I’m Scarlett Parrish, a writer of...shall we say...saucy books, but in the interests of keeping this blog post family-friendly, I’ve decided to talk about a subject that’s pretty much universal for writers: productivity and how to write more without burning out. As it’s November, many people have signed up to NaNoWriMo and are striving to write 50,000 words in one month. I’m one of them.
And I’m already behind.
Mind you, every time I’ve signed up, I’ve been behind at this stage and I usually catch up somewhere around the third week. Things got particularly hairy on one occasion and I wrote my final word at twenty to midnight on the last day, but hey, I made it!
I’m what you might call a feast or famine writer, although I have ambitions to be a little more balanced in my writing. I’d like to be spaced out with regard to word count, not mental health.
I was first published in 2010, and back then, was the sort of writer to sit down at my laptop and write whenever I felt like it. I once wrote 20k words in three days (yes, really)...then nothing for another fortnight. It didn’t make for a regular publication schedule.
Nowadays, my ‘real life’ schedule and health both mean that I have more restrictions on my time. For example, if I’m ill from Monday to Wednesday with a migraine, that means my word target for that week just lost three days’ breathing space, and I may have other work to contend with as well in that time. Or appointments. Errands. General boring grown-up adulting stuff. Sometimes you need to get your words written, fast.
So discipline and word sprints are called for. Let me tell you what I did one recent Saturday.
I decided to write 5,000 words in one day. Not impossible by any means and for many writers, not too demanding. Up until that day, I’d written between one and two thousand words at a time here and there. Hadn’t pushed myself too hard since the early days of my writing career.
If I’d said “Write 5k words on Saturday,” it wouldn’t have got done, because I’d have put it off, saying “I’ll start later...later...later...” and before I knew it, Saturday would become Sunday, and I’d beat myself up again for my lack of productivity.
So I wrote down a schedule. A literal, timed, schedule. For every single thing I would do that day, from brushing my teeth, to household chores, to writing. Each hour was blocked out for writing (in chunks of 1k words), chores or even relaxing with a good book.
I’d write a thousand words within the space of an hour, then move on to a big pile of ironing, then get back to the keyboard. Do my weekly shop, then back to the keyboard. And so on.
It might seem extremely regimented to those whose approach to writing is casual or freestyle. However, as the more casual approach no longer works for me, I’ve had to change. And if we think about our ‘out of the house’ jobs, we have to show up at a particular time and do a set amount of work if we want to get paid, don’t we? Why, then, should writing be any different? Yes, it’s a creative endeavour but as Stephen King said, if you want the muse to help you, you don’t sit down and wait for her to show up. You go out into the street and drag her home by the hair.
What were the effects? Well, I got my 5k words written, but each chunk of text felt different.
The first thousand of the day was like word dentistry - pulling teeth. The second and third flowed, quite easily. The fourth was when I began to flag, and the fifth? Well, the fifth took twice as long as it should have - from half past nine in the evening to half past eleven. Many, many cups of tea were consumed.
This taught me that despite having once been the type of writer who could bang out ten thousand words in a day, that just isn’t possible for me at the moment. My comfortable limit is 3k words but I could probably push myself to do a little more. Any more could lead to burnout.
Think of writing like a muscle; use it or lose it.
But muscles can also be strained if you push them too hard. If you want more muscle strength, you must build up to that slowly, otherwise you stand to get so tired of writing, you simply can’t face sitting down in front of the keyboard. Then your book will never be finished.
So my advice for writers tackling NaNoWriMo, or wanting to flex their muscles during any other months, would be to set aside a day, or half a day, for a schedule. Alternate between chores and writing, or relaxation and writing. I do it in hourly chunks, but do whatever works for you.
What word count would be the best you could possibly imagine for that day? Plan for that. Really push yourself to see how long it takes for you to get into flow. Make a note of that. Also make a note of the word counts you’re comfortable with and, importantly, where you started to flag. If you can consistently hit the ‘hmm, I’m starting to slow down now’ total a few days in a row, it might be time to aim just a little higher, until your comfort zone has expanded.
I’d also strongly advise leaving your editing pencil at the door. Creating and correcting use two different mindsets, and it’s jarring to constantly flip between the two, which is why I advocate writing your first draft fast, as NaNoWriMo would have it. Write so fast your inner editor can’t catch up with you...but not so fast you exhaust yourself. I’ve always found it easier to edit a story as a complete unit, rather than chapter by chapter, or page by page. That way I have a complete overview rather than picking at the story piecemeal and possibly having to change my editing strategy later, once I’ve typed those beautiful words, ‘The End’.
Come find me online and let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree; I’m always keen to find out how other writers work and to try out other methods!