On Rules

Writing rules are thick on the ground: Write every day. If you miss a day, make up the missed words the next day. Never make up the missed words because it'll make you feel so far behind you won't want to write. Set your goal low and keep increasing until you can't write more. Stop writing when you still feel fresh, so you won't be burned out when you sit down the next day. End in the middle of a thought, so starting up again is easier. Don't end in the middle of something because if you don't get back to it right away, you'll never remember what you were going to say.

How do you sort through all of these well-meant bon mots to actually write? How do you find what works best for you, since all writers are not the same?

First, you need to evaluate how much time and energy you have available to write. If you're a single mother with sick kids who barely has a moment to cook a healthy meal, you may find that even setting aside fifteen minutes a day to write a single page doesn't work for you. I'm not a single mother, but between sick kids, a round of bronchitis, a heavy work schedule for me, and my husband working late hours, I really struggled to make my word counts last November for NaNoWriMo. I was barely getting four hours of sleep a night, and when I read advice that said, "If so-and-so could get up an hour early as a single mother of four to write, no one else can use lack of sleep as an excuse," I found it rather galling.

No, galling isn't the right word. I was angry -- angry that someone presumed to know what I was going through, angry that they thought that if one person could do something, anyone could.

But part of me felt guilty as well because I believed the myth. I thought that maybe if I tried harder, gave up a little more of my time, stretched myself even thinner, I could do it. And I couldn't. Which then led me to feel guilty for falling short of this ideal and beating myself up because I couldn't write every day, and when I did manage to write, I was lucky if I was making a hundred words.

When did I wake up and realize that just because I'd managed in the past didn't mean I would always manage? That I owed it to myself to find what was working for me, rather than listening to someone else telling me what to do? I tried to encourage someone else in my NaNo group who was also struggling, and I wound up going through battles with others in our region about whether or not writing every day worked for everyone. I was really close to quitting NaNo, quitting as co-municipal liaison, and giving up on writing until the end of the year.

My friends helped talk me off that ledge -- especially my co-municipal liaison, who didn't deserve to be stuck with those hard-headed people to cope with on her own -- and when I had calmed down, I realized I had almost let someone else's rules ruin writing for me. (The scene I wrote where a know-it-all got eaten by a zombie was also a trifle cathartic.)

That's when I realized I needed to change my attitude. The guilt had to go.

On Not Writing Every Day

The first thing I did was to create a new rule for myself: It's okay to not write every day. Good thing, too, since I started the year with eight straight days of no words. Telling myself that I wasn't allowed to say, "I could have done better" was enormously freeing.

So here's my advice to you on writing so you're comfortable with who and where you are as a writer.

Remember that sometimes, it's just not possible to write every day.

Write when you can. If you're making dinner and the pasta has to boil for 10 minutes, write. If you can't get to a computer, jot it down on the back of an envelope and type it in later. I have the Writeroom app on my iPod Touch, so if I'm waiting in line at the grocery store, I can usually jot down a sentence or two, but there are other apps that will work -- TextGuru, ShapeWriter, even the Notes will give you somewhere to put things. TextGuru and Writeroom, though, let you get that information to your computer without retyping it, which is always good.

If you watch TV, keep a notepad on your lap and write dialogue during commercials. Or steal a line of dialogue from your favorite show and figure out how it'll work in your story (and maybe not sound like plagiarism). Or if you can give up a TV show, that gives you an hour more during the week to write. Me, I might have more time without the TV on, but sometimes, that's my only time with my husband, especially if it's heading into finals week at the college where he teaches. I'm not about to give up time with him.

Write what you can, when you can. If you end the month with more words than you began with, if you know what it feels like to write, if you want to finish your novel -- or if you want to try something completely different -- then you're doing it right.

Writing is a voyage of self-discovery and creativity. Enjoy it.

On Writing Every Day

What if you want to write every day? If you want to see if it works for you, if you have an extra hour or two each day, or you've tried binge writing but getting back into the story each time is like a root canal without novocaine?

The first option is always winging it. Try to create a new habit of writing each day, in whatever way has worked for other habits. You have the advantage of knowing what will and won't help you personally. Some people find being accountable to others is a good motivator. Others find that then they're writing for others instead of themselves, and that guilt thing kicks in again. No fun. Work with what will motivate you.

Make time to do the writing, whether it's by setting an alarm clock half an hour early, giving up lunch, writing a page before you sit down at your computer or turn on the Internet, or hiding in a closet while your family asks when dinner is going to be ready.

Experiment to find out how much writing you can do each day and still come back the next day eager to do more. If the thought of trying to write four pages (1,000 words!) keeps you staring at the computer in dread while you come up with ever more extreme excuses for not opening the story file, you're probably not ready for that. On the other hand, if only writing a single page each day leaves you bored and feeling as if the story's never going to get anywhere, you probably need to pick up the pace. Try 300 words rather than 250, or be brave and go for two full pages each day. Play until you find the right balance, and remember that what that perfect amount with may be different for every story, every novel, you do.

Keep track of how many days you've written if that will encourage you to do better. Ditto with your words. If not -- don't.

Remember that the number one rule here is that it's okay to not write every day. Don't feel guilty if (or when) you can't do it. Just remember that, as Scarlett said, "Tomorrow is another day" -- another chance to write, to keep going.

Good luck finding your own comfortable writing pace. You'll feel much happier for the effort.