Pacing Yourself

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—has started, so I thought it would be interesting to explore how writers pace themselves.

I must admit, that I've always been a little puzzled about the appeal of NaNoWriMo, but that's because I've never been neurotic about achieving a daily word count. I don't like the idea of rushing anything that's pleasurable to me, preferring to pace myself and savour the joy. What I can see NaNoWriMo is good for is instilling a sense of discipline in those writers who get distracted from sitting down at the keyboard.

It's also a way of getting your name in the public eye, including scrutiny from literary agents and publishers on the hunt for energetic unsigned talent. Well-reviewed novels such as Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, Wool by Hugh Howey and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern found publishers via NaNoWriMo.

Outside of writing challenges, various gurus have cautioned against overworking yourself.

William Zinsser author of On Writing Well advised that, "Many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and who is presumably doing it better...Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself."

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard suggested "Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself."

I came across a quote recently that summed up my own attitude to pacing myself when writing. Brenda Ueland was quite a character and among her many books, she penned a writing guide called If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. First published in 1938, it contains timeless good advice, including "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another."

That's how I feel when I'm constructing a story. I'd rather write a few hundred carefully considered words, supported by editing what came before than go full bore chasing a 3,000 daily word count that requires reconstructing to make sense. I tend to add to my WIP in the evening, having cogitated, from time to time, on what to write during the day. I know when I'm done, when the creative juices are drying up, agreeing with what Anthony Trollope said: "Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write."

How do you pace yourself?

Do you set time apart from other commitments, keeping to a timetable?

Do you strive for a daily word count or to complete an entire chapter?

Is time out from writing therapeutic or a cause of guilt? My 'weekend' is Thursday, when I get paid and visit town to shop and change library books. I do no creative writing, but make notes of anything that comes to me. I feel refreshed when I go back to my WIP on Friday.

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I tried NaNoWriMo once, years ago, and hated what I wrote. It felt like a wasted month of writing rubbish. Like you, I want to savour the writing process. I used to be a press officer and also worked in marketing, so I can write under pressure and respond rapidly, but it doesn't give me as much pleasure as taking time to craft something.

Time out from writing makes me feel guilty. I'd love to not feel this way, and my friends and family would be less annoyed if I didn't jealously guard my writing time. At the moment I don't write or edit every day, but usually I do. It doesn't matter what the word count is, so long as I do something.
 
If I have a deadline to work to, I'll meet it, as I did when working regular jobs, and I try and do some writing every day, but I don't have a set timetable at the moment or daily word targets. Sometimes I don't feel well enough, or I need the energy for readings and if its particularly demanding, I just want to veg afterwards, maybe watch a movie on Netflix or something. At least I'm consuming a story then, and it's grist to the mill- or so I tell myself, heh :) But I write most evenings.
 
I've been writing more of less all day more of less every day for the past 18 months, and I'm pretty shattered. I had/have a fear that I'm going to be too old to interest an agent if I don't finally produce the goods soon, being in my mid fifties. I noticed @AgentPete saying there was no age limit on writing in one of his videos. If he's right, maybe I can relax! I think manic writing is a bit counter productive. But it is undeniably a very long haul, and taking time off from a manuscript to get perspective makes it even longer. Does anyone have any words of wisdom?
 
I'm in the same boat; 55. So it's harder to 'break out' because agents and publishers long for a milch cow that can keep on giving for decades to come. Because it's their business. Fair enough, How old was Mary Wesley when her first novel was published? And she's not the only one.

I'd agree it does demand head down and charge for the first draft. Full on as the diary permits. Or it will never get done. But sending it off if it's half-risen isn't going to speed anything up,while there's this Cshowing it can be done, even in the current market. If you live long enough, and you write better and better...

ADD

Re 'network of older debut novelists'

Sorry...forgot to include the link. Heh. Must be my addled wits... theprimewriters
 
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And, perks of getting older.....there are quite a few....one can be a CRONE of Hecate and rock this look down at the Post Office. Or at a meeting with a publisher. Or whatever.


