NaNoWriMo Day 14: Debts of Honor

by AA on 14 November 2011

For the last year, my writing practice has been a fairly literal extrapolation of Dorothea Brande’s advice in her excellent book Becoming a Writer (I’ll paraphrase: “To become a writer, write every day, no matter how badly, no matter what.”) and Malcolm Gladwell’s questionable but undeniably inspiring claim in Outliers (I’ll paraphrase: “Do something for 10,000 hours, and you’ll become awesome at it.”).

If both of these things are true, me-from-one-year-ago figured, and if I write fiction every day for 150 minutes, then in about ten years I will have written fiction for 10,000 hours and will, by sheer force of math, have become an awesome fiction writer. Simple!

Simple was good. All I had to do was set up a spreadsheet, one page per month, one row per day. Every day, I entered the number of minutes I had spent writing (as determined by a stopwatch or my time-tracking widget on my Mac). A handy column beside this number told me if I had missed, met, or exceeded my minutes quota. Over time, I tweaked the rules to give myself a little leeway: I could miss a quota on one day as long as I made it up some time within the same calendar month. Bottom line: I made a promise to myself to write an average of 150 minutes per day.

I could have made the rules more complicated. A lot of writing books I read suggested a word quota per day, rather than a time quota. I tried hitting a word quota for a while back in the beginning, but, for me, just cultivating the habit of clearing my mind to write for 150 minutes was hard enough. So I decided that the minute count alone would be sacred. Everything else–word count, quality, coherence–would be incidental.

So that minute count became for me what Dorothea Brande calls the “debt of honor.”

You have decided to write [150 minutes], and [write 150 minutes] you must! No excuses can be given.

That turned out to work fantastically well for me. Twelve months into the 150-words-a-day practice, if I haven’t hit that minute quota around mid-afternoon, I can’t really focus on anything else until I just sit down and get it out of the way. It took me about a year and 1,000 hours of writing, but at the end of that I had a serviceable first novel. (And I even beat my minute quota! My actual minutes-per-day average over the last twelve months has been over 180 minutes per day.)

But by deciding to participate in NaNoWriMo, I’ve out of necessity had to add a word count quota to my minute count quota. I have to write an average of 150 minutes AND 1,667 words per day for a month to satisfy both my own rules and NaNo’s. I was a little worried about changing the rules, but it turns out that the same mentality that worked before is helping me here. This month, minute count and word count together are sacred. But everything else–quality, coherence, plot–is incidental.

Although I’m honestly pretty excited about how this NaNo draft is shaping up, I’m starting to think that perhaps the biggest thing I’ll get out of NaNoWriMo is the confidence to start expanding my daily writing practice to include more elements of the craft. If I can cultivate a minute count and a word count minimum, I expect there’s nothing to stop me from cultivating a scene-writing count or a dialog-writing count that allows my writing time to be spent ever more productively.

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