Work Habits

Cory Doctorow (whose book Little Brother I recommended with extreme prejudice a while back) has a piece at Locus Online called “Writing in the Age of Distraction,” which gives some pointers on work habits for writers. For instance, he recommends a “Short, regular work schedule:”

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

This is interesting, because Cory’s pretty darned prolific, but it sounds like he’s not exactly at the Asimov end of the work habit spectrum. A page or two a day, that’d net you 365 to 730 pages a year, so yeah, it’ll add up. But I’m surprised that he doesn’t have a higher daily goal. Stephen King aims for ten pages a day, which is about 2,000 words.

I’m not prolific, but I’m working on at least earning the right to use the first three letters of the word to refer to myself. To do that, I continue developing my own work habits, trying to figure out what actually works for me.

I wrote my first novel in my early twenties, and the way I did it was to write five pages every morning, then rewrite the previous day’s five pages in the afternoon. I made a bar chart that I hung on the wall showing my progress: marking in the daily block representing five pages, and watching the bar grow across the page, was a nice motivator. It went very well, helped by the fact I had the book outlined fairly well beforehand, and in a few weeks I had a finished manuscript that came close to actually selling, but not quite close enough.

My follow-up project, which I began only with a setting and a few characters in mind, went less smoothly, though the writing schedule still worked for me. Since I had no outline, there were points where I hit a wall, not knowing where to go next, and that naturally had an impact on my progress. Still, six months later I typed “The End,” and lay the final page on a stack over six-hundred pages deep. The book needed a good amount of revision, and unfortunately I faltered partway through that process and never produced a final manuscript.

Still, when I maintained discipline, the five pages a day system seemed to work.

An embarrassing number of years pass in our tale, during which I occasionally pulled my head out of my ass and did some writing, some of which got printed here and there. Ultimately, I discovered that I’ve got some serotonin issues that haven’t exactly helped me stay motivated or focused on minor things like my personal dreams.

When I decided to write Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, I went back to the system that had worked for me on my first two novels. I set a daily goal of 1,000 words (five pages), put a chart on the wall to track page count, and dove in. Again, the plan worked, and the resulting manuscript found a fantastic agent who quickly found it a home at a world-class publisher.

Then, I decided to write the second book in the series as a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in November) book. To keep the NaNo schedule, I’d need to write just over 1,600 words a day. The writing philosophy of NaNoWriMo is to just WRITE. No editing as you go, no second guessing, no revision until after the manuscript is done. And that’s how lots of writers write, getting all the raw material out on the page so they can then go back and rework it as much as necessary. I figured it’d be good for me to learn to write with more velocity and less worry, because I tend to a constant perfectionism that results in a very polished first draft when I finish a project, but also leads to not finishing quite a few things I start.

So, 1,600 words a day, a 60% jump over my previous sweet spot, but I figured it’d be easy enough if I put aside that revise-as-I-go tendency. Easier said than done, though. At first, I hit the word count with no problem, but soon I faltered and started falling behind. I’m just not built to write and not polish, and that extra 600 words a day was just too much. On top of that, mucho entusiasmo began to happen in my divorce, and I threw my hands up at meeting the NaNo goal.

So, I seem to be a 1K a day writer, when I’m actually on track. But it may be useful for me to back off that, and aim for less, as Cory suggests, because it may just be easier to maintain the daily production over the long haul. I’m gonna give it some thought.

3 comments on “Work Habits

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    I admire Cory Doctorow for being able to spend twenty minutes a day devoted to writing–it takes me about 45 minutes just to warm up (with music, pacing about my office, visualizing) before I’m ready to START writing. And then I’m at it 8-10 hours a day, seven days a week until I either collapse or the book is finished (usually it’s a close call).

    But different strokes for different folks, as they say…

    • Tim Byrd says:

      I’m pretty sure Cory writes more than just the 20 minutes, considering all the blogging and other things he does. The 20 minutes are probably his minimum daily time focused on a particular project.

  2. Steve Blotner says:

    That’s amazing advice – and so true! Thanks for that post.


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