The Writing Session (1)

November 10th, 2007

Technorati Profile Ninety-nine percent of people who quit writing before they finish their project do so because they can’t manage the writing session.

This post is about learning to do that. It’s long, so I’m going to post it in three parts. I think it’s worth three installments, and I hope you agree.


If words and sentences are the basic units of a novel, the writing session is the basic unit of writing a novel.

As I said above, ninety-nine percent of people who quit writing without finishing do so because they can’t manage the writing session. They go into it with unrealistic expectations, they develop a terror of the blank page, they search without success for the “perfect place to write,” they can’t get into what they believe to be the right frame of mind, they can’t find (or make) a niche in their busy lives to accommodate regular writing sessions. And on and on and on. Would-be writers face dozens of problems like these.

Unless the writer deals with these issues, here’s what will happen: The writer stops scheduling regular sessions. Then the irregular sessions become less frequent. Then they stop altogether, or are begun only when “inspiration” strikes.

Then the book dies.

One way to look at this is via a sort of proverb that first appeared in print in 1640 and is often attributed to the metaphysical poet George Herbert:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost/ For want of a shoe, the horse was lost/ For want of a horse, the knight was lost/ For want of the knight, the battle was lost/ For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.

If the finished book is the “kingdom,” you could paraphrase it as follows:

For want of the session, the sentence was lost/ For want of the sentence, the paragraph was lost/ For want of the paragraph, the chapter was lost/ For want of the chapter, the book was lost.

And more importantly, you can substitute the word “inspiration” in any of the lines above because there is literally no way of knowing during which session the most important inspiration will arrive. As Picasso said, “I believe in inspiration, but it has to find me working.”


To boil it down: if you don’t make room for writing sessions regularly and often, you won’t finish your book.

I have two objectives in writing this. They are:

A. To help you reduce your resistance to sitting down and doing your session.

B. To help you have a productive session.

2. Reducing Resistance



Here are some ways to reduce your resistance to entering your story on a regular basis.

Set up a schedule you can live with. I recommend 2-3 hours at a time, four or five days a week (or more, if you can swing it). Schedule these sessions in advance, and protect the time. If something comes up that prevents you fron writing on one of your scheduled days, move the session to a different day, one on which you hadn’t committed to write. But put in your scheduled number of sessions per week no matter how you do it. Keep track of your sessions — note them in a daybook or on a calendar. Be aware of how conscientiously you’re keeping your commitment — if you have two weeks in a row where you don’t accomplish your goals, then buckle down the following week — or else reduce your commitment to four days, or even three. But keep that commitment.

Have realistic expectations. Remember that you’re not sitting down to write a book. You’re sitting down to write some words — 500, 750, 1000, whatever you’ve committed to. You’re sitting down to get a character from Point A to Point B, to describe a house, to begin or finish a conversation — whatever it is those words will do. But I suggest you commit to a somewhat larger number of words — 750, 1000, 1250 — because in many ways writing is like meditation. It often takes a while before the flow really begins.

Forget about the right frame of mind. Or inspiration, or biorhythms, or anything. Just sit down and do it. If you’re tired, do it anyway. If you’re distracted, do it anyway. If what you’re writing feels like junk, keep writing anyway. (You can fix it, either now or later.) But don’t stop writing. As I said above, you have no idea when inspiration will strike.

Ignore the demons. You know the demons — they’re the ones that whisper that you can’t do it, you haven’t got the talent, you’ll never finish, you’re too exhausted, you deserve a break, you’re too busy, something else is more important. Ignore them. Sit down. Write. They don’t want you to finish. And remember, they can be just as destructive when they’re being nice (“Poor you, you need a little rest.”) as when they’re being brutal.

Ask yourself; What’s the worst that can happen? After all, what is it? You write some bad pages. Congratulations. You’ve just learned one way not to write the scene. And you have something you can improve. Remember, the enemy is not the bad page. It’s the empty page.

Frame the session as something you want to do, not something you have to do. So maybe you’ve discovered, to your dismay, that writing is not an unbroken procession of exhilirating eureka moments. That there are days when it’s as exciting as sorting gravel. That some days you don’t feel equal to it. Well, get used to it. Writing can be a transcendent experience, and it can also be pure, unadulterated gruntwork. But here’s the secret: if you don’t put in the gruntwork, you won’t get the transcendence. Gruntwork opens you to inspiration, and inspiration powers gruntwork. They’re both necessary. And remember, you’re creating something that didn’t exist anywhere in the universe before you sat down. Who said it would be easy?

Set up your next session at the end of the current one. Make it easy on yourself; quit in the middle of something. Never stop writing when you don’t know where you’re going next. Quit in the middle of a scene. Quit in the middle of a speech or an exchange of dialog. It will make it much easier to get started next time. If you finish a chapter, start the next one. It can make a big difference.

. . . more to come.






6 Responses to “The Writing Session (1)”

  1. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Excellent post, Tim. You have pegged me right-on with it, too. Your suggestions are very good. Perhaps I will try them.

  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Today I am sorting gravel. No wonder why the thought of doing the laundry, dusting, cleaning the stove, and even picking up dog poop can suddenly seem more inviting than…sorting gravel.

    So today I commit to sorting this gravel while remaining open to inspiration…wherever she is.

  3. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I found you through Sphinx Ink and this is probably the most important and helpful post I’ve read in a while. Thank you for helping me to look at the writing session from a much more useful place.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Cynthia, Hi, Lisa —

    Sorry about the gravel-sorting, Cynthia — I’m doing some myself today, but writing anyway.

    And Lisa, I’m so happy you found it helpful. The second half should be up tomorrow.


  5. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Hi again, Tim. Eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s installation. Even while sorting gravel th day before yesterday, I managed to string together 1450 words. Yippee!

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You did better than I did. I got to 1200 and decided it was either stop writing or start drinking, so I stopped. (But I get past my 1000-word minimum.) And when I looked at it today, it was fine — not great, but serviceable and eminently improvable. It’s like ballet: you can get from point A to point B on the tips of your toes, in a thrilling leap, in the arms of a partner, or crawling on your hands and knees. Once you’ve gotten to point B you can go back and work on your technique.

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