How to Write More by Starting Small

There’s a meme on that social media platform old people use (Facebook), which goes like this:

  • Start by doing 1 push up.
  • Start by drinking 1 cup of water.
  • Start by paying toward 1 debt.
  • Start by reading 1 page.
  • Start by making 1 sale.
  • Start by deleting 1 old contact.
  • Start by walking 1 lap.
  • Start by attending 1 event.
  • Start by writing 1 paragraph.
  • Start today.
  • Repeat tomorrow.

You might be a binge-writer, or you might be more of a steady plodder. As someone who writes both ways, I have discovered that each approach involves starting small.

Q: What’s wrong with starting big?

A: It makes things harder than they need to be.

Slamming full bore into a project is like trying to go from zero to seventy MPH in three seconds–it’s great if you’re on the Aerosmith Rockin’ RollerCoaster at Disney World, but if your life is even a little bit complex, it’s unsustainable.

Personally, when I make things harder than they need to be (which I do a fair amount) there is some part of myself that calls bullshit, and that knows it’s fake. I don’t need to exercise for two hours a day seven days a week to see results; in fact, jumping into two hours of exercise a day without starting smaller is counterproductive because I’m going to get sore or hurt myself, and I’m not going to be able to keep it up.

Starting small works because you won’t disappoint yourself early on.

Q: Why do writers start big?

A1: Impatience, sometimes.

If you haven’t been working on a novel you had the idea for five years ago, when you finally do start working on it you want to get it done in the same timeframe as if you hadn’t dicked around for five years. That means getting it done fast, and that means taking on a punishing schedule to make up for all the time you lost.

A2: Or comparison.

Binge writer Georges Simenon

We can compare ourselves to others or to our former selves. What about the time we binge-wrote a novella in a long weekend? What about Georges Simenon, who wrote each of his Maigret novels in a couple of weeks (and a grueling, punishing schedule it was for those two weeks–he basically locked himself in a room and pulled them out through his nose).

What we’re not doing is comparing ourselves to ourselves the last time we did a difficult project. I always think I’m going to write a novel’s first draft in a year. And I always spend at least six months avoiding it and working on other stuff, then a month or so on figuring out the story to a certain degree, then I write the first fifty pages and realize I don’t know enough (especially when it’s a historical novel), so I stop for another six to twelve months to do research (sometimes this includes traveling to another country). Then back to the writing and the plotting. Anywhere from one to three years after I tell myself I’ve started, I actually start. It’s terrible. I’m trying to change. But if you won’t admit where you’re at, change is difficult.

A3: Or ambition.

We want to write a novel a year, or one every two years. Maybe we just finished one and it took us three years. To stay on track we need to start the next one immediately and work faster, so we give ourselves a more ambitious schedule in hopes that it will help us measure up to the pace we just know we’re capable of.

I was doing research in Chicago when I realized this was happening, and so I decided to make one change. Focus on one change at a time. The change I focused on was time. For fifteen minutes a day I would work on this project–whether it’s writing, planning, or researching.

Did that work for me? I’ll tell you later.

How to Start Small

First, look at your track record for finishing projects and accept reality. So you didn’t write that novel five years ago. You’re not finished now. You haven’t just emailed it to your agent and gotten back a “WOW. AUCTION!” (Not that agents would email that.)

The present situation is that you are starting now. You need a bulletproof “why” (why you, why this novel, why now). If you’re a plodder, you need some systems, and then you need some persistence and consistency day after day after day. If you’re a binge-writer, you need to know that you can binge-write your way to completion, which takes a different kind of persistence and a Teflon attitude toward self-doubt and despair.

You don’t need an ill-conceived superhuman push that can’t be sustained. That will leave you even more demoralized and disappointed in yourself than you were before.

Take for example the inimitable PD James, who worked full time in demanding jobs, first in hospital administration and then in the Department of Home Affairs, while she raised a family and looked after her ailing husband while writing numerous complex and interesting novels.

How to start small if you’re a binge writer:

In binge writing, the small steps are part of the preparation.

For example: writing a 25,000-word novella in three days starts several months out, with making sure the calendar is clear over the Labour Day weekend.

Then because I respond well to external pressure, I register for the International 3-Day Novel Contest and pay my hard-earned fifty bucks to participate.

So far, each act has taken maybe five minutes.

A couple of months out I check in with an online forum of contest regulars and say hi, talk about snacks, setup, privacy, and all the stuff that needs to be arranged for the long weekend of writing. We schmooze, we shoot the breeze, in small time investments of brief bursts a couple of times a week. This increases my motivation.

About three weeks out I remember to tell my kids that I will be shut up in my bedroom all weekend and they can set themselves up for a 3-day session of binge-watching movies and ordering takeout. This brings in witnesses I can’t then disappoint.

A couple of weeks before Labour Day I post on social media that I’m doing it. This also creates the face-saving need to actually write the novella.

The Thursday night before the contest starts, I bring home a fresh pack of dollar-store index cards for desperate plotting when I get stuck, which I know I will, and I go shopping for snacks and beverages. I put batteries in my voice memo recorder, set up my laptop, clean up my room, and sometimes make a sign for the door to remind my loved ones that their random meaningless problems are not welcome because I have actual REAL problems I’m dealing with (admittedly, involving people who don’t exist doing something that never happened).

Then at 06:00 Saturday morning, I open up the laptop and start binge-writing for 3 full days, finishing at 11:30 pm (or so) Monday. I excrete a complete novella in this time, taking breaks only to eat, exercise, go for a walk, or bathe.

The binge writing is possible only because of the lead-up system that gets me primed. And the lead-up system that gets me primed is made of small steps.

The same principles apply to plodders. You take small steps that will force you to perform the work, which leads to you actually performing the work.

How to start small if you’re a plodder:

Small steps for plodders require knowing yourself and removing obstacles to the work on a daily basis. These steps are quite individual, not as easily described as the binge-writing preparations. Personally, I know that I have to keep the project externalized physically (I’m talking about a folder or a binder with pages in it), and easily accessible. That helps me remember that I’m actually working on something. Then bit by bit I follow a particular system to get it done.

Remember my Chicago epiphany about spending 15 minutes a day on my project? As it happens, it didn’t work for me. What worked was going to bed earlier, getting up earlier, and getting to my office earlier five days a week so I could write for a couple of hours before work.

Once I got back to doing this I remembered having written four bad novels and my MFA thesis the exact same way. I find it relatively simple and sustainable. Nobody cares if I go to bed before my teenagers do on weeknights. Netflix REALLY doesn’t care if I doze my way through every second episode of Blacklist.

I know myself. I know what helps me write. But I also forget myself sometimes, for reasons I haven’t quite deciphered. That’s OK. I remember how to start small.

Half of the writing life is managing yourself, so make a commitment now to figure yourself out and give yourself what you need to do your work.

Start small and be consistent. The past is gone, the future’s just an idea. The present is all you have.