On Hackery (inspired by Delany’s About Writing)

Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing will not get out of my brain. I keep thinking about his concept of the usefulness, no, the essentialness of doubt (good! I got plenty of that), about how slavishly following the rules and working hard leads to aesthetic banality (the rules of good writing, not the rules of how-to-get-an-agent/editor—you have to follow those). And about being a hack.

Delany’s book made me feel like one (in a good way). His description of his own writing process, of how to write the absolute best you can, is a recipe for books that go through many, many drafts and take a long, long time to write, books that delve down into every doubt or dream you ever had. These descriptions are sensual and exhilarating and inspiring (if I hadn’t read his book I’d still be working on the draft of M! M! M! O! O! O!). As Delany goes through explaining every word choice, you marvel at not just his brilliance and talent, but at his unerring ability to explain this really, really difficult stuff (how’s that for a word choice!).

The book inspires and it also makes you think seriously and long about your own writing.

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1 April 2003 (excellent day to begin, no?). In that time I’ve sold four books, written four and a half, edited one. Deciding to make a living writing, meant deciding to tell different stories than I would if I had a stayed as an academic. Given that so far it’s earned me about US$1,200, and it took four years to research and write, books like The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction went out the window. I had to tell stories that enough other people wanted to read that publishers who could pay decent advances would want to buy them, and I had to learn to write faster. Much faster. I’m now on a two-books-a-year schedule.1

Every page of Delany’s book made me think about the central tension in my life between writing the best books I can and writing them quickly. How do I not become a hack?

I don’t have an answer.

I’m lucky that I write Young Adult books which are considerably shorter than say, Charlie Stross’ work. Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons are both about 65 thou words. In book form that’s 275 pages with a comfortable sized font and balanced amount of leading. But it’s still 130 thousand words of publishable prose a year.

I’m starting to think that—except for the lucky few—to make a living at writing is to be a hack. The best I can do is to write as well as I possibly can within the time restraints, and hope that one day I’ll be generating enough money that I can slow down. But I temper that hope with the knowledge that most people never do. I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.

And while on a major deadline crunch—unless you have servants or a traditional wife—the rest of your life is falling apart. Housework doesn’t get done, or your taxes, or any of the other admin, you don’t see your friends, and lots of takeaway and delivery food and ramen noodles are consumed.2 When you finish you really should be turning to the next book before your editor’s notes come back at you. Because that’s one of the worst things about writing more than one book a year: the constant interruptions from the previous book. You do not—as a dear friend of mine imagined—write one book, send it off, and then leisurely write the next. While writing the next you’re also be working on the last. There are rewrites, checking copyedits, proofs, and galleys. I have no idea how those writing four or more books a year cope.

I’m hoping, some day, to have the time and opportunity to write both as slowly and as well as I want. To only go on to the next book when the last one is well and truly finished and as good as I can make it. In the meantime I strive to be the very best hack I can be!

How do all you other hacks manage?

  1. I have many writer friends who are writing many more books than two a year, who consider such a schedule luxury. []
  2. I am well aware that there are much harder jobs than being a novelist. This is the best, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Every single day I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have a go at it. []


  1. Sean Williams on #

    Hear hear. As someone who’s written 20 books in 10 years (around 2.7 million words, not that many, really) I can attest to the health problems, the joy of independence, the mad, schizoid rush of it all, and the feeling that I could do much better if given a bit of a breathing space. That, more than money or fame or even a holiday, is what I aspire to at the moment. Every book is a stretch in terms of the craft, otherwise it’d just get boring, but it’d be simply marvy to devote a full year to making one book as good as it possibly could be. That was one reason why I took on a Masters in Creative Writing last year. The piece of paper at the end of it was just an added bonus…

  2. romance gal on #

    not sure I wont to be a writer any more!

  3. Rachel Brown on #

    I can’t write that fast. That’s why I have a part-time day job.

  4. elizabeth bear on #

    You know, I’d probably write at about this rate, publishing schedule or not.

    I’d freak out less about the time I have to take off between books to let my brain regenerate, though.

  5. Justine on #

    Sean: Yup! A future when there’s the time and space to truly think about every single word not once, but many, many times. That would indeed by marvy!

    Romance Gal: One of the points Delany is trying to make is that writing can be really hard and unless you love it, unless you’re driven, it’s not worth it. If that kind of writing hard work isn’t fun for you, if you’re not interested in a financially dodgy future, then, yes back away.

    Rachel Brown: Smart move. Sometimes I think I became freelance somewhat prematurely . . .

    Elizabeth: You mean writing two books a year is about your pace? And your books are pretty long, aren’t they? I mean longer than 65 thou words.

    But, yes, it’s the not having time to rest and think in between books that I find hardest. Brain need regenerate often!

  6. Kristine Smith on #

    I didn’t manage particularly well for a long time. I learned the hard way that I am a slow writer. With the day job, a book every two years will be about all I can manage, especially if I dip a toe into the short story waters as well. Burnout is no fun. Forcing it is no fun. I’m not saying that writing has to be all puppies all the time, but that constant pushpushpush to get stuff out the door takes its toll. I don’t know how some of my freelance friends do it, I really don’t.

