Guest contributor: Nina de Gramont

Bad Advice Wednesday: Be Your Own Willy! Give Yourself a Minimum Word Count

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


       The self-discipline required for writing has always been at odds with my nature, which is fundamentally lazy.  Right now, for example, I’m switching back and forth between this blank screen and Facebook Scrabble, and I’m also contemplating the guilty pleasure book that arrived from Amazon yesterday, A Year and Six Seconds by Isabel Gillies.  It’s just warm enough that with a sweater I could read in the hammock.

       But in addition to this Bad Advice Wednesday that David asked me to do, I’ve got a novel to write, and it’s not going to write itself.  Not unless I do some typing.  You might say that the novel won’t write itself no matter what.   But I’ve found that’s not entirely true.  When writing in the long form, it seems to me that my subconscious ends up doing most of the heavy lifting – as long as I give it a little kickstart, which I can manage no matter how unmotivated or uninspired I feel.

       In one of my favorite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, two daughters lock their father – a dissipated writer – in a tower.  The character, James Mortmain, a formerly successful author, has not written a word in years, and the family is in financial ruins.  His daughters tell him they don’t care if he writes “The cat sat on a mat” over and over again: just so long as he puts pen to paper.  And that’s exactly what Mortmain does.  First in anger, he writes that sentence – the cat sat on a mat – over and over.  Then, after a while, ideas start forming, and instead of anger he feels excited, until he finally emerges from the tower with a manuscript.

      In concocting this scenario, Dodie Smith may have been inspired by the writer Collette, who wrote her first books – the Claudine novels – in a locked room.  Her first husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars, would shut her in every day and not let her out until she’d produced an acceptable number of pages.  The marriage didn’t survive, but the novels (incidentally published under her husband’s pen name, Willy) were a scandalous success.

       My own husband has never locked me in a room, but he does something almost as effective.  He shuts himself in a room and starts typing.  The house where we live now is better insulated than some of the homes from our early days; I can no longer hear him clickclacking away on the keyboard while I’m lingering over my morning coffee.  But I do know he’s in his study, writing, and there’s nothing like somebody else’s industry – at the exact task you ought to be undertaking – to shame you into working.

       Obviously shame is not the ideal motivator, especially when the ideas aren’t crackling.  But a less-than-ideal motivator is better than none at all, so here’s what I do:  I force myself to write a thousand words a day.  If it takes me an hour, then I can stop.  But if it takes me three hours, or five, or six (not counting occasional Scrabble moves), I still can’t call it quits until those thousand words have been pounded out onto the page.

       And it goes without saying that sometimes I end up with one thousand truly crappy, unusable words.  Paragraphs that don’t connect, threads that can never be sewn into the finished quilt.  But without fail, once I’ve written those thousand words, something happens when I walk away from the computer.  Ideas start to form.  Sometimes these ideas will be about how to fix the mess I just made.  More often they’ll be about what’s going to happen next – or what should have happened before.  The act of forcing one thousand words brings my characters to life in my head, and once alive they start talking to me.  Better than that, the story talks to me.  It’s as if I started a conversation, and my novel answers – often providing me with the catalyst for my next thousand words or more.

        Sometimes, thankfully, there’s no need to force it.  Sometimes a novel has such a full grip on my imagination that any time away from working is almost physically painful.  This past summer, writing a first draft, I hit one of those magical stretches of bona fide inspiration.  I sat down and the words just flowed from my brain to my fingertips.  I wrote fifty pages in four days, pages that I felt great about, and then, suddenly, I hit a wall.  The story needed more time to germinate, and I thought about taking a break, just to think about where I’d go next.

         But I didn’t take a break.  I sat down, and I pounded out a thousand words.  It was a far cry from the previous days’ work, but it gave me a jumping off point to sit down again the following day.  And after a few painful days, the joyful and productive days returned.

         So be your own Willy.  Lock yourself in a room.  Don’t let yourself come out until you’ve produced something, anything.  There’s no need to think of it as forcing inspiration; it’s more like inviting inspiration.  You don’t even have to ask nicely – just consistently.  And sooner or later, inspiration will come.

  1. Heidi Gessner writes:


    I love this advice! I need concrete help–and this speaks to me. Thanks…

    I love you,

  2. Carol de Gramont writes:

    Nina, this is such wise advice and so beautifully written. I love the phrase,
    “Be your own Willy.” Should be the rallying cry of many a young writer.
    Some old ones, too. Brava and thanks. CC

  3. TSAndros writes:

    Thanks Nina. Since returning to writing after a long absence, I have been looking for a way to get myself writing daily. And since I am raising a toddler, working full-time as a research grant administrator, struggling to put together a MS thesis…locking myself in a room to churn out a thousand words a day doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Thanks George for your note too!

  4. Rebecca writes:

    I love this, Nina. I’m going to try it.

  5. Bill writes:

    Nina, this is great. I have days when I write absolute gallons of the stuff, and days when i can’t spit. This will help. And what with a picture being worth a thousand words, a quick trip out with my camera will put me ahead months, and I can use that time to WRITE. Great having you here. Okay, good, that’s sixty words or so. Only 940 to go.

  6. George de Gramont writes:

    Great surprise! Anthony Trollope used a method like this . His MO was to write at least a page every day. And he was probably the most successful writer of the Victorian Age.Plus, he had a full time job at the Post Office which He actually enjoyed.Enjoyed your blog and hope we”ll see more! G de G.