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You must write every day! Or not?

Cat typing on laptop

It’s a writing mantra that you hear bandied around blogs, podcasts, advice columns, social media, etc. And it’s one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly*.

I’ve jotted down some of my manic, rambling thoughts on the topic during this National Novel Writing Month… Smash out a rough draft in a month? Pick away at it every day for a year? Or take yourself out of the world and go full fiction immersion? Wait for your muse? Or save it for one day when you’ve got more time?

That asterisk

What’s that asterisk doing there? Of course something so trite or straightforward has a disclaimer, a caveat, a little stone in the shoe. It might be more accurate to say I subscribe 90% to the advice?

Why so non-committal? Everything in moderation, dear friend. Nothing is black and white, after all. Storytellers thrive in the grey! It’s messy, ambiguous, and it’s exciting, isn’t it?

Writing every day keeps up the momentum, keeps the story ticking along and stops your characters wandering off and finding something better to do.

How does NaNoWriMo fit in?

NaNoWriMo is a great way to force you to get those words down. A campaign to write a book during the month of November – or more accurately: throw down 50,000 words of a first draft. The thought is daunting enough for me, and I’ve already proven to myself a few times I can make it to the end of a first draft, albeit at a more leisurely pace.

I highly doubt I could’ve managed NaNoWriMo when writing my first book. Though, it might be ideal for someone who’s been endlessly noodling with the first few chapters of a story, striving to attain perfection before moving on. No matter how much I think I know my characters and story before I start, it’s not until I’m getting through it that I realise how far off I was in those first few, ‘perfect’ chapters. And that’s fine, I know I’ll come back later once I’ve finished that entire draft – and not a moment sooner! – and fix it up.

How about the BXP 200 Word Challenge?

I’m keen on the Bestseller Experiment podcast’s 200 Word Challenge, which if you keep up for a year, you’ll have a novel! Or, again, at least the first draft of a novel. 200 words is a nice, low, manageable target – less than one page of a typical paperback. It lets you make progress on days that are a real struggle and still feel successful, like you’re moving forward. This can help avoid getting down about consistently not reaching some wildly unattainable target and throwing in the towel for good.

In general, achieving 200 words a day is more about dedicating 15 or 30 minutes to getting your butt in the chair. It’s about building a habit. And the two Marks (the Bestseller Experiment podcast hosts) have found average daily word counts are coming in closer to the 600-word mark. So, it looks like once you get moving then you’re away!

What about doing it hermit style?

Book a lake cabin for a couple of weeks away from your life to write your novel? As glorious as that sounds, I doubt it’d make for a success for me. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and from a standing start too.

I know I don’t have more than a few hours of fresh, new, creative energy each day. Once I get beyond that point, I’m just spinning the wheels and writing absolute trash – that is, if I can get anything more down at all. If I’ve got more writing time available to me in a day, that’ll get put into editing previously written words, or other aspects of the business of writing like marketing, promotion, admin.

If anything, NaNoWriMo has taught me that I can get down more in day than I’d previously thought. I just need to be willing to go faster and not worry so much about each sentence. Again, I’ll come back later and edit it anyway!

I need my muse…

Patiently waiting for the muse to descend from on high is another option. Though, I can’t imagine telling my boss I wouldn’t be doing any work that day because I wasn’t feeling it. So, as my own writing boss, I shouldn’t accept the same justification from myself, right?

I think Shannon Mayer says it best, as heard way back on Episode 3 of the Bestseller Experiment podcast: ‘Your muse is your bitch! You have to make it work for you.’

I’ll write that novel one day…

One day when I have more time – will there ever be such a thing? By squeezing writing into the gaps in daily life – on the train or bus, during you day job’s lunch break – you can make great strides.

Writing is less about finding time, and more about making time. Those 10 minute pockets of time where you can whip out your phone, pull up your document (or even the notes app) and get a few lines in. Or, if you can carve out 30 minutes at home, with headphones on and door shut, that’s great! It might feel selfish. But if it’s important to you, let those around you know and go for it.

OK, but every single day? Too much, right?

Writing is fun, liberating, exciting, but it’s also hard work. And sometimes you just need to give yourself a day free from work – that includes day-job work and writing work. We all know it’s not as simple as that, with ongoing responsibilities and all the other demands on our time and energy. Taking time for yourself can feel like a real luxury. But if you are able to step back from even one of those pressures every now and then, go for it. Free yourself to enjoy a day, free from guilt. No nagging feeling that you should be doing something ‘more productive’. You can’t be 100% productive – even machines can’t manage that. They need to be switched off occasionally, given a little maintenance.

That was especially the case last weekend, in the throes of NaNoWriMo, chucking down thousands of words every single day – I was drained!

My partner and I went with friends to the annual Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair. We wandered around the market stalls, the gardens, and the maze. We had a gay old time, and it was just the mini break I needed. Next day, I was back into the writing and more energised than ever.

Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair - market stalls
Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair - maze
Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair - food stalls

Take a day every now and then

That’s why I had that asterisk up there at the start next to ‘wholeheartedly’. I agree with the principle of writing every day, but I think we shouldn’t view the occasional exception as a failure, but as a necessity.

Some low-key things that get me excited to ignore the advice to write every day, ignore that productivity guilt, and just take a day:

  • Grab some takeaways to eat at the beach or lake or park – somewhere, just as long as it’s not at the house.
  • Take a walk in the bush or country park or wilderness or whatever ‘nature’ you have handy to you.
  • Catch up with friends for a long lunch or a drink at the pub.
  • Take your partner/kids/grandma/neighbour/whoever to the cinema, or make an event of streaming something cinema-style at home. A couple of hours in front of the screen, no other distractions, just a big box of popcorn.
  • Or, take that day for yourself. Pick up that book from the reading pile beside your bed you’ve been meaning to read for months, or an old favourite on your shelf, and read it cover to cover.

If you find you’re itching to get a few words in, go for it. But try not feel guilty for missing a day, and know that you’ll pick it up again tomorrow.

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