Friday, February 22, 2008

The Truth About Fiction: How To Write it When You've Got Another Job

I just got back from a great weekend in Fort Lauderdale where the National Writers' Workshop was held. About 400 journalists/writers attended the various workshops aimed at making us better at our craft. I headlined my own workshop titled "The Truth About Fiction: How To Write It When You Work Full-Time.'' The South Florida Sun Sentinel organizers asked me to be a speaker on this topic because people are always asking me how I find time to write fiction when I write full-time at The Boston Globe.

My workshop followed a viewing of an inspired-Long Lost Sulu episode from Star Trek which looked just like the original show. Then I was on. I wasn't sure how anyone can follow such a workshop but I did my best and used the Vulcan peace sign to say, "Write Long and Prosper!" Okay, it was a little cheezy but I made most of the 100 people sitting in Salon B laugh when I stood at the podium. (A great thank you to Sun Sentinel Business editor, dear college friend and former Boston Globe summer intern Anne Vasquez for such a great intro and for making this happen.)

I talked for an hour and answered great intelligent questions about newspaper writing vs. fiction writing and the mysterious world of book publishing. I am going to post below some of the suggestions I shared with the audience on how to make time to write fiction. I hope my readers or aspiring writers find these tips helpful.


You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. It’s that simple. But you also have to make time to do it. There are no short-cuts. Some writers prefer to write once they get up, as a warm-up for an hour or so. Other writers prefer to write at night, at the end of the day, letting the words flow on paper or their keyboards. Some of us like to scribble notes and paragraphs down on a pad during our lunch break. You have the time, you just have to prioritize. If you squirrel away blocks of time, an hour here, half hour there each week, you’ll start building up your short-story or novel. Give yourself a block of time with no interruptions. No cell phone. No TV. No Internet access. Just write, free-flowing. If you give yourself an hour, treat yourself at the end of that hour by turning on the TV or eating a cookie or something sweet. (that’s what I do.) But then go back and give yourself another hour. You’ll be surprised as to how much writing gets done. The Boston Globe’s Metro editor, Brian McGrory, has written five crime novels in the last 10 years. He would carve out eight-hours on Saturdays or Sundays to write. It took him about eight months to a year to finish one book.

Once you make the time, write about something you know, something you are passionate about, something important to you, an experience you want to share. If you don’t enjoy what you are writing about, chances are, you won’t want to write. You have to be excited about the topic or it won’t work. You won't seeing me write about nuclear scientists or engineers. I don't anything about those careers.

Some writers try to write 2,000 word chapters, which is a long newspaper features story or used to be. Don’t worry about the editing at first. Just write stream of consciousness. Once you have some paragraphs, a few pages or 2,000 words, walk away from the copy. Come back the next day or the next time you write and rewrite it. Let the creativity guide you. Some writers try to write once a week. If you estimate you can write a chapter a week, within six to nine months, you should have a book done. You can’t run a marathon in one night (okay, maybe some people can.) Most people need to train, mile by mile. Think of each chapter or story as a mile. With patience and discipline, those chapters/stories will grow into a connective thread, a book. You’ll be doing your own literary marathon. You have it in you to get it done.

A lot of writers are armed with notepads to jot down ideas or phrases. Some of us even eavesdrop on conversations at our local coffee shop to hear different kinds of dialogue. You never know when an idea for a scene or story might come so having a notepad or a notebook with you is a good idea to take notes. (If you see me at Barnes and Nobles in Boston or Coral Gables scribbling on a notepad and yet I’m leaning a little too close to the other table, you’ll know what I am doing.)

The key thing is you must enjoy the process because writing is a solitary endeavor. No one can do it for you. It’s you and your computer so get comfortable. Many writers look at the process as one of painful torment, woe-is-me, I’m a writer. Don’t listen to them. To create characters and sit down on your keyboard until your butt is asleep should be fun, fun, fun whether you are published or not. If you don’t get any joy from it, then why do it? Making it fun gets the job done.

And one more thing, enough reading. Go and write!

October 02, 2007 in Writer's Corner

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