A little goes a long way
I’ve wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always had a hard time getting to The End. It’s daunting, isn’t it? You have this great idea, a character you love, or something that compels your forward and yet…..there are so many words to write down.
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different approaches. I’ve launched right in, chasing the glimmer of a good idea. I’ve tried notecards, outlining, author software with electronic post-it notes and bulletin boards, old-fashioned and digital. These methods all have merits and I continue to use the elements that help me get the pieces of a good story together, but when it comes to the actual writing, nothing beats the simplest of methods: something every day.
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
I read this advice wasn’t in a writing craft book. Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is right up my self-improvement-give-me-a-project-alley and I devoured it when it first came out.
In addition to giving me an incentive to clear some clutter, and celebrate more holidays, that piece of advice morphed into what has become my essential writing practice. When I’m doing a first draft, I write something – even just a little something – every day I possibly can.
It was the math that convinced me.
If an average middle grade novel is 36,000 words, and I write 1,000 words a day, that’s a novel in a month and six days.
That’s seems so….achievable, doesn’t it?
For me, 1,000 words a day is still a stretch. I have a full-time day job, kids, family obligations, and all the other stuff (like laundry, oh, the laundry!) that pulls me in a million directions.
A daily commitment to anything except basic hygiene has never been my strong suit. I have page-a-day diary my parents gave me in the second grade. Its 365 pages contains entries from second, third, fourth, and probably seventh grade. None of the entries overlap and the diary is at least half empty. I will clearly not be leaving behind a vast repository of my intimate thoughts for my children and grandchildren to pursue (thankfully!).
But a daily habit for a limited period of time? That, it turns out, is an entirely different beast altogether. That is something I can do.
Here’s what a little bit every day looks like:
The blue line is the novel, growing in word count.
The green line is what I write every day.
Weekends are usually jumps (but some are full of performances and taxi-driving-mom time), and on average I’m writing a little over 700 words a day. Some of those days are in the 200 range, a few gems are over 1,000.
Even those 200 words add to the blue line, though.
What the graph doesn’t show is the prep time, fleshing out the idea, plotting the scenes and thinking about the story before I started. It turns out I need a decent map to know where I’m going, but seeing those lines march across the spreadsheet gives me confidence that every day matters.
It’s kind of like exercise: a little bit every day is making a difference, even though it’s hard to notice on any given day.
Breaking any big task down into its elements is something we know, or we’re taught to do. What made it come together for me was the idea of taking a huge task (write an amazing novel!), and breaking it into some smaller steps (idea? plan it? write a first draft? revise? revise?), then making one of those steps a daily task (write a first draft).
It’s a challenge, and there has been at least one night already when I was drifting off as my fingers typed nonsense (that was a 300-word day) but the personal shame of putting a zero in my chart gives me enough oomph to type at least something before I hit the sack.
Now, enough blogging, I’ve got some words to get down!
Originally published March 14, 2017