Why writing every day may still be the best advice

A week ago, I blogged about how writing every day may not be the best advice. I pointed out how following that advice had helped me when I was first starting out, but it had also hurt me later on. I pointed out how sometimes it’s better to work smarter than harder. After all, why throw out 80% of what you write if by taking a little time to properly outline things, you can write a clean first draft?

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Compound Effect, and it’s made me rethink some of those ideas. The main point the book makes is that it isn’t the big things that make the most difference, but the small, regular things compounded over time.

Is it still a good idea to work smarter? Yes, definitely. If by taking the time to prewrite a book, you can avoid throwing out 80% of your work, then by all means that’s more important than hitting your 2k / 3k / 10k words for the day, or whatever. But here’s the thing: there’s a smarter way to write every day too, and it has to do with momentum.

If you’ve been in a writing rut, it’s very hard to go from 0 to your daily word count goal in a single day. Over time, that goal becomes a ceiling instead of a floor. It’s all very psychological. Your writing time fills up with procrastination or busywork, to the point where it takes all your energy just to hit that daily goal.

All of that changes if instead you say “I’m going to write 500 / 200 / whatever words more than I did the day before.” Even from a rut, it’s not that difficult to go from 0 to 500 in a single day. And once you’ve hit 500, it’s not difficult to hit 1k. Compounded this way, you can soon break through that ceiling and still have energy to hit everything else.

It’s an interesting approach to daily writing goals, one that I’m trying out right now. But for it to really work, you do have to write every day, otherwise the compounding never happens.

When I first started this blog back in 2007, I used to write a lot about momentum. I was very much a novice writer, but even back then I could feel how much easier it was to write when I was on a streak than when I was starting from zero—and a streak can start with a day of just a few hundred words.

The things to avoid are busywork and useless guilt. If your writing goals have become a ceiling that you just can’t break through, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate. Work smarter AND harder.

And now, for no particular reason at all, here’s a Sabaton music video.

Why writing every day may not be the best advice

When I started writing back in college, the prevailing advice was to write every day. And to be fair, at the time, that was very good advice. I was just getting started on my writing career and had a lot of learning to do. My writing improved by leaps and bounds as I strived to make progress on my WIPs every day.

Now, though, I’m not so sure that writing every day is the best thing to strive for.

It’s not that I’m against the idea of practice. Writing is one of those rare creative professions where people don’t think you get better the more you do it. Of course, that’s flat-out wrong. The best musicians put in hours and hours of practice, as do the best chess players, or the best soldiers, or the best sports stars. Writing is no different. If you don’t put in the time and effort, you won’t get the results.

At the same time, there’s a tendency among aspiring and even journeyman writers to become consumed with guilt because they missed their writing goal for the day. This is counterproductive. Goals don’t exist to give you satisfaction or guilt, but to give you direction. Satisfaction comes from what you achieve in pursuit of a goal, not in the goal itself.

So that’s one aspect of it. But there’s another aspect, and that’s how effective it is (or isn’t) to write every day.

Between high school and college, I worked as a gofer on a masonry crew. One of the things my boss used to say was “work smarter, not harder.” He often said it rather tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still an important concept. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re doing it wrong.

This applies to writing as well. What does it matter that you write every day, if you’re just going to throw out most of it anyway? Is that really the best use of your time and energy? If by taking a week to establish things like plot, character, world-building, etc, you could write a much cleaner and better first draft, does it matter that you technically weren’t writing every day during that week?

Write smarter, not harder.

Now, I’m very glad that I did write every day back when I was starting out. My first (and possibly my second) million words were mostly crap, so it was better to put in the time and get through it as quickly as possible, just for the learning and growth.

But now that I’m an established journeyman writer, I find that the results are much better if I take the time to do some basic prewriting before I attack the first page. My first drafts are cleaner. The story comes together easier, with fewer problems. I don’t have to do “triage” revisions, where I’m throwing out characters, subplots, or even major plot points simply because they don’t work.

In Brandon Sanderson’s writing class, I once asked what I needed to change so that I could write my WIPs straight through without getting stuck in the middle. Brandon asked me if I was still finishing them, and when I said yes, he basically said don’t worry about it. That was good advice then, but it isn’t anymore. I’ve reached the point where writing smarter is more important than writing harder.

Anyway, those are my thoughts at the moment. Things change a lot when you’ve been writing for 10+ years, and unlike all the resources available for aspiring writers, there isn’t a whole lot of stuff out there to help guide you through the later phases. I’m basically figuring it out as I go.

Character Sheet Template

I’ve had such a ridiculously hard time lately trying to look up old characters, either from half-finished WIPs that I’ve recently picked up again, or from books I plan to publish but need to give a character description for the cover artist to work from. My Google-fu is pretty good, but a text search will only take you so far.

So yesterday, I put together a rough template for a character sheet. I plan to fill one out for every major character in my WIPs from now on.

====================
CHARACTER SHEET:
====================

FULL NAME:

AGE:
HEIGHT:
WEIGHT:
BUILD:
SKIN:
HAIR:
EYES:
OTHER:
MYERS-BRIGGS:
POLITICS:
SOCIAL CLASS:
RELIGION:
EDUCATION:
OCCUPATION:
RELATIONS:
==========
BACKSTORY:

============
MOTIVATIONS:

=======================
STRENGTHS & ADVANTAGES:

==================
FLAWS & HANDICAPS:

================
SYMPATHETIC HOW?

