Drawing water from the well

Yesterday was the last day of the mini-marathon, and I ended up with a total of 10,400 words over 5 days.  I’m pretty damn pleased with myself, and also fragged.  I envy those writers who can churn out the pages in great chunks, but I am not one of them.  Which is why I don’t do Nano.

I was reading Owl and Sparrow’s blog (the post on beer, actually) and she mentioned something that struck a chord with me.  She said:

Lately, I’ve been able to absorb myself into the story and get some good work done.  The only problem with this is my tendency to stop after I get a decent chunk of words written (the 1000-1500 word range, usually).  I tell myself, “That’s good enough for one day!” and while it is, I could probably spend at least another hour or so getting a bit more than that accomplished.  Probably lots more, actually.

Rather than gum up her comment trail with a long response, I decided to muse on the topic here, where I can be long-winded and opinionated in peace.

I am the same.  My daily comfortable wordcount at the moment is 1,000; I push myself to 1,200 but no more.  Some days I get lucky and hit 1,600, but those days are rare.  By doing the 2,000 words/day marathon, I’ve proved I can pump out the words if I push it.


Experience from this marathon and my previous participation in Nick Enlowe’s Novel Push Initiatives (I hope to run one, once I hear back from Nick) has taught me a few things about daily wordcounts.

I firmly believe that everyone has a ‘comfort zone’, a wordcount they can reach daily without struggling in any way, and that daily comfort zone varies depending on the story, on where you’re at, on how in tune you are with the characters.  It may be 100 words/day, 200, 500, 1,000, or higher if you’re one of the lucky ones.

In other words, it’s variable.  But notice I didn’t say anything about varying with the stresses of your life?

I’ve learned, from application, that even when I’m flat out, I can hit my daily wordcount if I sit down in front of the paper.  Even when I’m tired or stressed, if I sit down with my cup of tea and pick up the pen, the words will come.  Some days they spill out faster than I can write; some days they dribble out and the pen moves very slowly indeed.  But they come when they are called.

(This may not be a revelation to other writers, but it was to me.)

Like Owl and Sparrow, I reach my comfort level and stop.  I stop not because I’ve reached the wordcount, but because the scenes in my head come to an end.  They’re like waves; inspiration rushes in, I write, then the water slides back over the sand and I’m empty. To do this 2,000 words/day marathon, I had to write in two sessions, then stop and let the creative well refill by doing other things.

The concern I have with pushing past your daily comfort zone, whatever it is, is that you can drain the well.  If you keep pushing and pushing faster than it can refill, you’ll reach a day when there are no waves to rush in; the sand is dry and the page is empty.  Then the writer says they’re ‘blocked’, and they fuss, and stress, and the momentum is gone, and possibly the enthusiasm for the project.  They spend time and energy on looking for the problem, when perhaps what is most needed is just a rest.

That’s not always the case; there are other reasons for writer’s block.  But think of all the times you rushed through the beginning, throwing out pages and pages of prose, only to come to a thundering halt after 10k, or 20k, or 30k words.  The story feels flat, it gets put down and forgotten.  The well is empty.

Writing, like any other project, requires long term commitment and sustainability.  What you can comfortably produce varies for each person, but you need to pace yourself.  Part of that is finding out how much you can draw from the well each day, and still have something left in there for tomorrow.

That’s my opinion on the subject, anyway.  Now it’s your turn.  Does this ring true for you, or do you think I’m talking through my hat?  What’s your comfort zone daily wordcount?  Do you push yourself, and for how long?  Do you find your inspiration comes in waves, or is it a steady flow like a stream?

25 thoughts on “Drawing water from the well

  1. It’s true… the sooner we make our peace with the ebb and flow of writing, and tune in to the flow, the more we enjoy the process. For me it’s not so much about word count, but about knowing my rhythm. If I write first thing in the morning (without checking fb and twitter first) I get the most (and the best) done in half the time that it takes me at any other time of the day.

  2. I have days when I’ll put in a lot more words, and days when I’ll hardly write anything. I generally find that when I push too much for words, I don’t get anything particularly good in response.

