Do I Have to Write Every Day, Though?

I’m pretty sure I do, yeah. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t magically happen for free.

My current status is I’ve got a novel outlined and for the last week I’ve begun the drafting of the thing. I’ve given myself an ambitous goal: get it drafted in twelve weeks. I want to get it done so the editing cycles can begin, because I know it’s going to be rough. Assuming the draft is around one hundred thousand words (it’s epic fantasy, after all), that’s about 1300 words a day, starting on 31 December 2018. Depending where your head’s at and what level of experience you have with writing, 1300 words every day may sound like crazy talk, or child’s play.

It doesn’t sound like very much to me: I’ve been writing at least a thousand words a day with reasonable consistency for the past few weeks… but they haven’t been novel words. Here’s my word counts on the book from the past week:

  • Monday: 1006 (77%)
  • Tuesday: 379 (29%)
  • Wednesday: 0 (0%)
  • Thursday: 765 (59%)
  • Friday: 669 (51%)
  • Saturday: 0 (0%)
  • Sunday: 0 (0%)

Hmm. Two observations: I did write every day last week, but like I said the writing wasn’t for the novel. I wrote reflections, I wrote things that could become blog posts like this one, but I only threw keystrokes at scenes for the book on four of the seven days.

And, when I did, it was harder than I imagined it would be. It was hard to get into that flow state where the words just pour out. I have a list of scenes and I know where the story is going in each phase, so it’s not like I’m constantly asking “what happens next?”

Except locally, in each scene, I am. I have a pretty visual brain, so I tend to see pictures of the scene in my head; here’s the guy standing by the deck rail on the ship’s forecastle, looking out to sea and day-dreaming about adventure.

The thing that makes it hardest to keep cranking those scenes is sheer self-doubt: the constant observation what’s coming out of my fingers is not nearly as good as I want it to be. The description is lame, the dialogue is stilted, the action is too fast or too slow…

“This’ll never be a book”, whispers the voice, “you’re wasting your time.”

Oof. No wonder most people—like me, over and over again—give up on this. If you’re gonna sit there and type for, say, an hour or two each day it’s got to be some kind of fun otherwise you won’t do it. I’m quite convinced you don’t accomplish hard things that take a long time unless you either are under the lash or you figure out the version of the task that is fun for you.

You might be able to force your way through a 2000-word short story, but you’re not squeezing an entire novel through clenched fingers.

I’m thinking back to when I did NaNoWriMo in 2012: I did indeed write 50,000 words in a month, which is sixteen-hundred-and-something a day. If only I were doing that now, I’d hit my goal!

So what was different?

I remember just focusing on hitting that number, maybe that’s what’s missing. I’m looking at something like 8000-9000 words a week, a goal I could just put my head down and type frantically towards. Measure it every day.

Getting to the end of this week, I think it was Saturday, and realizing I’d only done 2819 didn’t feel great (and it didn’t translate into novel-writing on the weekend, either).

In terms of eliminating the self-doubt, I keep reminding myself that everything can be fixed in the future. Writing a first draft is just producing a pile of raw materials you can shape, the way you need to cut down a bunch of trees before you can make the logs that you’ll heave into place to build your log cabin1. If you’re worried about getting every stroke of the axe just right, you’ll freeze to death on the cold, cold ground: it’s the wrong place in the process to pour your time and attention.

Just take another breath and swing the axe as best you can.

Hey, there’s some magic of writing for you: I didn’t have that metaphor when I sat down this morning, but I’m quite pleased with it. 🙂

And I have to believe that’s what happens in the muck and horror of drafting the book, too. I know where the story has to go, I know a bunch of the things that happen in vague terms, the sitting down every day is where I find out the specifics, and that’s a kind of fun in itself.

The other way I’m trying to keep it fun, and the impetus for doing the planning up front, is an idea from my writing coach and elsewhere: you don’t need to write the book from the beginning to the end.

I have a stack of index cards, each one an idea for a scene, like “Introduce the expedition at sea”, and before (either the night before or right before) I sit down to draft, I can just pick the one that excites me the most.

Again, this is all in the service of producing raw materials, not “getting it right the first time”; so even if I write a scene in the middle of the novel and then the things I find out while writing the earlier bits necessitate changing or eliminating that scene… well, that’s fine. It’s a couple extra keystrokes. And they come later, in the future; the future I’ll never reach but by sitting down and typing.

I hope this little exploration is helpful to someone else, that’s why I’m putting it on the internet. You might also be sitting there staring at a blank page or lamenting the lack of words you’ve produced for that big, beautiful dream you’ve had for years if you could only somehow force yourself to actually do it.

As for me, writing this makes me want to throw some keystrokes at the book, so here I go.

And there it is: when all else fails, write about how you’re having trouble writing.

  1. Isn’t that a pleasantly old-fashioned, rustic workmanlike image of artisanal craftsmanship? Pardon me while I don a flannel shirt and wait for my beard to grow.

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.