SAVE THE BULLSHIT EXCUSES

The following post contains a single swear, just like the title, repeated over and over. It is intended for audiences that aren’t afraid of swears. If you are afraid of swears, stop reading now, though we both know that’s just a bullshit excuse for not reading the rest of the post.

In the past I’ve seen people give the worst possible advice to authors, something along these lines: “Make sure you have a quiet, safe, comfortable place set aside in which to write, a sanctum sanctorum, a Fortress of Solitude into which the outside world would not even dare intrude. Make sure you’re always wearing the same socks, that it’s an even numbered day, and . . .”

For the love of all that’s holy, no.

If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a writer and you’re not writing, and are not currently undergoing major surgery, you’re not writing as a result of what I lovingly refer to as a bullshit excuse.

Bullshit excuses come in many forms. “It’s not quiet enough,” is a popular favorite. “I can really only write at night,” is one I used to tell myself. That’s all bullshit, of course. If you’re a writer you can write anywhere, at any time of day, under all but the most horrendous conditions . . . or at least you should.

I once got a novel submission from a prisoner in a Texas penitentiary who told me that he can’t write very fast because the prison is very noisy, but, “I have a lot of time. I have nine years.” And you’re not writing because your desk is dusty?

One of the biggest differences between a writer and a successful writer is how prolific you are. Writing is something you improve at with age and experience, and not just life experience (though that helps, and you can bet there will be a blog posting soon detailing why old farts like me are smarter than young farts like you), I mean experience actually writing: sitting down and typing a word, following it with another word, then another, and maybe a few more until you’ve formed a sentence—and hopefully a sentence that no one else has ever formed before and that works perfectly with all the other unique sentences around it. This is the craft of writing. The art comes from the ether, or from God, or from whatever source you decide based on your level of magical thinking, but the craft comes from doing it, and if you aren’t doing it, you’re not a writer, you’re an Idea Man, and the world has too many of those. What we need are people who can put those ideas into action.

Remember, no one is buying you, they’re buying your writing. If you’re lucky.

Lest you think I’m all preachy or anything, please be advised that I am no stranger to the bullshit excuse. In fact, I’m a bullshit excuse master. For years, while I was working in retail but was “really” a “writer,” I would write a page or two every month, at my desk, which I had to dust and organize first, but only after lunch, and only when I had a day off in the middle of the week and my wife was at work so the apartment was silent and the lamp was in exactly the right place and all the planets were aligned, and so on. Needless to say, I have very little to actually show from this period but the first five or six chapters of a novel I eventually finished, years later. I wrote the rest of the book in about two months, having spent eight years or so on the first quarter of it.

How did I do that?

I did it by shaving off at least the top few layers of bullshit excuses. After all, I was really only fooling myself. That novel remains unpublished, though I still think it has potential. No one was waiting for it. It was entirely up to me to write it or not and for years I decided not to, then covered that up with, yes, you guessed it, bullshit excuses.

Then the transformative moment:

I was tapped to write the novelization of the computer game Baldur’s Gate. I got the news the week before Halloween, and the first draft was due the week before Christmas. I was staring in the face of a can’t-be-blown deadline overseen by not just my editor, but the bosses of my “day job,” which had gone from retail to publishing, and so there I was, in a position that demanded results. I was not allowed to fail, so I didn’t.

I started writing.

While my daughter, who was only four or five at the time, was still awake.

While my wife was watching TV about three feet away.

And yes, while there was a thin layer of dust on the desktop.

It was a revelation. After all, I’d been working for about a year by then in a cubicle at Wizards of the Coast, across from the very noisy periodicals crew. I won’t mention Dave Gross, Larry Smith, Jesse Decker, or Pierce Waters by name because that would be indiscrete, but they talked to each other all day, sometimes even about work stuff, and I either kept editing or blew all my deadlines.

Thanks to them, and many others, and my utter hatred of blowing deadlines, I developed the ability to tune out my environment and work. And the book, for better or worse, was done on time.

Then the next revelation: the laptop computer.

My first was one of those goofy first generation iBooks—orange because they were all out of the blue ones. My old boss Mary Kirchoff once told me she thought it looked like a smashed pumpkin. It did, but it worked, and with that, any last shred of habit was stripped away. All of a sudden I was writing in hotel rooms while traveling on business, or on the couch at home instead of the uncomfortable chair at the computer desk that was pushed up against the wall so I couldn’t stretch out my bad knee. I was writing at coffee houses, at the library, wherever I wanted, and I wrote like a freakin madman. Novel after novel, screenplay after screenplay, all sorts of stuff, and dead-on deadline, thank you very much.

So now I find myself in a period, maybe just a little burned out, where I need to remind myself of this. A deadline looms, and energy ebbs low. My new PowerBook is old already and starting to show the inevitable signs of approaching obsolescence, but Word still runs, so so much for that bullshit excuse.

But I’ll miss Weeds.

That’s what DVR is for. If you like TV, and need to write, make sure you have DVR. With DVR, TV is on your schedule, not the other way around. One more bullshit excuse down the drain.

I don’t have my notes? But I wrote the notes, and the outline, on my laptop. If I have my laptop, I have my notes and my outline, and in more and more places free Wi-Fi for that last minute online research. Bullshit excuses falling like autumn leaves.

And now, having written this, I’m down one more bullshit excuse, and maybe the biggest bullshit excuse of all. Now everyone, including my editor (hi, Peter) knows I’ve been feeding myself bullshit excuses. And now I’ve told the world, so that means I have to write, and I have to write with the kids and the dog and the wife and the Sea Monkeys around. At night and in the daytime, in the sun and in the rain. I have to write, because I’m a writer, and a professional at that. I took an advance, and agreed to a deadline. I am of sound mind and body. My notes and outline are on my laptop, which works fine.

So that’s it. Back to work, after satisfying one last bullshit excuse:

I had to come up with blog content for Tuesday!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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