The Daily Grind – Getting Words Onto Paper

A recent post on David Gaughran’s blog discussed the difficulties faced by the novelist of grinding out a daily quota of words. For me it is less of a grind and more of a pleasure, but I thought I would ‘post my post’ here in the hope that it might help writers faced with this problem.

Post 30/01/12

The stuff below is not advice. It is my experience as a novice novel writer, but also as an ex-professional commercial writer. It may or may not strike a chord, ring a bell, paint a picture, fire the odd neuron, stimulate a thought or otherwise employ a cliche.

Until last year, I was writing around 5 words a day. On some days the total might be 20 or so, but those days were rare. At the end of two or three weeks I would send my words – or occasionally deliver them – and a month or two later receive a cheque. The cheque was usually quite big because I had been writing my few words for a long time and some people liked them.

I mention this because if my words were not delivered on time I didn’t get a cheque; my family, my dog and I starved. It was a wonderful way of encouraging discipline.

Of course, it is simple to write 5 words a day. As long as they are the right words. And that’s the nub of the matter. It is simple to write 10,000 words a day, as long as they are the right words. There is little point in writing the wrong words unless you need to. Writing 10,000 wrong words is the same as writing 5 wrong words, and may take the same time.

Whatever, the words are still wrong, the time is wasted, the soul debilitated.

Every writer with whom I have had contact has had a natural rhythm, a natural pace. If your pace is 1000 good words a day then be happy, that is 995 more than my 5 good words as a succesful copywriter.

So, the question is: how does one write the right words in the right amount every day?

I am writing around 2000 words a day. Of that 2000 about half are redundant in some way by virtue of self-editing. I write my 2000 by imagining that someone is paying me for those words and at 4.30 pm ‘someone’ will call to collect my words and if they are self-indulgent tripe or not written, I will not get paid.

Now it could be that my 2000 words ARE self-indulgent tripe and I am deceiving myself to believe otherwise, but for now I have a mental construction that allows me to write at my natural pace for prose.

This method won’t work for everyone, but it is adaptable. Find the one ‘thing’ that is important to you. In my case it was my family and my old dog. Imagine that if you do not write the right amount of words that ‘thing’ will be denied to you. Tell your subconscious this is true. Do this every working day as you wake.

The only factor preventing writing at a natural pace is how a writer’s beliefs are structured.

The only factor preventing writing at a natural pace is how a writer’s beliefs are structured.

It was worth repeating. I believe the idea without any doubts whatsoever.

A writer without discipline is playing at it. A writer who allows distraction is playing at it. A writer not in control of his or her mind is playing at it.

My belief system tells me to enjoy it, as well. And I do.

I had 180,000 words in my forthcoming novel. 50,000 were bad words, but I had to write them to get at the good ones. Released from 5 words a day I went a little stir-crazy. The novel is now 130,000, but will be less, hopefully not 129, 995 less.

So, none of this is advice, since I have not sold a single novel, but it might be worth an experiment for those bursting with ideas, but worrying about getting the words onto the page.

You have to stick at it. The subconscious needs repeated instructions to change behaviour.

If the above doesn’t work, then start at 5 words and work up. 🙂

About J.D.Hughes

Disclaimer: The profile photo above was taken when I was (briefly) young and cool. Writer, director and recovered ne'er do well. Simply delightful, but quite unhinged supernatural thrillers, NORTHMAN & AND SOON THE SONG on Amazon and several short stories, all of which contain The Meaning of Life. Or one of them. New novel to be published mid 2020, but on current performance might be posthumously... Likes dogs and probably was one in a past life.
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11 Responses to The Daily Grind – Getting Words Onto Paper

  1. Mark Gandolfi says:

    If I was a would be novelist I would take your advice, but I’m more interested in when your going to bring out your novel. I read the short stories and enjoyed them. Also I’d like to know who did your covers?


  2. Lisa says:

    I tried telling my subconscious but it told me to get lost! My problem is I start writing then just seem to fade away. How do you keep the actual idea in your mind as you write? I seem to drift onto other topics. Sorry if this is a bit dumb, but it happens to me all the time.


  3. J.D.Hughes says:

    Submitted on 2012/02/01 at 9:30 am | In reply to Lisa.