  7. Jason Erik Lundberg on #

    The more you talk about Delany’s book, the more I want to read it.

    I’ve just started book #1, and I expect it’ll take me a year to get it done, what with teaching eating into any free time I may have.

  8. Roger on #

    Not nice, old girl, not nice at all, but at least you can still be a writer in your dotage. It’s the professional sportsman I feel worst for. All washed up in their late twenties.

  9. Roger on #

    Forgot to ask – isn’t a hack someone who writes poorly? Your use of the term is somewhat confusing, old girl.

  10. Liz on #

    I suspect that there is a key difference between a professional writer, who relies on her work for income and therefore works as quickly as her skills permit, and a hack, who turns out any old rubbish in order to make the deadline and word count.

    However, I’m just beginning to prepare the research for my first novel. Ask me again in a few years’ time.

  11. Justine on #

    Kristine: You’re lucky to have a day job you don’t detest and time to get a novel out every two years. Is it full time? My first novel, written while doing other stuff (uni, working etc.) took me eleven years to get the first draft finished. But it was written without any pressure . . .

    Jason: Buy a copy. Immediately. Good luck with your novel.

    Roger: Tis true. I hope to grow old at this gig. I believe Liz has answered your hack question.

    Liz: Pretty much. Though some of us wear the term “hack” with pride. But I do mean to write the best I can and, frankly, with my editors I couldn’t get away with anything less. Good luck with your novel, too.

    The research is almost the best part. Sweet, lovely research. I’m burying myself in accounts of the origins of cricket. Such fun!

  12. Tricia Sullivan on #

    You have really put your finger on it–this is the great mystery of pro writing imho. I have found it a constant struggle. I have two little kids that I can’t put in daycare, no family or anything nearby, and I write full-time for money. I can frequently be heard whining and moaning that I’m turning into just a hack. Believe me, I hear where you are coming from. And I don’t have any answers, but after several more years than you in the business I have noticed a couple of things:

    1) taking longer doesn’t always mean it’s better. Roger said something about quality–and ‘hack’ is a term usually reserved for someone of middling talent who just works hard and settles for a certain mediocrity. But in my experience, you write how you write and you might be surprised at how little difference there is between the stuff you’ve slaved over and the stuff you’ve tossed off on a scrap of napkin. All respect to Prof. Delaney, too, but I wouldn’t let his approach spook you too much.

    Some books do require more cooking than others. One of mine took seven years–but I wasn’t just writing that book, I was doing others. It’s great to be able to have a lot of projects and to switch off from one to the other when a given one gets stale. But you have to have a marathon mindset for this–the results don’t come quick.

    2) artistic sustenance is really important. I keep going on about Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE, but this is an idea of hers and I have found it priceless. She calls it ‘The Well’ and it’s a sort of unconscious source of creative ideas/imagery. You need to keep it stocked by taking in all kinds of experiences, ‘artistic’ and otherwise, that will feed your head. The harder you are working, paradoxically, the more of this you need (and the less you will feel inclined to indulge).

    In the late 1990s I got a really lucrative 3 book deal for some pseudonymous fiction. I had all day and all night to write. I had money. I had to write only one book a year and I was fine. And you know what? The stuff I produced was not my best work, I still felt neurotic about it all the time, I still procrastinated until deadlines were looming, and I wasted shedloads of time in displacement activity. Now I have 2 hours a day to write, 7 days a week. My productivity is not what it could be. I do not earn very much. I’m forever wishing I had more time to read/write/see movies (the list goes on but I won’t totally bore you) but I think the quality of my fiction has improved considerably. I don’t mess around. I get down to business. OK, maybe I’m still not Tolstoi and maybe I long for those hours spent in coffee shops listening to jazz and noodling around in a notebook–but I begin to suspect that the course of one’s creativity sort of has its own path. What is in you will find its way out, one way or another, if you let it.

    I’m NOT saying go out there and get yourself a day job or some kids so you’ll appreciate your writing time! I’m not saying that at all. If you can swing it full-time, then more power to you and go for it. Plus, some days (many days) I’m completely pathetic and get nothing done–I’m not trying to blow my own horn, here. I’m just trying to make the point that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and stuff like that. If you want something badly, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

    Justine, you strike me as being so modest and so open to suggestion. I have ordered the Delaney book and I’m really looking forward to reading it. But I would also just say, don’t flog yourself to be a certain kind of writer. Just do what you love doing and I bet it will all fall into place for you. You seem pretty damn savvy from where I’m standing.

    By the way, I hope this doesn’t sound preachy–don’t mean it to! I struggle with this same thing on a daily basis, and probably many of your writer friends do, too. Maybe I’m posting this just to remind myself of a few things. Some of your posts really hit home with me when I read them.7

  13. John Scalzi on #

    One way to avoid hackery is to write other things for money so that if one is feeling burned out from fiction one still has other sources of writing incomes. My experience writing non-fiction is slightly different from yours — the majority of my books are non-fiction — and I find it fun and useful to swtich between fiction and non-fiction. And then there’s the non-book writing, which include blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. Basically I try to do enough different types of writing that I don’t get burnt doing just one, or at the very least I don’t take too much of an income hit if I do. Naturally, your mileage may vary.

