Years ago I read a book by an exercise guru who encouraged people to change everything about their lives all at once. The energy of a radical overhaul, he said, would lead to an unstoppable momentum. Recently I read The Nerdist’s Way by Chris Hardwick and I think a softer, less demanding approach has a better chance at making long-term change. I think the same slow but steady approach to writing can help us, too. Don’t get overwhelmed in your race to publication.
There are many radical exercise programs out there. On The Biggest Loser, fat people go from sedentary to athletic, working out six hours a day and often getting ground down in the process. (I used to watch the show, but the subtext of “You aren’t a worthy human until you’re the right weight,” got to be too much.) Or take P90X. If you’re already in good shape, you might try it. It has its fans. However, as someone who has treated a lot of sports injuries, I can tell you that trying to go from zero to hero too fast is a recipe for injury that really kills progress. I took a slower approach after burning out on trying to do too much too quickly. I started with drinking a kale shake a day and began building back up from there. I think there’s a lesson for writers here. I tried to do too much at once, too. I lost too much sleep and feeling awful became the new normal. We need balance.
When you try to write too much at once, you’re going to have to do a lot more rewrites later. You probably know when your writing sucks. You go from “I’m a genius!” to “That was somewhat competent.” You aren’t happy while you’re writing badly. You look at the clock too much and think about anything besides what happens next. Writing doesn’t get better if you bear down and grit your teeth. Bearing down and gritting your teeth is sometimes what you have to do to start writing, but you shouldn’t end that way. When you begin to write, get into it and, if it’s going well, carry on. But when you’ve been writing for a while and you stop feeling the flow, take a break. Do something else. Refresh. Go to the gym even.
I begin a writing session by reading a bit of what I’ve already written, to get into the flow. I might have a few minutes to write or a couple of hours. That doesn’t matter. What works is to begin writing and to be consistent, just like exercise. Starting is the major hump to get over and whether you promised yourself just a few hundred words or twenty minutes on the treadmill, you’ll probably end up doing more than what you promised yourself. If not, not, but at least you will have accomplished the minimum you asked of yourself for the day.
There are plenty of useful things to do, so there’s no need for anyone to get upset at themselves if they don’t achieve the superhuman every day. Expectations that are too high leads to disappointment, failure, burnout, self-loathing, self-medication with sugar and fat and eventually stalking the neighbourhood with an AK. Ease up on yourself because you can go hard or you can go long. You can’t do both for very long. Just begin. If you screwed up, begin again. That’s the magic.
I used to write short stories and still do occasionally. As a journalist, I’d write several stories a day. That was excellent training to build up to the 2,000 to 3,000 words a day I now write. For my process, I tend to think in blocks, so I don’t stop mid-chapter. Sometimes I’ll write two chapters a day, but I’m wary because that second chapter might not be as hot if I don’t get in some down time to cogitate and refresh.
Whether you use a word count or a time limit as your daily goal, pay attention to how you feel as you write. If you lose yourself to it and you don’t notice the time passing at all, that’s a good sign. Similarly, you may feel tired or a little sore afterward, but if you generally feel better after exercise, great. That was the right amount. (For more on setting goals exercise goals that work, listen to guest Tom J Deters on The Duncan Trussel Family Hour Podcast. It’s NSFW.)
~ Robert Chazz Chute writes suspense, a little quirky self-help and Write Your Book: Aspire to Inspire. Check out all the links to his books or hear the latest All That Chazz podcast at AllThatChazz.com.
- The New Seven Words or Less Contest (chazzwrites.com)
- Ta-da! Motivation, Inspiration & Information for Writers (chazzwrites.com)
- #NaNoWriMo: Tools to get you back on track & stay inspired (chazzwrites.com)
- Take it! (allthatchazz.com)
- 11 Essential Things to Know If You Want to Write Fiction for a Living (chazzwrites.com)
- #NaNoWriMo: How to make reading like cardio (chazzwrites.com)