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.

The daily writer’s kick in the nads

I had a good day yesterday. I had a great day, yesterday, really. I added 4,310 words to Revelation, bringing the total to 32,000 even. Last night I went home, yammered on the phone to my writing partner for a while, and then watched NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles with the complete and utter abandon of someone who demolished their word count goal for the day.

And then, this morning, I got kicked in the nads.

I get kicked in the nads every morning. Because every morning, no matter how well or how poorly I did the day before, I start at zero again. My word count today is zero, at least so far (it’s early still). So as great as I felt about myself yesterday, today I’ve got to start pushing that stupid boulder up the hill again.

And yet, days like yesterday show me that it’s not so bad, this daily kick in the nads. All I need to stay on schedule today is 2,000 words, and I did over twice that yesterday. And I did that without getting up early and writing for an hour before work, and I did it without taking my laptop to Chipotle for lunch. I’m become adept at squeezing the words out of the slack spots in my day, finding time to write wherever and whenever I can get it.

And this is the habit that I’ll take out of this year’s NaNoWriMo, the habit that will enable me to write this seven-book series in a year. Just like my plot and characters have turned out different than I thought, the writing habits I’m developing are different than what I expected. I intended to instill in myself a “get up at 6 and get the writing done, day in, day out” habit, but it turns out my life doesn’t work that way. My life is a chaotic jumble of so many things—hell, even my job in tech support is basically to be interrupted—and I suppose it fits that my writing habit would develop as a way to jam little chunks of writing into that chaos any way I can. To get the words in dribs and drabs if need be, but get them. 200-300 words here and there adds up.

Just so I can get kicked in the nads again tomorrow.

No, really, I should be writing

I’m not blocked, I know exactly where my story should be going, and when I do sit down to write, the words that show up, however grudgingly, are good ones.

And yet, I logged a grand total of 192 words over the weekend, 5 (yes, five, and that only to fulfill the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge demand to write something every day) Saturday and 188 Sunday. My manuscript currently sits at 22,616 words, short not only of my 2k per day pace (30,000 as of yesterday) but even the easier NaNoWriMo pace (25,000 as of yesterday). I now need over 2,200 words a day to come in on schedule for this book.

Before I go into the following, I want to let my readers know I already know the solution to my problem. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, write. It’s just like eating less and exercise for weight loss; there really is no other way.

But in the interest of showing what not to do—as ever, it seems my primary purpose in life is to serve as a cautionary tale for others—and to take certain excuses off the table for myself and other writers, let’s take a look at why I didn’t get much done over the weekend.

Reason: Too tired.

Explanation: I have sleep apnea, a breathing disorder common in heavyset people, that causes my airway to close off while I sleep and stop my breathing temporarily. This is usually treated with a CPAP, or Constant Positive Air Pressure, device, basically an air pump feeding a hose attached to an airtight facemask that forces my airway open by sheer air pressure, like a balloon. Friday night I experienced a technical problem with my mask and rather than get up to fix it, I just decided to do without it for one night. As a result of the subsequent oxygen deprivation, I was groggy and sluggish all day.

Why This Doesn’t Count: I gorram well know better, and should have fixed my CPAP. I could argue that I’ve been pushing myself too hard for the last two weeks and my body was just insisting on getting some rest, but I’m not sure I buy that.

 

Reason: So much interesting stuff on the Hulu, Twitter, Google News, Instapaper, etc.

Explanation: While I didn’t get much writing done, I did spend a big chunk of the weekend, when I wasn’t catching up on TV shows I’d missed during the week, reading Twitter, RSS feeds and saved articles.

Why This Doesn’t Count: Do I really need to explain this one? Writing is supposed to come first. Yes, the Patriots/Colts game last night was amazing. No, I had no business watching it until I had my 2,000 words. Same for Twitter, Google Reader and all my other time sinks. I get a lot of useful stuff out of those. But writing needs to come first.

 

Reason: Fear of success.

Explanation: One of the shows I was watching Saturday instead of writing brought up an interesting point. The character kept stalling in opening his own business because as long as he didn’t actually try and fail, it was still a dream rather than yet another thing he screwed up. I’ve often felt the same about my writing. Despite concrete evidence to the contrary (see previous articles about characters coming up with better ideas than what I had in mind for them), I tend to think that the stories are better in my head and that I damage them, somehow, by writing them down.

