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Seriously Unproductive

I may be having my best year as a writer. The problem is, I feel terribly unproductive.

Homer-SimpsonTo really understand this would probably require far more psycho-analyzing than is healthy. So let me just describe the symptoms. Earlier this year (February 2013), I finished an Urban Fantasy novel tentatively entitled Reagan Moon & The Ghost Box, which my agent is currently shopping. I immediately started in on a non-fiction memoir project, which I should have complete by the end of this year. Both projects, I believe, are my best writing to date.

Problem is… I have nothing to show for my work. Nothing published, that is. And I may not for a while. I mean, even if one — or both! — of the projects get picked up soon, I realistically wouldn’t expect them to be published until 2015.

Which seems like SO far away.

Of course, I could treat this “condition” rather quickly by simply self-publishing. However, I’m still beholden to the old model, believing that having an established publisher with a broader reach foot the bill for my stuff is the ideal way to go. So even if I do decide to self-publish, that would come after we shop the books around. Meaning that a self-published project probably wouldn’t happen until closer to 2015 anyway.

It makes 2013 look seriously unproductive.

Perhaps it’s my works-orientated nature that undermines any sense of satisfaction. I like to see results and — blast it! — writing books is not the best profession if you want to see immediate results. Sure, I did manage to squeeze out one self-published volume of short stories this year, which makes me not a complete sluggard. But here’s a little secret — that was slight of hand. Those stories were already written!

Making 2013 look seriously unproductive.writers-quote

Writers are peculiarly prone to this malady. If you think about it, writing is unlike most careers.  At the end of the day, a painter can stand back and admire his watercolor seascape, a plumber can calculate the number of faucets that no longer drip, and the landscaper can stand under the shade tree, mop his brow, and appreciate the lawn he just manicured. But apart from actually publishing stuff, the writer’s life can seem seriously unproductive. Character arc. Plot development. Points of View. Narrative modes. Dialog and Pacing. Beginnings and Ends. These are the concerns of the average writer.

And they’re often very hard to quantify.

A “productive” day for a writer might be rearranging scenes, deciding that first person POV won’t work, and realizing that your villain just isn’t bad enough. A daycare worker can at least calculate the number of poopy diapers they changed. The writer does not have that luxury. In fact, as I look upon my 2013, the diaper pail is empty. So to speak.

All that to say, I’ve been feeling a little glum lately. Not because I haven’t been writing, but because I haven’t been publishing. Then again, I can’t publish unless I write. And I can’t write well, if I don’t slow down. But if I slow down, I don’t publsih enough.

Which makes me feel seriously unproductive.

Anything I can take for this?

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Becky Minor September 5, 2013, 6:46 AM

    I think this syndrome is why we tell each other our word counts. But the problem is, once you’re out of the rough draft phase, that tactic no longer works, really–and when you’re in the trenches of the really hard work of writing (revising), it’s very hard to quantify your productivity. And for nobody authors like me, you might not even be able to look at sales for the sake of some satisfaction.

    Not sure what you should take, but I’m pretty sure if you figure it out, you could start a new income stream selling it to other authors.

  • Jessica Thomas September 5, 2013, 7:15 AM

    “Meaning that a self-published project probably wouldn’t happen until closer to 2015 anyway.”

    Bah! Why do you feel beholden to a tyrannical model? Here’s my little pill for your malaise: “Git on it, Mr. Duran.” You don’t have to wait that long to self publish something.

    • Mike Duran September 5, 2013, 8:12 AM

      Right now, I still see self-publishing as a second option. I’d have to be convinced that for those projects, self-publishing would be a better fit. I’m open to persuasion. I suggest 2015 only b/c I would shop trad pub first. But you’re right:if I made the decision to self-pub I could do so by year’s end.

  • Mary Potter Kenyon September 5, 2013, 8:32 AM

    God’s timing is not our own. Can you remind yourself of this daily? I began a book about the history of the cultural phenomenon of couponing in July of 2009, with encouragement from an extremely supportive spouse who was worrying about me because I was stressing over an unsold cancer/caregiving memoir. I began the book, but abandoned it for several months while I continued to shop around that cancer book. In March of 2010, my husband once again encouraged me to pick up that couponing book. I stuck the cancer book in a file drawer and concentrated on the couponing book. He watched me go through a dissatisfying relationship with an agent, all the while encouraging and supporting me. My biggest supporter and partner in life died in March of 2012. All of a sudden, everything was put into perspective: The worst had happened. I’d lost my best friend and biggest supporter. Everything else seemed insignificant in comparison. I had to turn to God and start listening, and let him guide me in my writing life. God had a plan for me all along. I signed a book contract, sans agent, in October and my book, “Coupon Crazy” came out in August. And that cancer/caregiving book, which is really about marriage? The same publisher will publish “Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage” in April of 2014. Next fall, “Refined By Fire” (about grief in the first year) will be published. All of this in God’s timing, not my own. Three loved ones go on before me in the space of three years: my mother, my husband, and recently, an eight-year-old grandson. Three books published in the space of eighteen months. Who would even have imagined? God’s timing, Mike. He has a plan for you and your books…

