At this month’s James River Writers conference, author, actor and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman told attendees his daily goal is 1,000 words. On some days he hits 1,000 within an hour and on others it takes all day.
Sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words is only 4 double-spaced pages. And the words don’t have to be beautiful, Chapman reminded us. They just have to be out of your head and onto your page or computer screen. You can’t revise a blank page, and we all know novels come together during revision.
Inspired and fired up to write, I tried the 1,000 words business on my first day back from the conference. Before this, my approach was simply butt-in-chair: show up at the page for 6 hours a day and your novel will (slowly) emerge. It’s worked for me, pretty much. It’s a decent approach.
But when I switched to doing 1,000 words, I loved it! Having to produce 1,000 words forces me to write fast—to loosen up and let go of details. I can worry about details later—scenes always require revision—and for starters just getting the draft done makes all the difference.
Victoria Christopher Murray agreed with Chapman on the value of getting that first draft done. “Think of your first draft like a newborn baby,” she told conference attendees. “It’s ugly. The only one who might think that slimy mess is beautiful is its momma, and the rest of us know the truth. It’s a mess and it’s gotta get cleaned up. It’s gonna take time, a lot of time. But you can’t even start cleaning until you push the thing out. You got to get that baby out of you.”
Murray had me in stitches—had all of us in stitches.
So I ask: what’s your process? Word counts or hours? Morning or night owl? I’m a first thing in the morning, PJs and coffee writer. After a while I take a break for cereal or an egg, which I eat at my desk six days a week (unless there’s a school visit on my calendar, in which case I shower first thing, thank you, yes, I know you’re happy about that). These days, I’m collaborating with a friend on a novel, and she’s a night owl. On the occasions when we get together face to face, we compromise: I tear myself away from my writing and she sets an alarm, and we meet late morning in a coffee shop. It’s all good, all part of the process.
Attending an occasional writers conference is good, too. Sure, at this stage of my writing journey, after getting an MFA and now teaching in a low-res MFA program, you’d think I’d have heard every nugget of writing wisdom there is. But sometimes a same-old-same-old suggestion comes in a new voice. It makes me laugh. It makes me approach a scene in a new way, and the next thing I know, I’ve surprised myself. Or my character has surprised me.
Surprise is one of the joys of writing. I smell something today that I didn’t smell yesterday. My pulse quickens. My eyes widen. My fingers fly.
Even on days when my writing doesn’t flow and I’m not sure where my next story is headed and I’m nursing a rejection on a recent effort, even still and despite all of it—I like getting up in the morning and sitting at my writing desk. Today I began by birthing 1,000 words, and once done, I gave myself permission to switch gears and write this blog post. Fun! Tomorrow I’ll draft another 1,000 words of fiction. And another 1,000 on the day after that. And I look forward to every word, ugly or not.