Not a day goes by on social media that I don’t see a fellow writer flagelating themselves with some variation of, “I only got 300 words on my current work in progress written today” or “I haven’t written in [insert length of time followed by perceived deserved level of guilt]”.
All writers do it. It’s a sign that we care about our craft enough to understand that it takes discipline if we’re ever going to finish that short story or novel or poem or what have you. Sometimes though, I think it can go too far, to the point where it’s counterproductive.
I wrote my first full-length novel back in about 2005, and did so relatively quickly. I was in my mid-thirties at the time, single, no kids and holding down a job as a newspaper reporter. So, I was able to get up at 5.30 a.m. every morning, Monday to Friday, and write 2,000 words like clockwork. It took a lot of coffee, but I did it. Then I went to work and wrote four to six news stories a week.
There were days though, when the alarm clock would go off and I just couldn’t do it. The motivation wasn’t there for one reason or another. Maybe I’d had a tough writing session the morning before and I knew I had no idea what I should write, so I didn’t bother getting out of bed. Other days, I’d get up, but the words came out like molasses, and I felt like there must be something wrong with me, that I was a failure because I didn’t hit my 2,000-word mark that day.
I did that for a long time. Years. Two more books (that were never published) and a handful of short stories (also never published). Then, I got married, had a kid, and started working longer hours to bulk up that 401K I’d so stupidly not fully funded in my 20s. On top of that, I got, well, not old, but I sure as Hell wasn’t young anymore. Firmly ensconced in middle age (and climbing). Let’s just leave it at that.
As all this was going on (you know, as life was going on), a couple of things happened. First, my production went down. I went from 2,000 words per day to 1,500 to 1,200 to 1,000. Second, I began to realize it didn’t really matter all that much. Frankly, there are much more important things to worry about – am I being present to my wife and son; am I happy at work, where, let’s face it, we all spend the majority of our time.
You know what else happened during this time of “low productivity”? I got published. I sold my first story in 2010. A year later, I sold another. Six months later, two more. I wrote another novel (not published). Then I wrote more short stories and two novellas. Those got published. All while writing anywhere between 200 and 1,200 words per writing session.
Honestly, today I am happy if I get three days per week and 1,000 words per day. That’s a good week. If I get five writing sessions per week in – and that’s a rarity – I consider that a great week. Like, I’m doing a jig kind of week. And while writing remains my undying passion and really one of the very few things I am actually good at, it’s not the driving force in my life the way it was when I was young, single and accountable only to myself.
These days, it’s not my motivation level that usually determines how often I write or how much I write when I do write. It’s other things. Things like how tired I am after a long day of work or whether my son has Little League practice. OK, maybe motivation does play a little part in it. I’ll admit to slacking off because the Love is Blind finale is on Netflix or The Batman just became available on HBO Max.
At the end of the day, I still get my writing done. But I get it done without beating myself up too much or by holding myself to unrealistic (and frankly, arbitrary) word counts and writing sessions per week benchmarks. Yeah, it takes a little longer, but the work is actually probably better. That counts for something, right?
Next month, I have a new novel coming out from Muddy Paw Press. I got it done writing between 500 and 1,000 words per day over four drafts that took about two years. I have a new collection of short horror stories and novellas set during the Civil War that I’ve been working on for going on three years (and that’s just the first draft), and I’m OK with that.
So, to any of my fellow writers out there beating themselves up because they only got 150 words written after staring at a blank screen for three hours or they just didn’t write because, come on, who is honestly going to skip the final reveal of The Masked Singer – listen, it’s OK. It’s my belief and my experience that if you truly love writing, truly love telling stories – you’ll get it done. Yes, you need discipline – the damn thing won’t write itself, after all. But you don’t need to beat yourself up over it either. I don’t. Not anymore, anyway.