I Was Wrong…You DO
Need To Write Every Day

Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It’s an excursion into the ether of ideas. There’s no time to waste. – Walter Mosley

By PJ Parrish

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Too much pressure heading into February, a month that’s usually so dismal that they limited it to twenty-eight days. But this year, I relented.
I made a vow to myself to change my evil ways. This is not easy to do when you have a Medicare card in your wallet.

I made a vow to write every day.

And I owe it all to Walter.

Now, if you’ve read my posts here, you’ve heard me try to defend the idea that you don’t have to write every day, that you can get away with taking a day or week — or even a year off — and still be successful.

Who was I kidding?

Maybe it’s because the older I get the harder the writing is coming. Maybe it’s because -– and I so want to believe this – that you don’t ossify as you age but stay open to new ways of running your life. But I have reformed. I now work every day on writing. And here is the thing that changed my thinking.

Every January, I start working on the Edgar Awards banquet. Kelly and I have chaired this event for ten years now for Mystery Writers and we love doing it, mainly because as our reward for volunteering, we get to mingle with some of the best in our business every April in New York. I’ve got to meet Stephen King, Donald Westlake, Sara Paretsky, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Ken Follett, and countless other writers who’ve been nominated or won the Edgars. You don’t breathe the same air as the Grand Masters without coming away with a few insights.

At 2014 Edgars with Reed Farrel Coleman, Jess Lourey and Walter Mosley

At 2014 Edgars with Reed Farrel Coleman, Jess Lourey and Walter Mosley

This year, the MWA Grand Master is Walter Mosley. I’ve been a fan of his books for years, and got to finally meet him two years ago when his book All I Did Was Shoot My Man was nominated for Best Novel. I also had the honor to be on an Edgar Symposium with him on the future of the PI, and he was very kind to this starry-eyed acolyte. As part of my chair duties, I have to help Kelly prepare his video tribute, so this month I’ve been researching everything he has to say on the subject of writing.


He’s got some great advice. Some of it comes in his 2009 book, This Is the Year You Write Your Novel. But the best stuff can be found in his videos. And it all boils down to his one credo – you must write every day.

Sure, I’ve heard this before, often from my long suffering co-author Kelly. We all have heard this before. But here is what finally made me realize I had to change:

“Writing is almost a place of dreams for me.”

That is Mosley talking about the subconscious. He goes on to talk about how the act of creating fiction necessitates that the writer enter a dream world and inhabit it fully. Not just visit whenever the kids are quiet and the dishes are done. Not just swing by for a quickie when the husband is off playing poker. And not just deign to show up if you feel like it.
If you want a reader to live in the world you create, you the writer can’t just rent that space. You have to own it.

Mosley believes that only through daily contact with your novel can you maintain the subconscious threads that will keep it alive. The constancy of entering that fictional world every day will force not just the process along (Yea! I just wrote THE END!) but will engender a richness and authenticity in your fictional universe that you won’t otherwise achieve.

I used to go days without writing then burn myself out writing in furious 12-hour sprints. I thought it was working, but what I didn’t realize was that in those days I was away, my characters’s voices were dimming to whispers, my settings were fading like old pastels, and my plot was drifting off into the blackest bayous.

Here’s how Mosley describes this stasis:

The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day. There are two reasons for this rule: Getting the work done and connecting to the unconscious mind. The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continuously set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway; this is a path that you are creating discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and a tale will be told. Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.

“Thickens the atmosphere.” God, I love that.

Now I am no angel. Decades of procrastination die hard. Sometimes old dogs can’t hear the call for new tricks, let alone do them. You guys undoubtedly have your own ideas on how to keep a daily pace and I’d love to hear them. Here are some of the things I do to force myself to return each day to my fictional world.

Just open the book

Sometimes just seeing your work on the screen gives you a jolt of confidence. Read that word count ticker-thing down in the left corner. Wow…I’ve made it to 43,034 words? Next thing you know, it’s an hour later and you’re up to 43,306.