    • Mike Duran September 5, 2013, 8:49 AM

      Wow! Thanks for sharing your story, Mary. And for the encouraging reminder. Congrats on your upcoming books.

  • Bob Avey September 5, 2013, 10:58 AM

    I struggle daily, and have for years, with the concept of why I keep putting myself through the process of being, or trying to be a successful writer. I’ve been around the writing world long enough to remember how writers used to dream of publishing contracts. And I often wonder what the future holds, with Mega Online Retailer, who set everyone free, quickly gaining monopolistic rights. Many of Mega Online Retailer’s publishing options already require agented only material. Could the publishing world be reverting back? And with only one place — hypothetically speaking of course — to sell your work, could it end up being much worse than before the e-book revolution?
    Just something to think about.

  • Kat Heckenbach September 5, 2013, 1:50 PM


    I have been feeling exactly the same way. I felt SO productive in my first years of writing, because I was kicking out short stories–which were getting published all over–and editing Finding Angel like a fiend. Then FA released, and the short story writing had to get pushed aside so I could focus on marketing (bleh) and writing Seeking Unseen…and now they’re both out, and all I’ve gotten done in 2013 is finishing a novel I started way back and working on another novella that will be published who-freaking-knows-when. (And procrastinating on finishing the third book in my series, and continuing my hate-affair with marketing.)

    I pulled the sleight of hand thing, too, by self-pubbing a couple of longer short stories written some time ago, so I know how that feels, too. Although, I would describe the way I’ve been feeling is “like a faker” instead of “unproductive.” Not because I haven’t done anything, but because, as you said, I have nothing to show for it–nothing new published that is actually new writing. And as Becky Minor said, the sales thing. It’s making me lose motivation to finish the things I actually have worked on because it seems like so, so far away that it will finally mean something, and in the meantime I’m going to fade into obscurity :P.

    Thanks for sharing, Mike. Not that I’m glad you’re glum, but it is nice to know I’m not the only feeling this way.

  • Katherine Coble September 5, 2013, 2:12 PM

    Folks, I’m sorry you’re glum. I really am.

    But you need to get out of report card mode. Praise does not equal productivity. Toiling away in quiet obscurity is how most people live their lives.

    It also puts you at odds with other writers who have different models of creativity. Because what you are saying is that without the validation of a published work the writing is unproductive.

    Writing is not bricklaying. You are not better at it or more productive if you have more bricks/books laid down. Writing is a craft, a discipline, a pattern of mind. I’ve read an awful lot of junk books by writers who were really “productive”, churning out five books a year. The best books I’ve ever read, bar none, are the books that took their authors multiple years to finish–sometimes as long as a decade.

    Now I’m not saying you can’t write a good book in a short time. You can and many of you have. Nevertheless a book is a thing that happens in its own course. Turn down the part of your mind that says you have to have a shelf full of published work to matter and turn up the part of your mind that says anything worth doing is worth doing well. Focus on that. Learn to be internally validated instead of externally validated. You’ll have a happier life and need much fewer pills, drinks, candy bars.

    • Kat Heckenbach September 5, 2013, 3:28 PM

      Maybe “obscurity” isn’t the right word–I’m not equating productivity with fame.

      And even though I know my validation *should* come internally, it’s just not that simple. I really, honestly, don’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t like this when I was writing Finding Angel. I felt so productive–before I got published. Now, it feels like I’ve committed myself to a job, and the only way I know I’m doing that job well is by seeing some finished products, and knowing that those finished products are doing what they ought to be doing, which is pleasing readers, for which the only indicators are sales numbers and reviews, which can only come with the work getting published. IOW, vicious cycle.

