The Tortoise Manifesto

Recently I have been reading a lot of resolutions from other exuberant writers with amazingly optimistic daily word counts for 2012:  two thousand, five thousand, even ten thousand words a day.  Quantity is the only way to go, it would seem, and we “lesser achievers” are somewhere far down the totem pole from the blessed prolific.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not denigrating those who can make such radical word counts, that is, those with the free time to work long enough hours to make it happen.  If I could I would do the same.  As a matter of fact, on the first of January I decided on a daily word count resolution that was, though humble compared to most, a great challenge for me.

But I couldn’t do it.  Not even for one day.

The word count in question?  A mere five hundred words a day.  Why couldn’t I do it, at least on an ongoing basis?  Ah, therein lies the tale.

There are two main reasons for this seeming slowness, and neither has anything to do with literary pomposity, the feeling that to compose great works one must work slowly and meticulously.

First of all, usually I have little time to write, sometimes no time.  I must carve out time when I can, and even that carved out time is often snapped up by some emergency or other.  So if I manage fifteen or twenty minutes a day I am necessarily limited in how much I can compose.  That’s one thing.

The other has nothing to do with time but rather how I approach the material.  I love short stories.  I love stories of all lengths, but I am particularly enamored of short stories.  Each story is a new birth, a new entity that must be begun from scratch.  And I generally approach a new story slowly, feeling my way as I go, with many false starts along the way.  The first page and a half are the hardest.  I must choose tense, past or present.  I must choose person, first or second or third.  Or a combination of all these things.  Sometimes there is one viewpoint, sometimes two, sometimes more.  The story dictates these things, but if I proceed too quickly I do not hear it speak clearly and I have to erase it all and start again.  Sometimes I begin in the wrong place – for example, before the beginning, and it’s boring and unnecessary and irrelevant.  All this takes time to sort out.  Sometimes I just can’t do it and after a page or two I set the story aside in frustration; after several months I look at it with fresh eyes and can often continue.  Some of my best stories have happened this way.  Other times after wrestling with the first page or two the rest just flows out as fast as I can type.  Each story, each creation is different, and you never know what will happen until you tackle the matter at hand.  You might pin it in victory straightaway, or you might be in for a helluva fight.

That’s why I had to reduce my daily word count.  I love the creative process, and I don’t want to turn it into a drudgery.  I need to feel the luxury of going slow.  Most of the time it won’t be necessary and I’ll be able to hum happily along, but I need to grant myself the option.  On the other hand, I want some sort of quota, however small, to force me to the keyboard daily to let whatever will happen, happen.

Therefore I have reduced my quota by half, to 250 words a day.  Sometimes it will be a struggle to reach even that.  Other times the writing will go well and I will write five hundred or a thousand or two thousand words.  Having begun as a tortoise I will evolve over the course of the writing into a fleet-footed hare.

Every writer is different, thank God.  Every writer has to adapt to circumstance, environment, particular talents and proclivities.  If I am ever in a position to write full time you can bet that my goals will change.  But for now, here they are, and I expect to accomplish a lot this year.  Stay tuned.

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