August 14, 2017
One of the more common questions that arise at writing workshops: What kind of work schedule should we have? Generally, at the start of their careers, we set timelines: Start at nine, break for lunch, write until five, etc. For those with fulltime jobs, which is almost everyone, start time is around 6:30, and work until approximately 11:00.
That was the kind of schedule I had during my early days. What I discovered was that I spent a lot of my time looking out the window at the moon and at owls. When I broke to get a snack or a meal, I tended to eat slowly. Whatever I could find to do other than the actual writing, I did. The result was, as you can imagine, that a lot of time was wasted.
There are two methods that are light-years better: Decide on a scene that we will stay with until it is done, and then quit for the day. Go in and watch some TV, go out for a late snack with a friend or spouse, and relax. Among other benefits, we will probably live longer.
The other method isn't much different: Set a word limit for the day's work. If we're working on a first draft, maybe a thousand words is a good target. And when we've reached that goal, we'll reward ourselves and quit for the day. Unless we really want to stay with it. That rarely, if ever, happens for me. But getting the thousand words done allows me to go to bed with a clear conscience. And usually make my deadlines.
If we're working on a second or later draft, it's a good idea to set a longer limit. With a short story of six or seven thousand words, we can probably run through the entire story in a day. Or two evenings.
Several editors have told me that the most common reason for declining submissions is overwriting. Most short fiction publishers pay by the word, which may explain why so many of us, trying to break into the field, tend to load our work with adjectives and adverbs and write long sentences. My own suspicion is that it's more likely a result of the directions we receive during our school years.
I don't know if I ever received a writing assignment during those days that didn't come with a minimum word count. "At least 500 words," the teacher would say. Even during my college years, as best I can remember, there were always minimum word lengths. (I was an English teacher, and I have to admit that I committed the same offense against my students. Eventually I figured it out.) The best thing a teacher can do to enhance a student's writing skills is to assign an amount of information to be delivered, and impose a maximum word limit.
Strive for compact writing. Read Hemingway. As he says, let the nouns and verbs carry the freight.