Read yesterday’s work

Okay, your brain is bone-dry and you can’t face that sucky chapter 12. Open the damn file anyway. Do some rewriting. Even if you ignore sucky chapter 12 and go back and repave a pothole in chapter 6. Just the act of setting foot back in the fictional world will get you moving again. Or, as Mosley puts it:


One day you might read over what you’ve done and think about it. You pick up the pencil or turn on the computer, but no new words come. That’s fine. Sometimes you can’t go further. Correct a misspelling, reread a perplexing paragraph, and then let it go. You have re-entered the dream of the work, and that’s enough to keep the story alive for another 24 hours. The next day you might write for hours; there’s no way to tell. The goal is not a number of words or hours spent writing. All you need to do is to keep your heart and mind open to the work.



Do Some Research

I know, I know…this is a siren call. But I have found this works wonders for me as a pump-primer. My WIP is about two unrelated cases: the discovery of two boys’s remains found in a box in an abandoned copper mine in Michigan’s U.P. and the murder, decades later, of a mega-church pastor hundreds of miles downstate. Stuck on a plot, I started researching religious ephemera about saints and discovered St. John Bosco – patron saint of lost boys. Bingo…the plot thickened. But don’t let research become a detour. Here’s Mosley on that:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away — even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner? All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered. Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.


Go for a  walk

Yesterday, I was working on a chapter where my hero Louis goes to the house of the dead pastor, after the place has been cleared by cops, just to see what vibes he can pick up on. My first draft was listless, filled with drab description. So I went to Google Street View, walked around Grand Rapids Michigan for an hour, and happened upon this house on Lake Reed. It was a modest clapboard Cape Cod cottage but it was dwarfed by the McMansions around it. Suddenly, I knew not just where the pastor lived – but how. The chapter now has a purpose, the scene has verisimilitude — and I have momentum. This technique worked for me best in our thriller The Killing Song, which is set in Paris. I had been to Paris ten times before writing it but I had never set foot in the city’s northern immigrant neighborhoods. A Street View tour of the shadowed streets of the 18th arrondisement gave me the insights I needed.


Write something else
Which is what I am doing right now. I am a daily runner, have been doing it for two decades now. But as I get older, my body is starting to object, so I make do with a long walk. So it is with writing. When you can’t face the run of your novel, open the laptop and start a short story, write a poem, start a journal. Work on your outline, if you use them. Just stay in the realm of the imagination somehow. Mosley again:


The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get words on the page or the screen — or into the tape recorder, if you work like that.


It is now Monday, almost three in the afternoon. On this laptop, on an alternate screen, sits my work in progress. I haven’t touched it yet, haven’t even looked at it. But at least I opened it. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere to go now.


Thank you, Walter. You can have the last word:


How can I create when I have to go to work, cook my dinner, remember what I did wrong to the people who have stopped calling? And even if I do find a moment here and there — a weekend away in the mountains, say — how can I say everything I need to say before the world comes crashing back with all of its sirens and shouts and television shows? “I know I have a novel in me,” I often hear people say. “But how can I get it out?” The answer is, always is, every day.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

32 thoughts on “I Was Wrong…You DO
Need To Write Every Day

  1. Mosley’s right on, Kris. I’ve found if I am two days away from a WIP it takes me some time to get back into it. If I’m a week or more, I feel I’ve lost the connection and have to fight to get it back.

    However, I also find that a weekly writing schedule is helped by taking one day off. The Boys in the Basement work while I”m resting, and Monday morning I’m fired up and chock full of ideas.

    One little tip: If I’m ever tired or hit a wall in my WIP (which seems to happen around the 30k mark, don’t ask me why), I find that writing only dialogue helps. It’s like letting the characters improvise. It’s fun for me, and soon enough I’m back in the flow.

    • Jim,
      I agree…you get one day off a week. Ditto with exercise. When I don’t run for a day, my body sorta repairs itself and I am more eager to go back to it. Same with writing. I didn’t get anything done on my book yesterday but re-reading. So today, I am looking forward to going back. But today I meet with my critique group so that at least forces me back to the fictional universe.

