I’m no stranger to rationalization.
It’s easy to make excuses for not doing something. I was sidetracked by work, or by other things I need to take care of at home, family obligations, or the last half of Season 5 of Lucifer that dropped on Netflix and which I feel compelled to binge-watch. There’s only so many hours in a day. Plus, I’m tired.
You know the drill. We all have things we would like to do someday—when we have the time. If I were a professional writer, without the worries of a day job, I could turn out as many bestsellers as Stephen King.
No, I probably couldn’t.
I know, I know. That’s not something you expect to hear from a writing coach. It’s supposed to be about positive reinforcement and hope-giving affirmations. But, I’m a firm believer in the Socratic Dictim, which is Know Thyself. My neverending struggle to reach self-actualization (I’m referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, which was a hot topic in psychology a few decades ago) involves learning my strengths and limitations. Not just as a writer, but as a human being.
Especially as a writer, though, for the purposes of this post.
For thirteen months of quarantining, pre-vaccine, I had all the time in the world to write. I churned out a few thousand additional words during this period, but not as much as you would expect if time were the only ingredient missing in the writing equation.
I had an additional nine hours and forty minutes a day (approximately) in which I could have been writing, five days a week. Assume that I can type sixty words-per-minute. I actually type faster than that, but I write more slowly. But, for the sake of this argument, assume the sixty-word pace. With an extra nine hours and forty minutes a day, that would compute to 580 total minutes (without meals or restroom breaks) or 34,800 words.
Did I write that many extra words a weekday during our time in isolation? Nearly thirty-five thousand additional words a day?
Not even close. I doubt I even reached ten percent of that total. 3500 words is about fourteen pages, double-spaced and in 12-point type (I average 250 words-per-page). So far, in the first draft of the post I’m writing right now, I’ve typed approximately 400 words. This isn’t bragging, just a statement of fact. 3500 words would be between eight and nine times this amount.
For me, a thousand words—maybe fifteen hundred—is a great writing day, even on a day off from work. I try to write a little every day, at least 250 words-a-day. So, with seven days in each week, including two days off from work, should I expect to write between 3250 and 4250 words-per-week?
In all of 2020, I posted over 273,000 words on WordPress.com. With fifty-two weeks in the year, that averages out to 5250 words-per-week. There were peaks and valleys in my wordcount output, and I wrote more than I posted. So, 4250 words-per-week doesn’t seem so challenging. That’s just a hair over 600 words, on average, each day.
If this post were the only thing I planned to write today, I would be closing in on that wordcount goal already.
The average length of a short story is 1500 to 30,000 words. The average length of a novel is 50,000 to 110,000 words. Novellas (or novelettes, as they were once called) are somewhere between the two. Flash fiction—a relatively new phenomenon—can be considerably shorter.
If I honestly believe I can write an average of 600 words each day, and 200 of these words were on a novel-length piece of fiction, that would be 73,000 words in a year’s time, firmly within the novel range. It is conceivable that I could write at least a draft of a novel every year.
In 2019, a year in which there was no quarantine time, I averaged about 490 words-per-day, at least in my posted WordPress output. During 2018, I was even more productive—at least from a wordcount perspective—than 2020, for reasons I can’t fully understand.
In her 1982 book Guide to Fiction Writing, author Phyllis A. Whitney asserts that working discipline is the most important habit for a writer to develop.
You may be familiar with Whitney, who passed away in 2008 at age 104. I know I read a few of her juvenile mysteries as a member of the Weekly Reader Book Club in the 1970s. These, along with the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown and other members of that tribe, helped to instill a lifelong love of mystery and suspense stories. Her adult fiction would probably be categorized as romantic suspense these days, but was popularly known as gothic fiction when originally published. Whitney was prolific and was a successful working author. Her final novel was published when she was 94 years old. She more than earned the right to give wannabe writers advice.
The word discipline often seems to have a negative connotation these days. But, I think Ms. Whitney used the correct word. It takes self-discipline (slightly less negative vibes here, for some reason) to put up a series of words on page or screen every day, even when you don’t feel like writing.
Like the hundreds of other articles I once read in magazines such as Writer’s Digest and The Writer, when I was first dipping my big toe in the waters of fiction-writing, Ms. Whitney suggests setting aside a structured writing time each day, ignoring phone calls and mail, family and pets.
My first reaction to this advice, today even, was that this is an unrealistic expectation. My wife and I can sit three feet apart in our living room recliners for hours without saying a word to each other, except for the occasional comment about Vanna White’s dress or how vulgar Family Feud has become in recent years.
