I never thought this would be a topic that would raise arguments. I’m here to clarify my position on daily writing, and why it’s important.
When I started writing the first book I finished, long ago, I had failed time and time again through my life. My writing resume was one filled with projects that ended at chapter two. But I had a story idea that I didn’t want to let go of. Not a full blown outline, just a compilation of sketches, historical research, and story ideas that I had been cobbling together. It was originally supposed to be a graphic novel, back in my webcomic days. I told myself that I wasn’t going to fail this time. I was going to finish the damn book.
I guess that’s where all of this started, and one thing in particular separated that story from others I had tried to write in high school and college. It was a dinky little website that I can’t find anymore, insisting that ANYONE could write the first draft of a novel in 100 days or less. (NaNoWriMo was months away, and I wasn’t going to wait for it). I got called up to go to a drill ship in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was shortly after rig-up that I made the decision to swap from comic book to novel, as all of my drawing materials would get destroyed either offshore or on the helicopter rides.
I finished the first draft in 47 days. That dinky little website gave me the secret, which I assumed was a secret of all authors. It was so simple: write something everyday. Add to the story everyday. Don’t go back and edit until you are finished.
Perhaps one day I’ll write a whole novel with nothing but amazing sentences, but for the moment, I’ll just keep writing.
It didn’t matter if it was one sentence or thirty pages, as long as I got some words down.
That was it. That’s the simple key that unlocks the door to becoming a novelist, at least for me. But with the writingchallenge.org thing, contests like NaNoWriMo, and this sadistic quest I have to unlock 10,000 words in a day (which I’ve done 3 times on my various creative projects), I sometimes get a little lost in the word count. Word count isn’t a goal, it’s only a silly little measurement to keep you writing everyday. Tracking it is supposed to boost motivation, not crush it. Even if you join our 500 word-per-day twitter group, you have to remember that the number doesn’t matter. It’s a token value, and if you get 300 or 200 or 20 words in, then you’ve done you duty as a writer that day, so feel good about it.
The number isn’t important, the writing is.
That first novel saw days when I struggled to get a sentence down, for various reasons, but luckily not many. When I had to put down one line of prose and call it a day, I’d spend the night dreaming about my story, I’d think about it over breakfast, and when I returned to it, I had plenty of ideas where to take it. Other days, I would zip along and get thousands of words, as if the story was flowing right out of my fingertips as I saw the movie play in my head. But a day where you add 8000 or 9000 words to your story is just as good as adding 15. You kept the story fresh, and you added something.
The more you write, the easier it gets.
Writing daily isn’t just an exercise, and it’s not a damn contest. It’s about keeping your proverbial pencil sharpened. It’s about keeping that story idea fresh in your head. The more you write, the more you think about writing, and the better you get.
When I finished The Sword of Valhalla, I went back to page one. My early attempts to write colorful prose were shit! I shook my head as I scanned through the first few pages, realizing that I had my work cut out into perfectly shaped pieces of cake, and I would have to eat them all, one at a time. In just 75,000 words, my writing had changed so much that those early pages were unrecognizable. I even, at one point, suspected that someone got on my computer and screwed with my novel while I was in the galley.
If writing daily improves your skill level, editing mounts it on the nose of a rocket, and launches it to orbit. But here’s the thing. When I’m editing, I still write everyday. At this moment I have 2 short stories I’m working on from 2 different Kindle series (I haven’t published any of the second one yet, you have to wait, but it’ll be worth it), and I have to edit the Viral Spark novel, which is still in first draft. Even when it’s not big stories or projects, I’ll noodle with some flash fiction idea, or write a little poetry, or sometimes just scribble in my notebooks, fishing for new story ideas, or writing about what I see.
It’s hard to make a sentence convey exactly what you need it to say. That’s why the greats are so great. The way some people link words together to form ideas and pictures amazes me. Take this excerpt by Chuck Palahniuk for example:
In the world I see, you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests that surround the ruins of Rockefeller Center.
I mean, just that one sentence gives you a setting, a colorful scenic element, and an idea about the whole of the story. One sentence. Now, some of the other sentences in Fight Club, well, I could care less about. But this is fantastic! It’s everything a well crafted sentence should be, and that doesn’t come from grammar lessons and writing conferences. It comes from getting words down on a page every day. It’s still not perfect, and 50 different authors would probably tweak it 50 different ways, but they’re never perfect. Sometimes though, they are amazing.
I can’t tell you how many times I stare at my fountain pen in awe of the last sentence that came out of it, like it’s some kind of magical implement that crafts story all on it’s own, and all I have to do is hold it. But those little bits of prose that pop out from time to time have come from the experience gained by writing close to a million words. I will cite no other reference. When you see a really good sentence in one of my stories, it’s the result of tons of hard work (don’t worry, books are on the way soon).
I don’t think you’ll find any of those sentences in my little Dark Age stories. You might, but that story is written and catered to a certain kind of audience, and it isn’t for everyone. But as I progress through editing Viral, I’ve found lots of wonderful bits of prose. I still sometimes wonder who wrote them, but nowadays its because they are so good. Perhaps one day I’ll write a whole novel with nothing but amazing sentences, but for the moment, I’ll just keep writing.
So that’s my take on word counts
Writing is the only way to get better at writing, just as the only way to get better with any tool is to keep using it. At one time, I could fall a 4″ diameter pine trunk with a single swing of a machete, because I did nothing but clear line with one for years. There’s a technique to be perfected so that the blade falls at a certain angle, draws for just the right amount of slice, and just the right punch, and the weight of the swing is fully realized. In writing, even if you are churning out garbage, you’re still practicing a skill. And practice is the only way to get better.
So, for those of you who don’t agree with the whole “don’t go back and edit” thing, fine. You can finish a book that way, then you have better focus than I do. I have to work hard for mine. But please, write something every day, even if it isn’t on your novel.
Oh look, 1300 words on a blog post! Nice. (I consider my blog a creative project)