  2. Excellent advice, from you and from Mosely. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been trying my hand at short stories and flash fiction, and failing miserably. The short form seems so much harder than novels. It’s ruining my writing mojo. So I’m taking your advice that it’s okay to write poorly as long as I get words on the page. Hopefully, with time, it’ll all come together. I’m not sure if TKZ takes requests, but I’d love to read a post about short stories or flash.

    • Sue,
      I think short stories are harder to write than novels. That might sound counter-intuitive, in that a novel is such a long slog at times. But I’ve had about 10 short stories published and each one was a challenge for me. It’s hard enough to write tight in a novel but to capture that crucial dramatic moment in the confines of a short story is truly hard. A short story is not just a shorter novella. It has its own rhythms and structure. I love writing them but man, it’s painful and humbling.

      But yes, you definitely have permission to write badly! I do it every day. 🙂

  3. I love being in such good company. Yesterday I wrote The End. No sweeter words. I also needed this kick in the pants to not take off a week, but to get right into the next book. Maybe not writing, but planning, anyway. And so agree that writing short is extremely hard. Every word (almost said damn) has to mean something.
    This is the only blog that is a must-read for me and I so appreciate that everyone gives their time to help other writers.

    • {{{{Applauses}}}}

      Congrats on finishing, Patricia. That is such a milestone for anyone. But geez, you won’t even take one day off? You’re tough. Kelly and I have a ritual when we finish a book…we each type one word of THE END then we have a champagne toast. Lately, we have had to do with via Skype but we still enjoy it.

      But then, we take a week off! Still, it’s nice that a new project might already be percolating in your subconsciousness.

  4. What a great post! I spent hours lost in my last book looking at Google to understand the geography around the rio grande river and looking at the Gulf of Mexico for a house that my villain could hang out in. It was a waste of time as I could have had my answer in about 10 minutes of searching, but my imagination was flowing with the geography which helped with my story. As a pantser, my imagination is the only thing that gets me out of tight corners and I won’t write for days because I can’t figure out where the story is going. Now I’m going to use some of the suggestions in this post to get me back on point quicker. Thanks!

    • Alec, you sound like my kind of writer. I work just like you, a true pantser who gets mired down in stuff I need to let slide. But isn’t it kinda cool how “wasted” times sometimes leads you out of blind alleys? The writer brain is always working, even when it seems nothing is going on.

  5. Reading this, I was thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” The dream, the procrastination, everything. I was really good about writing every day before bed–then New Baby came, with her aversion to sleeping when I want her to. At least I can re-read and plan and pave potholes.

    • Kessie,
      I don’t have kids but I can sorta kinda imagine what they can do to a mom’s sked and good intentions. As a friend of mine told me just after her baby was born: My life as I knew it is gone and I am still looking for the new one. So yeah…pave potholes until the little one is sleeping through the night. You’ll both get thru this!

  6. PJ, love the piece. I hang here not for the genre, but the quality and this one is stellar.

    That said, have never understood so called writer’s block. (So called reveals some attitude, yes?) Nor do I get the I have to write at ______ fill in the blank re location. Frustrated with the time waste of driving, finally taught myself how to write on the road. (Not the one behind the wheel!)

    IMO,when writing is your life, it’s not a question of everyday, or where or what or how good. (It gets there with this kind of heat.) It’s more a matter of lifting your head and going, Oh, there is a world out there. Huh.

    • Yup. Could not agree more. I don’t believe in writers block either but that is probably because I used to make my living as a reporter so I wrote on deadline. I still write better under the crush of a contract deadline for books. Thanks for dropping in and adding to the conversation.

  7. This post is so encouraging. Thank you PJ. I’m up to about 10,000 words on my first novel, well minus the first 5,000 that’s probably backstory. But I’m trudging on through the quicksand. I have felt like a total fraud but this makes me feel that it is possible to reach the end that seems so far away right now. Thanks for sharing! ?

