How Do You Do It?

A. LEE MARTINEZ APPRECIATION DAY!! is approaching. January 12th, as you’re already aware. In celebration, I’m endeavoring to post a blog a day up to the run up. Have a question or thought you’d like to share? You can reach me at


“Where do you get your ideas?”

There’s a list of questions fiction writers hear regularly, and this is near the top of that list. It comes from a good place. Writing fiction can seem like a daunting task, and the most daunting to most is the search for something worth writing about.

This is probably why fanfiction continues to thrive on the internet. It takes a lot of the pressure off to begin with something already fully formed, even if only used as a jumping off point. There is plenty of fanfiction that is just retelling of stories already written, but there’s also lots and lots of variants. Something like taking established characters and dropping them into an entirely different setting or genre.

This really isn’t new. Superhero comics have been playing with alternate continuities for decades. Want to read about vampire Batman? Or Batman versus Jack the Ripper? Or Batman versus Predator? Or Batman teaming up with Tarzan?

That last one is a personal favorite.

Also, there are apparently some alternate continuities that don’t involve Batman. Or so I’ve heard.

In fact, I’d say most writers start with some sort of fanfiction, even if they don’t realize it. Because learning to write is tricky, and it becomes easier to have one less thing to worry about. My own first novel was a Conan the Barbarian inspired adventure, and my twist was that my barbarian hero was also a wizard.

No, it was not great, but it allowed me to get comfortable with the act of writing and focus on the craft. I’m reminded of a talk I once heard from comedian Pete Holmes about how most every comedian starts with generic jokes because they’re still figuring out the mechanisms of comedy, timing and wording and delivery, and that’s fine. But eventually, most successful comedians master those tools and move onto finding their own unique voice and style. I think writing is a lot like that. There’s a toolbox full of possibilities, but you can’t break them out right away.

I’ve seen this discourage many aspiring writers because they think their first idea is inspired and that this is the hard part. But even if you have an amazing idea for a story, you probably don’t have the tools to make it work. It’s not romantic, and most stories about writing make it seem like 90% of writing is inspiration. But the first house you build, even if you know exactly what kind of house you want to make, is probably going to fall over in a stiff breeze. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve drawn up the blueprints or how much time you spent stacking the bricks or how carefully you laid the foundation. You’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes most people make, but that we all have to make in our own time.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to build that house. Or that it will automatically be a failure. But the second house will be better for all the mistakes in the first. And the third will be even better.

It’s not a subtle metaphor, but I’ve built a lot of houses. And I’m still learning stuff. I believe I’m a decent house-maker guy. I’m decent enough that I’ve managed to get paid for it at least. But I also don’t feel ready to say I’ve mastered it by any stretch of the imagination.

Putting aside the metaphor, the question I wish more people would ask of writers is:

“How do you make yourself do it?”

Because that’s the question that matters.

We’ve all read books that we disliked or hated, and we’ve all wondered “How did this get published?”

It got published because they made themselves do it. They sat in their chair. They found the time. They wrote. Sometimes, when they didn’t want to. Often, when they thought it was terrible. They did the work, and even if their idea was terrible and their execution was worse, they did it.

How you get yourself to do it is a bigger, more personal question. When I started this career decades ago (Jebus, I’m old.), I had a specific daily routine I followed, a designated writing time. That was good for a few years, then I changed to a weekly goal formed around the DFW Writers Workshop. My goal was to have something ready for every Wednesday meeting. It didn’t matter if I wrote it all in one day or if I took the whole week to get it done. But if I met that goal, books got done. Somehow.

Lately, I’ve taken to creating daily to-do lists. It’s helped to put me back on track, but part of being your own boss is realizing that what works and what doesn’t will change over time.

Some say write every day. Not bad advice, but if taken too seriously, it can make you feel like a failure for missing a day. And feeling like an imposter is a surefire way to stop writing.

If it makes any aspiring writer out there feel any better, I sometimes have that feeling. Not so much an imposter, but as a writer who has hit his plateau and has nothing more interesting to say. It’s something I think most every artist has to wrestle with, even the most successful.

My best advice for making yourself create art is to, well, make yourself do it. If you can develop some consistent goal or routine you’ll find it easier.

Another of my tricks is to set a very small goal. Some days, I’ll just sit and set a ten minute timer. Odds are good that when that timer goes off, I’ll want to keep writing. But even if I don’t write a word, the act of devoting some of my day to writing (even if only staring at a blank screen) reinforces in my primitive animal brain that this is something I do.

And if that sounds like too much, read something. Or enjoy some art that inspires you. Or some art that you hate because being inspired by things you hate still counts as inspiration. Almost all of my novels are based off of a trope that I was tired of seeing or an unspoken rule that I wanted to break.

The trick is to remind yourself that you are devoting this time to writing or creating or stirring creativity. We are, above all, creatures of habit. So form that habit. I’ve become convinced that 90% of this job is just getting that habit and making it stick. There’s a lot of other stuff in that 10%, but if you manage to make the habit, you’re ahead of nearly everyone who says they want to write.

Writer’s write. How they do it is ultimately up to them. And the biggest secret of this job?

Nobody really gives a damn about the dirty, boring business of how they do it. And that’s the way it should be.



4 Replies to “How Do You Do It?”

  1. Hi Lee,
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the writing process. I do wonder , from time to time how individual writers set about the task of actually writing. I found your suggestions were pretty much in line with my own thinking. It’s a bit like exercise. If you commit a portion of your day to writing, and keep plugging away you are bound to see results.
    While I have the exercise part down I find the writing part more of a challenge. I take a class for seniors at a local community college where we reenact old time radio shows. Slowly we have moved from not just reenacting professional scripts but to writing our own scripts for both shows and mock commercials. Currently we are on break until Jan. 25 and I know they expect me to have some scripts ready when the class resumes. Tonight I am coming up dry but I have blind faith that I will cobble something together. (Also there is the tendency to do anything but write. Yes, this a good time to sweep out the garage or alphabetize my socks.) I am not looking to reinvent the wheel or make a deeply profound statement. I just want to take people’s minds off the current state of the world and have a few laughs. Much as you have done for me and many others.
    Whatever keeps you writing, please keep writing. I consider you to be one of the most underrated writers around.

    1. Complex question. Especially when we think what is “style”? Is it how I write or is it themes and ideas that often pop up in my work? I tend not to overthink it, regardless, and just trust I’m writing stuff I find engaging.

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