    Lisa, if you think of your subconscious as a place where all of your memories from the moment you were born until the present are stored, then you can see that it will have lots of examples to draw upon about how you should behave. Perhaps your current ‘programming’ is not to accept any new information and stick to the old ways.

    You have to persist. Eventually your subconscious will get the idea that sabotaging your conscious wishes is not the way to go, but it takes time. Your subconscious want to make you happy (it’s you, after all), but sometimes it has the wrong information.

    It’s not dumb; it happens to everyone who writes. Distraction: birds, the next door neighbour mowing, a pattern on the curtains, the shopping list…it’s endless, The way to overcome this is to allow yourself at least an hour a day to write, locked away, without the possibility of distraction on a major scale. Once you get into the habit you will find it easier to block out the mundane and get on with the exciting stuff!

    Before you go to sleep at night, think about the idea for 5 minutes and then tell your subconscious to get on with it, while you sleep. Works for me.

    I hope that helps.


  4. Lisa says:

    Thanks for that JD, I will try it and let you know if it works. Another problem I have is too many ideas and sorting through them I cant decide which to use. Then what happens is I write all of them in the same story and end up with a mess. Any ideas? I re-read your short stories and if I had written them they would be novel length!


  5. Jez1 says:

    I was just going to ask the same thing. I followed what you said about discipline and managed to get about 3k words down. Hey some of it is OK! But when your brain is buzzing with scenarios its not easy to separate the good stuff from the no-hopers.

    What do you think is the best length for a novel? Cheers.


    • J.D.Hughes says:

      70-150,000 words seems to be the accepted length, Jez. Back in 1995 when I had a fiction agent, he told me that for a first time author 80-100,000 was acceptable to a publisher.

      That has all changed now since we no longer need to worry about printing costs. My new novel was 150 but is down to 125, at the moment. The old adage ‘kill your darlings’ is appropriate here, but so is the one about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!


  6. J.D.Hughes says:

    Lisa and Jez1, I’m just about to settle in to my 2000 words or so, and as I start thinking about it my brain, like yours, is constantly throwing new ideas into the pot. So what to do about this overload?

    The first thing to do is not to stop it. If you start to place strictures on your creative flow then it is likely that some of it will stop. What I do is talk to my subsconscious and thank it for the ideas. My family think I have finally gone off the end of the pier! There is a possibility they are right.

    But by doing this I am not stopping the flow or censoring the output. I am simply saying thanks, keep up the good work. Then, consciously, I select the ideas that are useful for the current story and put all the other ideas into a mental drawer labelled ‘Good Ideas’ and close the drawer. That demands discipline, but discipline is only the result of practice and knowing what your story needs and what it doesn’t.

    Those ideas in the drawer have not been rejected, so your mind will remember them for the future.

    Writing occurs between the ears and that’s why it’s important – for me – to understand how my mind processes ideas. If you are getting an overflow of ideas then congratulate yourself, it’s a good sign!


  7. Lisa says:

    Just tried to post and pressed the wrong button! It’s funny how I’ve been compartrmentalizing everything in my life for the last few years but never thought about using it as you suggest.

    I’ve written 1100 words today and all of it is to the point. The other ideas are still there as you said but don’t interfere with the story. For the first time in a long time I can see how my storyline is going to develop. Sincere thanks!

    One more question – where do you get your covers done? My friend’s a fashion designer but I don’t really like what she has done. It’s not her fault, she’s really busy. So if there’s anyone you could recommend that would be great.


  8. J.D.Hughes says:

    Well done, Lisa! If you have 1100 good words then in three months you will have a completed novel.

    Imagine that and write the next 1100 tomorrow.

    The photos for the covers I did myself specifically to suit the story and the design was by a friend of mine who has more skill with Photoshop than I. You could try graphics students at your local uni or art college. They will probably work for very little to get an addition to their portfolio – I love the barter system, don’t you? Otherwise, David Gaughran has a link on his site, I believe.

    Anyway, 1100 good words tomorrrow without fail 🙂


  9. Hedblom says:

    2k words? I can do 40k in a day easy. Have you seen ‘The Shining’?


  10. J.D.Hughes says:

    Just hope it doesn’t snow.


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