How I Write (Or, Inspiration and Writing to Spec)

Every now and then I get email from someone who wants to know how I deal with writer’s block, or how I find my inspiration, or any number of other things that mostly boil down to: "How do you sit down and write?"

Everyone works differently, especially when it comes to writing. Some people work best with outlines and strict word counts. Others work best with no direction at all. Some people work best in silence, alone, or in the morning. Some only write by hand, while others require a computer.

Me personally? I need the following:

  • A relative quiet (no television to distract me)
  • Some music to get me going
  • A little caffeine, sometimes (tea or half a cup of coffee)
  • A working computer with a Datahand keyboard (I have tendonitis in my hands, which means that handwriting is even harder on me than typing with a normal keyboard)
  • A rich library for research purposes
  • A desk, table or couch big enough to spread things out on

All else is pretty much optional.

Writing Freelance

Doing freelance (contract) work is different than writing your own stuff in your own time. If you want to do freelance work, you need to be able to make your muse work for you, rather than the other way around. I know, that’s difficult. I certainly prefer to let my writing take me where it wants to go. I’ve often said I write what comes out of my fingers, not what I “plan” to write. Sometimes the endings of my stories surprise me. Sometimes characters turn out to be something other than what I thought they were. I might set out to write science fiction, but find out that it’s horror instead.

When you’re doing contract work, you have to be able to channel that in a specific direction. If someone hires you to write 10,000 words of horror on Tribe Mik-Mik, including notes on their culture and history, by the end of the month then you need to do that. You can’t say to yourself, "well I know I’m supposed to write history, but I’m much more inspired to write a piece of fiction instead, so I’ll do that." You have to make yourself be inspired to write the history. This doesn’t mean you can’t make it beautiful, too. It doesn’t mean you can’t let your muse loose on it and do new and interesting things with it. But it still needs to satisfy whatever requirements you were told to satisfy.

If you can’t do that, then you should be writing for yourself, not doing freelance work.

But don’t despair if you really want to do freelance work yet have trouble writing to spec. It sounds trite, but if you want to take control of your writing and aren’t sure how, then practice. It won’t take the spontaneity out of your work, or at least it doesn’t have to. Beauty, art, and working to spec are not mutually incompatible goals, despite the number of people who think they are.

I’ve personally found that doing freelance work has improved my writing in a number of ways. It more than any other thing has taught me to be able to write what I want, when I want, where I want. After all, the contract deadline isn’t going to wait for me to be in the right mood. When I did my first book I wrote about 1,000 words a day on average, and I thought that was pretty spiffy. Now I can write 5,000 words in a full day of work. And I don’t have days when I “can’t” write nearly as often — and usually those are due to outside problems, not lack of “inspiration.”


Inspiration is a tricky thing. I find it’s more a matter of mood than of anything else. I have two tricks to get me in the right mood.

One is, I’m afraid, caffeine. Anything from a cup of coffee to a cup of Darjeeling black tea to a glass of iced green tea with ginseng. I try to limit my caffeine intake to one cup of whatever a day. After all, if I drink it too much it’ll lose its effectiveness, and coffee tends to be murder on the stomach as well. Some people don’t tolerate caffeine, so that isn’t an option for them.

I also use music. I try to find two kinds of songs to listen to, and I mix them up well: songs with a fast rhythm that get me writing quickly, and songs that have the right mood to inspire me. ITunes is great for this–you can program play lists just for your writing time.

As for idea inspiration, rather than mood inspiration, I just look around me. There are pictures on CD covers, fragments of lyrics or names of songs, names of books, interesting magazine articles, etc. I don’t mean plagiarism; I mean one of two other things. The first is something like free association — take an odd phrase from a song and use it to come up with your own plot. The second is straight research. For RPG work I often pick up completely unrelated books and magazines and work their subjects into the plots I’m coming up with. If you have a connection to the internet available when you’re writing, then find your way to random web pages on unusual subjects.

I hope all of this helps a little. Just remember: do what’s right for you. If caffeine makes you jumpy, then don’t drink it. If music distracts you, then don’t listen to it. If you have an easier time writing things out longhand, then by all means do so. There are no absolutes, and no hard-and-fast answers.

Don’t give up on writing freelance until you’ve practiced; pick up a book that gives “assignments” and try to follow them, or set yourself a goal of something specific to write about and limits to follow. If you really can’t follow directions, then don’t do freelance. Write your own stuff and submit it to magazines that take unsolicited submissions. No matter how you write, as long as the quality is good there’ll be a place for it — somewhere.

Posted in Writing

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