Tuesday, February 8, 2011

400 Words

Remember how I said that every author has their own list of how to be successful that all start with the same two things? Well, I suppose you could say that this is the beginning of my list. I'm not actually suggesting this as the "magic pill" that will make you able to write, but this is the one thing that helped me the most, so I thought I'd pass it along.

I've had fits and starts with writing for years. And years. Like I said before, my first attempt at a novel was when I was about 8, and I've started several others since then. Like I also said, writing is hard and allowing distractions to pull me away from what I was doing was easy. A few years ago, I decided to really focus on writing. I started with small things. Poems. Some short stories. Things that had an end I could see. I thought I could build up to longer pieces, but that really didn't work, either. I needed a way around these barriers, and I just couldn't seem to find one. Until...

I've been a Neil Gaiman fan for, I don't know, 20 years or so. Since The Sandman first started up. A friend of mine turned me onto it within the first year or so of it coming out. I moved on to his novels from there. Good Omens is one of those few novels that I have read more than once. If you haven't read it, you should. I've never met anyone that's read it and not liked it. At any rate, I suppose it's somewhat appropriate that it was words by Neil Gaiman that gave me the "ah-ha" moment I needed to persevere through writing an entire novel.
Interestingly enough, the words weren't advice or intended to be inspirational or anything like that. In the current edition of Good Omens, Neil and Terry Pratchett (the co-author of Omens) write the about the author pieces about each other instead of themselves. In his piece about Pratchett, he talks about how Pratchett started out. About how Pratchett would come home from work each evening and only have the energy time and energy to write 400 words. He wrote his first novel that way, 400 words a night.

400 words a night. Do you realize how few words that is? This, right here, is 400 words. An email is 400 words. 400 words is... well, it's almost nothing. And Pratchett wrote a whole novel on just 400 words a night. I thought to myself, "I can do that. I can write 400 words. That's... well, that's easy."

And that became my first goal. 400 words a day/2000 words a week. Sure, there was a little more to it than that, but, really, not much. I mean, when you're sitting there staring at a blank sheet of paper and all you have in your mind is your end goal of 100,000 words, it can be pretty daunting. You know, like standing at the base of Everest looking up. But staring at that same sheet of paper knowing that you only have to get to 400 words... well, suddenly that becomes so much more achievable.

I never had a problem hitting that 400 word mark. Generally speaking, I was able to do something in the 1000-1200 words a day range. Occasionally, I'd have a "bad" day and only get 800 words or, even, 600 words, and I'd start to feel bad. Like I wasn't accomplishing anything. It can be like that when you've gone two hours struggling with the same paragraph. But, at the end of the day, I could always look back and say, "Did you get that 400 words?" and the answer was always "yes."

Now, I'm  not saying that this is going to work for you. I'm not making a list of the 10 things you need to do. I'll just stick to the two things that everyone can agree on: read and write. However, I am saying that you need to find the thing that works for you. Find that thing, grab it, and do it. Manageable goals is something I think is important. I'm sure there are other people out there that it's important to, too, but it may not be what's important to you.

If you don't know what it is that works for you, I encourage you to do some experimenting. Like tasting food. Find the thing that you like and that works and do that thing. Don't get stuck on anyone else's list for success. Find your own! Just make sure you follow it once you've figured out what it is.


  1. You know, I might be a tad late to comment on this post, but I feel like I have to introduce myself... I'm the guy that didn't like Good Omens.

    Please, don't hate me. It was really tough for me to finish. I loved other Gaiman stories, but not so much with Pratchett.

    So... carry on.

  2. It's never too late to leave a comment. But I am curious as to why/how you ended up back here. I mean, this is one of my favoritist posts, and I wish I had written it later on when more people would see it, but it's surprising to get a comment on something this old.

    And you are the first person I've ever heard say didn't like Good Omens. I haven't read any Pratchett beyond Omens; I just haven't gotten to it.

  3. I'm even later to comment on the post, I saw something on facebook about Pratchett's 400 word goal and wanted to find it again. Couldn't find that, but found this even better blog entry about it. Since reading about the 400 word goal, like you, I've managed to use this unintimidating goal to trick me into writing much more than 400 words most days. :-)

    1. Christina:
      Yeah, it made a huge difference for me in my approach to things.
      Thanks for stopping by!