  3. Pingback: NPI participant list and final instructions « Not Enough Words

  4. Both. I believe most of us do have a comfortable word count – but we got there gradually, over time, working at writing and then writing longer, and then longer . . . There isn’t some magical number branded on our foreheads in invisible ink at birth that limits how much we can comfortably write daily.

    Now, I understand about feeling like the well is dry, but it is just that – a feeling. Feelings don’t mean anything. All that said, there is wisdom in not trying to run a marathon when you can only job a block – which NaNoMo seems to be for most of us. But I do believe we should push past that comfort barrier daily, maybe only by 200, 300 words or so, but daily. As we go, our comfort level will expand, and so will our output.

    • “There isn’t some magical number branded on our foreheads in invisible ink at birth that limits how much we can comfortably write daily.”

      That’s definitely not what I meant. The comfort zone is project and stage specific. You can start small and work up, but I have found that there is still a top level of daily words that you can achieve at the time.

      It’s not a never-ending progression; you can’t work your way up to 20K words a day, simply for practical reasons. The brain needs time to stop, evaluate and then move on.

  5. Oh I absolutely agree. I’ve thought and talked a lot about sustainable change this year. I had to finally accept that my life is full of other, necessary stuff. While I can make time for writing, it’s limited. I fully believe that eventually I’m going to thin things out and make writing more and more central, but it’s going to be a long haul game. Which is why I’m okay with my 500 words a day, 5 days a week. At least on this particular WIP. It’s not a lot, but it’s steady.

  6. Stupendous metaphor for it, Mez! The only thing I would add to it is that the well varies for person to person but also project to project.

    For example, I’ve called Tin Man: Dragons and Ninjas my perfect writing storm. I think my brain was so happy to go back to fiction without consequences (i.e. a grade), I woke up from it saying “where did 70,000 words come from?” Writing the Faulkner paper, the water is come up like I got it from the Mississippi River instead and I have to wait or strain the sediment out of it.

  7. I don’t do NaNo because I can’t stand the thought of ‘having’ to write. Nevertheless, when I’m working on a project, I usually write every day anyway, but that project is unlikely to coincide with some sort of organised event like NaNo. When I’m writing, I can crank out huge word counts per day (usually at least 3000, but up to 14000 new words a day), and sustain those for as long as the inspiration lasts.

    I’ve found, though, that word count per se is not half as important as plot progress, and that can’t be measured in words. If your inspiration fails, and you don’t know what the characters are doing, simply waffling words onto the page is a sheer waste of time. You’re better off dropping the project for a bit and working on an outline or synopsis to get it back on track, or if you can’t stand the sight of the book anymore, on something completely different.

    • “If your inspiration fails, and you don’t know what the characters are doing, simply waffling words onto the page is a sheer waste of time.”

      Heartily agree there.

      14,000 a day is incredible! But we all work differently. So are you saying that you write in batches during the year, rather than at a steady pace?

  8. Well, I’m just like you. My comfortable level is 1500 words a day; about an hour-2 hour’s work. I’ve had it go on but I know for myself I have to take a break of some hours before coming back, otherwise I’ll stop and be irritated with myself.

    Great post! XOXO

  9. I agree with you: I have a comfort zone of 500-1,000 words per day and very rarely write over that.

    I thought it was personal laziness on my part, and set up a personal novel push initiative back in June, using the Nano marathon excel template to track my daily word count and writing hours and mood and so on. At the beginning, it worked fantastically well, and in the space of a few weeks I went from 18,000 words to just under 50,000. Then I just had to stop writing, and I’m only repicking that story up now.

    I think, for me, writing slow also helps in that while I do sketch out a rough outline, most of the plot planning is done in my head. Forcing myself to write so much every day meant that I ended up having no clue where I was going and got two thirds of the way through the novel before realizing half the things I’d written didn’t make sense.

    So, I think your method would work best for me. Mini marathons are where it’s at.

    • I agree. You have to write to the point where you know what’s going on, or you risk wandering too far and having to backtrack.

      I also do a lot of planning as I write, and let inspiration lead me in new directions. This results in a lot of rewrites of my outline, but so far, it’s working well.

