This post, from Devon Ellington, originally appeared on the Procrastinating Writers blog on 5/8/09.
It’s easy to stay on track for a contracted, deadlined project. You know when it has to be finished and to the client/publisher/editor/agent. You have a fixed date, and, whether you break it down into do-able bits or wait until the last moment for that adrenalin rush. It’s out the door on time if you expect to work for that particular person again.
But what about the pieces you write just for you? The novel you always wanted to start and finally “got around to?” How do you stay on track if a project isn’t under someone else’s deadline?
You have to apply some of the same tools, but modify them a bit. You have to make the stakes high enough to actually do it. And, most importantly, you have to want it enough.
For the purposes of this piece, let’s use a novel as an example. You want to try something new, it’s not contracted, it’s not deadlined. You might not yet know how long it’s going to be, what genre it’s in, or where it’s headed. That’s fine. You just have to really want to write this novel.
- Figure out what a comfortable daily pace is for your work. Something that makes you feel that you’ve accomplished something. I prefer to use word count or page count rather than time count. It’s easy to sit and stare at the screen for two hours and say, “Oh, that was my two hour session. Done.” And there’s not a word on the page. With a word count or a page count, you don’t get to end your session until you’ve hit your quota.
I write my first 1,000 of fiction first thing in the morning, before I am “tainted by the day.” I get up, feed the cats, put on the coffee, do my yoga/meditation, and then write my first 1,000. If it’s going well, I keep going as long as possible. If it’s a slog to get through that first 1,000 words, at least, no matter how frustrating the rest of the day gets, I know I’ve written 1,000 that day. It takes off a huge amount of pressure from the rest of the day. Sometimes, it’s a deadlined project, such as my next Jain Lazarus adventure. Often, it’s a project with which I’m playing, where I’m still unclear as to what it will be when it grows up.
Carolyn See suggests 1,000 of fiction “every day for the rest of your life” in her wonderful book Making a Literary Life. It’s four pages. Doable in most situations. But if two pages (500 words) makes more sense in the scheme of your life, then that’s your daily quota. What matters is doing them. Every day. If you miss a day because you’re sick or life gets in the way, get back to it as fast as possible. Don’t give up.Also, remember that every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some will have a quicker natural flow than others. It’ll take you a few chapters to figure out the book’s natural rhythm. Once you’ve found it, work with it, not against it.