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Monday, September 5, 2016

Writing Through Hurricanes, Grumpy Spouses, And Maniacal Bosses: Finding Your Default Self

 [The following blog was first published at mylifemybooksmyescape on  Monday Aug. 29th, 2016.]

The universe is trying to keep you from writing. It will throw all manner of distraction and chaos at you, bind you with obligations--girlfriends who cry neglect, boyfriends who threaten to step out on your monogamy, bosses who insist that your not getting the work done in 40 hours is your fault not the workload. You will try to reason with the universe, work out a mutual arrangement where you borrow three hours here and two hours there to ply your craft--but the universe is a fickle bitch that knows full well you need uninterrupted blocks of time with which to craft your tales--time to let your story ferment and then time for revisions. You need a thousand hours to write two hundred decent pages. Lie to the universe, steal the time you need, sacrifice personal pleasure and socializing, and then maybe...maybe, you will have a story of note at the end of the run.

Writing fiction as a way to make a living is a dwindling vocation. Very few novelists actually make their living off their books. The clear majority of authors have day jobs. In the age of Amazon and the ever-shrinking margins for talent, writing is not a vocation for someone without a passion for it. By the time my trilogy for Tor books is done, I will have earned less than minimum wage for the time I put into producing the story, not to mention promoting it. But for those of you who accept the calling, I relay to you my experiences here, and hopefully there's a gram of wisdom that you can put toward your own ends.

Your Default Self

I believe we all have a default self that will reassert itself when we're away from work or other obligations. You lose yourself when you are working too hard to achieve other people's goals and expectations. For any artist, that default self is the ideal for creativity. This holds true even for those who work in an artistic field. I used to be a colorist for Marvel Comics. After a few years, the process became rote to me. I became more concerned with efficiency. Colorists are the last leg in the comic book assembly line, and books are often late at that point, so a one-week process gets turned into two days, or in many cases overnight jobs. And that's when it became just a job. I had lost my default self, which included the part of me that drew for pleasure, for pushing the envelope. I went back to school in 1996 to get my BA in English literature and stopped working for three years. A few months into my first semester, I had found my passion again, and used it to write and draw a daily comic strip called Wannabees for our paper, The Targum. I got paid nothing, but enjoyed it more than the work for which I got paid my last few months coloring for Marvel. In a world making demands on you, there are three things you can manipulate to access your default self: time, space, and social relationships.


Time is your most valuable resource. Ironically, as I sit here writing this blog, my newborn daughter is in the bedroom, making the noises I'm hardwired to recognize as "hold me" and "change my diapers." My wife is in the kitchen next to me grabbing a snack and talking about the kid and the day's activities to me as I type. My time for fiction writing has been whittled down to a precious nub. You need time to stay active in your genre--to read, primarily, but also watch the shows and movies that inspire your own passions. You need to connect with fellow writers and consumers of your genre in real time to stay relevant. Secondly, you need time to execute your story because all the great ideas in the world will avail you naught if you don't put words to paper. The value of this resource is never appreciated when you are young and single. Only when you're working fifty hours a week and in a serious relationship do you realize what is gone, and you will long for it.

I wrote Awakenings when I was still single and able to finish the first draft in about one year's writing time, spaced out, though, over three calendar years because I succumbed to distractions: friends who wanted to go to Atlantic City for the weekend, baptisms, graduations, weddings, Yankees games, rock concerts. Life is to be lived after all, right? When I curtailed that, the ball really started to roll on the manuscript. I stopped going away for three-day weekends, because those were an opportunity to get an extra day of writing in. I noticed soon enough that my writing on Monday was the fastest and most lucid. Having written for hours the two days prior, my vocabulary was its sharpest and my rhythms most natural. Writing is subject to the exponential effects of doing it. The more you do it, the more naturally it comes to you and the better the writing.

It is crucial to create uninterrupted blocks of time. When I got laid off in December 2001, I had three weeks before starting on a new job in January. I wrote every single day including weekends. It was the easiest writing had ever been for me, no longer distracted by either school or employment. I managed to polish off three chapters--and they were good. Those pages needed fewer revisions than the usual batch. I began using my vacation time strategically, butting them against three-day weekends to create blocks of five or six days with which to do nothing but write. I would sequester myself away and turn down trips to Cape Cod or Atlantic City with friends. I had no publishing contract at the time, only the belief that I was as good a novelist as the published authors I read. I can't stress enough how important this is. A few days away from your job lets your default self emerge and then that version of you will run with the ball. If you can't manage it in the initial writing of your draft (because of work or family constraints) then try to find it in one of the revision stages; it works as well.


