By Susanne Shaphren
My boring black bicycle traveled over 1500 miles last year without ever leaving the house
Day after day, I pedal furiously only to wind up in exactly the same spot.
The daily routine of well-disciplined writers is alarmingly similar to that bicycle going nowhere. Day after day, we write, revise and cross our fingers as we complete that last round of proofreading. Submitting online or stuffing manuscripts into neat brown envelopes with an expensive array of stamps is the beginning of a journey that ends all too often right where it started with nothing but rejection to show for the trip.
Perhaps the similarity between the bicycle going nowhere and the pursuit of a writing career is more symbolic. No actual distance is conquered by the exercise bike, but muscles are tightened and calories burned. At the end of the ride, I’m a bit more in shape.
Every day at the typewriter or computer accomplishes some small improvement too. We travel a bit farther down the road to proficiency by more clearly defining a character, constructing a sentence a bit more effectively, surprising the author as well as the reader with a wonderfully clever plot twist.
Before the exercise bike was uncrated, I’d decided that promptly at nine each morning, I would mount up for my daily quota of exercise. No matter how firm my resolve, it seemed Fate had other ideas. The dog couldn’t possibly get tangled in the fence at a more convenient hour. Friends I’d not spoken to in five years suddenly called. Neighbors just happened to drop by with freshly baked coffee cake or small emergencies that couldn’t wait.
Just like a not-so-instant replay of my humble beginnings as a writer. I’d set my alarm for the crack of dawn, vowed to swallow one quick cup of coffee and head for the typewriter no matter what. Had I but known the infinite variety of no-matter-whats, I might never have gotten out of bed!
Developing a schedule that was rigid in terms of total time but flexible about specific hours made all the difference in the world. Deciding that 30 minutes of bike riding would be enough, estimating a minimum of five hours at the typewriter, never failed.
If everything went perfectly, I’d ride my bike in the early morning when it was cool and save my writing for late evening when the phone seldom rang. But I was no longer a slave to the clock. I could turn on a portable fan and ride in the afternoon, take advantage of the answering machine and write any time of day or night. On really rugged days, I divided tasks into easily managed segments. A mile or two of bike riding between errands. Five or ten pages while the laundry dried.
My original goal of ten miles a day evaporated into frustration after the first mile made my out-of-shape muscles scream. Equally impossible was my novice’s dream of turning hours a day into a best-selling novel by the end of the year.
Setting more reasonable goals made all the difference between sticking to the task and giving up completely. So I couldn’t ride ten miles that first day. I could do one. By the second day, it was a bit easier and by the third . . .
The mere thought of that novel was enough to panic me into contemplating a career as a factory worker, but there was nothing scary about one or two pages of polished prose.
Something like the proverbial bird told me when it was time to upgrade my goals. No doubt about it, I was cheating myself by doing two miles when I could probably do three. Surely, it was time to leave the comfort of letters to the editor and plunge into the icy water of genuine competition.
I’ve worked up to the point where ten miles a day is fairly easy, but that daily ride on the bicycle going nowhere is boring, so dull I’m often tempted to just forget it. Stubborn pride prevents me from giving up. I quickly reach for a brand new issue of my favorite writing magazine, a crisp paperback, any traveling companion to keep me going that extra mile.
Many would-be writers have switched to “easier” professions like skydiving because of the boredom of daily routine. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the problem.
Something as simple as changing font color on all those preliminary drafts no editor sees may do the trick.
Working on a project short enough to complete in a single session does wonders for your morale. So can stretching out and immersing yourself in something long enough to allow the luxury of richly developing characters and ideas to their full potential.
A sure cure for boredom is taking a safari into an entirely different market area. If you make your living writing history texts but devour Ellery Queen for sheer pleasure, why not try your hand at creating a mystery short story? Is fantasy your bread and butter? Think about a solid piece of non-fiction for a change of pace.
Even a three-year-old knows better than to pedal his tricycle backwards. Can’t get anywhere that way. Why then do so many of us waste time agonizing over rejection? Forward. On to take advantage of editorial comments that might make the manuscript fare better at its next destination. Out to the next market on the list. Full speed ahead with a brand new project.
Years of dealing with rejection taught me that the more manuscripts making the rounds, the less pain caused by a single, “Sorry, this doesn’t quite meet our needs.”
No matter how many thick brown envelopes in your snail mailbox, how many “Sorry” emails, there should always be a few potential masterpieces on editors’ desks.
Is a published manuscript the only true measure of “success?” Not in the long run. Even the total failure you banish to the back of the file cabinet teaches you valuable lessons that will help you tackle the next project.
Developing a workable schedule, setting reasonable goals, battling boredom and refusing to be intimidated by rejection make your daily writing sessions more pleasant and profitable.
Anyone willing to invest time and effort can’t possibly stand still . . whether pedaling a bicycle going nowhere or pursuing the craft of writing.
A slightly different form of this article was published in Freelance Writer’s Report.
Editor’s note: Susanne Shaphren passed away in 2009. She will be missed.