Another one done!

The Sword Keeper
Phase:3.0 Draft
100%

It’s done! Draft 2.0 of The Sword Keeper is finished. Still need to run it by some test readers, but it’s looking very good for a release this year.

In other news, the power cable for my laptop decided to die. I’ll replace it eventually, but in the meantime, I’m going to try turning my phone into a writing device. Just got a K480 bluetooth keyboard and I’m excited to try it out. My phone is a device I’ve always got with me, so adapting it for writing could be really great.

I’m also going to try a new writing technique that should hopefully lead to cleaner (perhaps even publishable) first drafts. If it works, this could significantly increase my writing output. It involves cycling through yesterday’s words before writing any new ones, getting into the flow and making any changes as necessary. This is actually very close to how I used to write back in high school, before all those college English classes. I also get the sense that this is how Dean Wesley Smith writes.

All sorts of experimental new things going on with my next WIP, which is Edenfall. Yes, it’s time to complete the trilogy. But before I jump into it, I’m going to take some time to do some serious prewriting, in the hopes (again) of writing a clean first draft. Which, if it works, means that the book will be published that much sooner.

In the meantime, Gunslinger to the Stars is almost ready for publication. My editor is working on it now, the cover art is just about finished, and besides that all that’s really left is crafting the book description and metadata. If all goes well, it should be up for pre-order on iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and Nook before the end of the month.

Also, new short story!

Killing Mister Wilson

Killing Mister Wilson

Every time traveler wants to kill Hitler. Only one actually stopped him.

Yes, I'm a time traveler. Why didn't I go back to kill Stalin? Because in my timeline, there was someone even worse. No, I didn't kill him either. Why? Because sometimes, history's true pivot points aren't where you think they are.
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About the Book

Every time traveler wants to kill Hitler. Only one actually stopped him.

Yes, I’m a time traveler. Why didn’t I go back to kill Stalin? Because in my timeline, there was someone even worse. No, I didn’t kill him either. Why? Because sometimes, history’s true pivot points aren’t where you think they are.

This book is rated T according to the AO3 content rating system.

Details
Author:
Genres: Science Fiction, Short Stories, Time Travel
Tag: 2017 Release
Publication Year: February 2017
Length: Short Story
List Price: .99
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About the Author
Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek fell in love with science fiction with Star Wars as a child and hasn't looked back since. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Genesis Earth, Bringing Stella Home, Heart of the Nebula, and the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He currently lives in Utah, which he claims as his home.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. You will not receive any additional charge.

An Answer…

Over the weekend, I read a really interesting post on The Passive Voice blog. It was an excerpt from a post by Dean Wesley Smith, looking at the tools and opportunities we have today and asking why we, as writers, still think that it’s difficult to write like the old pulp writers:

Yesterday, in the last chapter of the book I did about writing a novel in five days while traveling, I made a comment near the end that I found the exercise fun to be able to (just for a few days) feel like I belonged in the world of the pulp writers.

And I made a comment that I was born too late.

A reader wrote me privately with a good comment. Basically the reader reminded me that I should feel lucky to have the modern things we writers use such as computers, control of our own work instead of selling it to gatekeepers and so on.

The reader made a very good point. We do have it so easy, so much easier than the pulp writers did. I know that, I study the pulp writers and their lives.

Yet even with things being easier, it is unusual for a writer in 2017 to write a novel in five days.

So why do writers in this modern world not just write novels every week, week-after-week?

That even “Why?” question…

I knew the answer. Writer’s belief systems. Modern writers don’t believe they can.

That belief has been trained out.

Writers of the modern world have been taught to think that writing at pulp speed is different, unusual, a fantastic feat, massive work, and on and on and on…

I then realized I had done it too. And until tonight I hadn’t caught myself on it.

Look back at the last chapter I wrote. I called the entire idea of a novel in five days, “Crazy.”

Why? Writing a 40 thousand word novel should take me between 35 and 40 hours.

Sitting alone in a room and making stuff up for 40 hours in five days. What is so crazy about that????

And more importantly, what is so difficult about that?????

It’s a fair question. And it got me thinking: what are the false writing beliefs that are crippling me right now?

I can think of a few:

  • First drafts are never publishable.
  • Prewriting is not as important as butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
  • You can’t have more than one active WIP at the same time.
  • You can’t write short stories while working on a WIP.
  • Writing a short story per week is hard.

Well, it’s time to break free from these crippling beliefs, starting with the last one.

I’ve had a bunch of short story ideas recently, and I’m going to start running with them. I’ve neglected my short story writing for the past six months, so my active submissions have dried up somewhat (at least to the pro markets). But a lot of magazines have been giving me personalized rejections, which tells me that I’m not too far from a breakthrough. Trouble is, I just haven’t had anything to send them lately.

If I could write a novel per week, that would be absolutely fantastic. I’d probably write in a crazy obscure genre like Sword & Planet, except it’s not that obscure because Princess of Mars influenced everyone from Clarke, Bradbury, and Heinlein to George Lucas and the US Space Program.

But I’ll start with the short stories. And from there, who knows?