I envy those who can plop down at any table at Starbucks and just start writing. Coffee houses are brimming with millennials doing just that. I could probably write a term paper or study for an exam that way, but writing a novel requires sacred space. This point was driven home for me when I visited Ernest Hemingway's House in Key West. He had his own separate writing room outside of the main house, above the pool house. It was a true man space, books and tobacco pipes, hunter trophies...but it was more so a writer's space tailored to a specific type of writer. It was where Hemingway could hear himself think. Even writers noted for working at a pub likely had an arrangement with the patrons and bartenders that when they were at their typewriter, they were not to be approached. A sacred area can be an entire room or an area as small as your chair and desk, but it is a valuable tool to accessing your default self and the writer within.

The writing of a story, whether commissioned or not, is a professional act. All professionals have a workspace. A painter is going to manipulate his environment to get the best light. A musician is going to find a studio that produces the best sounds. Since a writer works with words, which are an extension of his or her thoughts, he/she must find a comfort zone that allows the mind to tap into memories, and freedom to experiment with prose and poetry. A writer's environment is focused on the mind.

When I was single and living alone, my apartment had a small bedroom, which I used as my art studio for my Marvel work. However, I never felt comfortable writing there. Turns out my kitchen was more comfortable. It overlooked a garden and the southern exposure brought in plenty of warm light in the day, and because it was in the back of the building, it was insulated from street noise. I wrote Awakenings and The Lost Prince in that kitchen. When I moved into a new apartment with my fiancée three years ago, I picked the bedroom with the best sunlight for my office. When living with someone, you can't use public spaces as a creative area because it's not fair to them, but more importantly, it's not best for you. The ideal is a door to shut the world out and be alone with your thoughts. Some people are happy working in a basement, others the attic. The only thing that matters is that your space put you in touch with your default self. Your tools for writing should be close at hand. Also, don't sully the space with your job stuff. When my company allowed us to work from home, I made sure never to work from my Mac or writing space. I used the company computer in a different area of the room or somewhere else in the house entirely. This might seem silly to some, but work tends to stress people out. If you do your office work in your creative area, you are 1) spending more time in that space and becoming tired of it; 2) Stressing out in that space and leaving that residual negative energy there. You're going to connect the frustration with that space. Allow nothing to pollute your creative area. Keep the energy of that area pure.

Social Environment

Your friends and choice of companion are going to affect your ability to write. You need to surround yourself with people who are supportive and especially those who will push you to be a better writer. I have been blessed to have many creative people in my circle. I am also lucky to have a wife that admires that I am a writer. There's a great story about the director James Cameron when he was a truck driver and told his first wife he wanted to be a movie director. She thought he was crazy and would not move to Hollywood with him. They divorced. The rest is history. A lesser man might have stayed home, and we'd never have Terminator, Aliens, Avatar, or Titanic. Your significant other will have a profound effect on your creativity, including keeping a safe harbor for your default self at home. Don't tie your fortunes to someone needy...someone who sucks the energy out of you. Vampires are real and they kill artists.

Having a supportive partner does not mean you will never have friction when it comes to your creative time. Some artists, like comics legends Walter and Louise Simonson, are very lucky in that they've married someone in the same field and have an intimate understanding of their partner's creative needs. Outside of that dynamic, there will be times when your spouse thinks you ought to be doing more around the house. Non-artistic partners are usually not aware of how disruptive interruptions are to your thought process. They think story writing is like your work job. Don't hold it against them. Try to communicate how important time is to your needs. Most will work with you. 

All married couples have disagreements, and your art is not exempt from being the cause of a fight. What is personal and vital to you is just another project that takes time away from your significant other. This becomes more true when you have children. It is important that you agree in advance on a specific block of time for your creativity. For me it has been Sunday mornings. I awake at 7:00 am and can write undisturbed until about 3:00 pm, after which my time returns to the family (because there are always chores to be done when you are married). I can assure you that I never missed this window as I tried to finish book three of my Guardians of Aandor series. (Happy to say that Blood of Ten Kings is finally done.) However, earlier this year I realized one day a week would not be enough to get the novel finished in time and I asked my wife to let me have Saturday mornings as well. I was writing about 14 hours a weekend, in addition to putting in a 55-hour workweek. I am grateful to my wife for her patience, especially as she was pregnant with our first child and we had many projects to finish before the birth. Hanging out with friends at the pub became a thing of the past. There just aren't enough hours in the week for that unless you're twenty-five, single and have a forty-hour job. If you are one of those lucky people, and you want to write fiction, don't squander your advantage.  It does not last.

Artists have to experiment to find what works for them, but I hope some of these tidbits of wisdom will prove useful. I haven't quite reached Stephen King's level of success yet and am fairly accessible to anyone interested in my writing, so feel free to contact me on Twitter or through my Guardians of Aandor Facebook page if you have any questions. Good luck to all you budding young writers. 

Edward Lazellari is the author of the Guardians of Aandor fantasy series from Tor Books.

These books are available at

 Book 3, Blood of Ten Kings, Coming Soon

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