Writers, words and time

Words and time are some­thing every writer wrestles with. Two truths sum up the dilemma:

  1. There is nev­er enough time to write.
  2.  When you do write, you nev­er pro­duce as many words as you’d like.

Professional writers and those who are ser­i­ous about writ­ing, even if they have oth­er ob­lig­a­tions, such as day jobs and or young fam­il­ies, learn to set aside time every day – or at least every week – to prac­tise their craft. And it’s called prac­tise be­cause, just like play­ing the pi­ano, the more you do it, the bet­ter you get.

But what con­sti­tutes a reas­on­able writ­ing prac­tise? Many pro­fes­sion­als set them­selves a min­im­um word count each day. According to “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors,” Ernest Hemingway aimed for 500 words a day while Sophie Kinsella man­ages 1,000 and Stephen King av­er­ages 2,000.

Once, I con­duc­ted a 30 minute phone in­ter­view and com­pleted a 1,000 word art­icle with­in two hours. But most non­fic­tion pro­jects – es­pe­cially a book – rarely move that quickly. What seems like a simple sen­tence can lead to hours of fact-check­ing or track­ing down elu­sive sources.

So, in­stead of set­ting daily word counts, I don’t con­sider my work day over un­til I’ve put in a min­im­um of five in­tensely fo­cused hours on my book. That can in­clude in­ter­views and re­search, as well as writ­ing. In fact, re­search can make up as much as 75% of the time I spend on a non­fic­tion book.

At the end of five hours, I may have writ­ten five pages, five para­graphs or five sen­tences. I put in the time but the words — and re­search — set their own pace. In an in­ter­view by Alan Twigg pos­ted on BC Booklook, the late Al Purdy, poet ex­traordin­aire, noted that he wrote the title poem to Caribou Horses in 30 minutes while an­oth­er poem, “Postscript,” took sev­en years.

When you write can make a dif­fer­ence too. In “Famous Authors Routines: Rise Early, Work Early, and Count The Words,” David Paul Kirkpatrick ob­serves that many fam­ous au­thors get up early – even be­fore first light — to write.

I must con­fess, the sol­it­ary si­lence of early morn­ing is my fa­vour­ite – and most pro­duct­ive – time to write. The house and neigh­bour­hood are quiet, it’s highly un­likely the phone will ring and my brain is un­sul­lied by the chat­ter and oc­cur­rences of the day. That’s when it’s easi­est to lose my­self in my work.

A computer generated collage by artist Bev Byerley. www.bevbyerley.com
A com­puter gen­er­ated col­lage by artist Bev Byerley. www​.bevby​er​ley​.com

Occasionally, I even flip the angst of in­som­nia into cre­at­ive en­ergy by get­ting up to write. Tiptoeing to the com­puter with mug of tea in hand feels slightly naughty and I know I’ll sur­render to sleep at some point in the day. But in the mean­time, I’m dis­trac­ted from whatever was keep­ing me awake…and, strangely, the words seem to fill the page faster than usual.

I nev­er take my work (or self) too ser­i­ously at 2 am so that may ex­plain the tsunami of sen­tences. But part of the ma­gic, I’m sure, comes from be­ing some­where between con­scious­ness and sleep, that dreamy, half-awake state that shuts off the in­ner cen­sor and al­lows the muse to creep in.

What every writer needs

Every writer craves a pub­lish­er, an ed­it­or and most of all, time to write. An ocean full of story ideas, hefty roy­alty cheques and some re­cog­ni­tion doesn’t hurt either.

But you know what writers need most? Downtime. That’s right, big chunks of do noth­ing time when frag­ments of ideas can bounce around the cra­ni­um and pos­sibly morph into some­thing brilliant.

At some point every writer sits in front of their com­puter strain­ing for the right word, phrase or sen­tence. But let’s say they for­get all that and take a hike with the dog or stand in the shower for a long time let­ting hot wa­ter sluice over their limbs. That’s of­ten when an “aha!” mo­ment and the an­swer to the prob­lem appears.

But how of­ten do any of us give ourselves any real down­time? There’s al­ways an email to an­swer, an er­rand to run or a dead­line to meet. And in today’s high tech world, even a walk in the woods doesn’t guar­an­tee un­in­ter­rup­ted downtime.

Scott Belsky, au­thor of Making Ideas Happen and CEO of Behance, dis­cusses this in “What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space.” According to Belsky, every­one, es­pe­cially cre­at­ive folks, should sched­ule reg­u­lar downtime.

One thing Belsky sug­gests is es­tab­lish­ing a ritu­al for un­plug­ging. Yes, I know it sounds blas­phem­ous but this means mak­ing a point of turn­ing off your com­puter, cell phone, Blackberry and maybe your land­line too.

