Nora Roberts once said, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” With more than 165 novels under her belt, she clearly practices what she preaches; I heard once that not only does she keep a daily writing schedule that mimics a regular workday, but she also upon finishing one manuscript pretty much takes a deep breath and a short break, then opens a new file. Clearly Roberts is on the prolific side of the spectrum no matter how you slice it, but there’s wisdom in her mantra, and I’m going to argue that writers of all genres, abilities, and sensibilities could benefit from finding their own way to follow her example.
You can set tiny word counts: who can’t take the time to bang out two hundred words? No, that’s not much, but if you do that just once a day for ten days, you have 2000 words. Double that output for ten days, and you have 4000. Or, if you can’t write every day, write five hundred words five times a week. That’s 1500 words a week, 6000 a month. You can write in 100 word sprints several times a day, you can write every evening for an hour—break it up however you want to. But every session complies, and before you know it, you have a substantial amount of story.
It’s true that you need to honor your process when you compose by daily word count; if you need to push through to a full draft before you revise, then you don’t let yourself backtrack and edit, instead leaving gaping holes in the story and even jumping around out of order so that you get yourself to the end. If you’re one who needs to polish as she goes, you’ll need to work out how long you write into something that feels like it’s not working before you decide that it isn’t and restart. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sometimes force yourself into one or the other methods for awhile, just to make sure your method isn’t a bad pattern. If you compulsively rewrite, perhaps try a few sessions (or even a whole draft) or pushing through. If you can create piles and piles of first drafts but never manage to get around to editing, you might want to take your story scene by scene or even sequence by sequence and make sure they stand firm before you move on to the next unit. Or you might end up in some hodgepodge of both. Or each book might demand you approach it differently.
But making a daily word count works with any method. Start with a twenty minute session and say you’re going to write “as many words as you can.” After a few sessions of that, you’ll begin to see how much you can expect out of yourself in that amount of time, and then you can begin to push, or scale back as appropriate. If you know you can easily crank out 900 words in a half hour, on a day you’re feeling punchy, try for 1000 or 1300. If you’re dragging your butt to the chair, tell yourself 600 is a win. But the only way a novel gets written is by putting down word after word, one at a time. And don’t tell yourself you can only do it when you’re in the mood. You put in your words if you’re tired, if you’re blocked, if you’re angry, if you’re too hyper to work. Just get them down. If they’re garbage, you’ll cut them later. You can’t decide that, though, until they are written down.
It’s hard to do a daily word count, because it takes the romance out of writing. We all love the long, out-of-body writing binges where we look up hours later, eyes blurry and hands cramped and realize how deeply we were lost in our story, and how much we produced. We also know that those sessions are not always gold, and need to be rewritten as much as the session we bled out of ourselves—and sometimes more. But the problem with the writing binges is that if we let them, they can become like a crack fix, and we’ll only write when we can work ourselves into them. It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it—you know when you’re on those binges you’re on a contact high, which means your brain is going to seek them out again in the same way it seeks out chocolate (or whatever your food-crack is). This can be a good thing, but not if this is the only way you can write. It’s deadly if your life doesn’t have the flexibility or structure to allow these sorts of releases.
Writing daily (or as close to that as your timeframe allows) gets you into a habit, like brushing your teeth. It trains your brain to understand that this is something that will keep happening, and it had better bring the goods when it gets the cue that it’s entering a writing session. It can also work you into those binges more often and faster, because every word is practice. In Outliers Malcom Gladwell reports that experts in their fields/subject matter have almost always put in a collective 10,000 hours of practice, and he cites Bill Gates and the Beatles and countless other known success story outliers as evidence. So while daily word count goals keep you focused on the steps in front of you without letting you be distracted by the big picture, you’re also moving yourself at the same time further down the very, very long road to mastery. The ten-thousand hour theory is comforting on a lot of levels: it suggests that simply showing up and practicing, doing the work, will make you better. You can read all the writing theory books you want and all manner of advice blogs, but until you sit down and try, you aren’t truly moving forward. Everything you write, even the stuff you are convinced is drivel, does move you.
