What to Do When You Have No Idea What to Do


A writer friend of mine called me “prolific” recently. Well, he said I was more prolific than he is, but still.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it.


Um, yes? I am doing this trail? It’s scary?

I don’t feel prolific. I never have. I’ve always felt like I’m not doing enough. Whatever I’m doing, I could be doing more. I should be doing more.

I went to a self-publishing Meetup recently and there, too, someone I spoke to was wide-eyed at the mention that I’d written four novels.

“Well, then, you’re THERE! You’re already there!” he said.

But … I thought. More than twenty years of work. Most of them, working a full-time job and writing the rest of the time. Sort of, because, as guilty as I always feel, I have to take breaks. I have to have fun. I have to relax. I have to eat. (I hate that. Who wants to eat when there’s meaningful work to be done?)

Twenty-four years, and what have I earned from it? Four novels, rejected by approximately 30 agents each. Four novels, read by almost no one. (Not to mention the false starts — I have no idea how many of those there are — and the two that are still in progress.)

How can you say I’m there? Where? Where am I? And where do I go next?

If you’re feeling like that, too, I say to you: Hang on. Keep working. (I’m saying it to myself now, too.)

My first novel had a lot going for it, but the plot was a disaster I couldn’t save no matter what I did to it (I’m rewriting it). I worked on my second novel for way too long and got nothing but a lot of form rejections for it, so I made a plan to write the third in a year and did it in less than that. The response was mildly better. The fourth I’d already written most of previously; I sent it out here and there, to more nothing.

If I’m so there, what now? Do I spend another year planning and then writing and then revising and then polishing another novel that agents will form-reject?

Do I self-publish? A lot of people are enthusiastic about this.

I grew up in an era where self-publishing was for the guy who just wanted to make a book out of the bedtime stories he told his kids. Or for the braggart at the party who had no clue that no one was interested in his 200,000 word novel about a Darth Vader clone who takes over a planet in a faraway galaxy and feeds off the energy of the rabbit-like inhabitants.

I didn’t want to be that guy.

Self-publishing isn’t so much like that anymore; many writers make a fine living self-publishing. Hugh Howey has become especially well-known for championing this approach, and he’s come pretty close to convincing me on several occasions.

But that opens a whole other can of worms. I need an editor. Who to trust with that? How to find such a person?

(And when I do, will she tell me to rewrite a whole book? Again? Ow. And more ow.

How many times do you rewrite a book before you scrap it and write a new one? How many books do you write before you can get paid for it?

How many times do you put your poor heart back together after pounding the words out on four novels and having no one bat an eyelash??)

I’m drowning in every other thing besides writing. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing every day.

I want you to know that, so that you know that when you’re feeling that way, too, you’re not alone.

However, I’ve taught myself to deal pretty well. You want to know what I do?

I keep writing.

I shut out the world for at least one hour to an hour and a half every day and I write something. Sometimes it’s only my thoughts about where I’m at. Other days it’s hard thinking about the philosophical ideas behind being happy. Some days it’s saucy dialogue.

I keep writing, and I keep learning.

Hugh Howey recently posted that he had published 80,000 words already in July. It was only halfway through the month.

I asked him if they were any good.

At 1500 words every weekday, you’d be producing 7500 words for the week. I can meet that goal while working a full-time job, most days. When writing full-time, once I get into the rhythm, I hit between 3000-5000 words 5 days a week (as long as I do not much else).

Maximum weekly word count for me when writing full-time? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 words.

If I work on weekends, which I sometimes do, I might get another 1500. That’s a max of 19,500 in a week. So two weeks: 41K.

That’s a far cry short of 80K.

And those are first-draft words! I wouldn’t dream of publishing them. With some blog posts, I might do a quick, careful revision and go ahead. But some of the more in-depth posts have required multiple reads and some time to marinate before more revisions.

To me, 80,000 words in half a month is prolific. I doubt I will ever write that much or that fast.

It’s hard to tell; I’ve improved a lot in the last two years, and I write more now than I ever have in my life. But I don’t seem capable, at this point, of having multiple 5000-word days in a row. I get about one a week, and the others are 3000-word days.

Whatever word-count level it takes for you to describe someone as prolific, I don’t think that’s what matters.

The important thing is that I’m committed.

I know what matters to me.

I know what happens to my spirit when I devote most of my waking hours to busy work for someone else that doesn’t make a difference to me, work that has no meaning.

I know I hate working for other people. I know I hate working on someone else’s predetermined schedule.

I know I hate feeling like I am wasting time on something that doesn’t matter, when I have so much waiting for me that does.

I know what happens when I don’t write, when I start to feel like there might be no future for me in what I love to do.

I know that can’t be right. I know that if I feel like that’s what’s happening, I need to change it.

And that’s when I sit down and write.

That’s why I make myself write anywhere — in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, on the train on the way home from the day job, in the car on the way up to the mountains.

That’s why I research every possible method of making it easier for myself to sit down and focus and put words on the page, and then implement them.

Related: The Ultimate How-to Guide for Making Art While Having a Day Job or Going to School or Otherwise Having a Life

That’s why I follow other people who are doing what I do and remind myself that they have a start on the life I want, that they got it by putting themselves out there and risking, and that they don’t have to be perfect for people to want what they’re creating.

And neither do I.

Do your work today, and tomorrow, and every day this week that you need to. Don’t give up.

Maybe someday, when you least expect it, someone will call you prolific, too.

It is a small success, but I will take it.


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