I write — for work — almost every single day. Which is great! But when it comes to the writing I don't get paid to do, like fiction, I have always, and I mean always, struggled with sticking to a routine. If I’m not in a workshop, on deadline, or getting paid $1 million per word, it’s easy to let fiction writing slip to end of my to-do list where, often, it never gets done at all.
This has long proved a source of contention for me. Why can’t I just suck it up and stick to a daily writing routine? Why can't I be the writer who gets up at the crack of dawn, eats five raw eggs, does a hundred push-ups in a row, and cranks out 10-25 pages of the next Great American Novel? IS THIS A SIGN OF SOME DEEP MORAL FAILING? I find some slim comfort in the fact that writers have struggled with routine since the dawn of time — I mean, when you have George R. R. Martin writing on an ancient, Internet-less computer so that he can concentrate better, you have to admit that sticking to fiction writing can be challenging.
So when my editor asked me to write fiction every day for a week, I jumped at the chance. The first step is admitting you have a problem, no? I wrote up a few handy rules, because I’ve done the write-blindly-every-day thing before and it can be pretty unproductive (read: a trainwreck) without a little structure.
- Every day, for seven days, I'll write fiction for one hour every day or 1,000 words — whichever comes first. Gotta stay flexible!
- On days THREE and SIX, I'll spend 30 minutes revising what I’ve already written and 30 minutes writing new work.
- On day SEVEN, I'll spend the hour as I see fit — revising the whole thing, writing a new beginning, whatever the story needs.
I sat down at my VERY MESSY desk at 4:30 p.m., feeling bored and wishing I was done with the day's work already. I even thought of postponing the project start date — but, seriously, how pitiful can one person get? This isn't rocket science. I filled a cup with water — AREN'T WE WRITERS CRAZY WHEN IT COMES TO DRINKING?! — and forced myself to open a new Word document and buckle down.
Fast-forward to 5:15 p.m.: I'd written 1,700 words and my mood had completely turned around. There is seriously no buzz in the world like writing something you feel good about. Why don't I do this every day?! Part of what made this day's writing so effortless was the fact that I was writing about certain themes, plot points, and ideas that I'd been mulling over for a while, so I wasn't straining to come up with New Ideas Every Two Sentences. In short: I was excited, the sun was beaming softly through my window, and I was LOVING THE WRITING LIFE.
I started at 6:30 p.m. and, you guessed it, was once again wishing that I could just burn the day's to-do list and go to Happy Hour already. I was also wishing that I had an iced coffee. However, as I was dragging my feet and feeling sorry for myself, I had a sickening thought: if I weren't doing this for an assignment, I wouldn't have written a word of fiction that day. Period. Statement. Declarative sentence. I would have let all the dumb corporate assignments on my to-do list dictate my day. I would have prioritized them over fiction in a heartbeat, just because someone else was telling me to do them. Seriously, the thought horrified me. Is that the sort of life I want to lead — one in which I let emails and assignments and to-do lists dictate my writing? Of course, some of that boring, reactive work stuff is inevitable, but, geez, there has to be some balance.
Today's writing didn't go well, probably because I was tired and stressed and annoyed at myself. I was feeling a little frustrated that my writing is tied so closely to my emotions, and also feeling like the story was starting to get away from me — but I had a revision day on the horizon (thank you, forward-thinking Tori of the past!) and that was a soothing thought. TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY, as some famous fictional character once said!
Guess where I wrote today, readers?! At the Laundromat, multitasking like an overheated, slightly irate champ! (Pictured: me before I left the house.) I had so much to do today (#important) that the only time I could write was during the precious half-hour while my overloaded washing machine made terrifying I’m-about-to-break noises. But sometimes strict deadlines help with the magic. See: NaNoWriMo.
Today's revision was really helpful. I didn’t change much structurally, but I cleaned up the language and got a better sense of what was going on with the main character. The Big Character Irony, if you will. Unfortunately, I kept getting distracted because people kept TEXTING me. PLEASE NEVER TEXT ME, FRIENDS, UNLESS IT IS ABOUT A HOUSE PARTY, MOJITOS, A BOOK RECOMMENDATION, GOOD GOSSIP THAT WON'T MAKE ME FEEL GROSS, AN EMOTIONAL PROBLEM THAT YOU NEED MY HELP WITH, BRUNCH PLANS, OR — fine, I guess you can keep texting me.
Then I wrote 200 words. And found $10. A win-win.
Went to a coffee shop and got hyper. (Pictured: Some of the many coffee mugs that live on my desk for far too long.) I was feeling manic, caffeinated, and excited to write. Then I saw an arch-nemesis of mine and everything became terrible.
The writing was slow going, but the story was coming along in its own deformed way. By this point, I had a lot of interesting scenes, and many cool themes, but I still felt like I was missing the One Big Thing. The twist, if you will.
I literally had 10 minutes before I had to leave for babysitting and, afterward, drinks with friends — so I put down my head and wrote as fast as possible. I ended up with 1,002 words! In 10 minutes! They were pretty terrible, but, hey, I wrote 'em!
- WTF IS THIS STORY?
- Proud of myself for doing this.
- Kinda happy that the week is almost over.
- Would like to continue doing this in some structured form, because it’s fun to be working on a story amid the rest of life’s insanity!!!
I only wrote 871 words, but you know what? That’s OK. Not every day can be an exact 1,000 words of smooth, uninterrupted perfection — the point is that at some juncture, you sat down and tried.
Stressed out. I was about to leave town for a few weeks (a wedding! filming a short movie!), so this week was busier than normal. In a way, it was kind of cool to have this project going on during a busy week — it gave me a sense of what it's like to WRITE THROUGH THE STRESS AND THE PAIN. But also: WHAT WAS I THINKING?
I chose to focus solely on revision today, because things were getting a little sloppy again. I revised and reorganized for about an hour and ended up with 16 pages of fiction that simply didn't exist before this week. And that will never not be cool.
What I Learned
I learned lots of little things that you'd probably be able to predict. Sitting down at the desk is kind of the only way to produce work. Not every day will be a Good Writing Day; not every story will come together easily. Sometimes you'll write stuff you hate. Sometimes you'll love it so much you feel high.
But the biggest realization I had shook me to my core. SERIOUSLY. Here's what I learned during those muggy afternoons when I was dragging my feet toward the computer: if I don’t schedule writing time and treat it as an assignment — as something non-negotiable — it will get the axe every time.
I think this says something more about my relationship to my schedule than it does about my relationship to my writing. (Although I could probably work on both. #couplestherapy) My schedule doesn't own me — I own my schedule. I need to treat it as a malleable thing and prioritize the long-term benefits over short-term to-do list items. I can move "write fiction" up to 9 a.m., right before "turn in breaking exposé for The New York Times" — if I had a dollar for every time that was on my to-do list! We may not have control over much, we writers, but when it comes to our writing time, we make the calls.
Images Courtesy of Tori Telfer