"If you want to be a writer, you have to find time to write every day." I've heard that advice from many writers; you have too. I've said it many times myself! It's one of those totally unglamorous, completely sensible guidelines.
But why? Why is it important to write every day? What if you skip a day...or a month? Are you screwed? Should you just pack it up now, because you'll never finish your novel, and certainly never get it published??
I have a confession. Sometimes I write every single day...but sometimes I don't. How can both be true? Because life in general is complicated, and a writer's life is no exception. Any single rule--"Always do this if you want to succeed!"--is never going to apply one hundred percent of the time, to all situations.
Stay with me as I explain.
Give Me Numbers!
When I was a baby writer, barely able to string a few lines of dialogue together, I tried to do my homework. I wanted to write my novel "the right way." The way the grown-ups do it. So of course, I turned to Stephen King.
I'm a planner. A list maker. I like having concrete plans. If you--like I did--search out advice on writing, you'll very quickly start seeing the "2,000 words a day" recommendation. That's roughly the daily requirement for the NaNoWriMo competition every November. And according to his excellent book On Writing, 2K is how many words Stephen King writes a day, pretty much every day. When I read that, it sounded like a lot, but I loved the specificity. I thought, Hey, who am I to argue with Stephen King? He's one of my idols. 2,000 it is.
And it worked. At first.
My first few months trying to write a novel, I wrote 2,000 words almost every day, whether that took an hour or several hours to accomplish. It wasn't easy, but I had naive exuberance on my side. I got up before my family in the morning to squeeze in 500 words; I wrote for hours on weekends while my husband played with the kiddo. By December, I had a bloated mess of a 140,000 word draft (waaaay too long for most young adult novels, my chosen genre). It needed serious revisions, certainly more revisions than I realized at the time. But I'd never had so much fun. That flawed draft felt deeply meaningful to me in a way that no work project had ever felt meaningful before.
It was like that moment when you're learning to ride a bike, and find yourself gliding along in perfect balance for the first time...right before you wipe out all over the sidewalk. Before you start to realize just how much crashing you still have yet to do.
Just like riding that bike, writing a novel is all about coming back again and again and getting a little steadier--a little more confident--with each writing session, despite your fears and despite the certainty that you will crash again soon enough.
Does that mean I still write 2,000 words a day, every day? No. Way.
I'm in awe of any writer who can pull off 2K/day consistently. (Or for some of you, more than that! Wow.) For me, that kind of pace didn't turn out to be sustainable over the long term. I tried. I really did. I set aside that first manuscript and started another project the very next day. I knew immediately the new story was going nowhere. The magic had died. In no time, I was exhausted and burned out. 2,000 words a day, forever? I thought. I might as well quit now because there's no way. Thank goodness that's not necessary.
The 2K/day recommendation is a blunt instrument: a perfect way to hammer out a first draft quickly, but not versatile enough to make sense for every writer, and for every project, for years on end.
2K/day worked for me when I wrote that first manuscript. It also worked when I had an actual deadline from a publisher for another book (one of those things writers dream about, but that's so much less glamorous in reality). But if you have a very intense day job and you just can't fit in 2K, then try for 1,000. (That's what Stephen King recommends).
I've found that, on average, I can get my 2,000 words done in about 2-4 hours a day when I'm writing a first draft. That's not necessarily one big chunk; I take my writing time where I can find it throughout the day (more on finding that time later). When I'm done with that first draft, I usually try to take a break and catch up on my reading. Yep, that's right--no writing at all. After a month or two (unless a deadline says otherwise), I'm ready to tackle the revisions.
When I'm revising, daily word count goals just don't make sense for me. Instead I try to have a deadline for myself; say, a month or three months or whatever to finish a revised draft. I've typically then sought out feedback from fellow writers, and then I start another round of revisions. I'll go through that cycle several times until the manuscript seems polished and ready to query. Keep in mind that revisions do and should take longer for beginners. For revising, allow at least double the time that you spent on draft one (preferably a lot more!). Some people can work on a new first draft in the mornings, while revising another project in the afternoons (or vice versa). That just doesn't work for me. I get very emotionally invested in the characters, especially the love stories, and I can't switch gears that easily. I prefer a shorter period of working intensely, followed by a longer period of slower work, or a break. I'm still a writer during the breaks. I'm getting ideas, contemplating the plot of my next project, reading voraciously, social networking & marketing...all the things that fall by the wayside when I'm in the thick of a first draft.
Those are just my general rules of thumb. In practice, each project ends up working differently. What worked last time might put me in a rut, and I have to change my plans. It can be infuriating. That's okay. As you keep writing, you'll start creating your own personal rulebook too.
Time is Relative
Very few writers can feed their families from novel writing alone. So you probably shouldn't quit your day job to write full-time just yet. That means working at your already demanding job--whether it's outside the home or in--while you try to start up your writing career on the side. How to find time to write? I've used a bunch of different tactics.
Squeeze in writing whenever you can. When you really think about it, we all have a lot of wasted pockets of time in our days. You could wake up half an hour early to draft. Each lunch at your desk and get down 300 more words. Write while you're on public transportation; a good friend of mine wrote her first manuscript on the train. Set up your laptop on the kitchen counter and jot down a scene in the middle of making dinner or doing laundry. (I happen to be grilling at the same time that I write this. Yay summer!) Always have a notebook, or at least some note paper, in your bag or pocket, just in case the perfect opening sentence comes to you while you're in line at the grocery.
Still not enough time on your hands? Maybe you've tried fitting in small bouts of writing here and there, and your progress is still too slow. Or perhaps you're like another writer-friend of mine, who can't get into a flow unless she has a solid block of time to work with that day. In that case, you have to do something drastic.
You have to make a sacrifice.
No, not a pagan ritual to appease the gods of writing. (That could help too, I guess). I mean you have to give up something--something you probably really like, even love--to create time to write. I gave up television, among some other smaller but much more painful sacrifices. For someone else, it might have to be a daily run or even alone time with the significant other. Only temporarily of course, until you can free up other time and find the right balance. Or what about swearing off Instagram or your RSS feed? If you're truly a writer, then you'll find a way--and if your marriage is strong, your spouse will understand!
It's not so simple as asking, "How much should I write each day?" You're the only one who can answer that question for yourself. Start writing, and figure out what timing works by acknowledging what doesn't. (You'll know. You might not like what your subconscious ends up telling you, but you'll know). Recognize that it might change; your schedule will change, your goals will change. Each manuscript will throw new challenges your way. Eventually you'll have to meet an agent or editor's deadlines, and devote time to marketing as well. There's no one right way to schedule your writing time, as long as you're making consistent progress.
Find what works for you, and do it--no matter what any writing blogs or gurus or how-to books say. Don't second-guess yourself. Self doubt is the enemy of creativity!
Next week, I'll be continuing the blog series on Starting a Writing Practice with the most important element of all: an obsessive love of reading! I'll tell you how reading other authors will not only teach you how to write, but will help you get published. In the meantime, drop by Twitter and say hi. I'm @anwilliswrites.
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