When You Can’t Write Every Day

I recently reread On Writing by Stephen King. I owe this book a tremendous debt; not only did it give me a treasure trove of writing gems that have stuck with me since the first reading (“Don’t say you can’t cut something because it’s good–it had better be good if you’re being paid to do it” comes to mind), but it got me started on submitting my short stories for publication. It’s an excellent book for writers, Stephen King fans, and writers who are Stephen King fans, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Read this book!

But. (You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) There are a handful of points where King takes on a my-way-or-the-highway approach. One is discovery writing–outlining kills the joy of writing for King, and he assumes that the same must be true for everyone. It isn’t. Take the plotting or pantsing approach that lets you finish your story.

The other, and the one I wanted to talk about today, is writing every day. Like many authors, King recommends a strict wordcount quota. There’s a good reason for this. When I do revisions, I can reeeeeeally tell if I wrote a certain chapter after taking a hiatus. When I go too long without working on a project, I lose touch with my characters’ voices. They talk like bad fanfic versions of themselves, and the narrative loses its sparkle and personality. The whole thing takes on the feel of an exhausted trudge from one plot point to the next as I flounder about, trying to get my bearings in the story again.

The trouble is that “write every day” feels more like a cruel joke than a serious piece of advice. Naptimes are the only part of the day when the Pumpkin isn’t crawling into my lap and trying to swat at my laptop, and I have to use part of those precious naps on little things like personal grooming and making sure the electric bill is paid. Before the kids were born, I was a teacher, and it was nigh impossible to find writing time when I was grading essays and midterms. When I couldn’t write every day, I’d  get into a funk–because writing every day is what real writers do, and if I didn’t,  I wasn’t a real writer, right?–and eventually, I’d end up not writing at all.

This counts as writing, right?
(“DESPAIR”by hwhoo-hwhare is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If you’re in the same boat, it’s OK. Even if you don’t write every day, you can find a writing schedule that works for you. I went from writing a short story or two every year to hammering out a rough draft of a novel in a year, and it wasn’t because I suddenly got more free time; it’s because I figured out how to write regularly without writing every day. This is what worked for me; if it works for you, go for it.

*Schedule writing time every week before worrying about every day. If you’re reading this, chances are that you can’t grab onto that elusive hour a day that you’re supposed to write. That’s okay! Chances are that you can schedule at least an hour a week–or maybe more.

Look over your schedule, find a time (or two!) that you’re generally free, and set that time aside for writing. It can be just a little at first; the important thing is to make it a habit. Before life got in the way, I would meet a friend after church every Sunday to write. Now, I try to set aside one night a week as leftover night, and when my husband gets home, I write instead of cooking.

There’s a free hour in here somewhere, I promise.
(“SONY Schedule”by Kaba is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

*Remember that writing a sentence a day is still writing every day. It sounds silly, but it may be the single best piece of writing advice I can give you. If you write a sentence today, even though you aren’t scheduled to write until three days from now, congratulations! You wrote something today that wasn’t there yesterday. You kept the story fresh in your head, and put yourself in touch with your narrative voice. When I sit down for my scheduled weekly writing session, I have a much easier time sliding back into the story when I’ve written as little as  a paragraph or two in the preceding week. What’s more, if you write a sentence, you may find yourself writing another, and another, and another . . . or you may just have time for that one sentence before you get back to the daily grind.  But no matter what happens, you wrote.

*Set a weekly quota, not a daily one. If you’re only writing more than a sentence on one or two days of the week, it’s self-defeating to have a daily quota, isn’t it?

If all you do this week is fill these two pages, you’re two pages ahead of where you were last week.
(“319-365: Starting a New Chapter in Life”by Rina Pitucci (Tilling 67) is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

*Know your work habits when setting that quota. If you set yourself a high quota and fail to meet it, will you give up? If you set a low quota, will you just settle back into it and never reach higher? Chances are you’ve been playing with this “write every day” thing long enough to know which category you fall into. I’m a giver-upper, so my initial weekly writing quota was a staggering one page per week. (Laugh all you want, but I had two kids under three at the time, so that was an improvement.) I chose that number because I wasn’t currently meeting it, but I knew that I could. When I met my quota for a few weeks, I gradually upped it. Before the Pumpkin was born, I’d worked myself up to a weekly quota of ten pages–two pages a day with a break on weekends. That’s actually better than the page-a-day quota I set myself when I tried (and failed) to write every day. The difference was that when I eased into it, I actually reached that goal.

Now that the Pumpkin is here, I’m back to two or three pages a week. That’s okay. I’ll get there.

Now, if you’re not like me, you might find that a low bar encourages you to slack off, while a high bar gives you the challenge you need to spread your wings. Great! Start with five to ten pages a week from the get-go.

*Have some way of holding yourself accountable. This, alas, is a case of “do as I say, not as I do” right now. Back when I had a weekly writing date with a friend, I was MUCH more productive than I am now. If I skived off writing one week, I was standing her up, so I would only cancel when it was important. On Writing Excuses, Mary Robinette Kowal has mentioned having writer dates over Skype; I need to try that, since it would allow me to have writing dates with out-of-state friends or friends without access to their cars (and would cut travel time out of that precious hour of writing). You could also try emailing a friend after your bloc of writing time to let her know how much you wrote that day, or using a productivity app (I love Habitica for this) that rewards or pings you depending on whether or not you write.

If you have the willpower for it, you could even say that you aren’t going to watch your favorite show or buy that new board game until you write a certain number of pages; I have never managed to make that work for me, but my husband  has a huge pile of board games that he’s gotten as rewards for completing various tasks, so to each their own.

This isn’t even half of them.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to get yourself writing more, but it worked for me. I’d love to hear about other people’s stories. How did you get yourself  to write more often even when  you were swamped?

A version of this entry appeared in April 2016.

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