Saturday, January 8, 2011

Volume vs. Quality - A False Dichotomy

Look, folks....

Fred Astaire did not become Fred Astaire by sitting on the couch and thinking about dancing. Magic Johnson didn't get his magic by standing around a basketball court just thinking about which move would be perfect. My great grandmother did not become a brilliant pie maker by fussing endlessly over her first crust.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? (All together now) "Practice, man. Practice!"

I point out these obvious facts because I'm getting sick and tired of hearing the same old nonsense all over the internet these days. "I prefer quality over quantity."

Folks, you cannot get to quality without quantity.

These are not opposite and mutually exclusive terms - one is actually dependent on the other. If you don't actually get out there and do your words every day, if you don't practice, if you don't exercise and experiment and, yes, fall flat on your face a bunch of times, the very best you can get is polished mediocrity.

Everybody has different limits, but the biggest and nastiest limit is the one you choose for yourself when you say "well, quality is better than quantity, so I shouldn't even try." Don't sniff at people who push the envelope (like for instance when Joe Konrath says he plans to publish seven novels this year). People who push the envelope get somewhere. People who don't... stay safe and cozy locked up in the envelope.

We all have different limitations, and different circumstances. But most people never find out what those limits are, because the instant something gets hard, they pull back and say "Well, I prefer quality over quantity."


But I think sometimes people do that for a good reason. Writing isn't a competition, but events like NaNoWriMo, and the general bravado among writers can make it feel like it is. It isn't. We compete against ourselves, not each other. We have different circumstances, abilities, limitations. We are all at different places in our development. We have different goals.

And, frankly, I think NaNoWriMo does more harm than good -- not because they set an ambitious goal, but because they only do it for a month. People push unbelievably hard... and then stop. And they stop before they get anywhere, and way before they actually establish any good habits or get themselves in shape to keep the effort up. And most people actually have to quit before the month is up. That doesn't help anybody.

A little sprint for a writer with established habits is nice now and then, but what most people need is something they can keep up day-in day-out. The old tortoise and the hare thing. Slow and steady wins the race.

So how do you set a good quota for you?

First, you have to look at your schedule and figure out what you can do as a daily habit. If you have an odd schedule, you may have to skip some days, but it's best to try to make it daily. Even if it's only a half hour a day. Then it's a good idea to experiment a little -- find a daily word count that you can keep up for the long term, but that also challenges you a little. If you don't have to struggle a couple times a week at least, you need to raise that goal.

Don't worry about quality. Quality comes with practice and pushing the envelope. You can't get there if you give up. (We'll talk more about that, though, in future posts.)

I find that the ideal goal for me is 1000 words a day when I'm working half-time at the day job. I can maintain it if I must when the day job gets more challenging. But I've never gotten to the point where doing 1000 words a day is always easy. Some days it is. Some days it's a bear. Some days I fail to do it at all.

The next post will be a short flash fiction crime story for Sample Sunday. But then starting Monday, I'm going to write a series of posts on setting goals, finding your writing limits, and beefing yourself up to do better both in quality and quantity.


David John Griffin said...

What an excellent post; thanks! :-)

Anonymous said...

At a bare minimum, your daily quota should be higher than the amount of writing it takes you to warm up.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, Mary, that's exactly it! (And sometimes I wonder if people give up before they've finished warming up....)