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A Writer's Struggle (or How I Knuckled Down and Bloody Wrote Something)

Farmer Tom

I’ve been ‘writing’ since I knew how to form spidery letters with a pencil. My first story was about a farmer who’s sheep had escaped; a whole forty-something words and maybe half of them spelled correctly. It did get me a head-teacher’s award sticker though. A few years later came my comic – Mega Bear. Fast forward to secondary school and a friend and I decided we could write a book, so we did. Tyrant Rising. Written and re-written half a dozen times before we left for university. It’s still on a Google Drive somewhere, probably never to sear the eyeballs of another human, but that process taught me a lot about writing and the world we’d created stuck with me.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. For most of this time, I considered myself a ‘mood writer’. I’d write only when I had the muse sitting on my shoulder, when I was in the zone. That works for some people. It worked for my former writing partner who could leave it weeks between writing sessions but still sit down and bash out 4000 words. I, on the other hand, have never been a fast writer. That, combined with the sporadic nature of my writing sessions, meant my output was minimal. The creative disconnect between wanting to write, or rather wanting to have written, and not being able to get anything substantial down on paper left me on the verge of giving up a number of times. I dipped my toes into social media on reddit, following as many writing sub-reddits as I could find. I listened to writing podcasts on my daily commute. Writing Excuses. Dead Robot Society. Death of 1000 Cuts. Each one taught me about the craft and the business, but I could never put it into practice. Then in 2018 I stumbled across a podcast that would eventually change the way I write.

The Bestseller Experiment

The BXP podcast started in 2016 so I was late in coming to the party, but I listened to it as much as I could on the walk from the tram stop to work. The premise of the first season was that Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux would attempt to write, publish and market a book in a year. The ultimate goal being to get that coveted bestseller flag on Amazon. I won’t spoil the outcome, but over the course of the year they interviewed authors and industry professionals covering all genres and areas. Each episode was gold. The wisdom imparted by the guests elevated my knowledge of the industry to the next level. In 2019 I moved from Manchester to London and my commute went from public transport to driving, which allowed me to finish several episodes a week and I was soon caught up (only three and a half years late). By this point, Mr D had come up with the challenge to write 200 words a day every day. For months I heard the call to action, but denied it. It sounded great, 200 words a day, easy, but for some reason I still didn’t feel able to do it. Lack of confidence, perhaps? Or not knowing what to work on. That was until late 2020. Some time in autumn, with nothing else to do under the rule of lockdown, I decided to finish a YA novel I’d started in February 2019. In that initial month, I wrote 1000 words a day for almost three weeks and finished February on around 20k words. I then barely touched it for a year and a half. With no ability to leave my tiny flat, I thought I would unofficially take on the challenge. And do you know what, reader? I only bloody finished the book. From mid-November until Christmas, I wrote 500 words every day and in January I wrote ‘The End’ on the first full manuscript I was properly proud of. That feeling spurred me on, so in February 2021 I finally signed up for the #200wordsaday challenge.

My first streak was 123 days, but as that streak progressed, I was finding it harder and harder to carve out the time to write as the world opened up again. In the end, that streak was broken on the day I competed in a Tag Rugby tournament, but I’d written 60k words in four months. I’d never managed that sort of prolonged output before and believe me, it hit different (I’ll go into that more later). Without the streak to spur me on, though, I fell off the writing train for four months. In November 2021 I started again with the aim to complete the re-write of my first book, set in joint world my friend and I created in 2004. Again I managed a short streak of two months, again finding it hard to isolate the time to write. That difficulty came with a degree of shame. If single parents working two jobs could find time to write every day, why couldn’t I? Was I not cut out to be a writer? It felt like that at times, especially when I was getting rejection and rejection for the short stories I was submitting. But I pushed on. I had done it before and I could do it again. All it required was a shift in mentality. Writing had to be a priority. So I started again. 1st Feb 2022, and this time I changed my outlook on it. I’d come home from work and write in the evenings. Just 200 words a day. To give myself the best chance, I started a new project, a cosy murder mystery instead of the fantasy I usually wrote, and set a dream declaration. Six months and it would be finished, a date carved into the BXP calendar. I smashed that goal, writing 70k words in five months, but I didn’t stop there. Some short stories followed to cleanse the pallet, then the final touches to my fantasy novel. Once that was finished, I had several choices. Did I write a sequel for the YA, Murder Mystery or Fantasy? In the end I did none of those and started a new series, because why the hell not. The long and the short of all this, is that as of 2nd July 2023, my daily writing streak has reached 516 days and 233,000 words. In total across all my streaks, I’ve written 313,000 words. Would I have written that much in two years without the #200wordsaday challenge? Not a chance.

