Quotas are everywhere. Sales quotas, hiring quotas, production quotas. It’s the last one that interests me most. Serious writers understand quotas well. We set them for ourselves. Most of us novelists have a daily wordcount quota; it’s what we use to keep ourselves productive, no matter what.
As a professional writer, my life revolves around wordcounts. My regular media clients set strict wordcount limits for my articles, which can make writing them a challenge. I always tell people it takes a lot more skill and craft to write an informative 500-word piece of journalism that packs in a ton of information into a small space than it does to write a long, rambling manifesto. One of my old writing teachers used to say that wordcount limits separated the men from the boys, figuratively speaking. Brevity may be your friend, but it sure as hell isn’t easy.
Something else that isn’t easy is completing a novel. Even just one, let alone several. (And selling a novel is a whole ‘nother animal). It takes discipline and focus. I frequently run into people who say, “Oh, I always wanted to write a novel, but I don’t have time,” or “I tried to write a novel once, but I got stuck. Maybe someday I’ll finish it.” These people are lazy and delusional. That may sound cruel, but it’s the truth. The thing they haven’t yet figured out is, the way to write a novel is to write.
Whenever I’m writing a novel, I set a daily wordcount quota for myself. It can vary depending on what I’m working on and how many other deadlines I’m juggling at the time, but it’s usually at least 500 words, bare minimum. Often it’s double that or above. But I stick to it. Sometimes you have to force yourself to keep writing until you hit it. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it makes me mad. But hell, writing is my job, and everybody’s job makes them mad sometimes. That’s life.
Some people complain that this sets them up to write badly, and sometimes yes, it does. But at least you’ve written something. And you can always go back and revise. You can’t fix something you haven’t written in the first place.
The discipline I have about meeting writing quotas has helped me be more disciplined in other areas of my life, too. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s really a philosophical question. I also get frustrated with people who lack discipline in their lives in the same way I get frustrated with wannabe writers who talk a big talk but do nothing to back it up. My first Zen teacher would tell me I need to meditate on that a bit. So I will. And now, I have.