Friday 1 January 2016

Five hundred words a day

That’s my new year’s resolution. Five hundred words a day – just look how they mount up if you repeat them and spell out the numbers!

I am a writer. A writer of lots of published non-fiction, a couple of self-published novels and a whole heap more fiction in various stages of completion waiting its turn in the wings. The fiction-writing is relatively new for me. Well, I say new, but actually I’ve always written fiction in a vague, pleasing myself and never getting anything really finished kind of way. It’s only been in the last five or six years that I’ve turned to it with any seriousness. And as such, I’m still finding my way, working out what it is that works for me. And the main thing I’ve found it that discipline and a certain amount of pressure is key to getting the pictures in my brain connected into some kind of story on the page.

So far, my strategy has been to pick a period of time, say two months, and set myself a target number of words a day so that I end up with something like a book at the end of that time. It works pretty well – as a lot of people realise when they do NaNoWriMo, if you force your head into the creative process like that and don’t get too bogged down on correcting and editing as you go, the ideas really flow.

The trouble is, if I set a big target (I went for 1,250 words the first time and 1,500 the second), the day I don’t manage it – because my brain’s not functioning or I have to travel or look after someone or look after myself – the next day’s target becomes impossible. Also, the planning has to be very, very tight before I start. I don’t mean that I need to know exactly what happens in each chapter, but that I need a strict outline, including a timeframe, or else I find that about halfway through I’m not sure what day of the week it is and events are piling up against each other in an unlikely fashion.

And during the time when I’m not writing to a target I hardly write a word. I save it all up until the next time I think I’ve got a big chunk of time to spare to throw myself into it. Of course I’m doing other things: editing what I’ve written, editing other people’s work, planning the next book, infernal, eternal bloody marketing. But the writing, the bit I love best, gets pushed to the side.

(Hey, over 400 words already…)

So this year I’m setting myself a target of writing five hundred words a day, every day of the year. That’s 182,500 words in a year – no 183,000 because it’s a leap year. That’s potentially three 60,000 word novels!

But I’m not expecting to end up with three novels this time next year. Of course, it’s tempting to start right in with something new, but that’s not really the point. The point is to develop good, regular writing habits. That includes making sure everything gets finished and taking some time to have a stab at those ideas that float around and never get pinned down. I’m not even expecting it all to be fiction. This blog’s my first five hundred.

I can write five hundred words in half an hour generally. It might take an hour if I haven’t given myself enough time to think before I start writing. To be honest, the trouble with trying to write 1,500 a day was that often after about the first five hundred, the words stopped coming by themselves and so the pace slowed. Writing five hundred words should be possible in pretty much any circumstances.

I’ve written a list which I will add to as the year goes on, a list of all the things I want to work on so I can’t possibly sit down and say I have nothing to write about. There’s so much! – not only the book I’m currently writing, but also the one that’s been swimming around in my head for a year, the sequel to the one I’m trying to sell at the moment which is missing its last chapter, the Nesbitesque story I’ve been writing for my daughters for several years, blogs, reviews, writing exercises and a new non-fiction project.

I’ve got a spreadsheet too. I love a spreadsheet!

Will five hundred words be enough?
Probably not – I’m over seven hundred already here! But five hundred is an achievable target. Of course there’ll be days when I do more than that, and there’ll be days when I write five hundred new words and delete three thousand old ones. That’s what writing’s like.

But the joy of it is, even when I’m busy doing non-writing things, or in the complex throes of edits and rewrites, I get to spend thirty minutes or so every day engaged in that glorious pleasure of spinning ideas into fresh words.

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children
and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?

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