From the title you might be thinking, Oh, here’s the post where Phil tells us to write longhand. But no, this is not that post. I don’t write longhand and I don’t think you should write longhand either, unless you want to write in longhand and then you really should, as long as that’s getting you actually writing.

What this post is about are those moments while writing that you aren’t actually touching keys or a pen or whatever it is you use to write with.

To an uneducated observer this could easily appear to be you staring blankly off into space.

To an uneducated observer about an hour ago I would have been wrapping a nickel in a little yellow Post-It.

Then you rub it and rub it until you can see President Jefferson.

Then you rub it and rub it until you can see President Jefferson.

To an educated observer we’re both writing our asses off.

Hunter S. Thompson famously told his editors something along the lines of “It’s all done, I just have to type it up.”

That might be stretching it a bit but what I’m talking about here is thinking. And even though I just said (again) that you should write as fast as you can (for your rough draft) this is not contradictory advice. There is a difference between writing fast, not writing at all, and pausing to think.

For most people, the word “pause” indicates a short period of not doing anything, but far be it from me to define the exact parameters of “short.”

What inspired me to write this today is that I just spent the better part of an hour with the Word file for this ghostwriting project (a novel you’ll never know I had anything to do with) up on my screen while I wrapped a nickel in a little yellow Post-It, listened to a good portion of Marc Maron’s interview with Terry Gross, examined the retro SF art on my desktop in great detail, stood up and walked around in circles in my bedroom pausing once or twice to look out the window at nothing . . . but the whole time my brain was clicking along.

I wrote one sentence, know pretty clearly where I was going, but needed to get that next line and it refused to appear until some of these little moments were used up. Then I went right back at it and will finish this book today.

What I didn’t do is start working on something else. I left Facebook closed, too. I didn’t let my brain get focused on something else. Instead I spent that time trying to see the scene I needed to write play out in my head like a movie.

This is something I do a lot—imagine it actually happening in front of me then try to describe it in words as fast as I can. I don’t always write that way, but it works for me. Sometimes that scene plays out fast, at least in its first iteration. But today it took a little longer.

What I’ve learned to do when that happens is to play it out. As busy as I am with multiple projects, I let myself have that hour, not because I’m lazy but because I just needed it, and I don’t need it all the time—not most of the time, even, at least for that long—but that time is part of it. That’s productive time. That’s writing time.


—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 Writing Monsters. 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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  1. morgynstarz says:

    Huh. Just plain, Huh. Contemplating, which would I prefer? Rubbing nickles for my own work or someone else’s? And this is where the so called day job becomes something less offensive? Huh.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Believe me, when your day job and your dream job collide they end up making something new, weird, and very cool.

  2. Jeff Garvin says:

    Love this post. Thanks for writing it.

  3. I do this all the time—I’m stuck in a chapter now and it’s because I need to step away from the keyboard and ask myself “and then what happened?”

  4. Pingback: FOLLOWING UP | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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