Downtime on a Sunday af­ter­noon. And, no, I did­n’t chop any wood first.

Sundays are my down­time days. I get up when I want, eat when I want, take a nap if I want, read and putter with no par­tic­u­lar goal in mind. And, even though I don’t com­pletely un­plug, I try not to have the com­puter on for long.

Once a year or so, Rick and I head to Tofino for a totally un­plugged hol­i­day. The beach cab­in we stay at does­n’t have a phone or Internet con­nec­tion and there’s no TV, ra­dio or even a clock.

It’s hard to de­scribe how lib­er­at­ing that is. And the re­lax­a­tion goes way be­yond an ocean view and strolls on the beach. The sense of let­ting go – the re­lief of not hav­ing to check or re­spond to any­thing or any­body — is enormous.

And, what’s really in­ter­est­ing is the cre­at­ive en­ergy I feel after a do noth­ing day or an es­cape to Long Beach. Plot prob­lems seem to dis­solve, a good re­source comes to mind or a pos­sible way to end a chapter presents it­self. Not every time, of course, but enough to know that down­time is an im­port­ant part of be­ing a writer.

Downtime. It’s im­port­ant and I need more of it in my life. So, I’ve just made a big do noth­ing date with my­self for the week­end. Who knows, it might be the best cre­at­ive ses­sion I’ve had in a long time.



Grants for writers

Most au­thors make a liv­ing through mul­tiple in­come streams. These in­clude book ad­vances, roy­al­ties and spin off arti­cles, as well as fees for for­eign dis­tri­bu­tion, movie rights, etc. Authors in Canada may also re­ceive an­nu­al pay­ments from the Public Lending Right Program and Access Copyright. Many coun­tries have sim­il­ar programs.

And then there are grants. These usu­ally in­volve a cash pay­ment of $500 to $20,000 and can buy a writer time for re­search and writ­ing or cov­er travel ex­penses re­lated to their pro­ject. Different coun­tries, states and provinces and some mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies of­fer grants to writers.

Some grants avail­able to writers in British Columbia, Canada, where I live include:

BC Arts Council

The Canada Council for the Arts

Access Copyright Foundation 

You can check out the links page at The Writers’ Union of Canada to find more Canadian arts or­gan­iz­a­tions that provide grants to writers.

Applying for a grant is tempt­ing and some writers make a good por­tion of their in­come this way. Obtaining fund­ing can mean the dif­fer­ence between fin­ish­ing a book in a timely man­ner or hav­ing to space the pro­ject out over time due to tak­ing on oth­er short term writ­ing gigs to pay the bills.

But grants are a lot of work. Most re­quire a de­tailed out­line of your pro­ject, a budget, a re­sume, a list of pub­lic­a­tion cred­its, let­ters of ref­er­ence and writ­ing samples. I re­cently ap­plied for an Access Copyright Foundation Research grant for the book I’m writ­ing about cougars.

I’ve writ­ten – and re­ceived – grants in the past so sat down to de­term­ine how much time this ap­plic­a­tion would take. I es­tim­ated two long, full days at the most. At the end of five days I staggered out of my of­fice clutch­ing a 28-page document.

Do I think the time spent was worth it? If I get the grant, the an­swer will be a re­sound­ing “Yes!” But even if I don’t re­ceive any money, it was still a worth­while endeavor.

Why? Because it forced me to cre­ate a de­tailed plan for an im­port­ant as­pect of my re­search. I now know who I want to con­tact and what I want to ask them. I also have a pro­jec­ted timeline of how long the re­search will take. (I don’t know if that last bit should make me happy or want to cry — if my es­tim­ate of the grant ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess is any­thing to go by, the re­search will take at least twice as long as I ex­pect it to!)

So, if you’re think­ing of ap­ply­ing for a grant, be sure to weigh the time com­mit­ment against the be­ne­fits. That said, an im­port­ant thing to re­mem­ber: If you nev­er ap­ply for a grant, you’ll nev­er get one.




The power of words

Words are in­cred­ible. We use them to de­scribe our dreams, share our ex­per­i­ences and tell stor­ies from the past. They can pro­voke tears and laughter; gen­er­ate an­ger, trust, com­pas­sion and fear. What else is so powerful?

Words are a writer­’s most im­port­ant tool. They re­veal facts, ex­plain what’s go­ing on and  paint verbal im­ages of people, places and per­cep­tions. And de­pend­ing on what word we se­lect, our sen­tences have power and im­pact or are ho-hum, me­diocre or even tedious.

Take two minutes to view a great ex­ample of The Power of Words. In this case, a pic­ture (okay, a video) really is worth 1,000 words.