How To Increase Your Daily
Word Count — Stop Eating!

By PJ Parrish

Every year about this time I start thinking about Lee Child. Dontcha just hate the guy? Here’s why:

  1. He’s an international mega-bestseller.
  2. He’s put out a book a year for 21 years and they are good.
  3. He’s got that good Brit thing going. David Beckham not Boris Johnson.
  4. He’s the first guy to pick up the bar tab, even if it’s for a hundred people.
  5. He’s tall. (ask him where he came up with the name Jack Reacher)
  6. He’s charming. (see reason 3)
  7. He writes 2,000 words a day. Every day.

That last one is the reason I really hate the guy. Okay, I don’t hate him. But I do envy him for his work ethic, consistency, and  productivity. He is always on my mind as we edge up toward January 1 and begin to make resolution lists. He’s a role model for any of us, wherever we are on the publishing food chain. Write often, write well. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Lee was among the contributors to Fastcompany.com’s “Secrets of the Most Productive People” series. His routine is simple: He starts each new book on September 1. It’s sentimental, he says, but also forces structure. He gets up between 7 and 8 a.m., has the first of his thirty cups of daily coffee.  He writes before he eats. “If I’m hungry, then I’m on the ball,” he says. He has two computers at different ends of his room. One is connected to the internet and one is not. Guess which one he writes on? “When I want to go online, I have to walk across the room, which usually disincentivizes me,” he says. He goes to bed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The last thing he does at night is smoke a joint.

So, take what lessons you will from that. The lesson I get is that he has a forced structure. He is focused. He approaches his writing like a job. Which is pretty basic, but something that eludes many of us who are blown away by the first distracting breeze. The laundry needs folding. The kids sound like they’re killing each other. That thing in the Tupperware has now grown a coat of fur. Speaking of fur, I need to send my sister that video of dancing pugs I saw on Facebook…

Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.

1. Turn off the internet.  It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time.  There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.

2. Figure out your peak writing hours. In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about  3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent.  You have to make your family understand this.

3. Show up.  Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it.  I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”

4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

5. Be accountable to someone. This is easy if you are under contract. You’ll know how much trouble you’re in by the intensity of your editor’s emails. But if you’re flying on Spec Air, the sky is, unfortunately, limitless. If you’re on your first book with no contract, set a deadline and appoint someone as your “editor.” You need a nag, someone to hold your nose to the grindstone.  Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert (oxymoron?) says, “You’re not going to want to share with a friend, co-worker or career coach that you did not reach your goal this week, month, etc. So recruit a friend or family member or hire someone to help improve your productivity.” Critique groups work wonders if the group is well-structured. So can a nagging spouse. Mine is yelling at me right now telling me to finish this blog and get back to the book.

 6. Let the house or yard (or whatever you obsess over) go to hell. The average American spends about 30 minutes per day on household chores (not counting food prep and cleanup). I have trouble with this because I am a neat freak. But I grit my teeth and try to ignore it or I set one afternoon aside and do my dervish-dirt routine. Set a 15-minute timer for tidying up. If it doesn’t happen during this time, it wasn’t important. Except that moldy thing in fridge.

7. Turn off the TV: Americans with full-time jobs still manage to watch more than two hours of TV per day. Even if you trim that to 90 minutes that leaves 30 minutes to write. I was never more productive than the week up in Michigan this summer when our cable went out. You can only watch so many Gunsmoke reruns before the WIP starts to look really interesting.

8. Find time for down time.  We talk about this one a lot here, but it’s important. Get out and take a walk. It’s scientifically proven to increase productivity. Maybe it’s just around the block, but it’s better than logging onto Facebook.  Run or do yoga. Just move. Your book will thank you for it.

9. Reward yourself.  This one is nothing more than a blatant excuse to show you a picture of my new dog Archie. He’s a rescue and he’s got some issues, like peeing in the laundry room and barking at everyone he meets. The peeing thing is because he’s got a tiny bladder and eventually he’ll get that under control. The barking, well, that’s a bad habit. And like all bad habits, it can be changed. I researched how to  retrain him and found out dogs can be incentivized by — wait for it — food!  When someone approaches, I say a key word (ours is “focus!”) and hold out a kibble. It gets his attention away from the person and onto the reward.  It is working. Strange, isn’t it, that I chose “focus!” as the trigger word. So, whatever turns you on — Gummi Bears, a deep-muscle massage, an hour of uninterrupted Gunsmoke reruns — set that as your reward but only after you have banged out 2,000 words.  Be like Archie — focus then eat a kibble.