But, the moment I sneak away into the office to record a few thoughts as alphabetical characters on a computer screen, my wife will begin to miss me and, inevitably, will join me in the office to talk about whatever’s on her mind. I am flattered that my wife loves me and wants to spend time with me. While I’m not equating the love my dogs Moxie and Cooper have for me with that of my wife, they also seem to require my attention the most when I’m attempting to concentrate on something else. I can’t, in good conscience, close the office door. That all-too-real physical metaphor of putting up barriers to love breaks my heart. I’m an old softie. We have no minor children living with us, but I don’t have to imagine the additional distractions from writing that kids provide.
The entire previous paragraph was an excuse. I can recognize this fact, objectively.
I know this because I’m already quite self-disciplined in other routines. I wake up much earlier than necessary to get ready for work so that I have time to watch an episode of whatever series I’m currently watching and writing about. I also know that I’m going to watch an additional episode during my lunch break in the employee’s lounge at the post office, which is another solitary hour of my day. I never plan to watch an episode during the evenings, because that time is, shall we say, less solitary. Other living beings require my attention.
I’ve planned my entertainment choices each week for so long now that it has become a habit, and no longer sounds as weird to me as it may to you.
I haven’t, however, demonstrated the same amount of self-discipline with my writing habits. Not for a lack of trying. Personally, when I have tried to budget my creative time—at least, outside of an academic setting—I always seem to lock up the engines of my mind. I might say, or write, that I’m going to write that review of the video game Injustice 2 I’ve been intending to write. If I try to concentrate on nothing but that review, I’m going to run out of steam pretty quickly. I will accept the argument that my brain—-or, at least, the creative portion of my brain—-is very much like a stubborn toddler who makes herding cats seem like a valid career choice.
I know when I’ve run out of juice. If I’m going to continue to write, then it will be about another subject or story.
Phyllis Whitney made a point of recommending getting something—anything—down on paper, because it’s always easier to get back to work on it the next day. Seems like Hemingway said something similar once as well.
I’ve found this to be true in my own work. It’s always easier to come back to something I started the previous day than it is to begin something else, even if that other thing was only a post title. It is not uncommon for me to have several partially-written posts on my word processing program at the same time. Some are around long enough for me to finish and publish. Others suffer an early, terminal delete because they no longer bring me joy.
If there is a theme to this post, it’s that time management and discipline are at least two components of writing that can be taught or learned. Since I’m away from home during a typical week approximately forty-seven-and-a-half hours, that means I’m at home for more than 120 additional hours each week. Sure, I’m sleeping for some of that time, but less than half. I’m estimating that I have six hours of semi-”free” time each weekday, divided between mornings and pre-bedtime evening. Even subtracting the thirty minutes to shower, shave and dress each morning, and the half-hour cool down/dinner time after I arrive home in the evening, that’s still several hours a day available for me to do other things. Entertainment in the form of streaming series, movies, reading or video games claims a huge portion of this time, but there is time for other things.
What I need to do, nearly at the midpoint of 2021, is to focus more on my fiction output , planning my tasks similar to the way I plan out my television-watching schedule. I do believe that the desire to write stories is more than a compulsion: it is a need, for those of us so inflicted. While the creative muse can be reluctant to such things as schedules and to-do lists, the writing process itself can be broken down into discrete components without stifling the creative spark. I have to believe that. Doing the breaking-down part is a lot like work, which requires self-discipline.
I have the time. I’m not even fooling myself when I say that I don’t. Chances are, you do, too. What we may be lacking, you and I, is the necessary talent and drive. Even if we’re lacking in talent, we can learn the craft of writing stories. We can at least aspire to be hacks, if we can finish anything. That’s not asking too much, in my opinion.
Popular writing advice warns us that it never pays to write to the lowest common denominator and mass-appeal, with the idea being to achieve fame and the fortune that goes along with it. I think I could easily give you a half-dozen examples of where this happened successfully in reality, however. Pander to the most lucrative audience if that appeals to you. Anything that drives your creativity—even if it has a financial incentive—isn’t a bad thing.
However, most of us get satisfaction from pleasing our first audience—Ourselves. The trick is to find the right balance between satisfying ourselves and others.
Can I write two hundred words of fiction each day? Yes. Yes, I can. I just need a plan.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this subject. Probably won’t be the last. There is no magic pill. No silver bullet. There’s only work and discipline, and—if I’m lucky—some talent.
I’m in the habit of writing the words.
Now I just need to concentrate on writing the correct ones.