  14. Diana Peterfreund on #

    This is a bit off the subject, but I dislike the term hack. I have a thing about the setting up of false dichotomies, as I’ve droned on about elsewhere. Right now, the big thing going around (thanks to JA Konrath) seems to be “artist vs. hack.”

    A few years ago, my partner sat me down and asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a working writer. When we were selling my book, my agent asked what I wanted out of my career. I said I wanted to be making a living as a writer for the next forty years.

    I have no illusions about what this will take, It will mean that sometimes (hopefully, the majority of the time) I will write stuff that I really like, and sometimes i will write stuff that I really need a paycheck for. Is that “hack?” Is it any different than bringing home a paycheck for slinging mocha lattes at the corner Starbacks? Sometimes you do what you love and get paid for it. Sometimes you just do what you do to get paid, and you’re lucky if you don’t *HATE* it.

    I don’t think it’s “selling out” or “hackery,” I think it’s people trying to pay the rent *and* keep their eye on whatever floats their boat, vocation-wise.

    But I’m with Tricia on filling the well. ONe of the reasons I like having a day job is that it gets me out of the house and keeps me from descending into navel-gazing boredom, I know my writing would reflect that.

  15. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I feel your pain, Justine. I’m halfway through the second draft of my YA novel and I have to jump off to ghostwrite someone else’s novel for cash. I miss my YA characters terribly. But once I’m in a comfortable groove on the ghostwriting gig, I’m going to try very hard to work on both. I always have several projects going at once and I usually divide up my time as follows: mornings are for first drafts; afternoons are for rewrites and polishes; evenings are for music. I’m not nearly as prolific as you or the epically word-spewing Westerfeld, but I’m comfortable with the output.

  16. Justine on #

    Wow! What a lot of amazing responses!

    Tricia: Thanks so much for this. I love hearing other people’s stories. Just knowing that you’re not alone and that other people are thinking these questions through (a large part of why I’m so besotted with Delany’s book) is comforting. Also a welcome dose of other people’s lot being harder. Me, I have no children and if I did my parents are barely thirty minutes away and at least part of the time my sister is around.

    And, oh yes, I know all about procrastination, too. Witness this blog! Er, actually it’s to promote my work! Honest! This is work! Not procrastination!

    Scalzi: My mileage does indeed vary. I trained for many years through a BA, a Phd, and a post-doctoral fellowship to be a kick arse researcher and scholarly writer. I can read other kinds of non-fiction, but I cannot write it. Not without learning a whole new genre for which, right now, I have neither the time nor the inclination.

    Besides, my natural form is the novel. It’s what I love to write and what I’m good at. Right now, I’m lucky enough that writing two of them a year will generate enough money for me to live on. Fingers crossed it will continue!

    But I see your point, Scalzi, about diversifying (my mother calls it having more than one string to your bow) and I have a cunning plan for that. Watch this space!

    Diana: I have grown to like the term hack. Especially as I have a number of working writer friends who use it to refer to themselves. Fine writers all! Hello, Sean! Hello, Scott! And sometimes I feel exactly like a work horse!

    However, I used it loosely in the post above. I used it to mean both “someone who writes crap quickly” and a “working writer”, which I confess is something else I like about the word. It’s like “bitch” or “bastard”—when your friends use it of you, (mostly) a compliment, when your enemies do, not so much. (Or maybe that’s an Australian thing.)

    I agree with you, Diana, I don’t think its selling out to write whatever it takes to make a living. So far I’ve been lucky (as have you!) and been able to sell projects that I love. I haven’t had to go the ghostwriting or other route. But I certainly will if I have to! Here’s hoping neither of us has to and in forty years time in our dotage (thanks, Roger!) we’ll still be doing this.

    Lauren: Hey, congrats on getting the ghostwriting gig! Excellent! And remember Scott’s advice, um, something about borrowing cars . . .

    You mightn’t be as prolific as me (though I ain’t so very much) or Scott (who’s just about to enter the world of one book a year! Yay!) but you’re way more organised than either of us! Especially me. Wow. Great routine you’ve got going there. I’m so going to try that. Where do you fit email/bloggery into your sched? As I mentioned in the post when the writing is really going I find it next to impossible to fit anything else in. Oh, for robot slaves!

  17. Justine on #

    Carbonel: What an excellent question! And, nope, it’s never been asked before. In fact, I’d not made the connection myself. Hmmm, now I must cogitate on it.

    [walks away rubbing chin]

  18. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I want to hear the answer to that too!

    I knew what you meant, Justine, about the dual defs. And “bitch” is alive and well amongst friends in the podeans. 😉

  19. Carbonel on #

    I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.

    You’ve no doubt been asked this elsewhere, so my apologies for the probable duplication, but the Elephant’s child is insistent.

    How much of those observations about using one’s creativity, driving oneself; found their way into the Magic books?

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