Why I Don’t do 70 Days of Sweat (and other sprints)

70 Days of Sweat, Round 3 begins tomorrow. I will not be participating. Just as I participate in neither NaNoWriMo nor NaNoEdMo. Why not? What do I have against writers trying to write a book? Nothing, except…

In my view, either I’m a writer, and I write consistently. Or I’m not a writer, and I don’t. Therefore, churning out a novel before the end of the day May 10, that exercise does not make me a writer. Just a few hundred words each and every day, that does make me a writer. This misperception many writers and aspiring writers seem to have. It’s as if they think they need to push themselves to the limit in order to get enough time for writing, and that requires something like NaNoWriMo or 70 Days of Sweat.

Or else there’s some lure in the idea that, if you just buckle down and do it, you could actually write a novel in only a month (or 2½ months). I think that’s the wrong attitude to take. Rather, look at it this way: If you can spend just 10 or 20 minutes each day writing, you can finish a complete novel in under a year. That’s right, if you really want to be a writer, you don’t have to give up your life. You don’t have to “find time,” because you can probably find 10 or 20 minutes easily enough. (More on that in a sec.)

But what about procrastination? What about the fact that unless you have that deadline looming over your head, you’ll never get past daydreaming and get to writing? Holly Lisle addresses this (unwittingly) in her How to Beat Writer’s Block e-course. I downloaded a copy of it, because I wanted to review it. I did not think I had writer’s block. Boy was I wrong.

Yes, I had been writing pretty consistently. I sat down each day to write at least a little. But I wasn’t always able to write when I needed to. There were days when the words just wouldn’t flow, or I didn’t know how to continue, or I just didn’t feel like it. Of course, none of these are excuses not to write. I knew that. What I didn’t know is that none of these are excuses not to write well.

I was talking about deadlines. Yes, a deadline can motivate you like nothing else. But 30 days or 70 days is a long time to wait for a deadline. Because you’ll never meet the 70-day deadline unless you impose for yourself a daily deadline, and stick to it, at least for those 70 days (or 30 days). The thing is, if you can stick to your daily deadline for 30 days, you can stick to it forever. In fact, if you can achieve your daily goal for a week, you can probably keep achieving it forever… but only if it’s sustainable.

And that’s the clincher when it comes to NaNoWriMo and its ilk. Now, I never followed up on my New Year’s resolution post (from my other blog), but here’s how the story turned out. I had promised myself I’d accomplish certain things each day: bill at least 5 hours each day, write at least 500 words each day, and connect with at least 5 people each day. I kept that up for a week. Then I started to burn out.

So I had to choose. I could continue insisting on what was clearly an overly aggressive daily goal, which left me no slack, and this New Year’s resolution would end up where most New Year’s resolutions go. That would have been unacceptable, because I needed certain things, or else my family would be living in the street, in which case it wouldn’t even matter whether I ever got to be a full-time writer.

It’s the same way with writing sprint projects. They don’t actually help you become a writer, because they don’t help you establish a writing pace you can maintain.

So I scaled back my daily goals. I bill usually 3-4 hours a day, but more if needed by a client. I try to write at least 500 words a day, but it’s more important that I have at least one writing session a day–more on that in a sec–and I’m letting automated processes, like my blogs and email lists, do most of my marketing for me. The rest of my marketing consists of reading other people’s blogs, participating in Friday Snippets, and marketing-related writing projects (like this blog post, believe it or not).

What does this have to do with Holly Lisle’s Writer’s Block e-course? Well, I was talking about daily goals and deadlines. Holly Lisle’s course has a whole bunch of things you can do to overcome writer’s block. One of the tips I gleaned from this course has to do with deadlines, specifically an immediate deadline.

You start with an exercise. Get a count-down timer. You can use a kitchen timer, or the timer on your microwave, or a computer timer. I fell in love with the timer app for Mac OS/X that Holly recommends, Minuteur (French for “Timer”), which you can download for free. Whatever timer you use, here’s what you do. You sit down to write, and you set your timer for 10 minutes. No more than 10 minutes, at least not at first. You start the timer, and then you start writing. And you write for 10 minutes. You avoid editing. You do not go back to fix anything, because you’ll do that later. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the words are as they come out. Your only objective is to get as many words as you can out onto the page during those 10 minutes. And then when the 10 minutes runs out and the timer goes off, you stop. It doesn’t matter if you’re right in the middle of a thought, or if you’re on a roll. You stop.

What you’re doing is training your mind to realize that when you sit down to write, it needs to get in gear and start writing. You can’t dawdle for a half-hour and then get into flow. No, you need to get into flow now. You’re training your mind to realize that when you sit down to write, it has to take the ideas that have been bubbling through your head and get them streaming out onto the page. If you’ve never actually committed to trying an exercise like this, it may sound unreasonable and stressful. Well, anything new is going to feel a little stressful, but that’s a good kind of stress. However, it’s quite reasonable. Because it actually works.

And here’s what I found. In 10 minutes, I can actually write several hundred words. With practice, I can do more than that. And even though the goal is to write whatever crap comes out of your mind, without thinking critically about it, what I found is that most of what does come out is pretty darn good. Some of it is even inspired.

What’s the lesson here? 300 words in 10 minutes, 10 minutes a day, times 260 weekdays a year, that’s 78,000 words. In other words, you can write a novel in less than a year, if you write for 10-20 minutes every day. But you have to do it every day. You can’t make exceptions because you don’t feel like writing or because you can’t get the words to come out or because you don’t know what to write about. Some of these are bona fide obstacles, yes, but part of being a writer is learning how to get around, over, or through these obstacles.

Every single day.






4 responses to “Why I Don’t do 70 Days of Sweat (and other sprints)”

  1. […] Okay, actually I do. Here’s a post from yours truly, which expresses the same technique in yet another variation: “Why I Don’t do 70 Days of Sweat (and other sprints).” […]

  2.  Avatar

    Hi Tim,
    Hear, hear to all of that. Though I guess you’re being a little provocative to make your point, right? I do know some writers who’ve used these competitions as springboards and motivation, and once started, they kept on going.

    I agree, wholeheartedly, though that events like these play into the tendency we writers have to both underestimate and overestimate what writing asks of us.

    A little every day is the best way forward because good writing, like good coffee, needs time to percolate — especially over a long work like a novel. At Font, we recommend that each writer discover their “personal best”. The number of words that is optimal for them. That is a significant enough amount to generate that great-I-wrote-enough-today feeling while still leaving them keen to write again tomorrrow.

    Hemingway called it leaving some ink in the well.

    Thanks for a great website,

    best regards from Dublin, Ireland
    Orna Ross

  3. […] agree with him on NaNoWriMo. I agree with him except on one point. I think writers do write every day. Maybe you don’t […]

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