    • Kevin Lucia September 7, 2013, 5:00 PM

      THIS. To infinity. Which I have to remember after getting the next rejection…

      • C.L. Dyck September 7, 2013, 11:59 PM

        Yep. This is what makes me question if I want to live with the publishing/writing/waiting cycle. I’ve been in the wait mode for a couple of years (or a lot longer, depending on how I measure it) and the wheel-spinning feeling is getting to me.

        I guess it leaves me wondering if the job I’ve committed to–the writing side, the editing’s going to be there till the biz landscape changes–is worth the time it takes from other things.

        It’s not about a report card, it’s about, am I doing what’s best with the finite time I have in this life, and how do I measure that with a family and a bunch of other competing commitments in the balance.

  • Sherry Thompson September 5, 2013, 3:02 PM

    We’re all authors but we’re also individuals. In my opinion that means every last one of us evaluates our “productivity” in slightly different ways. Just to complicate that scenario, our measuring rod for productivity may change radically over time.

    Consider an award-winning author who has written a dozen books in say twenty years. Once, way far back, they thought themselves “productive” when they finished their first first draft–or just their first chapter. Today, twenty years later, do they feel unproductive because they still can’t manage to write a book a year? Their readers may think so since they want the next book to come out yesterday. ;-D

    As for me, thanks be to God, I flew through creating the first drafts of my first two books. (IMHO, I had help.) I still feel fairly productive while writing say the first four fifths of a new book. (That’s where I tend to stall.)

    But, like you Mike, finishing a manuscript is no longer my productivity measure. You see it as when the book you finished writing last year appears on Amazon or in a brick-and-mortar. My measuring rod is a variant of that: knowing I’m actually being -read-.

    Good luck and God bless with finding that publisher!

  • GEOFF WRIGHT September 5, 2013, 3:42 PM

    Hey Mike! I’ve been writing for ten years and still don’t have anything published. Just two novels under contract with a small publishing house. So from my perspective, you’ve done heaps!

  • Jill September 6, 2013, 4:29 PM

    I understand exactly how you feel. My advice would be to look at your publishing as a whole, rather than viewing it in pieces. What have you accomplished? You’ve published two books by a traditional press and self-published a novella and a group of short stories. Then you proceeded to write what sounds like a completely different kind of fiction, as well as a memoir, both of which your agent is trying to sell. And then you have this blog. I’d say you’ve accomplish A LOT. So why not self-publish a new novella while you wait?

  • D.M. Dutcher September 7, 2013, 5:28 PM

    You have to measure productivity by what you can do, not by what you can’t. It’s a writer thing to blame themselves first, I think, for what essentially is a market problem. In my eyes you are doing fine, and keep persevering.

  • Lyn Perry September 8, 2013, 5:34 AM

    Something about the whole premise didn’t click with me until I realized what was missing – I don’t know you’re ultimate goal and timeframe. If it’s to be a “one book” writer (or a few books for that matter) then you’ve been productive. If it’s to be a career writer where you make your living/income from your writing, then the question is by what date? Then work backwards from there. Start with the end in mind and measure productivity based on how you are doing relative to the goal.

    • D.M. Dutcher September 8, 2013, 10:02 AM

      The career writer though has a different relationship to writing than many people would like to have, I think. A career writer doesn’t care whether or not the CBA market is limited; they’ll write bonnet romances and self-help there because they sell, and do horror or SF under a pen name in the secular market because they sell there. And they’ll write video-game tie in novels just as easily as serious SF.

      To an extent all writing is like this, but I think many people still see it as art or ministry more than product. To go career would be to be ruthless about conforming your writing to what sells to a level many people might think twice about.

      • Lyn Perry September 8, 2013, 1:16 PM

        Right. Just like working at the local burger joint is conforming one’s talents to whatever needs to be done to put food on the table. And usually, if a better opportunity presents itself, a person will be ruthless and grab that better paying, more fulfilling job. The art or ministry is in the servant-attitude and heart-position of the Christian – no matter the job. Since all vocations are of God (except those that aren’t, lol), becoming a career writer is simply using one’s gifts in a way that maximizes them, a la our discussion on productivity. My thoughts anyway. Not arguing per se.

  • Jodie B. September 8, 2013, 2:29 PM

    You are productive! So many writers wish they could write as much as you have. Just keep on writing for now. When you are done with your current project, do you have another you can start? If so, start! If it is a sequel to the Ghost Box (I think you possibly may have mentioned that it might be the start of a Reagan Moon series if I am remembering it correctly), it could help the Ghost Box book sell as many publishers like series. If not, still write! Show your dedication to your craft. I’m guessing publishers like writers who can turn out the books.

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