When it comes to writing, a middle schooler emailed this week, do you kinda set goals? As in do you tell yourself to write a chapter or maybe a page for the idea you have created or do you just write it?
My simplest answer is, I try to write 1,500 words.
Every day, that's my goal — or every workday, at least, when I’m writing the first draft of a book, as I am now. At the very beginning of the project, I try to make a strong start; then I kind of feel my way from day to day. The key, for me, is those 1,500 words.
Many years ago I read George Plimpton's famous Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway. Plimpton noted that Hemingway kept a log of how many words he’d written each day — “so as not to kid myself,” the great novelist said. I’ve always remembered that.
Myself, I don’t do that — don’t keep track — but I do set my basic goal. I generally can only give two hours, first thing in the morning, to working on a book. After that, I have to get busy with the writing and editing work I do to earn a living, if I’m lucky enough to have that work. But two hours is good. It makes you focus. It’s not that much time, so you can’t fritter, stall or squander away too much of it, especially if you’ve set yourself a challenging goal. Like 1,500 words.
That’s a fair amount. To write 1,000 words is a decent day; to get to 1,500, in two hours, usually means pushing fairly hard. I find, for myself, that when I do push like that, on the days that I’m very lucky, things may start to flow, and the work almost writes itself. Almost.
I usually can’t just sit down and let it flow, like opening a faucet — I have to work at it, work up to it, generate the energy through the effort. Writing is work but it’s also, at best, something deeper. It’s that flow. You can’t make it happen, but you can learn how to give yourself the best chance.
I’ve never been able to figure out a whole story for a novel before I start the first draft — and I’m not sure I’d really want to. If you figure out a story, if you think it up and map it out, that’s something which has come from your head. It’s as if you’ve designed a machine. And a lot of books are fine, precision machines; but the really good ones, the ones that most of us dream of someday writing, don’t come from that sort of mental planning or designing or figuring-out. I think they come from a deeper place, from a less mechanical engagement with yourself.
In some strange way, a good story seems to come through the body. Sure you have to think, you’ve got do your research and solve problems and so forth — the head plays a big role — but the process, if we’re lucky and true to it, taps something deeper. We don’t understand that, but we can learn to work with it. It’s similar to how a gardener knows he can’t control growth, but he learns to help it along, or how a musician might tap into ideas for improvising — but only she has worked, worked, worked with her instrument and her material.
I believe writing fiction is similar. We have to do the work; and if we do it honestly, plus if we’re somewhat lucky (whatever that means), something can come through. A story can take shape. When I’m work on a novel, I’ve learned not to think about it too much. Thinking can get in the way, as it can for batter trying to hit a pitched baseball. You’ve just got to focus.
After the day’s work is done, I’ve learned to try, at least, to just keep my mind open. If I need to dig up some information, I do — but I try not to think much about the work. If I don’t clutter my mind with a lot of thinking, then sometimes the answer to my latest uncertainty about my story will just ... swim up. It happens! You learn to carry around a little notebook or some index cards, something to write things down if they do come up. You learn to just keep on doing the work.
For me, I’ve learned to set that simple goal: 1,500 words. When I start for the day, I’ll almost always work through what I wrote yesterday. That gets me going; and then I’ll start. Fifteen hundred words. I just keep pushing — and in pushing, sometimes things happen that surprise me. Oh, that’s what’s going to happen! Oh, that’s what she’s going to do!
I can’t explain it better, because I don’t really understand it. And sometimes, in fact often, what you've written in the morning isn’t very good. At all. But even so, it may give you something to work from, something to build on. The next time through, what you’ve got may open a new flow.
And so you keep on.