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I've divided my writing into types. At the end of each day I plan what I'm going to work on the next day. Often I work on more than one type of writing. I record the number of hours that I spend writing. Sometimes the time I block out is spent doing a task related to what I'm writing. I keep track of that too. Often I keep track of the number of words I write but not always. I know how much I write an hour.
 
I've been writing more of less all day more of less every day for the past 18 months, and I'm pretty shattered. I had/have a fear that I'm going to be too old to interest an agent if I don't finally produce the goods soon, being in my mid fifties. I noticed @AgentPete saying there was no age limit on writing in one of his videos. If he's right, maybe I can relax! I think manic writing is a bit counter productive. But it is undeniably a very long haul, and taking time off from a manuscript to get perspective makes it even longer. Does anyone have any words of wisdom?

The things I've written when obsessed (manic) have turned out pretty good. I think. But its not sustainable and it makes me feel bad physically and mentally. The time it takes to recover from large spans of time spent focused on one thing and one thing only has grown longer now that I'm older. It's so long that it's not worth it. It may never have been worth it.

I've often been told going to extremes isn't a good idea. But I ignored the advice. What fun was life if I didn't follow my passions with everything I had?

I was probably wrong. Probably maybe my passion could have used a little tempering.

All of which probably doesn't apply to you. The point I was trying to make is that I think it's a good idea to be okay with slow progress. Also, be very gentle and compassionate with yourself.

AND lie about your age. Or, don't tell them your age at all. In the United States I don't think anyone is allowed to ask. That might be different for agents. But I'd wait until they were solidly interested before telling anyone my age. Make sure they're armed with objections to their own petty objection before they know your age.

Or self-publish.
 
OK. What age could I a) get away with or b) like to be? I never thought there was a glamorous age after 34, but now 45 sound quite good. Yes I'll be 45 for the next decade or so. Sounds distinguished, but vigorous. And I can just say I haven't worn very well.
 
The things I've written when obsessed (manic) have turned out pretty good. I think. But its not sustainable and it makes me feel bad physically and mentally. The time it takes to recover from large spans of time spent focused on one thing and one thing only has grown longer now that I'm older. It's so long that it's not worth it. It may never have been worth it.

I've often been told going to extremes isn't a good idea. But I ignored the advice. What fun was life if I didn't follow my passions with everything I had?

I was probably wrong. Probably maybe my passion could have used a little tempering.

All of which probably doesn't apply to you. The point I was trying to make is that I think it's a good idea to be okay with slow progress. Also, be very gentle and compassionate with yourself.

AND lie about your age. Or, don't tell them your age at all. In the United States I don't think anyone is allowed to ask. That might be different for agents. But I'd wait until they were solidly interested before telling anyone my age. Make sure they're armed with objections to their own petty objection before they know your age.

Or self-publish.
I agree about being kind to yourself, but I don't think you were wrong about following passions. What's the point otherwise?
 
I had/have a fear that I'm going to be too old to interest an agent if I don't finally produce the goods soon, being in my mid fifties.
I used to think exacly the same, when the emphasis seemed to be all on pretty, young things. But books by older novelists, published for the first time, are cropping up all over my book-rec lists (just glancing at my recently-read shelf here, I can see Andrew Caldecott's Rotherweird and Wyntertide and novels by Ruth Hogan) so maybe that shallow emphasis on an attractive young face on the jacket has run its course? I firmly believe that (with very few exceptions) you need a little bit of life under your belt to write well. When I compare the rubbish I was scribbling in my younger years to what I'm writing now, I certainly know it's true for me.
 
I just turned 61. Age has nothing to do with writing or being published. Nothing. :) I have 95 releases and they were all accomplished within the last 7 years. By February, that number will be up to 98.

