Excuses and the Fine Art of Self Sabotage

Hi Folks,

Happy St. Valentine’s Day.

Today we have a guest post by professional fiction writer Dean Wesley Smith. Dean has made his living as a professional fiction writer for four decades.

This post was originally published on his website on January 23, 2017. Here we go.


Last week I came to the sudden realization that most of us modern writers are lazy. While at the same time convincing ourselves we are not. We convince ourselves that the time and energy we spend writing is exactly what we are supposed to be doing.

And we seldom question those rules or guidelines or beliefs that lead to the “supposed-to-be-doing” issue.

I’ve been questioning those rules and guidelines for a decade now, writing articles about Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing and Killing the Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing. And yet it was when I finished writing a novel in five days while traveling that I realized I had fallen for some of the same things I had been railing against.

I had made writing a novel in five days something special. And I suppose in this modern world that is special.

And I realized that’s just sad.

Some Simple Math

Here at WMG Publishing, we teach a six-week online workshop called Speed. That workshop, over the six weeks, shows a writer very simply how fast they are in actual production. And helps them with a bunch of things to get out of their own way with their writing and write more productively.

By the end, the speed of the writers taking the class ranges from 900 words per hour to over 2,000 words per hour. And these writers are writing at depth and with quality at those speeds. And in one draft.

So let’s take the lower end of that. 1,000 words per hour (includes a five minute break to move around). I tend to write between 1,000 words and 1,500 words per hour, depending on where in the book I am. Slower at the start, faster at the end.

I write one draft clean.

Let me say that again. Those speeds are writing clean without rewriting. Heinlein’s rules. No sloppy writing allowed. [Ed. Note: Here’s a free, annotated copy of Heinlein’s Rules.]

To write a 40,000 word novel is 40 hours.

To write a 70,000 word novel is 70 hours.

Simple math.

So if you don’t have another job, kids at home, writing a 40 hour week will produce a novel. Move around every hour so you don’t hurt your shoulders and hands.

Simple math.

This is not rocket science, folks.

But now comes the Excuses…. (imagine the word Excuses echoing off into the distance…)

I personally love excuses except when they are coming out of my own mouth.

On that trip I wrote just over 60,000 words when everything was totaled for the 10 days. 37,000 words on the novel in five days in the middle. Plus about 10,000 on the nonfiction blog chapters about doing the novel. The rest was two different weeks of assignment e-mails for writers taking workshops.

Six thousand words a day average. 6 hours a day average.

Some days when I was driving long days I did less, other days when I had nothing to do but visit with friends and eat and play cards, I did a ton more.

But for the entire ten-day trip I spent about 60 hours total. 47 of those hours was to create two different books that will sell. The other 13 hours were to help writers with assignments in classes they were taking.

I even watched two football games, played poker and blackjack, walked around the area for research, and did a zipline as well as eating breakfast, dinner, and late-night meals with friends.

Total hours on my trip were 10 days time 24 = 240 hours. 8 hours of sleep per night (counts my naps) is 80 hours. 160 hours remaining. 40 hours of driving round trip leaves 120 hours.

So I spent half my waking time writing, the other half doing all the other fun stuff I did.

I am a professional writer. I make my living from my fiction. So why did I think that spending 47 hours in ten days writing was so special?

It just wasn’t. It’s just what I do.

But I thought it was special in this modern world enough to write a short nonfiction book about the writing while traveling and I know for a fact a bunch of people will buy the book over time. And I hope it helps some who buy it. That was the point.

But by actually making myself stop and look at the entire thing, I realized I had also helped myself.

I had spotted a few places where I was spouting excuses.

So Now a Confusing Definition… Writing Fast!!

So many beginning writers, English teachers, and others who flat don’t understand the creative process equate writing fast with writing sloppy or poorly. (As if they know what poor writing is, but that’s another point.)

So what exactly is writing fast????

Simply put, it isn’t typing faster, it is spending more time in the chair writing.

So if you spend more time in the chair writing, you get better. (Wait, that means if you write faster you get better…yup.)

Writing is the only art that actively discourages its young from practicing. It tells young writers with all these myths and beliefs that if they write slowly, don’t write much, they will magically get better.

Still not sure how that works in their minds, but it has no basis in reality.

To get better, no matter your typing speed, you spend more time in the chair writing. (It’s called “practice.”)

And from the outside perspective of others, that makes you a faster writer. Because you spend more time learning and writing and thus you produce more words.

Again not rocket science.

More Evil Math

You say you are happy with your two 70,000-word books per year. Good for you. You have yourself convinced you are a hard-working writer. And all your family and friends are convinced because you have sold them a bill of goods.

You type fiction at about 1,000 words per hour. So over the entire year you spend 140 hours for the two novels. (You also have yourself deluded by your English teachers that rewriting is important, but we won’t go there, but because of that you write very sloppy first drafts as well.)

So you spend 140 hours per year writing. That works out to about 390 words per day.

I’m betting you write e-mails longer than 390 words.

So the pace of 140 hours per year is not something you really want to look at because the myths, the beliefs, the religion of writing fiction makes you think producing two books per year is good.

So along comes a jerk like me who can spend almost one-third of your yearly hourly output in five days. That has to make you angry. I can understand that.

I don’t type faster. I have just learned to sit in the chair for more hours than you do is all.

And because I sit in the chair and make up stories for more hours than you do, I am labeled a fast writer and a hack. Luckily, my fiction has paid my living since 1987. All because I sit and make up stuff.

So since I put that post up about comparing lazy modern writers, me included, to the pulp writers of old, I have gotten excuse after excuse from writers. Some are downright creative, some are silly, some are myths, and a few are valid.

Valid Excuses in My Opinion

If you say you want to make your living with your fiction, your writing, at some point, the following are valid excuses. (All excuses are valid if you are a hobby writer.)

— Children. They always come first, their needs, their wants, their time. They will grow up and leave eventually, so don’t use valuable children time on writing. The writing will be there after hours and after the kids are gone.

— Health. Without taking care of your health, you won’t be able to write. Or you will die young. Always remember there are no old fat people. Don’t believe me, just open your eyes and get out some. Get healthy. Spend the time to get and stay healthy. And this includes not sitting for hours and hours at a time typing without moving every hour. You do that and you really are as stupid as you look. Sorry. Stay healthy. Time for health is more important than writing time.

That’s it.

If your goal is to make your living at some point with your writing, there are no other valid excuses.

And I can hear most of you go… but… but… but…

You want to make it as an international fiction writer, selling your stories all over the world and making a living at it for decades, you pay the price. You kill the excuses.

Anything but children and health are excuses.

And trust me, if you tell yourself “I can’t do that…” you are right. Because with that attitude, you never will.

As I have just discovered, the first step on killing excuses is hearing yourself think and say them.

A hint about one of my excuses I’ve been hearing myself think and say… “I’m 66…”

Yeah, ain’t that just a damn silly excuse. That won’t stop me ever again now that I have heard it.

We all have excuses. I am no exception. The reason I am known as a fast writer, meaning I spend more time writing than most, is because I have cleaned out most excuses.

But I am still a work in progress, as we all are.

Have fun.

Dean Wesley Smith