Put some words back in

I’ve talked a bit about my writing schedule, and mused about writing on both good days and bad, and compared writing to going to the faucet, but lately I’ve been thinking about the part of the process my friend Angela likes to stress: the breaks. Angela’s really big on telling me I need to take breaks. (I’m not really so big on listening to her.)

I’ve got what’s become a stock phrase for me, but when I dropped it in a Discord writing conversation, I realized that this thing so familiar to me is new and different to other people. When someone mentioned how draining it is to be working on a long-term writing project, I said oh, yeah – when you’re doing that, you need to pause now and then to put some words back in.

I don’t know if they actually blinked, but the “is typing” notification was up for quite a while before they came back with “Tell me more.”

I guess sometimes I picture my brain to be the Kool-Aid man.

Not because I’m made of glass or because I like to bust through walls, but because my words are the Kool-Aid. When I write, I pour them out. Now, I’m not entirely sure what would happen to the Kool-Aid Man if you emptied his pitcher, but I know how I feel after a long writing session: drained. (Ba dum tss.)

Aside from things like breathing and blinking, I’m not sure we’re built for sustained anything as a constant. Marathon runners train themselves to be able to keep it up for that long (or, if you’re Eddie Izzard, you run 32 marathons in 31 days.) I’d say “HOW?” but the answer is “training.”

National Novel Writing Month is a marathon. They have word sprints (because apparently running is a very apt metaphor for writing a novel) where participants see how many words they can write in a short amount of time, from 5 minutes to attempting a #1k30 challenge and writing one thousand words in thirty minutes, but NaNoWriMo itself is a marathon. For 30 days, the goal is to write 1,667 words and end up with 50,000 words of a first draft by the time November’s over.

At the average typing speed of 40 words per minute, that means writing for 42 minutes a day and 20 hours, 50 minutes over the course of the month to finish the novel. (One of my past NaNoWriMo notebooks has a nifty little writing time conversion chart in the back cover.) And maybe you think hey, 42 minutes a day? Totally doable. But that 42 minutes assumes that you know each and every one of those 1,667 words and don’t have to sit there and grasp for the next one.

Let’s say you have a good day and 42 minutes is all it takes. You’ve still pulled 1,667 words out of your head. So … now what?

Time to refill.

I personally don’t stop at 1,667 because I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since 2010, so I know my own personal Goldilocks zone as far as word counts go. (Yeah, I know that’s for planets that can sustain life, but really it’s my wordcount that sustains both my life and my novel’s.) But the most important thing, especially as far as my friend Angela is concerned, is knowing when to stop.

Yes, you can absolutely write more than 1,667 words. Some people front-load their wordcounts and do what’s been termed a Reverse NaNo, getting ahead early in the month and only needing a single word on a final day. Others try a 50K Weekend to get all those words down in … well, that one might be self-explanatory. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then go for it.

I did 50k in two days in November 2020, hitting the goal before 8pm on November 2. There was more story to tell, but I was burned out at that point. I think I wrote another thousand or so words over the other 28 days of the month, but that rough draft is still unfinished. While a 50K weekend is possible for me, it’s not my Goldilocks zone.

Through decades and millions of words of practice, I’ve found my Goldilocks word count: on good days, I zoom through it before noon. On slower days, I can still make the goal, but it’s much more of a push. But the most important part of the process is this:

When I hit my word count goal, I’m done writing for the day.

It becomes time to put words back in my brain and fill that Kool-Aid pitcher back up.

What that actually looks like depends on the day. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s reading something, new or a re-read. It could be watching something. Basically my brain needs to do something other than shove words out through my fingertips, and it’s happiest when I put something back in it.

In case this wasn’t obvious with Angela having to remind me about breaks, I wasn’t always like this. I used to treat writing as write-write-write and nothing else. If I was awake, I should be writing … and nothing else. I didn’t have a broader definition of all the different steps writing requires, including (yes, Angela) breaks.

Has your approach to writing changed over time? Do you prefer to write as much as possible every single day, take it slow and steady, or something in between?

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