Over the past few months I’ve been experimenting with writing fiction every day. Sometimes, because of work and family obligations (and/or my own procrastination), I’ve missed a day. But most mornings, I write.
Writing every day — benefits:
- Writing every day keeps my subconscious mind engaged with my fictional characters. Ideally I wake up thinking about them, knowing what they’re going to do next.
- Writing every day keeps my momentum going. If I hit a roadblock I’m forced to find a way to blast through it (instead of pausing progress to “think about it”).
- Writing every day becomes habitual. It’s easier to write every day at the same time and place than it is to “find time to write”.
- Writing every day creates the expectation among my family, friends, and clients that I will be unavailable for a certain amount of time each day.
- Writing every day means that I will be writing from a variety of different emotional and energy states … not just energetic inspiration. Ferrett Steinmetz has a good post on this topic.
- Writing every day provides me with a daily sense of accomplishment, bolstering my self-worth.
My writing routine looks something like this:
- Get set up at my standing desk (laptop, coffee*, water).
- Meditate for a few minutes.
- Turn off wi-fi.
- Start entry in writing log.
- Open current work document (I use OpenOffice). Revise previous day’s work.
- Write until quota is met (my current quota is 808 words). Take breaks only to exercise (free weights to generate lactic acid which in turn adrenalizes the brain) or to use the bathroom.
- Complete entry in writing log.
- Backup work to DropBox.
*As per this post, I don’t start drinking coffee until I’ve started writing.
Harnessing the Subconscious Supercomputer
We all have access to supercomputer that is constantly churning the available data looking for solutions to problems, new possibilities, and potential realities. Our conscious-awareness is a tiny spotlight that only captures a small fraction of what our brains are “doing.”
If you wake up with an idea or a solution, that’s your subconscious mind at work. Salvador Dali went so far as to develop a ritual to capture the surreal images of his subconscious imagination.
But it’s easy to waste this brainpower. We can waste it by overthinking disputes that are not important, or trying to control situations that are clearly out of our control (like what other people are thinking or feeling), or by obsessing over scenarios that are unlikely to occur.
How can we get the subconscious mind to work on behalf of the interests of the conscious mind? In other words, how can we direct the supercomputer to work on relevant problems and scenarios?
I think the most reliable way to do this is to take up a daily practice that is relevant to our major life goal or vision.
All Good … Until I Crashed
My daily writing system worked well for a long time. But gradually I began to notice diminishing returns. Though I always felt a sense of accomplishment after writing, sometimes I was feeling a sense of dread before starting, a feeling not unlike starting a long work day at a job you don’t like. Once again, Ferrett Steinmetz describes the feeling well:
It is 10:13 at night and I have not written yet. I want to go to bed. Instead, I'm going to write for an hour.
This is gonna suck.
— Ferrett Steinmetz (@ferretthimself) August 28, 2014
Since I have arranged my entire life around avoiding that feeling, I knew this wasn’t a good sign. I don’t mind hard work, or giving myself a little kick in the butt to get started, but I didn’t want writing to feel like drudgery.
Last Thursday I went on vacation with my family to Camp Towanga (near Yosemite). Arriving in the mountains, I realized I was exhausted. Not just mentally, but also physically — I’d been lifting weights every day as part of my writing routine, and my entire body ached. I decided it was time to end the experiment and take a few days off.
Judaism takes Shabbat — the day of rest — very seriously. As I participated in the rituals surrounding the Jewish sabbath, I reflected on what a “rest day” means to be me.
What I concluded is that even though I thrive on structure and discipline, rest and relaxation and unstructured time is just as important. I’ve learned that waiting for inspiration is unreliable, but this doesn’t mean that I should always be driving myself hard. It’s OK to rest, to come down, to lie fallow. For me, it’s probably essential.
Not every successful writer writes every day without fail. And those that do pay a price. Stephen King, sticking to this 2000-words-a-day-no-matter-what writing habit, fueled himself with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol (as he describes in gory detail in On Writing). Correlation is not causation; not every drug user is a best-selling fiction author. But there is always a price to pay if you don’t rest.
Fear of Getting Out of Shape
From November to mid-March I took time off of fiction writing to wait for feedback from readers, revise my first draft, and work on music projects. During this time my writing “muscles” atrophied. Despite plenty of ideas, it was a real struggle to get back into a productive flow on the next novel. Now that the flow is back, I’m scared to lose it.
But there’s a difference between taking a day or two off every week, and taking a few months off. If I don’t let myself rest on a regular basis, I might end up with a dry well for years. Bill Hayes has a great essay on this topic.
I’ve made a five year commitment to developing fiction writing as a skill and a new career. That doesn’t mean I have to sprint the entire five years.
Basically, I’ll be observing weekends and holidays. This doesn’t mean I won’t produce on Saturdays and Sundays, but it won’t be quota-driven production. I’ll work on whatever I want to, as inspired.
When I’m writing a first draft, I’m going to aim for 15,000 words a month. That should give me a first draft in six or seven months. With editing, revisions, and breaks to work on other projects, it might take me 18-24 months to complete a novel. Since I’m also working for living, running a music label, blogging, and being a parent, this seems like a good pace. Any faster and I think I’d risk burnout.
Kurt Vonnegut, in the intro to Bagombo Snuff Box, mentions that there was a strong seller’s market for short stories in the 1950’s. These days, there isn’t. For various reasons we now have a glut of fiction writers at the same time the publishing industry is struggling. It’s a buyer’s market for fiction of all kinds.
What this tells me is that it’s more important than ever to focus on quality over quantity. Of course, you have to produce huge quantities of work to get to quality, but at some point you have a choice: work more selectively and carefully, or churn.
Churn has its place. Churn can break you out of inaction. Churn can make you realize you are capable of producing far more than you ever thought possible. But churn won’t get you to great. Great requires multiple drafts, throwing out bad work and starting over, and listening to that annoying whisper in your head that lets you know you can do 10% better if you’re willing to put in 100% more time. Heck, good might even require all those things.