There are a lot of support mechanisms for a daily word count. NaNoWriMo, of course,is just getting underway, and there the daily word count is built in: to reach 50,000 words in thirty days, you must write at least 1667 per day on average. NaNoWriMo has the benefit of being a group sport, with forums and local regions to provide you with commiseration and ideas for how to move forward when you’re bogged down. There is also Write or Die, which I’ve never tried personally, but I know some people swear by: the premise is that you can set your computer up to motivate you to keep writing. Lifehaker reports it thusly:
Set a word count and time you want to write for. Then, set how you want the app to "remind" you if you stop writing—"Gentle" pops up a text box, "Normal" plays a harsh sound file, and "Kamikaze" mode slowly deletes back from your stopping point until you get back to it. Can’t tell if "Electric Shock" is a joke or a feature in development. A bonus feature of Write or Die is that once you close the writing window, it asks to copy all your text to your clipboard—a serious salvation if you’re the type to accidentally close browser windows. No sign-up required.
Two of my favorite daily word count motivations are on Twitter: the hashtags #amwriting and #writegoal. By using one or both of these tags, you can follow and be followed by other writers who are also working through a writing work period, and like NaNoWriMo, it can make the loneliest job in the world feel less so. There’s a strange comfort in simply tweeting, “Okay, sitting down for 30 minutes of writing, whether I want to or not. #amwriting” and then getting to work. Sometimes I think tweeting my intent helps me do it, like a Stuart Smalley Daily Affirmation. Sometimes it becomes face I have to maintain: if I say I’m gong to write and then I don’t, I feel like I’ve let someone down, even it that’s only myself. But the other bonus is that the people on the #amwriting hashtag are kind, generous, and welcoming people. You’ll end up with followers just because you used that tag, and you’ll probably get some encouraging comments once in a while from total strangers. #Writegoal is less of a community than #amwriting (read the explanation of that tag here), but the same concepts still apply. I like to use #writegoal when I’m setting a specific target or objective and #amwriting when I’m sitting down to work. It becomes a sort of mental flag for myself, like suddenly I’m in an office building full of (really cool and funky) cubicles. For me it’s all about taking away some of the heaviness of always being in my home office with nothing but cats for company all day long. I don’t work out of the house that often, and most of my socialization is with my husband, my daughter, and clerks at the store. Twitter contacts give me just that little bit of camaraderie that I would get at the water cooler or the bathroom mirror if I worked in a traditional setting, and they help me be more productive. But you can use daily word counts any way you want to. You can set rewards for yourself after you successfully meet your word count in so many sessions or meet a certain word count as a total. You can tailor it to any system and any personality or style. And you can adjust it at any time, for any reason.
The greatest enemies of a writer during the drafting stage is inertia and self-doubt. If you’re able to get yourself away from whatever else it is you want to be doing (or should be doing) and seated at your work station, you still have to wade through your fears that the story is as bad or possibly worse than you fear, that you really don’t know what you’re doing here, that this was a bad idea, that you’re wasting your time, that no one will read this, that everyone will laugh at you, that you’ll never get to the end, that your characters are the flattest, stupidest things ever, that your plot is laughable—you could make your word count no problem, if you could just write all that down. But such tail-chewing is just avoidance. Yes, all your fears and worries might be true. So what? You can fix it later—either once you have it down on the page, or once you’ve finished this session. If you can’t think of a way to fix it now, then absolutely you shouldn’t try—just do another word count session, keep writing, and deal with the snarls later. Because if you just keep working, you’ll just keep amassing more words, and more practice, and eventually you will have a draft, however messy.
Yeah, you can get caught up in an endless editing loop once you’re out of the drafting stage, but that’s another topic entirely. But you can’t even do that until you get a draft, be it of a story or a sequence or a scene. So go, right now, and book your next session. If you’ve got twenty minutes (or forty, or ten), do one right now. If you can’t, look ahead to today or the next and see when you can work one in. Then keep making those appointments with yourself, one session at a time, and eventually I guarantee you, you’ll have a draft. And if you want to wrestle with your characters or your plot or your word choice, then fine, but you can’t do it before. Because Roberts is right: you can’t fix a blank page.