“Butt in Chair.”
Over the past couple of years BIC has become something of a mantra here at Magical Words, and it remains some of the best advice we as a group have given. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Simple as that. Or not. In fact, there is more to it than that, and I’m thinking about it this morning as I confront another blank post screen on the MW website. Writing professionally is not only about writing, but often about writing to a deadline, writing on demand, churning out content on a regular basis. Every Sunday, I write my Monday post for MW, and quite often it takes me a while to come up with a topic for my post. It’s hard, after literally hundreds of posts about writing, to come up with something original and relevant and, we hope, entertaining.
But as writers, this is something we have to do. Like creating characters and developing narrative flow and building tension, writing on demand and to deadline is a skill to be honed. And there are great ways to teach oneself to do it.
I first learned to write creatively to a deadline when I was in seventh grade. Really. We had a class assignment for the second half of the school year to write just about every night (maybe five nights a week) in a journal. We could write anything we wanted — diary-type entries, poems, stories; whatever. I wrote poems and stories and I almost never missed a night. In fact, I loved it. I’d put on some music, get in bed, and write until my lights-out time. And I put together a portfolio of work that my teacher loved. This was a school assignment, but there is no reason why you can’t give yourself the same assignment now. It’s a great way to make writing a habit.
There are other things we can do, of course, to make ourselves write on demand — join a writing group, start a blog, or merely resolve to turn out a story every other week, or some such thing. The point is to force yourself not only to write, but to finish pieces by a certain time and date. Deadlines are a fact of life for writers, and while many publishers will forgive the occasional late book, no writer, and in particular no new writer, wants to develop a reputation for turning in work late. One of the other things we say often here at MW is that writers need to comport themselves professionally. This means, in part, making certain that manuscripts look clean and neat, that they are free of typos and grammatical problems, and, yes, that they are turned in on time.
But wait, you might say. Writing a short story in two weeks in one thing; turning in a manuscript of 100,000 words on time is quite another. To which I’d reply, yes and no. Writing a book is a larger, more complex undertaking. But when I’m working on a book, I break down that larger project into a series of discreet tasks — chapters are very handy in this regard. If I were to start a book today and give myself a January 31 deadline for finishing it, I’d approach it this way: the book is going to be about 100,000 words, and I have four months to finish it. I’ll want to give myself a couple of weeks at the end to polish and revise. So the actual writing is actually going to have to take about 15 weeks. The way I work, that means that I’ll have (allowing for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s) about 70 writing days. That’s a shade under 1,500 words a day; definitely doable. In fact, what it comes out to is a chapter every 3 to 4 days — a brisk pace, but not a terrible one. Now, your chapters might be longer than mine, or shorter. Your book length might be longer or shorter (although in today’s market, as a new writer, you don’t want to try to sell books that are too far off of that number in either direction). And you might have more time than I gave myself, or you might work weekends, or you might think that 1,500 words per day is way too slow or way too fast a pace. These are decisions you have to make for yourself. And then you have to adjust your math accordingly.
But the process works. Some might ask if I really think of my book writing in these terms, and the answer is yes, I really do. As I said, writing a book is a a big thing. It can be intimidating, especially early on. I’ve been doing this for a long time; I’ve written more than a dozen novels, and I still find it a bit daunting to start that first page of something that will eventually be 400 or 500 pages long. But if I look at it as starting the first page of a chapter that might be 15 pages long, it doesn’t seem so huge. And if I can break down the process and see ahead of time exactly how I’m going to meet my deadline, it forestalls any panic I might feel. To be honest with you, when I was working on that hypothetical example above, and I typed in that January 31 deadline, I paused for a moment, wondering if I was being realistic. As soon as I did the math, though, I realized that I was. That’s happened to me with actual book projects, too. I’ve looked at a deadline, and thought, “There is no way I can meet this deadline. No way at all.” But then, after breaking down the project into its component parts, and plotting them out on a calendar, I’ve realized that in fact I can.
A deadline doesn’t have to be a burden. Instead, it can be a tool, a way of carving up a project into manageable pieces. Learning to use your time constraints that way can make you a more efficient writer. It can also preserve your sanity.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net