When I was teaching a creative writing class, one problem I noticed most of my students had in common was getting down to work. True, they all had busy lives, but somehow that hadn’t prevented them from attending the class. Hmm… Maybe this was a case of people not particularly wanting to write so much as having written.
The reason I was teaching the class instead of taking it is because I put on my big girl pants every morning and got to work. I didn’t talk about wanting to be a writer (at least, not often). I wrote. The very definition of a writer. A writer writes. Right? If you really can’t squeeze out a handful of paragraphs each day, then you have two choices:
- Admit you’re kidding yourself and find something else to do with your time.
- Decide that you will put in the work–and do it!
The best way of succeeding as a writer is (drum roll, please)… WRITE! There are no short cuts, no easy answers. Anyone who tells you they have a secret fix that will make you into a successful author overnight, no sweat, probably also has some New Jersey swampland to sell you.
As Richard Bach once said,
“A professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
I know getting started is always a challenge, even for us professionals, but it does get easier with time and dedication. Sometimes you have to be stern with yourself. For my students, I offered a choice between working for 15 minutes a day every day (they insisted even that was an effort), or producing 500 words or roughly two pages of copy per day.
This was the bare minimum of effort they could expect to put in if they wanted to see any results at all. Producing 1-2 pages per day will put a book in your hands by the end of the year. If you can’t make that minimum effort then maybe you should consider needlepoint or basket-weaving.
If you have decided that, after all, you really would rather write, well you know what you have to do, don’t you?
It helps to track your work. If you are saving for something special, you keep an eye on the bank balance and it’s thrilling to see yourself nearing your goal. Do the same thing with your writing. It does help. Track your words or hours or both and you’ll get to the point where you see how much effort you will have wasted if you don’t complete your work. (Though last week’s suggestion that it will take you 10,000 hours to reach your potential is something to keep in mind.)
All writers have their own ways of tracking their work. Do you count the words written, or do you allot a specific period of time? Both have their advantages–and their disadvantages.
The advantage here is you set a schedule so you can develop a good habit. You decide to work for one hour (or 15-minutes, or 8-hours) a day. You don’t leave your desk until the time is up.
The disadvantage is some tasks don’t take the length of time you’ve allotted. You run the risk of being bored, or stringing out the writing just to kill the time.
Then again, if you’ve decided to write for an hour and the work is going well, it’s a pain to down tools just because the hour is up.
I go with the counting the hours routine now and then. I find when I am rewriting a piece, it’s best to forget about the number of hours and focus on spending a couple of hours (or more) getting through as much as I can. Because I really enjoy the rewriting process, setting a time schedule is never a chore. More important, because when I’m rewriting I can work to the point of exhaustion, setting a number of hours and keeping to it helps me stay fresh.
Many authors like to go with the time schedule. For instance, Lee Child: “I write in the afternoon from about 12 to 6 or 7… Once I get going I keep at it.”
Probably the most favoured method by most professional writers, but how much finished copy do they actually produce? My minimum word count is 1,000 words, but it can vary. For instance, a first draft is a fairly hard slog and 1,000 words is usually about what I can manage. Sometimes I achieve less; other times considerably more. When I am rewriting, for instance, I can easily handle five to ten times that amount.
The number of words you decide upon is up to you, and all writers have their own comfort zone:
Ian McEwan says, “I am for about six hundred words a day and hope for at least a thousand when I’m on a roll.”
600 is on the low side. Most authors tend to aim, like me, for 1000 per day. J.G. Ballard, Sarah Waters, Sebastian Faulks, Sophie Kinsella, and W. Somerset Maugham are all subscribers to this number. Others aim higher:
Stephen King: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.”
Nicholas Sparks: “I write five or six days a week, usually a minimum of 2,000 words, sometimes more. 2,000 words can take anywhere from three to eight hours.”
That mad man John Creasey aimed for 6,000 per day, and the admirable Michael Crichton a whopping 10,000 per day, or so he said…
Many authors use a combination of the two methods. For instance, Anne Rice says, “I have to get all the distractions out of the way. I plunge into the work and write an episode; I can’t just clock in at 3,000 words. I have to have time free to resolve things… But when I’m ready to plunge in, I write from late morning through all afternoon, all evening.”
Anthony Trollope was far more draconian with himself. “I write with my watch before me, to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour.” I personally couldn’t write with my eye on the minute hand like that, but if it works for you, well, Godspeed.
Whichever method you choose, the important thing is to remember what Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
The bottom line, in the immortal words of Maya Angelou:
“Nothing will work unless you do.”