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A Challenge for you Writers

There was a time when I thought that reading about writing was the most useful thing I could do for my own work. And I did it so well that I hardly ever wrote anything.

Off the top of my head, I read:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
Word Work by Bruce Rogers
Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
All of the Plimpton Writer’s interviews I could find
Zen in the art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

There were so many more.

I was always particularly charmed by the discussions of writers’ habits. How often did Stephen King write? Did Jonathan Lethem use a daily word count? Did Ernest Hemingway burn candles?

Wait, what about Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen? Did they write in the mornings or evenings? I read that Cormac McCarthy cuts his own hair and eats off of a hot plate (I doubt that’s true anymore). Maybe I should cut my own hair. Maybe I can’t get any writing done because I use a microwave.

Does Kelly Link write with a laptop?

Did David Foster Wallace prefer to stand or sit as he typed?

These seemed like crucial questions, and in the asking of them I was able to bring about something spectacular: I spent all my time learning and thinking about writing and I rarely wrote down a single word.

Just one more book. I almost know enough to start.

How I write now

I’m getting questions about my schedule, now that people know I’m working on a real book that is actually going to be published by a publisher. So it would seem that I’m not the only one interested in writer’s habits.

I wish the answer was sexier, but here it is:

  • I write every day–I shoot for 1000 words
  • Sometimes I write it all in one sitting, sometimes it’s spread between morning, my lunch break, and a few minutes in the evening.
  • Sometimes I finish it in 20 minutes, sometimes it might take three hours.
  • Sometimes I read what I wrote the previous day, but I usually don’t.
  • I usually revise my own chapters two or three times before sending them to my editor.
  • Sometimes I use a laptop. Sometimes I use my desktop. I wrote a paragraph on my phone yesterday just so I could get my “write every day” requirement in.

This schedule does not seem to be knocking me out of any sort of flow state. I spoke with an author yesterday who suggested that writing so little at a time would “never work” for him. “It’s not enough time to really engage.”

For him I’m sure that’s absolutely true. For me, for this project, it’s absolutely false.

The key? Learn what works for you.

And how do you know when it’s working? That’s the easiest question to answer and I wish I’d realized it sooner. Your process, whatever it is, is working if it has you producing.

It’s working if you’re getting a growing collection of sentences, paragraphs, and pages together.

My book is probably going to wind up being 80,000 words, give or take. If I were starting from scratch and could sustain my word count goals that would only take me 80 days to have an approximation of a rough draft. Think about that. It’s no different for anyone else.

If you write enough then one day you will have a book-length mess to start revising.

Overwriting

Something I have learned about myself: I overwrite big time.

I probably write 60 pages to salvage 30. So far that is the only way I am able to consistently get to the really good stuff. But this has to do with my process, which at its core is simply to keep my fingers moving and trust that there will be something good in there after I sleep on it. I don’t obsess as I go. I choose words that are good enough for a first draft. I make lots of mistakes. I find them later and just plow ahead.

My challenge to you

If you want to write, or you sit around wishing you had done more writing, decide now to get moving.

One of my mentors, Melanie Rae Thon, has always said “I just touch the work every day. Maybe it’s 10 pages, but maybe it’s a sentence. But I touch the work every day.”

I would like to challenge you to touch your writing every day, whatever that means to you. But try and have it result in words on the page. I do plenty of writing in my head as I go about my day, but I’ve yet to find a way to get the words from my brain to the page if I don’t manually type or write them down.

It’s way harder to sell a manuscript that only exists in your head!

If you’re comfortable doing so, you could even update your word count here in the comments, but no pressure. And if you’re the type to make New Year’s resolutions, why not just make it in advance, start today, and then tomorrow you’ll have the beginning of a draft.

Josh

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  • Heather November 15, 2011, 12:14 pm

    Does blogging count?

    • Josh Hanagarne November 15, 2011, 12:20 pm

      Is blogging the goal? Your goal, I mean?

      • Heather November 16, 2011, 10:57 am

        Ooooooooooooooo, good question! It COULD be. . . it’s still up for debate! 🙂

  • Paul Andrew Russell November 15, 2011, 4:52 pm

    I try for a thousand words every day, Josh. I fail regularly but at least I’m writing. Some days I go way over though, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Every writer’s lament; “I wish I had more time to write.”

    We squeeze writing in between working our day jobs, appointments and all the other life stuff, so hopefully we’ll be able to write full time one day. We probably work harder, part-time than we will when we make it a full time career. lol

  • Robby G November 16, 2011, 12:10 am

    I remember reading On Writing by King and he also does 1000 words/day and no matter how good or bad, he’s got to get it out on paper. Editing is always there to salvage whatever is the real juicy stuff so never worry that it isn’t perfect when you get it on paper in the beginning.
    I was reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and though not directly about writing, it has a lot to teach about writing, and I suggest for anyone interested in writing and/or Ernie himself to take a look-see.

  • Sarah November 16, 2011, 8:44 am

    Right now my goal is the requisite 1667/day that comes with doing NaNoWriMo. Of course, I’m way ahead of the pace, at 32k, so I could theoretically slow down…but I’m not. I aim to get that 1667 no matter how far ahead I am, so that I never get lazy.

    Now, if only I could force myself to do this in another month other than November…

  • DC5 November 16, 2011, 9:03 am

    I’m not writing a book, but I did start a blog around this time last year, with the intention of writing something every day for a full year. I met that goal last month, and then surpassed it(yesterday’s blog entry was #390). I figured blogging would help me become a better writer, as well as provide me with some much needed therapy. I was right on the latter; you be the judge on the former.