I just finished a second 55,000 word novel in six months and sent it off to my editor. In addition to the writing, this five months included Christmas and trips and some sickness. To my surprise, the quality of the last book was considerably better written than anything I’ve done in a while. I was expecting the opposite because it had been written when I was very tired.
But then I remembered some advice I heard years ago from Jane Yolen that helped explain it. She spoke to a group of us in San Antonio at a writer’s retreat weekend.
Telling It Like It Is
At the retreat/workshop, award-winning writer Jane Yolen made a statement that stunned the group of fourteen published writers who attended. Before the workshop, Jane had read and critiqued chapters submitted by each writer.
When she handed back the critiqued manuscripts, she said (paraphrased), “Half of you here have as much talent as I do. About one-fourth of you probably have more talent than I do.” (Imagine fourteen mouths dropping open in disbelief.) “But,” Jane added, looking around the circle of writers, “I guarantee you that I write more than any of you.”
Quantity AND Quality
She claimed it was a big key to her immense success. If we wanted to grow as writers, she advised us to write every single day, even for just half an hour, and for two reasons. One was to keep our minds immersed in our writing projects. The second—the most important to me—was that daily writing should improve the quality of our writing.
I had signed up for the workshop, hoping to find the “magic key” I needed to bring my writing up a notch or two. And there it was: write more. If you want to bring your writing up to the next level, write more. If you want to improve in your handling of the English language and all its creative components, write more. If you want to publish more, fall in love with writing again, and feel like a “real writer,” write more.
How Much and When?
The workshop weekend also included a private 15-minute critique with Jane. We were allowed to ask anything we liked. Among other things, I wanted to know her writing schedule—especially as I knew from her online journal that she traveled extensively to speak and she was (like most mothers and grandmothers) very involved with her family.
Come to find out, Jane does write a lot—and read a lot—but it wasn’t some horrendous schedule like ones I’d heard about. I had half expected another “I get up at 3 a.m. and write for twelve hours, seven days a week” explanation for her prolific output. But that wasn’t the case.
She got to her desk at a decent time, maybe around 8 or 9, did some email and checked a few things, then got to work. If my memory is correct, she said she worked till mid-afternoon or so on those days she was home to write. She wasn’t a hermit though—she frequently had meetings and dinners with friends.
She travels to speak many days out of the average month. She deals with family and life issues like everyone else. Still, I believed her statement about writing more than all of us was probably true. She has a huge number of published books of the highest award quality to show for it.
Start Where You Are
Sure, many of us can’t write five hours every day. There are full-time day jobs, children and grandchildren underfoot, sick parents to care for, etc. But to improve in our writing, we all need to start somewhere. We’re just talking about writing more. Writing more for you might be increasing from two hours per week to three, or increasing daily writing time by fifteen minutes.
So what’s the big deal about writing more? Well, it’s been shown that more hours spent writing equals more quantity equals better quality. “Writing more” certainly produces more quantity: more stories, articles, books, plays. But I think the often overlooked “plus” of writing more is that your quality goes up.
In the month after the workshop, I wrote more “new words” and did more revising than probably in the previous six months. The drafts got cleaner, and descriptive language started to flow, with less effort on my part. (Sometimes it even surprised me, since similes and metaphors have never come willingly to my typing fingers.)
I hope to get closer and closer to Jane’s advice about writing every day. As Susan Shaughnessy says in Walking on Alligators, “Writers are those who write…Days off are deadly. One follows another, and all too soon fears creep back in. Nothing is as easily delayed as writing.”
Although my next deadline has more breathing room in it, I want to keep writing at a good clip. I like what is has produced. And I especially liked the realization about half-way through this period that I had fallen in love with writing again. That’s worth about a million dollars!