    • Cindy, I don’t know one writer (published or un) who hasn’t had to deal with that “fraud” demon. Writing a novel is a leap of faith. It’s not for the timid.

  8. I had to take a break from the WIP (book 2 in my new series) to deal with edits, formatting, and all the ‘stuff’ that goes with indie publishing. I tried to work on both projects, but my brain won’t shift gears, so although I was “writing” every day, I was working on another book. Today, I’m hoping to do the BICFOK thing on book 2 again, but it means re-reading a good chunk to get back in the groove. I would say doing something “writerly” every day counts, but absences from the WIP are tough to deal with.

    • Terry,
      I hear your pain. We are working on two books at once right now and it isn’t going well. It’s a matter of physics: You can’t be in two places at once. So we’ve put the other one on temp hold.

      I should have added “Read your whole book” as another way to pump-prime. Sometimes, that works for me. I print it out and take it to a coffee shop and just read. It’s not the ultimate fix but it helps.

  9. Thank you for this post. It’s exactly what I needed. I’ve been feeling “disconnected” from my WIP, and now I know why.

  10. Thank you for reminding me in such a charmingly-expressed manner that writing is also like exercise for me: I have to do it seven days a week. Otherwise, I lose motivation to resume.

    My method for staying on track is to combine both activities: every morning, I walk for two hours. During the walk, I work on an immediate WIP issue from a list I keep handy—a plot snag, bits of dialogue, a summary for the next chapter. As ideas come to me, I briefly note them on the list, which provides a jumping off point for that day of writing.

    Initially, I read one of your sentences as follows:

    “…you don’t ossify as you age but stay open to new ways of RUINING your life.”

    • I do a lot of writing while I jog. There is something about pounding around the neighborhood or the park that opens space in my right brain. Lots of writers use walking as a creative stimulant.

      As for the ossifying line, for a second you had me thinking that is what I wrote because I am the typo queen!

  11. Love this. “When you can’t face the run of your novel, open the laptop and start a short story, write a poem, start a journal. Work on your outline, if you use them. Just stay in the realm of the imagination somehow.”


  12. Thank you! I find these sentiments very affirming. Like an addiction, the dream world of our creative work entices us, and in this case yielding to the urge sustains a life force. Not all the tripping unfolds joyously…but the more we immerse ourselves the better we’re equipped to ride out the ups and downs.

    • So true, Rick. But isn’t it great on those days when it does come with ease and joy? That’s why we do it, I think.

  13. On a day when I got derailed by a malfunctioning printer, a complex scene to choreograph, and a paper slice (a step above a mere paper cut), I needed this:
    “You have re-entered the dream of the work, and that’s enough to keep the story alive for another 24 hours.”

    I’m going to dive back in, even if it’s only to dog-paddle around for a bit.

    • Justine,
      I didn’t get to work on my WIP today EXCEPT I went to my critique group and their input was enough to keep me in the dream state. Tomorrow, I am looking forward to a full day of writing. Hope things go more smoothly for you!

  14. Really enjoyed this –– ESPECIALLY the advice to ‘Just open the book’! The number of times I’ve gone from reticent to confident simply by opening my work and checking out the wordcount…

    As somebody who hypnotises people daily for a living, I can confirm that our unconscious attachments to things do indeed keep them alive! Anything that fosters that connection with our writing has to be a good thing.

    Thanks for an excellent post – sharing!

    • Thanks for stopping by Adrian. I’m with you on the just open the thing. I used to think, what’s the point, it’s dreck anyway. But the mere action of taking an action makes me move forward…you look at it and think, hmmm…not as bad as I thought and while I’m here, I think I will fix the ending of this scene….

      100 days later, you have a book.

  15. A few years back, I figured that since I spend so much time “out there” in Storyland anyway, I should be writing about it. So I’ve set to work figuring out how to do just that. Thanks to all of you for your help along the way.

    Jim in MT

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