I’ve often mentioned that I record how many words I write each day. This might sound obsessive and nerdy, but when I’m writing a novel, it helps me to work out when it’s likely to be finished, and how well it’s flowing. If I hit a patch when my word totals are low for a few days, it suggests that section of the book is gloopy and needs an exciting subplot, some scenes cutting altogether, or more work on getting to know my characters. Tracking my word scores lets me know quickly when my writing is out of kilter, and that means I can act quickly to correct it.
I also get to see what an average day’s writing looks like for me, so I can set goals and targets based on it. I can tell my agent I’ll have a first draft done by Christmas because I can easily work out what’s achievable based on my normal work rate.
Tracking my words also sets up a nice little bit of competition with myself, and spurs me on to do better. If I can see that I normally write 1200 words in a session, I challenge myself to write 1300 each day. It also encourages me to write every single day as it's difficult to say 'I'll do it tomorrow' if that would mean a gap in an otherwise perfect record. Setting word goals also helps me get momentum going when I start a project, for example in the early days of a new novel when I’m not exactly sure what the story is, and I’m writing my way into it.
Measuring my progress towards a goal helps me to see where other factors are affecting me. If I put a gold star on the calendar for every day I hit my word goal, it's easy to notice if Mondays (or Wednesdays, or Sundays) are the days I miss. Then I can ask what it is about Mondays (or Wednesdays ... you get the idea) that interrupts my writing, and means I can do something about it.
How can you make every word count?
1. Set Clear Goals
Set clear writing goals that are achievable, but which will stretch you a little; something like: I will write 500 words a day, every day, for a month. Or 'I will write and submit two short stories to X and Y competitions before Christmas'. A wishy washy goal like 'I'll try to do a bit of writing' is unsatisfactory because you won't know when you've achieved it. Plus, it's not challenging enough to stretch you.
Write your goal on a post-it note and put it where you will see it every day. Using the Sticky Notes feature on your laptop - which puts a post-it on your Windows desktop screen - is a good, quick way to do this. You can also add sticky notes with quotations to encourage you.
2. Keep it SimpleUse a simple system to record your progress. If your goal is to send out two stories a month, then you could use an excel spreadsheet or index cards to record which story was sent where, when. This will also help you keep track of submissions and resubmissions so you don't accidentally send the same story out simultaneously.
If your goal is to write 500 words a day, you could enter your daily total in your diary or in a spreadsheet. A gold star on the calendar, marking every day you write your journal, for example, is a visible reminder of what you're aiming to achieve and can encourage you even when you're feeling flat.
3. Review your Progress and adjust accordingly
If your target was 500 words a day, and you routinely achieve that, increase your target to 600 words a day. This will stretch you, but it's not as daunting as upping the target to 1000 words a day. Get to the 1000 words a day target incrementally, by making sure you hit 500 words a day, then 600, before increasing it to 700, 800, and so on until you reach your target.
If you often miss your targets, revise them. Perhaps you've set a target to write on 6 days a week but you normally only manage to write 3 times a week - reset your target to writing 3 times a week. It's better to build up your writing stamina slowly and feel pleased with your progress than to beat yourself up each week for missing your target. Review your progress after a month, and increase your target if it's realistic and achievable for you to do so.
4. Celebrate Milestones
Plan what you will do to celebrate when you hit your target and write it on your post-it notes to encourage you. Good celebrations for writers include: listening to music, reading a favourite short story, visiting an art gallery, putting flowers on your desk, or buying a new notebook.
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.