I'm going to begin taking cello lessons again soon, simply because I can, and because I want to learn to play my cello better than I can right now. I'm also going to look into taking drum lessons, again simply because I've always wanted to play them. :)

If you allow your chronological age, or society's perception of that age, dictate what you do with your precious time, you'll miss out on a lot of really cool things. :) Do what makes you happy. And don't let a silly number get in your way. :)
 
I just turned 61. Age has nothing to do with writing or being published. Nothing. :) I have 95 releases and they were all accomplished within the last 7 years. By February, that number will be up to 98.

I'm going to begin taking cello lessons again soon, simply because I can, and because I want to learn to play my cello better than I can right now. I'm also going to look into taking drum lessons, again simply because I've always wanted to play them. :)

If you allow your chronological age, or society's perception of that age, dictate what you do with your precious time, you'll miss out on a lot of really cool things. :) Do what makes you happy. And don't let a silly number get in your way. :)
Wow. That's fantastic. I'm not troubled by getting older at all in any sphere except this. Quite like it in fact. It's liberating and interesting to see how things change as you move through the generations. And though I 'wanted to write' from age 5 or whatever, I had nothing 'to say' until about ten years ago. These kids on Creative Writing MAs amaze me. I did CW as part of my Undergraduate degree, but moved to academic writing for that reason. I suppose some people are born storytellers from a young age.
I think CJ Sansom started writing the Shardlake novels on retirement. And Ellis Peters is another celebrated example. In the end I suppose the only thing that matters is the book.
 
How do you pace yourself?
I don't. If it flows, it flows.
Do you set time apart from other commitments, keeping to a timetable?
No timetable. My MS is always ready and open, waiting for the next words. I don't have a set time to do the writing. If anything, I have to set time away for other commitments.
Do you strive for a daily word count or to complete an entire chapter?
Nope. I don't believe in set targets (word count or chapter completion). It's quality, not quantity. If it doesn't flow one day, so be it. I let the novel write itself, rather than foce it. I don't think it's healthy to sit there, pushing on and on and on regardless, cursing about not meeting targets. Doing this kind of thing feels like punishment. It's unhealthy for ones creativity as well as the soul. Trying too hard will stifle art, and the freedom to explore it. If my writing has to sit for a few days, so be it. It's simply festering in the background. But whatever works.
And don't let a silly number get in your way.
Why give in to preconceived ideas of age?

Age might be felt in the body, but old is in the mind.
 
For me, I need a program to stick with otherwise it all drifts. If I have a WIP on the go, then it has to be a minimum of 500 words a day, come rain or shine. And if I am in the KSIS stage, then I will also set myself a daily target, either based on chapters or a %. But I need the discipline. Rather enjoy it, once on the other side admittedly and although it can be a real slog at times, it is worth it in the end.
 
The eye is drawn to beauty of course, the human animal can't help it. Wherever it finds it, there it will look, and there's nothing shallow in it either. But the faces that draw me in on a book jacket are the compelling faces, the lived in faces, that make me feel the writer, male or female is king of themselves, and needs nothing from me, but will be glad if I would like to walk with them a while. Maybe they look a little weary, maybe sad. Relaxed anyway, but above all the eyes speak.

ADD just for fun....Author pics
 
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The eye is drawn to beauty of course, the human animal can't help it. Wherever it finds it, there it will look, and there's nothing shallow in it either. But the faces that draw me in on a book jacket are the compelling faces, the lived in faces, that make me feel the writer, male or female is king of themselves, and needs nothing from me, but will be glad if I would like to walk with them a while. Maybe they look a little weary, maybe sad. Relaxed anyway, but above all the eyes speak.

ADD just for fun....Author pics
Loved these pics. You're right, many are compelling. It's the same with an opening page, when you know you're in safe hands, and really special when you know they're a friend.
 
I agree about being kind to yourself, but I don't think you were wrong about following passions. What's the point otherwise?

Well. It depends on how far someone goes don't you think?

I said lie didn't I? Mostly meant ... don't offer the information.
 
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