Writing on a Budget

[December 2006] I have a strict and limited budget when it comes to writing.

I’m not talking about finances, however—I’m referring to a “temporal” budget. The number of hours in the day is fixed, and only a small fraction of them are available to me for writing and writing-associated tasks.

Monday through Friday, I get up at 5 a.m., check e-mail and message boards until 5:15 and then start working. I have slightly less than 90 minutes, until about 6:40, when I have to regroup and prepare for the rest of my day.

If my brain kicks into gear right at 5:15 and I don’t get sidetracked or don’t have to spend too much time cogitating, I can produce up to 1500 words during those 90 minutes. Some days I’m lucky to come away with 800-1000. On bad days, less still.

“Writing sessions” aren’t always devoted to writing fiction, though. Once every eight-to-ten weeks I have to turn in a 5000-word column to Cemetery Dance. That takes the better part of a week to produce, even if I’ve been diligent during the intervening weeks and made notes and bookmarked documents. Once a month I write one of these columns, which usually takes one session to draft and another to proof. Book reviews take at least one session to formulate and parts of one or two others to revise and polish.

There’s even more to the writing gig than that. Editing and revising fiction takes longer than writing it, in my experience. Story research can consume an inordinate amount of time. Then there’s the whole process of finding markets, preparing manuscripts, writing cover letters, stuffing envelopes (literal or virtual), documenting submissions (to avoid resending a story to a market a year after they’ve rejected it), recording and tracking expenses, etc.

Beyond that, there are work-related duties. Answering fan mail, which I always try to handle as quickly as possible. Responding to requests for information or assistance. Requesting information or assistance. Reviewing proofs. Signing books for fans or signature sheets for publishers. Performing routine computer maintenance, anti-virus and spyware scans, and backups.

It all takes time—just like the little incidentals in life take money—and the budget, as I said, is limited. Occasionally, something unexpected arises that throws the budget into disarray. The refrigerator dies and needs to be replaced. The car breaks down and requires expensive repairs. Though rewarding, NaNoWriMo was a drain on my temporal budget because I devoted all my energy to a single project for nearly a month. Almost all other obligations piled up, like bills on a spindle.

Then along comes an unstructured weekend, which is like getting a surprise bonus, or finding $20 in your pants pocket while you’re doing the laundry. Though these temporal bonuses can be a boon, I often don’t get as much done as I’d hoped. I do better within a structured timeframe, I find. It’s easy to squander that windfall of spare time. There are always a hundred things to do, and I don’t always get to the big stack of figurative bills on that metaphorical metal spike.

No doubt I’m preaching to the choir. Any writers reading this essay know full well what a precious commodity time is. I’ve heard some readers carp when their favorite author decides he or she can no longer respond to fan mail, preferring to concentrate on his or her writing instead. These disgruntled fans assume that an author who writes full time must have scads of spare time to surf the internet, read fan mail, post on message boards, etc. I can’t address that situation with the voice of experience, but I suspect that if you ramp the writing up to full time, all the other associated obligations expand proportionately. You spend more hours editing, researching, marketing, handling the business of writing, etc.

I believe that most of us would prefer to be able to spend all of our writing time writing. I don’t think many of us would agree with Dorothy Parker when she said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” Sure, we all get a sense of accomplishment when something is done and we can look back proudly on the fruits of our labors. But what do we think about in the next moment? Getting back at it. Tackling that next new idea. Anticipating the feeling of our fingertips grazing across the surface of the keyboard. Channeling thoughts, scenes, ideas, situations, people onto the glowing screen before us, and summoning that inexplicable magic which allows creativity to flow through us.

Time spent like that has no equal, at least not in any other part of the writing business.

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