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Writing Life: Drop and Give Me 500

May 8, 2010

To continue a thought I expressed in my first post, I would like to take this opportunity to propose that if the Clarion workshop is to have a 100% success rate in producing professional speculative fiction writers, it needs acquire enough donations each year to hire a team of Writing Enforcers.

I envision eighteen steely-eyed, musclebound thugs, one to follow each student home and crack menacing knuckles every time the would-be writer vacillates about sitting down at her computer and Getting the Work Done.  “But I’ve been slaving all day flipping burgers/teaching kindergarten/doing spinal taps!” the writer will protest.  The Writing Enforcer will say nothing in reply, but simply lift the writer up by her shirt collar and deposit her in her desk chair.  (She’ll thank him later.)

About a month or so before Clarion 2009, I sent a panicked email to Shweta Narayan (check out her story “Sultana Lena’s Gift” in the June 2010 Realms of Fantasy), and the message she sent back probably saved my writing life.  The gist of it was that in her Clarion class, the predictor of future success was not the level of talent, but the stubborn persistence with which the student continued writing and submitting after the workshop was over.  The letter was long and full of wisdom, but the one tidbit I latched onto for dear life was something about “500-1000 words a day.”

This is the wisdom that I am going to mercilessly enforce upon anyone who is foolish enough to ask me for writing advice.  As I see it, if you are unwilling to plant your carcass in a chair once a day and crank out 500 words of something, you might want to consider an easier goal than a career in fiction, such as, say, winning a swimming medal in your bowling shoes.

Some people believe that writing too often will exhaust their creative energy.  I find that the reverse tends to be true.  Every day that you do not write creates a kind of inertia, a creative stiffness that is hellish to try to overcome when a deadline suddenly appears.  When you write fiction every day, even if it’s something you don’t plan to use professionally, the exercise keeps that part of your brain warm and limber, and increases your work ethic and productivity when you find you genuinely need it.

Try it this week.  Consider me your Writing Enforcer, if it helps.  I am neither steely-eyed nor musclebound, but if called upon to do so I can be cruel.

The only two rules about your 500 words are that they have to be fiction and they have to be new.  Edits and rewrites you’ll have to make separate time for, because it’s all too easy to spend an hour rearranging commas and rereading your favorite unfinished story and call that “work.”  The 500 words do not have to be a chronological part of a coherent project (that you are aware 0f).  They can be the climactic ending to a nonexistent story about teenage unicorns.  They can be a wry inner monologue by an alien-human hybrid that doesn’t seem to attach to any sort of plot whatsoever.  And, of course, they can be the next 500 words of a story you’ve already painstakingly outlined and started with a specific market in mind.  It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that you do it every day.

A thousand words every other day doesn’t count.  Also, you don’t get days off.  Stuck in an airport for 36 hours with a dead laptop battery?  Scribble your 500 on a series of cocktail napkins and then throw them away.  It doesn’t matter what becomes of the words you write.  The point of this exercise is to drill it into your head that making stuff up is your job, and the only way to get into this mindset is to behave as if it were so.

Five hundred words isn’t much of a commitment, especially if you don’t care if they are good (hint: they usually won’t be).  Free yourself from the compulsion to demonstrate talent.  You can dash 500 bad words in half an hour easily.  Can’t type that fast?  It would be well worth your time to learn.  Touch-typing at a blistering 90 wpm is one of the best ways to barrel right past your inner critic.

What happens if you miss a day?  Ignore it and press on.  Don’t try to “make up” the lost words.  I experimented with that, and all it seemed to do was give me the idea that it was okay to miss a day because I could pick up the slack later.  The rule is: 500 words, today, before you go to bed, or you don’t get to call yourself a writer today.  Period.

Are y0u limited to 500 words?  Of course not!  If you go crazy one day and a 1500-word short story falls out of you in one sitting, that’s wonderful!  But it doesn’t mean you get the next two days off.  Sorry.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve written 500 words a day ever since Shweta’s email.  I can say that I did it more or less daily up until Clarion, and I think that’s half the reason I was actually able to produce four short stories while there (I had written exactly four short stories in my entire life prior to the workshop).  After Clarion I didn’t write a new word for months (a common phenomenon, I’m told).  But now I’m back to the daily 500 (actually 1500 on weekdays), and I’ve noticed a profound difference in my attitude.  I may not be  a good writer every day, but I am a writer.