Changed Forever

First things first, this approach isn’t for everyone. Some people do find it better to write in shorter bursts, look at the success of NaNoWriMo. That’s not something I feel I could ever do but thousands of writers pull it off, and to them I tip my hat. What the #200wordsaday approach brings, is a cumulative, drip-feeding of words. At the bare minimum of 200 words, if you managed the challenge for a year, you’d hit 73,000. That’s a novel! But what surprised me, was that I didn’t settle for 200 words more often than not. The longer I worked consistently on a project, the higher my daily output got. For the Murder Mystery, I averaged over 500 words a day. Not to say that it’s plain sailing all the time. There have been many, many days where it felt like I was smashing my head against a wall just trying to squeeze out the 200 words. But I did it. Every day. Without fail. Sometimes it was rushed out before I went to bed after a long day. Sometimes I did it on the train. I even managed to do it on my wedding day. There can, however, be a sense of anxiety if the words are last minute, and that is one of the cons to this approach. One of the reasons I haven’t allowed myself to stop is a fear of failure, a fear that, if I can’t keep this up, I’m not a real writer. Thankfully, these worries are usually fleeting. The most recurring fear is that nothing I write is any good, but I know I’m not alone there. What tends to alleviate that, is the recognition that I have created words. Good. Bad or indifferent, it doesn’t matter. Because now I can say I have written, and it’s a damn-sight easier to improve words that are already there.

My next question was how to increase the number of words I did create, so I tried an experiment of my own at the start of 2023. What would happen if I increased my minimum word count every month? I raised my target by 50 words a day each month from 200 in January to 500 by May. What I found interesting, was that I was more likely to hit the new target and stop, whereas with 200 words I blasted past that frequently. It took until May, where my target was 500 words, to break my monthly output record. My next goal is to treat 500 words like 200 and not stop as soon as I hit it. What I have found, however, is that the time taken to reach the minimum target has barely changed. I can now set a 20 minute timer and hit 500 words within the same time it previously took me to write 200. What I intend to do going forward, is utilise a tiered method of targets. 200 words is the absolute minimum, for days where I have to squeeze them in. On most days, the target is 500 with a view to exceed that number. I tried this for June and, at a time where my wife and I are renovating our house, it gave me the flexibility I needed. More importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty for not hitting the higher target. So while I’ve settled on an approach to daily output, I need something else to aim at. To that end, I have a declaration. My next target, and this can go in the BXP calendar, Mr D, is to have my current WIP ready for #SPFBO 10 in 2024.

I know this streak can’t go on forever. One day it will have to come to an end but it will be an end of my choosing. Maybe it will simply be a pivot from outputting brand new words into polishing them and creating my author brand, or perhaps I’ll need some time off to recharge. What I can tell you for certain, is that it won’t be end the end of my relationship with the #200wordsaday challenge. However long my career as a writer lasts (and I hope it’s a very long time), I will always take the lessons I’ve learned from this challenge and from the Best Seller Experiment.

Should you do it?

If consistent writing is a struggle for you, I absolutely recommend this approach. Twenty minutes a day is all it takes to find 200 words. Waiting for the kettle to boil? There’s an opportunity. Sitting in the car while your kids finish school? Could do it then. On the toilet? Sure, why not? All I ask is that you try it. Try it for a week, if that suits you, try it for a month. Who knows, you may soon find yourself 500 days later with a quarter of a million words.

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