I’m an okay musician. I have an acoustic guitar, but the strings are turning black and I’ve lost my finger callouses. Not even sure when the last time I practiced music was. A year ago? Longer?
One of these days, I’d like to re-string the guitar and learn to play again. The good news is, I won’t have to relearn the stuff I really know. The pentatonic minor scale pattern, major scale pattern, chord progressions. I’ll struggle with barre chords, because that requires hand strength I don’t currently have. Mostly, I’ll likely spend a few weeks just playing the damn scales up and down the fretboard, which is something I could’ve done more of when I was actually practicing.
Music requires a variety of skills—timing, rhythm, a good ear for pitch, knowledge of how notes and chords work together. All of that takes enormous practice before a musician is ready to perform on a stage. Musicians are experts at this practice thing.
Writers need the same attitude.
Mystery writer John D. McDonald has a famous quote (paraphrasing a bit): You have a million words of crap in you before you can write a publishable novel.
The more stories I write, the more I see how true this is. When I first started, I couldn’t plot my way out of a paper bag. I knew jack about character development. I had no grasp of voice, or setting, or pacing. Don’t tell the younger-me any of that.
I believed otherwise at the time, but no amount of editing or rewriting or critique would’ve saved those early stories. Eventually I came to the realization that I wasn’t doing the things I wanted to do, so I set about learning how to do them. I needed butt-in-chair time, with my fingers at the keyboard. Not real sure how many words I’ve written to date—no way to truly know, since my records aren’t entirely clear, and I’ve lost some files—but I must be closer to a million words, or more.
It was 2015 when it all started clicking for me, at least a little bit at a time. Early that year, I looked back at what I’d done and didn’t do. By May, I realized I’d already missed my writing goals for the year, and needed a major reset. So I started reading craft books.
One of those books was Jerrold Mundis’s book on writer’s block. In that book, he suggests starting with a low word count goal, much lower than what you know you can do. If you’ve proven to yourself you can do 1,000 words a day, do 200. But write 200 words every day for a certain period of time. Then increase your word count by small increments every week. This is when I started the daily writing streak I’m on. (Today, November 29, 2016, is day 539.)
I started writing about 200 words a day. Sometimes that was literally all I could do. Not real sure where my average is now, maybe around 800 or so. Not much. But over the last year I wrote three novellas and 25 short stories. Total win, because I worked at developing this habit.
Habit building is everything with writing. The more you sit at the writing desk, the more stories are finished, the more you write. The process can feed itself if you allow it. But you have to focus, and early on that focus is hard, because at the beginning you don’t have a lot of skills to draw from.
That’s why you start small. Just like with practicing music, where you play nothing but scales in your sessions. Start a daily ritual if you can, and write whatever you can, be it 2,000 words or 200. Even 200 words adds up over time. Consider this: 200 x 365 = 73,000. That’s a healthy sized paperback novel. Or between ten and twenty short stories.
Here’s what you do:
Take an entire week, Sunday through Saturday, and at some point in your free time set a timer for half an hour every day. If you don’t have that much time, go for ten minutes. Start writing when you hit the start button. Don’t worry about grammar or story or logic. Just write stuff. Stop writing when the timer goes off. Take note of how many words you wrote.
Then figure out your average word count. I tend to get between 300 and 600 words in a half hour session, depending on where I am in a story. Openings take me longer, so I have less words/hour. Near the end I usually speed up.
Now set an appropriate goal. If your average for 30 minutes is 500 words, figure on doing 250 words per day for a week. The next week, try to increase your average words to 300. And so on.
The point of this is to instill the habit of writing. This is practice. You can write publishable stories while you practice (I’ll talk about this concept later). The only way to become a better writer is to practice, to write and produce stories. Just like a musician becomes a musician by playing songs.
In the next few weeks, I’ll go into more detail about what to practice. Until then, have fun with your writing.
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