I’ve talked before about how I don’t write every day. This idea blows the minds of some folks who follow me on Twitter during the long marches right up before deadline, when I’m updating them with insane word counts while weeping into my whisky and mourning extravagant character deaths. But the reason I binge write – and, in fact, the reason it’s often necessary – is because I’ve tried writing every day many, many times before in my twenty years putting words onto pages, and I find it absurdly painful to write a book that way.
I realize that the idea of not writing every day flies in the face of every bit of writing advice that new writers get. And, you know, “Write every day” isn’t bad advice when you’re new and still working on honing craft. It can help you make the time you need to actively practice your skills, which is important when you’re still figuring out how to write a good sentence. But one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from Carol Emshwiller, who said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent.”
If you are sitting down writing the same old shit every day, without actively working to level up your craft, you’re not going to get any better. You will just keep writing the same shit and throwing it against the wall and hoping it sticks. This is one of the reasons I’m always writing a book I’m not quite ready to write. But constantly leveling up also means there’s no auto pilot. No auto pilot means hitting word count felt like an endless slog, to me.
Writing EMPIRE ASCENDANT, the sequel to my epic fantasy novel, THE MIRROR EMPIRE, was an exhausting project. They are complex books, and things only get more sticky in EMPIRE ASCENDANT. The multiple worlds, the interwoven timelines, the varied cultures, were all elements I had to manage on top of all the regular nuts and bolts of a good book: create great characters, build compelling settings, give readers big explosions and fight scenes (literal explosions and/or emotional ones), a satisfying sense of progression, tension, conflict, suspense, evocative prose, and all the rest. Writing a book that’s readable is tough. Writing a book you really want to be good is fucking exhausting.
For some time now, I’ve tried to break up my writing time into chunks that I carve out every day of the week. We work five days a week, so I should write 5-6 days a week, right? I was working hard to get in writing time during every work day lunch, and for 90 minutes every night. But I could never keep that up. Worse, I actually started dreading these writing times. I vented online about it. I whined to my spouse. I wanted to hurl books around my room every time I was supposed to start.
Writing just wasn’t fun anymore. I told myself over and over that this was just a natural thing, that this was just what it was like to be a writer with a day job and book deadlines. But I mourned that lost joy.
The truth is, I get my best, most fulfilling writing done when I have big chunks of time to immerse myself in it. I’m talking four hour, six hour, ten hour blocks. That was easy when I was a kid, a teen, and when I was in college. It’s a lot harder to carve out eight hours for yourself on a Wednesday. The thing is, I truly enjoy the time I spend writing when I have the chance to immerse myself in the world I’m writing about, instead of feeling like I’m poking at little newspaper cutouts and telling them to do things and oh god it’s time to make dinner and I have to get up at 5am and….
I heard author Catherynne Valente once compare falling into this immersive state while writing with falling asleep, and the metaphor was so apt that a little bell went off in my head, and I realized that I’d been trying to fit the act of writing into a work week designed to produce widgets, not prose. When you only have 90 minutes to lie down and take a nap, and the dog is barking, and people are opening and closing the doors, and the TV is on, and cars are driving by… you’re constantly popping in and out of that glorious place where you’re drifting off to sleep, and you really never reach the deep sleep you need to feel rested. Sure, you might get some “rest” but you haven’t really slept the way you would if you have five hours, eight hours, ten hours to nod off.
This is what trying to write in 90 minute chunks of time feels like for me. I know I have 90 minutes. I know it’s not going to be enough time to really get into what I’m doing. I know there will be distractions, and my brain won’t have the time it needs to slip into the sleepy-dream-hallucinating-I’m-in-another-world state that I need to crack out some effortless writing.
But give me six hours and I fall into the process there in hour one, and emerge on the other side during hour six blinking and bleary-eyed, like I’ve just battled monsters and saved kingdoms all by myself for the last six hours and hey, I also have 7,000 words done and gosh do I feel fabulous.
When I read Rachel Aaron’s “2k to 10k“, the first and most important tip of hers that I put into place to hit a greater word count was to “pre-write” my scenes for the writing session I was about to start. She points out that we all waste too much of our precious writing time just staring at the page thinking, “What does this character do next?” If you can glance at your notes and see it, and you’ve primed yourself beforehand by writing a summary, it’s a lot easier to keep your momentum going. Even if you’re like me and hate outlining, this is actually a pretty fast and low stress hack. I just write 3-4 sentences of what happens in the chapter I plan to work on that day, and then I get started. It takes five minutes, and it eliminates a whole lot of wayward time I’d spend staring angrily at the screen and clicking over to check Twitter or look at something on Pinterest, hoping I just come up with something inspiring for the scene. Pre-work is gold.
