A big meal in small bites

I’ve heard it said that writing a novel is kind of like eating an elephant. And how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Same thing for a novel. 80,000-100,000 words seems like a lot, seems insane to write that much when you really look at the numbers, but it’s a lot easier if you take it in small bites. When I first heard that professional novelists like like Stephen King and James Rollins write 2,000 words a day, I thought that was fine for them; they didn’t have day jobs. (Actually, Rollins writes six pages a day, but when you consider that the average double spaced manuscript page in a proportional font like Times or Cambria runs a bit over 300 words, this comes out to 1,800 words, or 2,000 if you average 333 words a page. Close enough.) There was no way I could write that much and still have a job and a reasonable social life.

Actually, folks, it’s not just possible, it’s relatively easy. Here’s how.

I have a spreadsheet that I modified from the one Tobias Buckell uses to track my progress as I write. It has all kinds of useful/encouraging information, but the real beauty of it is that I only have to enter two numbers each day: total word count for the whole manuscript and the hours I spent writing for the day. It calculates everything else for me. In particular, for any given day, it tells me:

  • My current word count for the day
  • My “target” word count for the day, defined as yesterday’s total plus 2,000, rounding up to the nearest thousand. So if I finished at 51,212 yesterday, than today’s target is 54,000.
  • The number of words remaining to get to my minimum of 2,000.

Currently, with a word count of 51,521, those numbers are 309, 54,000 and 1,691. Now, here’s the magic. No matter what I’m doing, one of those four numbers is going to be within a couple hundred words of a multiple of 500. So I don’t have to look at the goal if it’s still far away. I’m 2,479 words away from my goal of 54,000 today. I don’t want to think about that. What I want to think about is that I’m only 191 words away from hitting 500 for the day. That’s it. 191 words. That’s less than a page. I can write a page, can’t I?

And that’s the secret. By constantly updating my word count into this spreadsheet, I always have a quick, easily attainable goal. A small bite. Let’s say I write some more. (brb)

Okay, now the manuscript is up to 51,741 words, putting me at 529 for the day, 1,471 to go until my 2k minimum. Now both of the latter numbers are 471 words away from hitting 1,000, and that’s more than a page. Not much more, but it’s a bigger bite. But hey, I’m only 259 words (less than a page) from hitting 52,000! So that’s the next mile marker. I’ll write to 52,000, then update my word count again and look around. Maybe check the Twitter. I average roughly 1,000 words an hour, though I can double that pace if I close my eyes and just hammer away without worrying about punctuation or spelling, which means 259 words is about 15 minutes. Who doesn’t have 15 minutes to write?

See how this works? Each step is easy. So easy, in fact, that you don’t notice how long the journey is at all. And that’s the key to getting 2,000 words a day, every day, in a life filled with job obligations, family needs, movies to watch, Hulu, Twitter and everything else that takes up your days. You squeeze in these tiny bites of writing here and there, scattered in between all the other stuff. Most days, you have more down time than you realize. I’ve learned that if I mix in a 500-700 word sprint at Chipotle over lunch—a quarter to third of my quota—with a bite here and a bite there, I can get up to 4,000 words in a work day without my actual job suffering at all. I’m still working the day job as hard as always, but I’m spending my down time writing rather than surfing. And if I can do 4,000 before I go home, then there’s really no excuse not to get at least 2,000.

This Excel-based workflow, geeky and accountant-like though it might be, has done two invaluable things for me. It’s instilled a dedication to write every day, but if I don’t there will be a big gap in the spreadsheet, and it’s taught me how to get my words in dribs and drabs, but still get them. I’m not afraid of 2,000 words a day anymore. I know I can do it. I know that on a good day I can double it. And so can you.

One thought on “A big meal in small bites”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *