I know we’re out of NaNoWriMo season at the moment, with Camp NaNo coming up in April (and again in July), but there’s no time like the present to dust off that outline and start writing! I’ve recently jumped back into the fray with the sequel to Sand Dancer, and after years of re-drafts, and months of editing, there was a part of me that struggled to get back into starting a whole new project. You don’t need me to tell you that writing is hard, and starting a new project, whether that’s a new exercise regime or a new book, is the hardest part of all.
The key to starting a project is to just start it. That simple, eh? But it’s true. Don’t think about it. Don’t moan about it. Just DO IT. And the key to sticking with a project is to build up a habit over time until it becomes second nature. So how do you do that and write a ton load of words? Here are techniques which work for me, and may work for you, though your mileage may vary.
Write Every Day
As mentioned above, the key to writing is to stop worrying about it and just start the damn thing. They say it takes 66 days on average to build a habit, but this varies between people. It could take you two weeks or a whole year, but one of the best ways to build this habit is to write every day. If you work a full time job like me, you’ll need to set aside time based on your schedule and your needs. First, real life will always get in the way so allow that to happen and forgive yourself when it does. Your difficulty level increases massively if you have children to worry about. If you’re a student, always prioritize your workload and assignments first. These can’t wait, but your writing can.
Second, you need to discover what schedule works for you if you’re not sure, and this may require some experimentation. Many writers wake up early and start writing before work i.e. the 5am Writer’s Club. I can’t do that; I need my sleep! If you have a long commute to work/school, you could use that time, but again, I can’t do this because writing whilst travelling makes me nauseous. Instead, I make time after work every day. I treat writing as a second job. Sure, I’m not getting paid to sit my ass down and write yet, but one day I will, and so I dress for the job I want – to be a writer. And writer’s gotta write.
Set aside an hour every day and write. This doesn’t have to be hundreds of words. They don’t even have to be good words. But showing up is step one in any job.
If you’re new to writing, I wouldn’t worry about word goals too much – I don’t want you to get scared away! But setting a writing goal may help motivate you. The goal could be to write, say, a thousand words that day. Maybe it’ll take you an hour, maybe two, but you refuse to stop until you’ve reached that goal. How long it takes depends on your own writing style, but for a first draft you want to write with wild abandon and throw the words on the paper. Don’t look back at them, don’t start editing them, just move forward and write. Hit that goal.
To build a new writing habit, I’d recommend 500 or 1000 words a day and then increase it a little at a time, just as you’d begin a new exercise regime by starting off small and working your way up. I personally aim for 2000, but no more than that. Any more, and you risk burn out and frustrating yourself when you fail to reach the goal. It’s okay to fail, but ask yourself why those words were hard – did you get stuck on the plot? Were you just not feeling it? I find most writers get stuck and suffer the dreaded writer’s block because they’re not sure how to proceed with a particular scene. For some people, “outline” is a dirty word, but creating a plot outline, even just a simple one, may help you keep on track so you’ll know exactly where the plot needs to go and you’re not stuck thinking about what happens next. If you still get stuck, then my advice is to write a quick list of options for where the scene could go and then pick the one that sounds more interesting/has more conflict.
One thing that helps me reach my word goal is to track how many words I write using a spreadsheet.
So, write every day, and write to a word goal every day. What else?
Ah, the dreaded deadline. If you’re taking part in something like National Novel Writing Month, then you already have a goal and deadline; to write 50,000 words within a month. If you break that down, it’s roughly 1667 words a day. How do YOU feel about deadlines? Do they make you panic and guilt you into working hard? Or do you leave your projects until the very last minute and then panic? Setting a realistic goal may work for you, but be realistic. 50,000 words a month is attainable with hard work, but 100,000 is too much. Know what your limits are. Camp NaNoWriMo is great for this because you can set your own goal, and if you’re new to writing or just getting back into it, then be kind and give yourself a goal of 10,000-30,000 for the month. Writing is one of the most infuriatingly slow hobbies you could have chosen, so you can’t expect to have a book overnight. It’s a marathon!
