A few days ago, I passed another writing milestone for 2013. I’d written 300 out of the last 302 days. As of this morning, I’ve written 303 out of the last 305 days, and 160 consecutive days. Writing those first 5 or 10 days feels good. When I passed 50 days, I was sort of surprised. At 100 days, I felt like I’d run a marathon. At 200 days, I felt surprisingly calm. When I passed 300 days I had a strange mixture of emotions: incredulity at the notion that I’d written almost every day of the year. (I didn’t start until late February so the first two months were a wash); but also, a surprising sense of confidence. I’ve thought about this over the last few days and have put together a list of lessons I’ve learned over the last 300 days of writing every day.
1. I have a goal in mind, but I don’t stress if I miss it
I started out with a modest goal of trying to write 500 words each day. Some days, I more than exceeded it. Others, I feel short (sometimes far short). At first, I’d stress a little when I missed the goal, but over the long haul, I realized that it is simply part of my natural process. You can see this by looking at the data.
The blue line represents my word count each day over the last 302 days. The red line represents my daily goal. You can see that, for the most part, I exceed my goal, but there are plenty of times when I didn’t make my goal for the day. There are usually two reasons for this:
- Lack of time.
- Lack of energy
As I’ll discuss in a moment, on rare occasion, I simply did not have enough time in the day to make my goal. This is pretty rare, because I can usually write 500 words in 20 minutes. But it does happen. After 300 days, I’ve learned to accept this, and on days when time is scarce, I try not to stress about how much writing I get in, just that I get in some.
Lack of energy is the most common reason I don’t make my goal. Sometimes, I am just worn out. I’ll get in what writing I can, and I often have time to get in more, but I am too exhausted. Like the occasions where I don’t have a lot of time, I’ve learned not to stress about this. The data that I have shows that I usually bounce back the next day. It is rare–as you can see from the chart, that I have two consecutive days without making my goal.
2. Even if I do no better than make my goal each day, over time, it adds up to a lot of writing
For the bulk of the 300 days I’ve written thus far, my goal has been 500 words/day. Doing the math, that amounts to 150,000 words. That is probably far less than full time writers. Many full time writers I know aim for 2,000 words/day, but many full time writers I know don’t write every day.
As it turns out, I’ve written substantially more than my baseline goal. Instead of 150,000 words in 300 days, I’ve written 271,000 words. That is close to 900 words/day, almost twice my original goal. (In December, I raised the goal to 700 words/day.)
A lot of what I write is first draft material and a lot of that first draft material represents false starts, but for me, it is still very important. The reason for this is:
3. Practice not only builds my confidence as a writer, it really does make me better
It is hard to say this in any objective way, but I have some evidence of this. Between mid-September and November, I wrote 3 stories. One of those stories I sold 4 hours after finishing it. Another story I received a few rejections on, but each of the rejections contained detailed notes from the editor, explaining that the story itself was very good, but that it didn’t fit what they were looking for at the moment.
In the past, when I’d write only a few weeks out of the entire year, I’d usually receive form letter rejections out of hand.
But there is something even more telling. When I write the stories, I feel like I’ve gotten better. I have a better command of some of the technical elements of storytelling, and in certain areas (particularly, openings and dialog) I’ve gotten much, much better.
The confidence this builds cannot be understated. When I feel more confident about my storytelling abilities, I write better stories. There is something else that has helped me become a better writer this year, and it is a complete surprise.
4. Audiobooks have made me a better writer
I started listening to audiobooks back in February as a way of finding more time in my day. I could read more in this way. I can listen to audiobooks while I take my daily walks, do chores, while driving somewhere in the car. I listened to more than 40 audiobooks this year and something unexpected from this.
Stephen King says that the two most important things for writers is to write a lot and read a lot. Listening to audiobook has affected my writing in a way that reading books never did. There is something about hearing the words, hearing the rhythm of the story that comes through in my writing. I don’t know if I can adequately explain this, but every story has a rhythm to it, and often the most difficult part of writing is finding and maintaining the right rhythm. Listening to audiobooks has helped me learn to find that rhythm by being able to hear it in other stories.
5. I can write quite a lot in 20 minutes a day
I used to be under the impression that in order to write every day, I needed to set aside 2 hours each day in order to get in writing, and I recognize now that was a non-starter. For one thing, the only time I could get 2 hours in the day was if I did it early in the morning, say between 4-6 am. That meant getting up early, and if I didn’t get up, I felt guilty and often didn’t write.
What I have learned over the last 300 days is that all I need is 20 minutes. This was a huge revelation. I have a full time day job, which takes up a third of my day. I sleep 7-8 hours a night, which takes up another third of my day. The remaining third is dedicated to family and anything else. All I need is 20 minutes to get in my 500 words.
I learned something else, as well. Many books on writing say that you need to write at the same time, and in the same place each day to build the habit. But I couldn’t do that, not with my schedule If I wanted to be able to write every day, I needed to be able to do it in whatever scraps of time were available, and under whatever the conditions might be.
6. Sometimes, the stories are tough, but keeping at it will get me through it
In the past, when I’d hit a wall on a story, I’d eventually give up. Now, I press on. I often restart a story again and again and again, until I finally find the right rhythm of the story. Prior to writing every day, I’d give up because I felt like I was wasting time, but having written for 300 days, I’ve learned two things regarding this:
- Restarts are part of the process. The writing is not wasted, it is part of the practice and is what makes me better.
- I will eventually find the right rhythm. I might take some time, but I’ll find it. The novella that I’m currently working on went through about 5 restarts until I found the right rhythm–yesterday.
I sometimes see writers bemoaning how painful writing is, and I suppose that for some writers, that is the truth. For me, it is always a pleasure. I see the frustration of being stuck on a story in the same light I see the frustration of solving a puzzle or writing a piece of computer code. I dig in and try to solve it, knowing that eventually I’ll get there. That is a big part of the fun.
7. I love to tell stories
I never realized how much I loved to tell stories until I started doing so every day. Writing has become my main stress relief of the day. When I am sitting at the keyboard, telling a story, all of the stresses of life fall away, and even if it is only for 20 minutes, I settling into a kind of peace. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.
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One I my favorite King stories is that he had his kids (Owen maybe) read books and record them so he could listen to them while driving.
Mike, I think it was all of his kids that did that, but it was Owen who ran with it.
Jamie, I found your site because of your paperless-ness & Evernote. But, your author tips are gold, too. I’m writing a series…one self-published, another drafted and two others stalled. My goal in 2014 is to get the other two drafted. Your experience this past year is encouraging me to focus on a lower word-count with daily momentum. That makes the goal more likely to be attainable given my crazy schedule this next year.
I enjoyed the entirety of this post; #7 is really why I write: I feel better when I write. It’s like pressure relief valve and therapy all rolled into one. If I don’t write I get mopey and melancholy and basically no fun to be around, and no fun to be. Writing elevates the business of daily life to something more meaningful and worthwhile.
Thank you for this post!
Good points! I like the 20 minute concept. It feels totally doable. I can overwhelm myself by setting the daily bar too high, then I do nothing.
Pam, keep in mind that the “20 minutes” is not the goal, it is simply what I accept as sometimes being all that’s available. Rather than saying, I can’t really get any writing done in 20 minutes, I take advantage of the time and write what I can. As I’ve learned over the last 300+ days, I write about 500 words in 20 minutes. But I think I have averaged closer to 40 minutes/day.
What a wonderful, inspiring post! It’s making me rethink my own goals for this year. Thank you.
Great post on a great year! You impressed the heck out of me just by writing while you were at Worldcon! 🙂