Timers, Wordcounts and the Annual Microscopic Wrimoceros

I see a lot of social media posts by writers about self-discipline and writing quotas. "I get my writing done when I make myself do it," is a common theme. There’s a debate, or more like a difference in personalities, about whether that quota should be a wordcount or an amount of time. For some people, it works best to set a minimum number of words per day, and others make themselves write for a certain amount of time. And if it's a time quota, anything that isn’t writing isn’t writing. That means that looking stuff up, reading over what you’ve already written, tweaking your outline--all those don’t count as writing time.

Well, I’ve tried both wordcount quotas and time quotas, and neither one works for me. Sitting at my desk focused on “now I must write” is a sure way to guarantee that I won't produce anything useable. That’s because the “getting down to business” mindset kills my creativity. I’m better off letting the story percolate—not fast like a coffeemaker but slowly . . . more like karst—and writing the piece in bits and pieces as it grows. There are times when I just type for large blocks of time because the story is flowing that fast. But those times only happen when I don't push them. Force me to produce a minimum wordcount and my writing quality falls off a cliff.

I found that out with NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a staggering feat of miniscule bioengineering. It comes out of hibernation every November, but you'll need a microscope to see it. Its name comes from three Greek words: nanos meaning "dwarf," wrimos meaning "nose" and keros meaning "horned," because it's a tiny animal with horns on its nose.

And of course, none of that is true. The real NaNoWriMo is a writing event that happens every November. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and the challenge is to write a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in thirty days. 

I entered NaNoWriMo twice, and won both times. But don’t congratulate me yet. By “won,” I mean that I succeeded in cramming 50,000 words into my document within the allotted time. And I enjoyed the comeraderie with my fellow NaNoers very much. Unfortunately, I failed at actually producing anything that could be turned into a novel. And I tried. I tried long and hard both times, but the quality just wasn’t there. The only thing to do, in both cases, was to go back to the notes I had made before NaNoWriMo and go on from there. Quotas just don't work for me.

Like right now. I have a blog post to write and that’s got a deadline. So I open the file thinking, “I have to turn these notes into a first draft, and I only have a certain window of time to do it in. And besides, I have all these other things to do. I have to do laundry and get my car looked at, and come to think of it, the carpet could use a vacuuming. So the quicker I get this written, the better.” And suddenly a wave of revulsion comes over me. I hate this particular blog post. “It was probably a bad topic to pick, anyway. And who am I to think I can keep churning out these posts week after week?” But it’s all because I’m focused on getting it done instead of doing it. 

Writing works for me if I relax and enjoy it. Not if I try to rush it or get it done.

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