my writing challenge: a case study

I haven’t been seeing as much progress in my novel as I would like. Novels take time. My brain takes time to understand connections in the story or among characters. I get that. But I was slipping into a kind of stupor with the whole thing, allowing the process to meander rather than chasing the threads of the story eagerly and with purpose.

Basically, I got lazy.

While I was content in my laziness, I saw a slew of tweets from writers I follow. “Just wrote 4,000 words!” Or “Hit my goal of 6,500 words revised!”

I’m always happy when a fellow writer has met their goal, but these tweets bowled me over. Huge writing sessions like this are mentally and physically impossible for me, aside from intense burnout so bad I don’t write for days afterwards, which ends up doing more harm to my output longterm.

Everyone has a different optimal creative process. It’s important for me to remember that, so I don’t get too hard on myself. (And it’s important for you to remember that, so that if you do have the superpower of MEGA word production, you don’t think I’m a total wimp…)

Anyway. Confronted with prolific writers on Twitter and the reality of my own laziness, I set up a writing challenge for myself.

Write at least 1,000 new words a day for a week.

I wanted to see if I could push my output and the plot forward at the same time. I limited myself to a week because when I do too much of this kind of forward writing without allowing myself time to analyze, chart, take notes, etc., I tend to follow rabbit trails to alternate versions of my book’s universe that don’t work (see the novel as multiverse). I can also burn out (see 4 paragraphs back).

I didn’t set a daily start time or a length of time I had to be writing. I’d just sit there until I got to 1,000 words.

In this experiment, I used this cool site called 750 Words. It’s meant to help writers be accountable to their daily writing. The idea is that every day, you write 750 words, which is about 3 double-spaced pages. You type your work and the site keeps track of how many words you write, how long you write, your writing streak for the month, as well as other things like your most often-used words and the mood of your daily writing. It’s free to create an account, and you can choose to set your work to private, so no one else can see what you’re up to. It’s pretty great.

Screenshot 2017-07-13 09.12.45
Here’s a screen grab of a page.

Off to a flying start

The first day or two was easy. I enjoyed getting my characters into some action without knowing where we were headed. I had so little trouble getting to 1,000 words, I was worried I hadn’t given myself a high enough word count goal.

Days three and four proved my worry wrong. I fell into my more typical writing rhythm: I stalled out around 350 words, and again around 650. Once I hit 800, it was easier to get to 1,000, but I had trouble staying planted in the chair. If I hadn’t pushed myself through those stalling points, I probably would have walked away and not written any further.

Trouble…

I hit a plot wall. I didn’t know where my protagonist or the story could go from where I had written them. I started to wonder if my protagonist had chosen a certain response not because it was right for her or for the story, but because I needed more words to finish the day. My goal was words, not authentic decisions made according to her central desire. Losing sight of my protagonist’s central desire is dangerous. It puts the whole future of the story on uncertain ground.

I gave myself permission to back up to a plot point I had already passed and choose a different decision for my protagonist. Some of the stuff I’d written only the day before would be obsolete, but if cutting it kept the story aligned with my character’s central desire, it was worth it.

Lesson

I realized if I meant to get out 1,000 new words a day, they wouldn’t all be usable words. In fact, something like 10% of the new words I ever write are final, usable words. And that’s probably a generous percentage.

So I went back, rewrote, and passed the place I’d gotten stuck the day before, feeling more confident that I was moving with my characters rather than forcing them to march with me.

Writers and teachers often say the first draft is garbage, and that it’s important to let the first draft be garbage. First draft material is all changeable, no matter how long I spend perfecting my word choice. It carries the story so that I can start understanding it and know how to tell it better. Then, after you’ve spewed it all out, you sift through it and use what you can.

Revelation

In spite of knowing all of that, deep down, I don’t think I’m okay with writing garbage. During this exercise, I often had to force myself to let a sentence be imperfect and move on. To take the first words that occur to me and not to question them. To really commit. Parts of who I am struggle against that process: my desire for control, for perfection, or quality.

So, basically…

You have to figure out how to write, and you have to figure out how YOU write. 

Becoming a better writer involves an ever-deepening self-knowledge.

The page will teach you what you need to know about your story and about yourself.

Write. Think. Listen. Write.

(If you try this or a similar experiment out, let me know how it goes! Next week, I plan on slogging through the 7,000+ words I wrote for this experiment. I’ll definitely share any and all thoughts on THAT delightful process with you, too.)

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Allison Wall

I'm a writer writing about my writing life. There's a lot of writing. And writing about writing. You get the idea.

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