Little Victories Fuel Big Victories

If you’re like me, a wannabe writer trying to figure out how to make the dream happen, you might be struggling to write every day. I know I did; writing the first draft of my first novel was as challenging as pulling the teeth from an enraged baboon while whistling “Happy Birthday” backwards. Sure, you start off full of chutzpah, ready to slay dragons and save the world every day, but the honeymoon only lasts so long. After a few weeks, you find yourself tasked with churning out more and more words, even though you’ve already used up your good ideas — or even though you don’ t know how to get to the good ideas.

That blank page stretches out in front of you like a wasteland, cruel and without end.

Some days are better than others, but every day is hard. Not just because you have to claim your time from the jaws of your enemies with blood and fire, but because you have to keep the creative engine churning, you have to keep the cursor moving, you have to keep that word counter ticking over like the odometer on a road trip.

Now, I’m not an expert. I’ve yet to make a dime off of anything I’ve written creatively, so I can’t claim to know any better than anybody what you should do to make any money at this endeavor. But I do know that if you aren’t writing, every day, you’re handicapping yourself before the race has even begun. Momentum matters, and if you keep the ball rolling a little every day, you don’t have to kickstart it from a dead stop again. To that end, if there were one piece of advice I’d offer to anybody trying to start writing, it’s this:

You need a daily goal. A set amount of progress that you will, one way or another, put to “paper” one way or another before today turns into tomorrow. Momentum matters. Achieving this goal every day will keep you sliding forward like a glacier. You can’t set out to say you want to write eighty thousand words by November and hope to get there by focusing on the eighty thousand. It’s too big. You might as well be thinking about climbing the summit of Mount Everest when you haven’t even left base camp. It’s a good goal to have, but you’re not going to achieve it today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. And when you fail to achieve that goal, you will lose gumption, you will lose drive, you will lose the confidence that you can achieve this thing. What you need is to focus on what’s in front of you and achieve that, however big or small that goal is. What’s your daily goal? 100 words? 300? 2000? It depends on the kind of time you have available in your days (or, more correctly, the amount of time you can prise from your day’s cold, dead fingers).

I find that, on a normal workday, I can usually find about 45 minutes to write, and that tends to be enough time for about 900 words.

Now, 900 words assumes I’m able to write productively and without pauses for almost the entire time, and that’s not always the case. So my “on paper” goal per day is 600, even though I’m really trying for 900. 600, therefore, is what I want to accomplish so that I can feel I’m not neglecting my writerly duties. 900, however, makes me happy.

How does it go, writing 900 words a day?

A little something like this:

0-100 words: Man, this is hard. Why did I decide to do this, again? I’m not sure what I should be writing at all. (re-reads yesterday’s work.) Okay, maybe this can happen, or maybe this character can set this trap… I dunno, it sounds lame. But if I don’t get to work, I’m not getting my words. Whatever. Just write something.

100-300 words: Well, I guess this is happening. I’m not sure I love what’s happening, but it’s happening. Make sure to keep that character involved. Think about what this character is thinking. Where is this heading? Just keep writing.

300-500 words: Okay, I like what’s happening now, and I see where it’s heading. Maybe, though, it doesn’t make sense for this character to say this thing now, or to take this action now, but I’m not sure how else it could go. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it… fix it later.

500 words: SHARKNADO. I just realized the perfect thing that should have happened earlier to set up the thing I just realized needs to happen now. Do I go back and fix it? Press on and make a note? (This is usually where I get up and walk around for a minute to rearrange my thoughts.)

500-700 words: I’m either going back and inserting an alternate text to something I already wrote, or I’m forging ahead full-speed with today’s beats. Either way, at this moment, I’m in a state of flow, just letting the words come on their own and keeping up with the narrative as quickly as it’s unspooling in my head.I don’t even check word count during this step. It just happens.

700-900: Flow continues and the possibilities for future events are exploding like popcorn, one after another, each one showing a road to the rest of the novel that might develop into something or that might wither on the vine. There’s no telling which one is the right one, though, so I grab hold of one and ride the wave while it’s high. At some point in this range I realize that I’m almost out of time for today, so…

900-1???: I use my remaining time to find a stopping point. I used to try and finish a beat, but now I like to either stop right in the middle of one or just at the beginning of a new one. That way, when I come back to write next time, I still have fresh in my mind some semblance of where this scene is going. I don’t usually want to stop writing at this point, but by this time there are other responsibilities banging on my door, either literally or figuratively.

So that’s pretty much every day. I push through five days a week like that when I’m drafting. I aim for a blarg post about every other day or when I can manage it, but I don’t stress about the length of the posts anymore (I used to shoot for 1000 words… yeah, this post is over 1000 already, but sheesh, that’s a lot in a day).

900 words might seem like not very much to you. Or maybe it seems so lofty as to be insurmountable. Point is, it’s been a sweet spot for me: It’s a challenge to get there, but not so daunting that I have to struggle every day to make it. But it’s not so easy that I can do it without any effort at all. It’s significant enough to give me a pick-me-up when I meet the milestone, but not so significant that I feel I can’t make it. Pick a goal that stretches you a little bit, but one that you can realistically reach from where you are. Little victories fuel big victories.

I’ll admit I’m feeling somewhat at sea with my current story. There are loose ends all over the place, I’m still getting a feel for the characters, and I’m not even 100% sure where I want the story to go. But what I do know is, I’ll be writing about 900 words a day every day for the next few months. If I can keep to that schedule, then long about September, I’ll have my second novel drafted.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

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