  10. I’m voting for talk through hat.
    During NaNo, I find that the frigging pressure of hitting my goal (2500/day, more on weekends) makes me write like a demon. I don’t even stop writing when I physically stop writing because I know I *have* to find a way to come up with 2500-3K the next day. And I don’t even write every day of NaNo…I have one day off for TxGiving and one for Seattle Marathon…so my goal is closer to 3K.
    It’s the middle where things sag. The thing to do is just throw in more obstacles, or just filler. I just looked at my chapter list from last year. One middle chapter is called “Chit Chat”. I just have characters going around talking to each other, sharing feelings and backstory.
    That level of output can be achieved, if you feel enough pressure to do it. If you don’t then you’ll be fine with just calling it a day.
    This year I plan to “plan” my NaNo novel. Should make things go smoother. Or worse. We’ll see.

    • You’ve really refuted your own argument here.

      “The thing to do is just throw in more obstacles, or just filler. I just looked at my chapter list from last year. One middle chapter is called “Chit Chat”. I just have characters going around talking to each other, sharing feelings and backstory.”

      If you need to resort to “filler” or obstacles not related to your plot, then I think you’ll find the font is well and truly dry.

      • Oh jeez, I just do NaNo for the challenge, not because I think it’s the best method. Yes, there are days where I come up with 3000 throwaway words. Was the day wasted? Maybe to you but I really like the crazy stuff I come up with. It’s an exercise, and like any exercise it has it’s place. Writing doesn’t have to be about complete focus at all times on producing fiction of a pure and perfect quality. Sometimes it’s about having fun and letting your imagination soar and seeing what you can come up with. Sometimes it’s about making up a story as you go, seeing how your characters react, and hopefully in there lies the seed of a good story. If not, then was the time really wasted? I believe my fount is far fuller because of my experience, whether or not the output would pass a publisher’s inspection.
        Sometimes, you just have to write.

  11. Great, great post! You put into perfect words the feelings I keep having, especially the part about the tendency to stop when scenes come to an end. Sometimes I feel like I could write more, but like I need to give it a rest and just enjoy the scene I just wrote. Pushing too hard makes my writing seem so flat, and what’s the point of a high word count if it’s a lot of junk?

    My husband started grad school last week, so on Mondays and Wednesdays I now have a 12-hour chunk of time. I like the idea of a few sessions – write one scene, go to the gym. Write another, peruse some blogs. Write another, cook some food and then relax. Sitting at a desk all day would surely lead to a dry well (and probably, flat writing). Breaking up the writing time helps it refill, like you said, and creates sustainable habits. I like what you wrote a whole lot.

    Thanks, too, for the mention.

  12. You (and Owl and Sparrow) are onto something here. I have exactly the same feeling. I hit a certain word-count and don’t push myself beyond it, partly because it feels increasingly uncomfortable and partly because, as you say, the tide has ebbed.

    It would be very interesting to look at the 10K words you’ve just written and compare the quality with the previous 10K. Did pushing yourself have a cost in quality, or not? If not, then maybe the take-home lesson is that we should all of us get into the habit of doing more each day. Like runners pushing through the pain barrier.

    • It does feel uncomfortable!

      Quality wise, I find when I push past the comfort zone the prose gets very utilitarian, and I rely on actions rather than emotions. When I’m in the comfort zone, I have no trouble connecting with the characters and how they fit into the plot.

  13. It rings true for me – my daily word count averages to around 1500 words a day. Of course I could do more, and some days I do, but pretty much if I sit down to write (on a novel anyways) 1500 words will be there when I am done for the day.

    I picked that number because it was one I could attain 95% of the time. There are always going to be days that it doesn’t happen, but most of the time I can hit it and it means I have set up a pattern of success for myself, while at the same time forming a habit.

    I could write more, but I would exhaust myself – I think you have to test it out to know the truth of it – and I would rather get out those 1500 words every day than be a writer who works in fits and starts. The words are there every time I sit down because I don’t overextend myself too much and I let them have time to build back up. I would be much less happy if they weren’t there waiting for me every day, I think I’d feel empty and a little desolate and that doesn’t make for a happy writer!

    Great post btw :-)

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