Writing can often be a daunting task, yet so many authors seem to do it well. They manage to churn out 70,000 word novels every year, and sales figures indicate that audiences like their stories. On the other end of the spectrum are ordinary people (like me)–people whose longest piece of writing was probably a research paper they wrote in high school or college–and that’s maybe 3,000 or 4,000 words at the most. The idea of tackling a writing project over ten times this size understandably can seem impossible (this site gives a breakdown of the word counts of several famous books–an interesting tangential topic).
But it’s not impossible. Obviously there are multiple reasons that a writer becomes successful, but one piece of advice stands out in particular, wisdom I learned from a writer named John R. Erickson in his book Story Craft (who, regardless of what you think of the literary merit of his Hank the Cowdog books, has an excellent no-nonsense understanding of writing as a profession). Erickson’s advice is this:
producers can’t be consumers
To put Erickson’s advice another way, those who successfully create can’t consume large amounts of what other people create.
In my own experience this principle has proved true. When I find myself at a loss for words it is usually because I’ve spent my time surfing the web or (more likely) watching movies or TV shows. These activities seem to drive out original thought as they are a mostly passive experience. This sounds counterintuitive, I know—in order to write well, stop listening to other stories? That sounds crazy! Yet I think Erickson makes an important point here—silencing outside voices allows us to find our own voice. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it gives us the time to actually sit down and write.
Is this principle of consumer/producer always true? Well, no. That would be silly, but this emphasis can be helpful in counteracting natural tendencies…the real question becomes: do I have the time to be both an avid consumer and fruitful producer? In the end, there is a balance to be made…
Perhaps this is what holds many writers back. I think that there are hundreds if not thousands of stories in people’s heads on this very day that, if realized, would exceed the best work of the most sterling published author of today. But I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, because the successful writer isn’t the one who has the best idea; the successful writer can only be the one who finishes his idea. And the one who finishes is often the one who makes time to complete his work, the one who produces (bountifully!) and doesn’t consume (gluttonously!).
Note: In my introduction when I mentioned word counts I did not mean to imply that a writer should be overly concerned with how long a story is. I remember writing stories when I was younger where I would attempt to make the story as long as possible…for the sake of being able to say that the story was “x” pages long. This attitude tends to produce junk. The proper worry of writers shouldn’t be length but characters and plot instead…but that’s a tale for another day!