Sharon Shinn on Writing for the Long Haul

Science fiction and fantasy author Sharon Shinn started writing poetry when she was eight, began writing novels in her twenties, and sold her first book, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, in her thirties. In the nearly two decades since then, she’s published more than two dozen books while holding down a full-time journalism career. Today she joins the long haul series to talk about how she manages her writing time in the midst of that busy schedule.

Story Time

I wrote my first (awful) book when I was 20 and published my first (entirely different) book when I was 38. When I turn 57 next year, I will have spent a third of my life learning to be a person, a third of my life learning the craft of writing, and a third of my life as a published writer.

While being a published writer remains the COOLEST THING EVER, it hasn’t exactly been the most stress-free segment of my life. Because I continue to hold down a full-time job, being a published writer means that I have become absolutely and relentlessly focused on time. There is never enough of it for me to accomplish all the things I have to do.

Even before I sold my first book, I was pretty obsessive about writing. Once I started a book—really started it, committed to it in my heart, wasn’t just jotting down a few unconnected scenes or some great lines of dialogue—I finished it, even though I didn’t have a high expectation of selling it. I wasn’t on my current pace of at least a book a year, though, so I could be kind of mellow about how much progress I made on a daily basis. If I came home from work and felt lazy, I could hang out with friends or watch TV and not feel too guilty about not producing any pages for the evening. Or the weekend. I remember one particularly busy spring when I had so much going on that I went an entire month without writing a word on my current novel, leaving my two protagonists facing death at the hands of the ruthless villain.

But now I have contracts. I have deadlines. And my books are longer. I know that I need to produce between twenty-five and thirty pages a week if I’m going to have time to write, rewrite, receive critiques, and polish a book before sending it off to my editor by the promised date. That means I have to write five pages a day at least five days a week—or six pages each on four days—or—well, you get the picture. I have to write a lot. Even when I’m tired. Even when I’m uninspired. Even when I really don’t feel like it. Writing has become a job, and I can’t choose to skip going into work for the day just because I’m feeling dull.

Even so, there are days that simply offer no time for sitting down at the keyboard and churning out pages. I might be going to dinner with friends. Or entertaining company from out of town. Or traveling to a wedding. I’m not writing on those days, which means I have to make up the pages on some other day.

Which means I always, always, always am aware of time. I try to consolidate time-eating errands: On the evenings I’m going to lose an hour by going to the hair salon, I do my grocery shopping too so I can keep another day free for writing. I DVR every single television program I watch so I can fast-forward through commercials and save myself fifteen minutes per hour. I get twitchy when too many events pile up in a month; sometimes I turn down invitations because I can’t bear to be away from the story for too many days in a row.

But it’s not just the writing itself that takes time, which I discovered after I sold my first book. Sometimes my editor wants rewrites. Copyedited manuscripts always land on my desk at the least convenient times possible, but I know it’s essential to read through them closely—not only to accept or reject the copyeditor’s suggestions, but to take this last chance to catch any errors or awkward bits that have escaped my notice up till now. And then I have to read whole thing again when the page proofs arrive a few weeks later—also, at least in my experience, at some spectacularly inconvenient moment. I’ve brought copyedits and page proofs with me on work trips, on vacations, on visits to hospital rooms. Because I can read on a plane, in a hotel room, or while a sick relative is sleeping.

Here’s something else that started taking up time once I became a published writer: reading books by friends. I’m in a (fabulous) writer’s group and we all critique each other’s manuscripts. I’m grateful for every hour my co-writers have invested in my books, and I gladly return the favor—but I read slowly and thoroughly, so I probably average thirty pages an hour. I’ve also been honored to have authors and publishers approach me, asking for blurbs for their books; I’ve found some of my favorite new writers this way, but, again, the reading process wasn’t a quick one. And since I’ve developed a whole new circle of friends—other published writers—I want to read all their books when they hit the shelves. It’s no surprise that I’m pretty far behind on that goal.

I don’t know how other writers manage to fit all their daily demands into their writing schedules. I tend to think of each day as a great wheel of cheese, and I’m constantly estimating how big a wedge will be required for every task on my list. So on a typical Saturday I might plan three hours to clean the house, another hour to pay bills and balance the checkbook, another hour to catch up on emails. If I start at 9 a.m. and expect to leave for the evening by 6 p.m.—and if I don’t take too long over eating lunch and dressing for dinner—I should have three solid hours in the afternoon. Hey, that’s good for ten pages, right?

It’s kind of a pressured way to live. But to be a published author? Worth all the calculating, the bargaining for another hour. The life might be demanding, but the thrill never gets old.

sharonSharon Shinn’s first novel, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel when it came out in 1995. Her second novel, Archangel, came out soon after and was one of the reasons she was nominated for the William Campbell Award for best new writer two years in a row. Since then she’s published more than two dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, including the rest of the Samaria series, the Twelve Houses series, the Elemental Blessings series, the Safe-Keeper series and, most recently, the Shifting Circle series.

Her journalism career has focused on working for trade association magazines such as The Professional Photographer, DECOR and, currently, BizEd, for which she writes about management education and interviews business experts from around the world.

Author photo credit: Raquita Henderson

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

4 thoughts on “Sharon Shinn on Writing for the Long Haul”

  1. I am SO enjoying this series of posts, Janni. Thank you so much for doing them and for all the terrific writers who have participated. So sad I was in AZ for a family reunion the last few days, too. I missed your signing in Albuquerque! I also missed P.J. Hoover, too, on Saturday here in ABQ! All these great YA authors come to town and I miss the events. Dern. Thanks again!

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