10. Stay positive.  Being negative is counterproductive. Whether the negativity comes from the outside (relatives who tell you your wasting your time on that book) or inside (I will never get published).  It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for your book. Yeah, your book sucks at times (we all feel like that), but you have power over it. And remember that even Lee Child has doubts:

When I start a book, I have no idea what the plot is going to be. I try to come up with a good opening sentence, and then I think, “Great,” and go from there. I write about 2,000 words a day. I don’t revise, because I have this mental oddity where I think once the story is written, changing it would feel dishonest. You can’t do that in real life. I get clarity from doing hypnotic tasks. Many writers get ideas in the shower. You don’t have to concentrate, so you can let your mind wander. I feel the same way when I drive. It clears my mind.

We are nearing January 1 resolution time. Go forth, my children, and be productive…

 

 

https://www.fastcompany.com/90264209/how-bestselling-author-lee-child-writes-2000-words-a-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

20 thoughts on “How To Increase Your Daily
Word Count — Stop Eating!

    • I know lots of folks who keep logs like this. Seeing a blank spot on a day where you did nothing is rather jarring.

  1. All good tips, Kris. One that I picked up early on turned into my “Nifty 350” (of course, you’re free to make it 250 or 150, just so long as it rhymes with “nifty.”) That is, I try to get 350 words done right away, right after pouring that first cup of coffee. First, I try to capture anything my boys in the basement came up with during the night. Then I get to my WIP. Since I’m aiming for 1,000 words in a day, the chore seems less onerous with 350 set down.

    When in doubt, I turn on Dr. Wicked’s “Write or Die.” (www.writeordie.com)

    • You’re right. It is really easy to write 350 words. It’s like eating the elephant…one bite at a time. Lot less threatening than: WRITE 2000 WORDS A DAY OR YOU DIE. That’s a good tip, to think of your writing load in many small bites rather than one giant meal. Think Scandinavian buffet rather than medieval pig roast.

  2. Great post.

    I especially enjoyed and agree with points 1, 3 and 4. And of course, Lee Child’s quote at the end.

    As for point 9, yep, I like that one too. And for me it does double duty because everything else I have to do (household chores, Internet stuff, etc.) is “work.” Finally getting to sit down and write the next sentence of my WIP is my reward. (grin)

    • So you do things backward of what I do: You get the daily grind stuff out of the way first and then writing is your reward. Well, if it works!

      • Whatever else I have to do, I make visiting with my characters in their story my reward. Kind’a like a 5 year old having to get his chores done before being allowed out to play. (grin) It’s how I keep the writing fun and something to look forward to.

  3. As always, fantastic advice. I try for 500 words before lunch. Food is a motivator. (Don’t ask me how late lunch is some days.) We watch 1 hour of TV a day, recorded, with the exception of football nights, but usually only watch the first half. I don’t turn off the internet, but I don’t have any sounds, popups or alerts. I make my runs first thing in the morning (like now), another check at lunchtime, and then when I’ve hit my word count.
    I do have a messenger app open with my critique partner, and we will update each other on word count progress … when she says 1703 and I look at my 211, I get writing.
    Taking those breaks is important, but what does it say about your life when a “break” is emptying the dishwasher or moving clothes from washer to dryer. But yes, I have a dog, so Walkies are part of the routine, as is yoga twice a week.
    But I think #3 is the winner. Show up.

    • Wow…I am impressed, Terry, with your discipline and structure. And you’re right about taking breaks. It dovetails with what Jim said about thinking about your word count in small doses rather than one big intimidating chunk.

      I am always fascinated by how each writer approaches this work structure thing. I am thinking that my “reward” should be an hour or two out in the yard. I love gardening. So maybe I should set my goal as a certain word count = one hour weeding.

  4. Archie is so stinkin’ cute!!! May you have many wonderful years together.

    Oy. #4. Perfectionism is my downfall. Writing garbage just to put words on a page doesn’t work for me. Doubt it ever will. When I finish the first draft, I want to be proud of the story I’ve written. On the flip-side, I’m amazed by how much time I can waste on one sentence or paragraph.

