Since this is the festive month of NaNoWriMo, I thought I would share my thoughts on a subject on many participants’ minds, and one that I have often been quizzed on in depth, mainly, “How the hell do you write so much???”
In about a year and a half, I finished (and at least partially edited) eleven novels, countless short stories, blog posts, and a long list of autobiographical anecdotes. All told, it was something over a million words. I forced myself into a sort of hiatus the last six months, and have been averaging only like a thousand words a day, but I’m picking up again, and should have another few novels finished in short order.
That level of output isn’t uncommon, but it’s not something everyone accomplishes, or even feels they can accomplish. A lot of people have day jobs, a passel of young children, and other obligations that take their attention. I once had a writing buddy say, “Anyone could write that much, if they had as much time as you do.”
Well, in theory, I agree with that person. Anyone could write that much, if they had enough time. But, not everyone does, even if they have no other real obligations. And, some writers with day jobs and kids still manage it.
I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone’s word count, or whether writing quickly or slowly is better*. Quite the opposite. My personal opinion is that everyone has their own process. That process is often an intrinsic part of who that person is, and I’m not sure to what extent it can be changed. For instance, when my husband demanded I not write so much, it ended up as a sort of drug addict scenario, where I was hiding with my laptop in dark rooms. (“I’m sleeping! Go away!”). I could no more write less than I could avoid saying “like” fifteen times in every sentence (meaning, like, it was not gonna, like, happen).
However, some writers are still in the process of finding their process. Others are interested in increasing their word count within the context of their own personal process, or want to shake it up a bit and find new writing habits. Some of you just want to reach your goal of 50k words for NaNo, and then rest on your laurels a bit.
If you are one of these, I will give you what advice I can, in full knowledge that what works for me may not work for everyone.
So, item one:
- Find more time in your day.
I hear you all saying, “Yeah, sure,” but just about everyone can do it. It’s a matter of prioritizing.
I’m not asking you to throw your bona fide obligations, like job and family, under the bus. But there are all sorts of other things that can go by the wayside. TV watching. Hanging out with friends. Housework (yes, you can let it go a little. The world won’t end. Or, you can beg your family to pitch in more, because they love you and know how important it is to you to have more writing time).
When I started writing, I had the perfect storm: we’d just moved to another state, so I was left without a job, without friends, even without a house to clean. We were stuck in a hotel for months, waiting for escrow to close. I had a kid to homeschool, and a husband, but that’s it. I’d had a story idea kicking around my head for a while, and it had gotten stronger in the months preceding the move, so I just bought a laptop and let fly.
Most people aren’t going to have this perfect storm, but if you are really dedicated to writing, you will make time for it. I’m not passing judgment on your desire to write, here, either. I’m just stating fact. If you want to get it done, you will get up earlier in the morning (I get up at 2 a.m. or earlier some days) or go to bed later at night, because the need to write is more powerful than the need to sleep. You will quit the PTA, your Bunko group, the gun club; you will tell your friends you’re sick in order to get out of that baby shower or bachelor party or night on the town; you’ll tell your mom you’re sorry, but you can’t come over to help decorate for Flag Day this year. You’ll beg your family’s indulgence in allowing you an hour or two of uninterrupted solitude every day, and you’ll cut down your workout time and get fat for your art.
You can say that I just don’t understand your life, and maybe I don’t. But, if you absolutely can’t find time to write right now, then you need to just give up the dream, and come back to it when you retire or your kids grow up, or whatever. Let the guilt go, click out of this article, and move on. Otherwise, find the time. Everyone has 24 hours in a day. Use every one of them wisely, so you have the fewest regrets possible – and if you’re going to regret not writing that novel, then make it a priority.
Of course, part of having this dedication is wanting to have the dedication, which brings us to item two:
- Have a story you really care about.
This really speaks for itself. In order to need to write more than you need to sleep, watch The Walking Dead, or do cross-stitch, you need to have a story that fully captivates you.
It’s normal for your interest in a story to lag sometimes, to have doubt or angst, the momentary feeling that OMG THIS STORY SUCKS AND I MUST SUCK BY EXTENSION, but if you never get over this feeling, you either need a good therapist, or a new story. Whatever it is you think about on a long drive, or when your mind wanders at work; that daydream that makes your eyes glaze – that is the seed of your story. You need to not be able to stop thinking about it in order to get caught up in it.
So, switch stories. If you’re writing memoir, switch to fiction, or vice versa. Or write a blog post. Don’t throw away the other story, of course, because you may want to come back to it later. Just get your mind around something fresh, and it may give you a fresh burst of inspiration.
- Play with your process.
There are a lot of people writing a lot of books and blog posts (*ahem*) about the best way to write, or how to get started or, you know, how to increase your word count. None of us have a monopoly on the truth. If something isn’t working for you, it may not be something you should do. For instance, I know a lot of people who get stuck on outlines – they spend months and months trying to complete an outline for a story, without even starting a draft. I know that someone in your life has told you that you absolutely have to write an outline, but they weren’t right. Experiment, instead, with free-writing – “pantsing” if you will. Throw out the outline, and just start the damn story, already.
Conversely, if you’re trying to pants it, and are stuck not knowing where to go, try writing an outline.
If having a regimented writing schedule has you staring blankly at the screen for your allotted two hours a day, try loosening it up a little. Switch from an hour a day to seven hours on a Sunday. Or just write on the fly – on the bus, or dictate to your iPhone on your commute. Tell your boss you’ve taken up smoking, and then hide in the alley with your laptop.
Similarly, if you’re trying to snatch time from anywhere, try having a dedicated schedule.
There are plenty more examples of this sort of thing. If you have one, leave it in the comments. I’m interested to know what works for you, and what doesn’t.
- Don’t wait for the perfect words to come. Just write whatever words DO come.
In my opinion, the best writing advice, the advice you should take even if you take no other, is this: Give yourself permission to write badly.
If you don’t know how to start, just start anyway. If you don’t know how to write a scene, skip it or sketch through it. If you can’t think of the right word, write the wrong word. You’ll be editing later, in any event, even if you thought you got it perfect the first time. Every writer, no matter how good you think they are, has written things that are embarrassingly bad at some time in their life. So seriously: don’t worry about it.
I really don’t know what other advice to give, actually. Like I said, everyone has their own process. Just remember that you can find a process that works for you. You can finish a novel, and then another, and another. You can grow as a writer, and have fun with it. And you can get published, as long as you persevere.
Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can 🙂
*Footnote: just, please, people: don’t tell me that because I write quickly, my novels must suck. I’ve heard folks imply this often enough, and don’t need to hear it again. You may think my books suck anyway, but it isn’t because I drafted them quickly. Some exceptional novels have been written in a matter of weeks, and some terrible novels have been decades in the making. We all know it’s true.