Productivity and the author-athlete

Today I was taping old roller-derby posters to my office walls for inspiration and I found this quote I’d ganked off the interwebs from a meme:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase: they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through. – Ira Glass

My observation of my own craft progress, and the craft progress of many, many other authors, is that an author figures out how to write a novel without scratching her head and wondering how the heck she painted herself into this craft corner only after she has written six to eight novels. If she hops genres, it can take even more novels.

Writing novels, like any other athletic endeavor (yes, athletic) requires training. Maybe you’re a phenom, an enfant terrible, one of those authors we all envy who hits a bestseller out of the park with their first try: yay, you’ve run your first marathon and killed it. But you won’t run the next marathon that well. The first one may frickin’ kill you.

Normally it works the same way that someone becomes a rock star at riding horses. We dream of just getting on and going like the wind, the horse and self a single, joyous, well-coordinated animal. When you begin riding, you discover that there are 23 messages you can send a horse between all your body parts and your voice, but you only need to send, say, eight of them at a time. It takes a certain number of hours in the saddle to get to the moment when you stop flopping around like a rag doll on the poor beast, when you stop praying under your breath, Dear God, let me get back on the ground intentionally!

That’s the moment you become a real rider. You are no longer thinking about how to ride. You do that part automatically. Now you are thinking How do I get him over this jump in the correct number of strides and make sure he doesn’t stumble while he’s changing his lead around the corner? You’ve spent all those hundreds of hours in the saddle just getting to the point where you can actually, you know, ride.

Writing comfortably is not unlike riding comfortably.

So, training to write six to eight novels. We are now at the point where some authors whom I know and love dearly are muttering, Yeah, you write a lot of crappy novels. They are also muttering, It takes more time to make a good novel.

Well, yeah. It takes as long as it takes. However, if you were to, say, find a runaway horse in your back-forty meadow and decide to keep him and learn how to ride him in a show jumping competition someday (the equivalent of writing a novel you can sell), and if you had no one teaching you, you might take a lot more hours to become a rider than someone working with a top trainer. If you had a top trainer but you only rode once a week, rather than several hours every day, you would take years longer to become a rider. Many factors can delay that.

A few things can really help.


Writing a book means putting your Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. Hours of it. There’s no substitute.

Great Secret #1 that Published Authors are Keeping From You

Learning to write a novel means writing the whole novel. Starting doesn’t count. Getting to the middle doesn’t count. Until you’ve finished a novel, even if it’s just draft #1, there are things you didn’t know about writing that you will now know. Kind of like both you and the horse getting over the jump and you’re still on his back and he doesn’t hate you.

Great Secret #2 that Published Authors are Keeping From You

Another secret is that each book you write is better than your last book, exponentially better. Think how much better your fourth and sixth and tenth will be.

Editing – you need some

Nobody’s book is fit to publish straight off the keyboard. Whether you barter for editing services, pay an editor, or work with an editor at a publishing house, you need this. Everybody falls off the horse, even Olympic equestrians.

Okay, do all that again

If it takes you a year to write a novel from page one through The End, even just a first draft, then it will take you a minimum of six to eight years before you feel comfortable in the saddle, before you’re not panicking as you go over a jump.

If you write slower than that, especially if you’re a perfectionist – say it’s two years – then you will be working for a minimum of twelve years before you feel like you know how to write a novel. If you write one every four years, that means you could be second-guessing yourself for twenty-four years.


Ah, but what if you train? You can use productivity tricks and tools (available on the interwebs) to practice writing faster until you are faster. This will not happen by accident. That’s what “training” means – putting in the hours, tweaking, trying out tricks and techniques of the triathlete writers until you find what works for you. What if you can train up to two books a year? This means you’ll be comfy in the saddle in six years.

What if you really dedicate yourself, and you get to where you can write a book every three months? Every month? You will be ready for that show jumping competition in 18 months, in six months.

The author of six or eight books no longer panics over the jumps. When the author of 30 books goes to work, she is having fun with the fun problems. She’s not scratching her head, wondering what will make this blamed horse go.

Don’t kick yourself for not writing as fast or as well as a triathlete author. If you never work on those muscles, you’ll never get those muscles.

Great Secret #3 that Published Authors are Keeping From You

Those authors who write really fast? They’re laughing all the way to the bank.


Here are some places to learn how to train for writing fast. – there’s value in a schedule – Nanowrimo writing tools bundle – writing muscles
and my favorite: This excellent book is free if you sign up for Chris’s newsletter. Chris explains in detail how he trained to write 5,000 words an hour.

or…just Google “write faster” and be amazed at the resources.


This book just gushed out of me. It was the first I wrote of the Coed Demon Sluts series, even though it’s story number three, so it stands alone, and can be read without reading the preceding volumes. Melitta took two and a half months to draft. Man, I love when that happens. Book four, on the other hand, took forever. Oh, well.

You’re short, round and unpopular, oh and you are back for a fifth year of high school. Your mom is the school shrink and your stepfather is a predator. Things are looking up though, you just signed a deal with the devil. Melitta finds friends just when she needs them.The Sluts are the kind of friends you need when you are already in hell.

Get it right here at Book View Cafe, or at your favorite store.



Productivity and the author-athlete — 1 Comment

  1. It was Larry Niven who said that every writer has a million lousy words in her. She has to write those out, and then it starts to get good. Foolish young writers take this to mean that you can just write ANY million words. No! You have to work at it, write yourself six or eight really mediocre novels of more than a 100k, and then you start to get there.