Why This Doesn’t Count: This is, of course, complete wooly-headed bullshit. I know damn well that the stories improve during the writing, and then improve more during editing. Getting them out of my head is only the first step in the process. And besides, even if they were perfect in my head, if I don’t write them down, so what? Who else will ever know?

 

Reason: Expectation that I can catch up.

Explanation: I know I’m capable of 3k days. I know I’m capable of 6k days every so often. So what difference does it make if I take a few days off? I can make it up later.

Why This Doesn’t Count: I’m sure this one sounds damn familiar to anyone who ever had to write a term paper. And it’s largely the same reasoning. I know I’m a fast writer, so I can trust that speed to save me later. Although just like in The Grasshopper And The Ant, this never actually works. Things come up, and Murphy’s Law dictates that the closer you get to your deadline, the more distractions you will have. Yes, mathematically, if I do 3k per day for six days, I’ll catch up on the 21st at 42000 words. Is that really going to happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But I shouldn’t be in this position in the first place.

 

Ultimately, none of these excuses matter. Either I make writing my number one priority, or I don’t. If I don’t, I’m not going to make it very far as a professional writer. So do I want it, or not?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, this article is 883 words, and while I’m fully committed to keeping this blog going, I really should be writing fiction.

Writing for energy

Writing used to be work. When I was younger, when I let myself set low expectations, writing was work. I remember when I first started working on Mistaken Identity, back somewhere around 1999-2000, I set a word count goal of 250 words a day. I figured that was an average print page, and if I did that every day for a year, I’d have a book. Some mornings, getting that 250 words was grueling. It was pure torture. I usually felt a little better after doing it, but I never built up any momentum and was happy when I met the goal and could stop.

Nonfiction was draining back then, too. I remember my first Writing On Your Palm article to crest 3,000 words written in one day, a Monday, when I had to have something to post. My brain felt like scrambled eggs when I was done, and I couldn’t imagine how professional writers took that punishment day after day.

I no longer feel that way.

I understand I have a pretty small sample size to go on, but if this week is any indication, my problem wasn’t writing too much, it was stopping too soon. The first couple hundred words or so still come sluggishly at times, but now that I’ve set my sights considerably higher for the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge, something weird has happened.

The more I write, the better I feel.

I totally didn’t see this coming. But this week I’ve been pumping out around 3,000 words a day, every day, and I feel terrific. I’m in better mood, I laugh more, hell even food tastes better. And then I realized something. First, let me set the stage. Tuesday night, I didn’t get a chance to write much at the office. I snuck in a 841 word blog post, but my fiction writing had been limited exclusively to meal breaks, around 800 words at both breakfast and lunch. I was at 2,426 words for the day total, well over my 2,000 word a day minimum, but only 1,585 of that was fiction. And I knew that didn’t count. Blog and Twitter writing is gravy. It doesn’t apply to MGUWC. I needed 415 words of fiction before I could call it a day.

Before, this would have filled me with dread. I was tired when I walked out of the office. Before, going home and vegging on the couch watching NCIS or Stargate would have been overwhelmingly preferable to more writing. But despite being tired, going home was no longer my number one option.

I was shocked to discover that the idea of swinging by one of the three Chipotle’s on my way home, preferably the one with free wifi from the restaurant next door, and writing some more didn’t seem like a draining prospect at all. In fact, it filled me with enthusiasm to write some more, because on some level I realized that writing would make me feel better.

And let me tell you, it worked! I sat down at Chipotle, tuned Pandora on my iPhone to my Writing Music station, a mix of movie scores, strings and electronica, and set about my task. This was the opening of Chapter 3, where we first meet the new Susan Richardson. And I had absolutely no idea what would actually happen in that chapter. I knew Susan was a right wing blogger, and that was it. And yet, not only did I get my fiction word count—and write part of this post—I also realized as I followed Susan around that her meeting Daniel wouldn’t be the chance encounter it was in the original, as it still was in my outline. No, she would be under pressure from her editor (the blog she writes for is, in my mind, kind of a mirror of Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos, and Susan herself is starting to look and sound a lot like a Bizarro world Ana Marie Cox) and working on an article based on an overheard conversation from Chapter 3, she’d be looking for Daniel, trying to get an interview with the terrorist fugitive North Korean operative everyone is talking about. The book as a whole got stronger, character motivations got stronger, and I got a much better look at a pivotal character I didn’t know yet. And at a time I once would have avoided writing at all.

I should have done this years, decades ago. And the really scary part?

I’m just getting started.