But do try a deadline. It’ll put some healthy pressure on you to try and write daily to reach your goal, and once that word count starts going up, you’ll find yourself wanting to keep it up.
Okay, so you have a word goal and a deadline; now what? Now you sit your ass down in front of your computer/laptop/notepad and start writing. Of course, that’s easier said than done! As I said before, I treat my writing like a second job, and that means I need dedicated space where I can perform my job. Making a dedicated space just for writing will help centre you into that frame of mind. Hell, if it helps, dress up as though you were about to start a shift in the office. Writing in front of the TV or the kids isn’t going to help you concentrate, and if you do have kids, you need to allow yourself that sacred time to write, though I’m not a parent and can’t help you there! Making the time to write means making sacrifices, and that sacrifice comes out of your own time. It could be watching your favourite show, going out for a drink with the guys, spending an hour at the gym, or playing video games – if you don’t have the time to write you need to make the time. You need to give up something you enjoy. For me, that was video games. Don’t want to give up your pleasure to make time to write? Then do you really want to write or not?
So set aside your writing time and find your dedicated space. Do whatever ritual you need to get started, whether that’s grabbing a cup of coffee or lighting candles, and then GO. Do the thing. You might need some background music or ambience if there are outside distractions. I recommend a good pair or noise cancelling headphones. But for that hour, you sit down, you write your 1000 words.
Struggling? Tired? Not in the mood? No muse to sprinkle you with inspiration? Tough. Write anyway. Your words don’t have to be good words, but they have to exist so they can become good words later.
As a side note, some people do write better with distractions. If you like a little noise, then writing in a café might be beneficial for you, and you have the side effect of looking cool whilst doing so.
If you’re staring at the screen and need an extra prod to vomit those words, then word sprints could help. There are online communities that have bots which can automatically run sprints for you, such as writing Discord servers, or you can start a word sprint the manual way. What is a word sprint? It’s basically a fancy way of saying you set yourself a time limit, say twenty minutes, and then try to write as much as you can in that limit.
The magic happens when you run word sprints with other writers. By taking part in a word sprint with other people, you suddenly have companions to write alongside with in real-time, and rivals you can compete with to write the most/earn the highest score. Writing sprints are a fun way to engage with other writers; for one, they encourage me to keep writing, and it’s hard to back out of a sprint once you’re committed. I also love sharing my favourite line from what I wrote, or discussing the scene I’m working on with the people I sprint with.
Now I must confess I am terrible at forcing myself to sit still and write. Aren’t we all? I fidget a lot, I get easily distracted, even with shiny noise cancelling headphones, and my biggest weakness is taking a writing break to go check social media i.e Twitter or Instagram. Sometimes I’ll absently find myself on Reddit whilst doing “research.” My biggest tip would be to get off the internet, get off social media, and do whatever research you need to do outside of your writing time. “But Tru,” I hear you cry, “I need to research chocolate cake for this particular scene that will likely get deleted anyway!” Well then make a note in your draft to come back and add in the research later. Maybe something in brackets like [look up chocolate cake for this] and then move on. Ditto with character names and places. Use placeholders, like Bob of CityTown. You can come back once the draft is done and add in all the technical details later, and chances are, you may not even need that particular research.
I’m not a monster. One method that works for me, and a lot of other people, is to give yourself little breaks. For every twenty minutes of distraction-free writing/word sprinting, take a minute to check Twitter as a reward. You have to be disciplined. You can’t let that minute of Twitter turn into ten. If you know you can’t trust yourself to keep away from social media, then you’re best off unplugging the internet and going dark. There are apps out there which can limit and even block your website activity if you’re trying to write, but I find these don’t really work for me.
Also, despite trying to build a habit every day, it’s okay to take a break and have a day off. I’m an advocate for not writing every day, and instead having rest days where you can engage your brain artistically in other ways. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage your goal every day – be kind to yourself. Ultimately, unless you have a real-world deadline with real-world consequences, you’re writing this book FOR YOU. And only you can decide what that means to you and how seriously you want to commit.
Want to write 50,000 words a month? Then start writing.