Applying butt to chair with a word deadline works wonders
Tom Wolfe squeezed out only 135 words a day; Hemingway averaged 500.
Both guys didn’t have the internet pounding on their door. Netflix wasn’t screaming for a novel they could monetize into a TV series. Both guys didn’t give a rat’s ass. They wrote to a schedule and a quota and with paper and pencil.
They were Tom Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. I’m not and you aren’t either.
But, I have a novel coming out this year. My first. And I have five other novels in various stages of draft, waiting for the right time and inspiration to turn them into saleable products. My drafts are above 50,000 words with a beginning, middle and mostly an ending with interesting characters and quirky plot lines. Too quirky, one agent told me.
I also work full time in a corporate job with two teenagers, a wife and a mortgage.
My about-to-be-published book gave me license to tell people I’m a writer. But most people I talk to say “I’d like to write one but could never do it.”
Yes, you can. But realize like the first time you made someone dinner or had sex, your first won’t be that good (unless you are Diana Gabaldon; Outlander was her first and a hit!)
But I get it. When my friends say “I could never do it”, they mean “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
You do. You just don’t realize it. Your chain smoking aunt that works at Walmart? She’s a character. The struggle you face trying to get your 96-year-old with mild Alzheimer’s into an old folks’ home and the siblings aren’t in agreement? That’s a story.
A story needs a beginning, middle and end. Your chain smoking aunt goes to work, sees a man carrying oxygen while he’s shopping and decides to change her life and stop smoking. That’s a story.
“But remember, when I said your first one might be crap?”
But a story needs conflict. Her best friend doesn’t want her to stop smoking because she smokes too and worried she will lose her friendship.
Conflict is the equivalent of a sand trap during a golf game. You pay lots of money to hit a white ball on a rolling field with grass, trees, water and hills because it’s hard. For a better description, listen to the great Robin Williams explain the invention of golf.
Hemingway’s shortest story is: “*For sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” There’s a HUGE story in those two sentences, full on sadness, conflict, remorse or despair.
* this is often attributed to Hemingway but unsubstantiated. Regardless, it’s a good example.
But your first story will be like the tree house you built as a kid. Four hundred nails pounded into three pieces of wood on a tree not strong enough to stand up to a stiff wind. But you built it, didn’t die and learned to make it better. Writing a novel is a bit like that. Write your shitty first draft (or as a friend of mine say “your scrappy first draft”) and then fix it. Rinse and repeat.
But you say “I still have no ideas or no idea how to start.” I disagree. Anyone can start. Start anywhere. That cute girl at Starbucks with ear-pods sitting at the table beside you? She has a Wonder woman logo on her laptop. That tells you a lot about her character. Put her into a situation. She’s a millennial that’s importing designer drugs from Switzerland to give her friends a cognitive boost. They found her best friend dead last night and the cops are trying to find her. Or not. What else could her story be?
Lots of interesting possibilities but like any project you start, the finishing is a bitch.
But there’s help.
A few years ago, I learned about NaNoWriMo and the value of a word deadline. Started by Chris Baty twenty years ago, you sign up for no charge and commit to writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That works out to 1666 words per day. If you miss a day, double up the next or overdo a few days to hit the number.
NaNoWriMo is the kick-in-the-ass a writer needs to push through the self doubt, guilt, depression, remorse, anger and any other emotion that stops you from writing. Every day you publish your word count for the world to see. It’s the fire to your butt.
You free write. You can have an outline or not but irregardless write with a rule to never cross out, change nothing and no spell checking. Write fast and hot. Questions that come up in the story? I write them into the text and make them count against the 50K.
Sooner or later, a story will emerge. Will it be good? Maybe not. But Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen came out of a NaNo month. Not bad for writing fast like your hair-is-on-fire to hit the word finish line.
For me, reaching my word count means a commitment of one to two hours per day. Some days I do less. Other days the words flow. I write in coffee shops but you can also attend local NaNo write-ins. You get to meet other crazy people at an assigned time and place and write as much or little as you’d like — but you are writing.
The elixir of being with other writers typing out their shitty first draft is exhilarating. And knowing none of these other writers have any clue either boosts your confidence.
Sign up for NaNo. Write a tiny outline or a long synopsis. Start with an interesting character and see what happens. If your character is alone, bring in someone else into the scene. Introduce some suspense, romance, or comedy. Or all of the above.
But just write the words. Start your daily words with, “Today I’m writing about…” then tell yourself the story. Ask what if? questions. What if the character that just sat down is a cop. Or their mother. Or someone they’ve never met before. You are the creator of this little world.
Writer’s block only happens if you stop asking questions. A violinist doesn’t get violin block. They practice. They play the notes they know. You can do the same. Write the words. Practice. Write in a Hemingway style. Write in a Danielle Steele style. Doesn’t really matter. Just write.
Write long enough, a story will emerge and so will you.