Fiction is not a science.  But “500 words a day every day” is something concrete, something attainable by any writer, which is why I pass it along to you with the force of an edict.  I don’t know exactly why writing 500 words a day works better than writing 3500 words every Sunday, but it does.  Perhaps because it’s a daily victory, something to say “YES!” about in a life full of noes.  It’s a small daily reminder that the definition of “writer” is “one who writes.”

So stop surfing the ‘Net and get to it!  (Do come back though.  Matt Bialer will be paying us a visit in a few days.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2010 12:19 pm

    Amused by the enforced Time In Chair concept. And yet…

    The one experience I find so many Clarionites share is The One Month Hiatus. That is, after going all out for six weeks of the workshop, you leave Clarion drained emotionally, physically and writingly. (Writingly? Hey, I am a professional. I can invent new words and meanings.) It is not atypical for it to take 2 to 6 weeks before your brain can function again. The whole point of the boot camp for writers metaphor is to rewire synapses and change the way you think and write. Like any surgery, it takes time to heal.

    Now… the thing about The One Month Hiatus that I find critical is not that I am giving newly graduated Clarionites carte blanche to do nothing. Most people I know looked over their stories and even some of the crits they received. And with the Internet, it was possible to be in contact with everyone even as you missed them terribly — and even to blog. Oh wait. That’s cheating, isn’t it? Correspondence and journal writing is writing after all, isn’t it? Damn, those 500 words a day have snuck in there accidentally after all. And it didn’t even take any strongarm tactics for those first post-Clarion baby steps.

    In my case I was already sending stories out into the wild before Clarion — and even sent out one of my Clarion stories to market during Clarion — so I already had a workflow procedure in place to fall back on. Having stories out to market was important, because as stories came back, I felt compelled to keep the number of balls juggling in the air as constant as possible. Not quite the same as deadlines, but useful.

    So my recommendation is to prime the pump and make sure you have stories out to market even at Clarion. Then when you come out, try not to let the submission stream run dry. After all, you should come out of Clarion with a number of new stories to play with. (grin)

    Dr. Phli

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      May 8, 2010 1:00 pm

      Mine was more of a three-month hiatus. Of course, I was also tremendously pregnant.

      Also: by the rules I use for my own enforced writing time, the 500 words have to be fiction. For me, writing an email or a blog is not at all the same mental process as inventing characters, plot, etc., and I can only assume it must be similar for others.

      Incidentally, that means I’m not off the hook for today yet. Wish me luck.

      • May 8, 2010 2:21 pm

        While I’d rather that the daily word counts come from fiction, I am willing to consider that a blog entry that I’ve written, as opposed to something more akin to a Facebook or Twitter posting, is in fact writing. I’ve written a couple of blog postings in the last week or so which have taken several hours of careful editing to get it right — no different than taking care to craft a good story.

        After all, having a blog is partly to communicate to friends and family, but it also serves a professional presence on the web that even my website doesn’t give. So if anyone is going to read my blog, it has to have something to say.

        Of course, if you don’t want to specifically tally it as fiction writing, then sure. But then you need to concede that it counts toward the professional overhead, same as writing submission letters and otherwise keeping track of one’s work. And one has to allocate some time and creativity towards the overhead or else (a) it doesn’t get done and (b) you lose the $ signs in the word professional. (grin)

        Oh, and good luck with the writing! Me? I am hip deep in doing badly neglected updates to my website. Clearly this is an overhead day. (sad grin)

        Dr. Phil

      • Mishell Baker permalink*
        May 8, 2010 2:31 pm

        You raise a good point. Time writing fiction is certainly not the only time that needs to be logged regularly if you want a successful career in fiction. But it is the type of work that most benefits from relentless daily practice, the skill that atrophies fastest when neglected, and the chore that is most frequently put off in favor of the other categories of necessary work. (Case in point: I’ve not yet done my 500 for the day.)

        I would put blog-writing in the self-promotion category, and I consider that self-promotion of all kinds is increasingly important in today’s climate, particularly for those who are already lightly to moderately published.

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