The One Question that Changed My Approach to Writing

By Laura Oles

wrong or right ethical question

What’s the answer?

While attending a recent Writer’s League of Texas course, Karleen Koen, the talented historical novelist and our instructor, asked a question so simple yet so important, it changed my approach to writing.

“What is the one thing you wish you had known earlier about writing?”

After sitting silently with the question for a few minutes, the answer came to me, and its appearance brought with it contrasting pangs of relief and sadness.

“I wish I had understood earlier the importance of touching my project every day.”

Like many working on a novel (or two), I have several legitimate reasons for not connecting with my work each day. We’re all juggling jobs, kids (who play a maddening number of sports!), community activities and the daily grind of household chores. We have a hundred reasons why we can’t get to our novel in progress, and these are darn good reasons, too.


These excuses offer little comfort when we realize our page count remains in the same stuck location each week. I know– I’ve been there–carrying the disappointment of wanting to create and yet unable to figure out how to fit it into my daily routine. I struggle with this issue and I’m a working writer in the photographic industry, so I do write each day.

I write a lot.

But not fiction.

And therein lies the problem.

I would lump my writing time into the same space, not realizing that fiction writing and nonfiction writing each needed to have a distinct time slot, a specific area in my mind and in my day. My client work always takes priority, because it has to, but I would then fail to figure out how to protect a separate space for fiction.

Jerry Seinfeld, when asked in an interview about he managed to write so much material in a short period of time, stated that it’s not how much you write but how often. I think this advice stretches across all forms of writing. It’s better to touch your project for fifteen minutes than not at all because each tiny effort creates a modicum of momentum, and momentum is a powerful force in getting to THE END.

I can’t profess my mastery of this skill because, although I’ve been far better at fitting in fiction, I still have off days (sometimes several in a row) and it takes me longer to find that groove. Once I find it, I am more resolved to keep going. And then real life intervenes once again.

For me, smaller steps are best. When I have ideas of cranking out 2,000 words in a stretch, I set myself up for failure. Some random event will conspire to cut into my writing time so that finishing 500 words feels like a failure. My goal for the remainder of the year is to be small but consistent in my efforts, and I mark an X on my calendar for each day that I’ve worked on my fiction. Seeing those Xs add up is a cheap trick to help me keep that momentum. I’ll take whatever I can get during those days when kids are going all directions and work is piling up. I remind myself that small steps matter, they all add up to a finished draft. I know because I’ve done it.

What about you? How do you make time to write when daily life seems destined to keep you from creating?

2 thoughts on “The One Question that Changed My Approach to Writing

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