If you’re currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, you might want to put off reading this post till the middle of next month. If you aren’t, or if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, read on.
OTOH, if you are in the throes of NaNoWriMo, what are you doing here in the first place? Maybe you should stick around.
Here’s the shocking truth: I didn’t write any words this morning. Well, OK, I scribbled some words on pages of notes that had already been scribbled on, but really — I didn’t write any words this morning.
I’ve blogged about how I don’t measure my progress or a day’s success by the number of words I’ve written. This is true. All the same, writing no words is a little scary, especially when I want to have a few pages to take to my writers’ group meeting on Sunday night. Right now I’ve got nothing.
What I did this morning was sit in my writing chair for an hour and a quarter. To my right, three candles were burning. (Usually it’s just two. This morning I needed all three.) To my left, eight pens were at the ready. My laptop was on the floor, still asleep.
A few days ago, Wolfie, my novel in progress, came to a crossroad. Shannon, my protagonist, had just made a big decision — the one it took lots of red ink to get to. She had no idea what happened next.
Neither did I. This was a problem.
Since I’ve got some experience in community theater, when writing fiction I tend to see myself as the stage manager. My characters move around on the stage. I write down what they do and say. Once in a while, I need to prompt one actor, or summon another who’s lollygagging backstage. Then they take over and I go back to transcribing.
Not this time. This time they were standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do.
I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was how to get my cast of characters moving in a direction that would bring it — or something like it — to pass. I was staring at a big logjam on the river. Nothing was moving.
I sat in my chair, reread my notes, scribbled some words here and there.
The logjam in my head morphed into a big pile of cut and split logs, like the ones the wood guy would dump in my yard during the years I was heating with a wood stove.
Being a writer and thus wise in the ways of procrastination, I got it. Anne Lamott nailed it in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. How do you accomplish a huge project whose boundaries you can’t see, whose completion you can’t imagine? Bird by bird. Word by word. Or, in my case, log by log.
Once I realized that I had to start somewhere, it didn’t really matter where I started. Pick a log, any log.
Turned out I’d known all along what log to start with. After the events that had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours (novel time), the next move was clearly Shannon’s. Well, now it was clearly Shannon’s move. I’d known all along that Shannon had to make a couple of phone calls, but the Internal Editor assured me that this wasn’t enough. How could a couple of phone calls break up that humongous logjam?
By this time it was 8:30 a.m. Time to get out of the chair and go walking with Travvy, my canine companion, on whom Wolfie is based. As I pulled on my socks and hiking shoes, donned vest and cap, and put Travvy’s walking harness on, Shannon was making her phone calls — and lo, the rest of her day lay like a path in front of me, leading toward the plotwise thicket that I knew was up ahead.
Word count: zero, but a breakthrough day nonetheless.
Counting words obviously works for some writers, at least some of the time. For me, the secret is usually to sit down for at least an hour and don’t fidget. I’m writing even if I’m not writing, as long as I’m not balancing my checkbook, answering email, playing on Facebook, or brushing the dog.
Go to the chair. Sit. Rustle papers, scribble words, focus on the work. If the path doesn’t open up today, do the same thing tomorrow.
3 thoughts on “Word Count: Zero”
I have long maintained that writing does not mean you have to be physically penning or typing words. In fact, my writers group made a pact that we would consider everything that had anything to do with building our works to be writing, i.e., composing, staring, meditative walking/swiming/other, research, outlines, note making, revising, discussing. All those things are needed to move from start to finish.
Very wise! Walking is a major part of my composting process. Ideas tend to come in the back door when my attention is directed elsewhere. But creating a time/space for writing helps me a lot. Especially when I’m first-drafting — which I find terrifying. (Rewriting I can do at the drop of a hat.) These days writing time is after I get up and before the dog and I go for a walk — roughly 7 to 9 a.m. I’m not always working on the novel. I might be working on a blog post. Yesterday I wrote a review for Goodreads. But I’m writing — even if I’m mostly doodling on notes I’ve already taken, I’m writing.
I often get ideas when I walk, too, especially if I’ve put a few hours into writing before the walk, so that the book is live in my mind. In fact, for me, one of the virtues of writing every day–the sitting down and putting words on paper part–is that it keeps the book alive so that, as Susanna put it, ideas can come in the back door. Often the best ideas come that way.