write four pages a day, you can knock out eighty pages in less than three weeks. That’s a modest commitment of time, but it just might free up your creativity so that you can finally write that long-delayed bestseller.
Note: Don’t miss my interviews with Christian romance writer Robin Lee Hatcher (author of Who I Am With You and An Idaho Christmas: Past and Present), and Christian science fiction writer Kerry Nietz (author of Amish Vampires in Space and Fraught). Visit my website at Writing in Overdrive. See you there!
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.