    Our television stays off until prime time. During the day, with a retired husband at home, my saving grace came in the form of headphones. For years, I needed complete quiet to write. Now, though, music has enhanced my productivity. With my last three books, a particular song sets the tone for the book and every time I hear it, I’m thrust into my fictional world. Even if I don’t feel like writing for whatever reason, all I need to do is slide on the headphones and play that book’s song. Boom. I’m focused. No idea why or how this happens. I’m just thankful it does. Headphones also deter others from interrupting me. 🙂

    JSB gave excellent advice that I live by. He said never to stay away from your story for more than one day. The longer you stay away, the harder it is to restart. He’s right! I take Sundays off for the family. Other than that one day per week, I’m writing, even if it’s only one chapter. Some days I may only write one scene, but at least I’m making progress, moving forward.

    Another idea that’s worked for me is to have a dedicated writing space. Once you sit in that chair, your mind will follow.

    • “Never stay away from your story for more than a day.”

      Yeah, I heard the same advice from Walter Moseley. He put it this way (to paraphrase): Stay in daily touch with your story or it vanishes like mist. You have to visit your conjured world every day or you never find your way back.

      Sort of like speaking a foreign language, I’d say. Use it or lose it.

    • “… a dedicated writing space.” YES! And in my case, a dedicated writing ‘puter. I do have Internet on mine, but only to pop on to get a word translation, “see” a particular important intersection in a town in my WIP, etc. When I sit down at my dedicated writing computer my mind knows it’s time to play.

  5. This post really resonates with me, and, I’m sure, thousands of other writers. Many of the tasks and crises in our lives need not override our ability to write. Writing is highly therapeutic. It frees up our souls for a time, like perfected escapism. Jodi Picoult said it well…you can’t edit a page that has no words on it. Doesn’t matter if they’re great words or not. Just need to set them down. Thanks for the reminder!

    • For most of my writing life, I had a full-time job. No kids, but a husband and a full life. Yet I was more productive then than I am now in retirement. It’s the big purse syndrome: The bigger purse the more junk you find to carry around. The smaller the purse, the more economical you are. So it is with time. The most productive people, I’ve found, tend to be those with the least amount of time.

      I have many friends with jobs and kids who struggle to carve out writing time. Yet they do it. It’s a choice.

  6. Blame Archie for being an adorable distraction.

    Great list, Kris. Jim got me hooked on his nifty 350. I too am a recovering night owl but I now getup with my two rescues when it’s “pee o’clock.” Pee o’clock always comes too early, but it gets me going. Before I have breakfast around mid-morning, I get my 350 in, plus any edits from the prior day’s writing. My word count is 1500-2000/day.

    I used to write every day but found I let too much go that was important to me. My new word count goal is to write 5 days per week with 2 floating days off where I replenish the well with down time. I also clear deadlines off my December holiday month. No contract deadlines.

    Fun post, Kris.

  7. I absolutely love every suggestion. And, like you, I enjoy the writing of Lee Childs, but don’t exactly follow his writing schedule–but I see why it works. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Writing is my job. It’s a great job and I love it, but it is not my life. It’s what I do, not who I am. I work hard at my craft and I’ve never (yet) missed a deadline, but I find not-writing to be at least as important as writing. Those are times when living happens, when I interact with people. I wouldn’t do this–couldn’t do this–if it required the storied writer’s garrets of old.

    I start every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with an hour at the gym, followed by a stop at Starbucks. If no one I know is there, then I go home and start work early. If the klatch is there, I’ll sit and talk and might not sit at my desk until noon. My wife works with clients and is out most of the day. If she calls and asks if I want to go to lunch, the answer is always yes, and often as not, those lunches turn into trips to Costco or some other outing. They blow the whole day, and I love every minute.

    Some days, I’ll write nothing. Some weeks, I’ll be lucky to get a couple hundred words down on the page. Other days, I’ll pound out a couple thousand. Invariably, in the six weeks before a book is due, I will end up writing about 40,000 words–most of the third act.

    I think writers need to find the pace that works for them. As always, I reiterate that there are no rules. There are goals–for me, they are to always finish on time, and always start another after I have finished the one–but I see no reason to make the process painful. If I want to take a walk, I take a walk. If, say, hypothetically, I just got my copy edits back on a ridiculously short turn-around, and I wanted to take a break to write a response on TKZ, that’s what I’ll do. I try to keep weekends free because that is my time to spend with Joy. If she’s swamped and has to work, then I’ll work too.

    • Your approach sounds much akin to mine…flex-time, I’d call it. I feel the same way about writing. It is not who I am, it is what I do…some of the time. Maybe this goes with getting older, but I find it is less an obsession than it used to be. Not that I don’t enjoy it. I just don’t let it consume me. Good or bad. Thanks for taking a break to respond to TKZ!

  9. Pingback: How To Increase Your DailyWord Count — Stop Eating! | Loleta Abi

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