But one of the other things in Aaron brought up was to try and get big blocks of writing time, get out of the house to work, and to figure out what time of day you produce the most work. I never had the time to put this tactic into place before, but terror at missing my deadline was… inspiring, to say the least.
So when I found myself these last six weeks barreling to finish EMPIRE ASCENDANT before its Feb 1st deadline, I decided to carve out big chunks of time for myself, time that would let me immerse myself in the work, and actually track during which hours I was producing more words.
I sat down at the coffee shop the first Saturday morning at about 10am and worked until I hit 10,000 words. It took me until about 7-8pm, including breaks to eat. I was consistently hitting 1k/1hr early on, with peak word counts from 11 or 12 until 2 or 3. It got tougher as the day got longer, which shouldn’t be too surprising. I’m not sure if this means I’m better writing in the morning or afternoon, it just means I write faster during peak REM time, right? If I’m falling to sleep at 10am and getting up at 7pm, then my deepest sleep is somewhere in that middle time period – and coincidently, that’s when I’m doing the most effortless work.
Sundays were always harder. I’d still hit my 10k, but it would take longer, it wouldn’t be as fun, and my fingers were sore by the end of it, cause typing 20,000 words in two days is, indeed, a lot. I did find that updating Twitter with my word count, using it like a timesheet to track my progress, was also pretty motivating. I could take a break and snark with people for a few minutes, then dive back in.
The first weekend I did this, I thought it was a fluke. I spent the next couple of week days trying to work in my usual 90 minute chunk after work, and it was so dispiriting, so physically painful, that I just gave up and said, “Forget this. I’m going to just write another 10k on Saturday.” And I set the manuscript aside and worked that week on making notes, reviewing the manuscript, and doing some research.
By the time Saturday swung around again, I was refreshed, invigorated by the research and other reading I’d done during the week, and ready to go ahead. I hit my 10k easily on both days.
I spent the next weekend on revisions, which involved adding another 12k to the manuscript.
And… when I surfaced from the manuscript at 4pm yesterday while sipping a beer at the new beer lounge in town, I had a fully revised and ready to pass off draft of EMPIRE ASCENDANT. I’d written something like 60k of it, total, in six weeks.
And I felt great.
I really did. Every night after I wrote 10k, I felt fabulous. All the sudden I loved being a writer, I was enjoying what I was doing again, and even singing along to the radio on the way in to work. Writing had gone from painful chore to weekend joy, something I did at a coffee shop or a beer lounge, clacking away, spending some quality time being perfectly, joyfully introverted, a traveler to some foreign place, building a whole world all by myself.
It was fabulous.
One of my biggest laments this last year is that I was getting more writing invitations than I could possibly have time to write for. I had so many more opportunities, but lacked time in the day to write them. Writing was already so painful, trying to do it every day, that I couldn’t imagine trying to do more on top of it.
But for my next book, THE STARS ARE LEGION, I’ll be putting this new writing schedule into place. Instead of trying to squeeze out 2k a day five days a week, I’m just scheduling a 10k writing day every Saturday. I’ll write just one day every week, giving myself those five days a week I’m navigating my day job to just read, do research, or complete writing-related admin work. It means writing a book in bursts, this time. But it also means I’d have the potential to finish a rough draft – the most loathsome part of a book, for me – in just 9-10 weeks. That’d give me a LOT more time to revise, and avoid the terrible panic right before deadline comes around.
Best of all, being able to draft quickly also means I can set it aside to rest well ahead of deadline and work on other things – short stories, novellas – that people have been asking for.
Life is mad, so whether or not this new schedule works is up in the air, but I’m happy to spend every Saturday immersively happy inside my novels again instead of spending an hour and a half every night hating my life just to squeeze out 500 words. This doesn’t mean I’m not getting up at 5 am anymore – quite the opposite. Now I can use all that time I was trying to get those 500 words in the morning on writing related stuff like admin, research, and revisions.
This goes against a lot of perceived wisdom about how we should schedule our writing lives, but it sure does make me a lot happier in having chosen mine.
Here’s to a happier writing life.