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Scheduling a writing life

September 24, 2013

Stephen King  writes 2000 words every day. Hemingway’s output ranged  from lows of 450 to as many as 1250. Two weeks into the new writing year, I’ve already fallen short of my stated goal to write X number of words a week. Now I wonder if word counts are the best measure of progress?

At a recent IFOA event Joseph Boyden said, “Keeping to a schedule is important. It’s important to find your own rhythm with your book and with your characters.” He said he writes every day when he’s working on a book, but admitted that he’s slow. It took two and a half years to write the first 50 pages of The Orenda, and then he stalled, worried about getting the details right. After doing more research and consulting with experts, he finished the 500 page novel in15 months.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

After her brother Martin died, Helen Humphreys found she couldn’t write at all. She created a routine to make herself write and to find a way through the chaos of grief. Every day, for 15 minutes, she copied entries from an encyclopedia of apples just to practice the act of writing. Eventually, she began to add her own notes and ideas to the transcribed material.

Since her brother’s death, Helen Humphreys says her writing process has fundamentally changed. She usually writes carefully researched, “overly planned” historical fiction but she wrote her latest book, Nocturne whenever she felt she had something to say, without premeditation or a plan, often late at night. After publishing a snippet of her work, she realized that it might become a book.

Annie Dillard cautions that a writer must visit a work in progress every day. “If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you…. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day to reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly afraid to open the door to its room.”

I’m hoping this means that the weekly word count (a mere 390 today!) is less important than regular visits to my current projects and characters.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Anita Morris permalink
    September 25, 2013 12:02 am

    As Pablo Picasso said, “Inspiration must find you at work.”

  2. Frank Gavin permalink
    September 25, 2013 10:49 pm

    A teacher once advised me to “write junk” for an hour or so rather than write nothing–the idea being that something of value, even if it’s just a phrase, will emerge form all the material that will and should be discarded.

  3. Frank Gavin permalink
    October 11, 2013 1:25 pm

    Here’s what novelist Peter Quinn said in a recent interview published in Commonweal Magazine:

    DP: You’ve conducted your writing life even while holding demanding and high-visibility professional and corporate positions. How did you maintain this balance, and did you ever feel it was something that couldn’t hold together?

    PQ: First of all, when I was a speechwriter, one of the things I learned was I had to have the copy in on time. It was a great realization about writing. You don’t wait until you’re inspired; it’s just work, you sit down and sweat. Somebody once said when they walked by my office, “You don’t look very busy.” I said, “You know what? Right now I’m in the Garden of Gethsemane sweating blood because I have to have this speech crafted and I don’t know where to begin.” I also learned as a speechwriter that the people making the speech get the product. So I had to have something of my own. That’s when I decided to write Banished Children, because I thought if I did speechwriting for the rest of my life no one would know I existed. I just wanted something with my own name on it. I started to get up at five-thirty and get to the office at seven and work for two hours until people came in. I researched Banished Children for six-and-a-half years and wrote for three-and-a-half, so that was ten. Hour of the Cat took seven or eight. But every day, five days a week, for seventeen years I’d be at that desk. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or raining or my back was out. The biggest part of writing is showing up, even when you don’t feel like it.

  4. Valerie McDonald permalink
    October 19, 2013 2:05 pm

    Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way recommends “morning pages,” three handwritten pages every morning to rid your mind of “junk” in order to help focus your creative life.


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