There’s an apocryphal story attached to Abigail Adams, wife of the notoriously obnoxious and disliked second president, John Adams. She apparently chased (or, more likely, sent one of the children to chase) her husband as he was on his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to bring him his favorite pair of pants. “Because most of the business of politics is applying the seat of them to the seat of the chair.”
She could easily have been Tabitha (or Stephen) King, Charmian London or Vera Nabokov for all that. Because the first business in writing is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.
Without a steady flow of new words, everything else dries up. It’s a slaughterhouse without incoming meat, an oil well without oil, a Congress without draft legislation. First and foremost, you must write.
Every writer is different – I tend to write in three-day bursts, plinking a few hundred words one day, a few hundred words the next, and hitting a streak of three or four thousand the third day. Jack London’s famous stint was 1000 words a day, Dean Wesley Smith writes in public, Bradbury wrote a short story a week, Kerouac wrote the entirety of On the Road in one forty-eight hour Benzedrine-fueled rush. To this day, Stephen King writes double what Jack London did and won’t let himself get up until he does.
Unless you’re going the Kerouac route, and I don’t recommend it, don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes to you when you’re actually working, not when you’re playing another round of Civilization IV*. Talking about “inspiration” when you’re not writing is just another excuse for not writing. And having taken my share of long sabbaticals, you write better when you’re in a habit of writing. You get rusty otherwise. It’s just like anything else that way.
How much should you write? I’m going to talk of words per day, even though you may write in week-long or three-day terms like Bradbury or I. Don’t take Stephen King or Jack London or any other number out of thin air. You are not Stephen King. You are not Jack London. That’s like going to the gym and saying, “well, I’ll lift a hundred pound weight every day. That’s a nice round number.”
Dean Wesley Smith recommends doing a time inventory once or twice a year, measuring how you spend all your time in fifteen minute chunks. I can attest that this is a useful exercise, and also a huge pain in the ass. It also becomes less useful if your life is less than completely predictable, say because you switch continents or because some weeks work furloughs you four days out of five and some weeks they call you in for twelve-hour shifts of unpaid overtime.
What I recommend is looking at the most stable parts of your week – maybe you never get called in on Tuesdays or you’re free after church on Sundays – and set that aside for a test run each week. This is the time where you sit down to crank out another few hundred or few thousand words. Start at a set time and end at a set time – slightly less than you’d want, so your brain considers the time precious.
When you’re done, divide the number of new words by the hours you’ve been writing. This is your words per hour, and it’s going to get more accurate each week until you know your average wordcount like the back of your hand. My own is about 800 words per hour.
Now, look at the upcoming week and see where you can reasonably slot in half an hour or an hour to write. Calculate how many words you can write this week given your wordcount and the time available. Halve this number, because shit happens.
This is your wordcount goal for the week.
You can extend this to monthly and yearly wordcount, if you like. And if you find yourself with an extra ten minutes by the word processor, see if you can wrap up that scene or write out a dialogue.
Once you have the time set out, you must protect it. You can do the café thing, or stay at home. Do, however, remove yourself from the everyday in some way – even if it’s just moving the chair to a different part of the room. It helps you make a mental break from all the other bullshit in your life. I like to mount a framed picture of Jack London that I have, to spur me on.
Then turn off the internet.
No, you don’t need it for research – forge ahead as if you knew, and if it’s important (or if it’s encyclopedic information), drop “[tk]” in that spot to mark it to look up later when you’re editing. Writing time is for writing, that is, adding new words.
For years, I had a netbook that I’d gotten for free in exchange for showing up and looking white at a factory opening in China. I got what I paid for – it was so crippled that a month after I got it, all it could do was play music and operate Word. It was absolutely perfect, because while I was using that computer, all I could do was write. I got higher wordcounts per hour on that thing than on anything else, even on my regular computer with the internet turned off.
This year, I’m getting a Hemingwrite, because it’s designed to do the same thing, share documents via cloud, and survive anything short of a nuclear blast.
I also recommend taking two or five or ten minutes to reread a bit of what you’ve written (assuming you’re working on an ongoing project), not to edit, but to ‘get into the voice’ as it were. I wrote “Sweat and White Cotton” with a very different voice from “Preta” and rereading a bit ‘primes the pump.’ It also helps me to outline the next scene or two, at least in a rough one or two sentence sketch, before I start. This and the front matter where I describe the plot as if telling the story to the friend I call the scaffolding, because it’s supposed to come down before I send it around to the first readers.
What are you waiting for? Get the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair. There’s writing to be done.
*I CAN QUIT ANY TIME I WANT I SWEAR JUST ONE MORE TURN