Monday, August 11, 2008

The Habit of Writing

My partner spent part of the weekend complaining to me about writing.

She had a thousand word article to write for a professional magazine, and was having a bear of a time getting words onto the page. I was tempted to mock her, given how many words I write any given evening, but I had a lot of sympathy for her problem. She used to write articles like these all the time. Now, when she writes, it's for reports where she needs to be concise. She'd gotten out of the habit of writing. I hear that, sister.

I find that despite how many books I've written, I'm still better off if I always write a little something every day to stay in the habit. I give myself breaks, of course. But I always find that when I come back to writing, it's hard to get started and to keep up the momentum.

Last night was a good example. I wasn't really in the mood for writing, but I opened up my laptop anyway. I let myself be mostly distracted by the movie Shawn and I were watching ("Grizzly Man"), but I did manage to punch out a few sentences. Though it wasn't my usual output, it's still forward progress. As my friend and mentor Eleanor Arnason always says, "Even if you only write a couple hundred words a day, you can write a novel a year. As long as you write every day."

When I first started writing I set myself a ridiculously low bar: 425 words a day. (I should say, too, that for most of my writing life, I've always considered "a day" to mean "a work day." I consistently take the weekend off to be with my family and get other housework done. I now work more often on the weekends, but that's because deadlines demand it sometimes.) I don't know why I picked 425 as my magical number, but I found that it was close to a page in manuscript format, and that seemed like a reasonable amount for someone with a full-time job (which I also had for most of my writing life.) Some days I barely made my quota. Some days I blew past it easily. But with always 425 words of forward motion, I managed to finish that book in a reasonable amount of time (about a year and a half.)

Stephen King in "On Writing" talks about the importance of routine. He said that some people like to wait until their muse strikes. For him, he found that his muse knew when to show up and that they needed to get started right away, when he wrote at the same time every night. That makes a lot of sense to me, but for my life it isn't always practical. So if I have a goal of a number of words, I can write those words whenever I have time. On a napkin at lunch. In a notebook while waiting at the doctor's office. On my laptop at the end of the day. As long as I write a little every day, I'm making progress.

So I sympathized with my partner as she struggled to eke out her few words. I know it's true. The more you write, the easier it becomes. The converse is also true: if you don't write for long periods, it gets harder and harder to pick up "the pen."


SaturnMoonie said...

Wow how funny you should write about this today. I've been feeling overwhelmed these last couple of days after I started trying to write after a long time. And I think I'm going to try a daily word count of some sort, very smart, very obvious (*doh* why didn't I think of that?) Anyways thanks for the post, I love your books btw :)


Angie Fox said...

No question about it - I do my best work when I'm on a writing schedule. It's like training your brain to tune into writing at a certain time of the day. This summer has been heck for scheduling and I find myself looking forward to fall, when thing settle into that nice routine.