600 words

The goal, every day, is 600 words.

On a good day it’s something constructive, cover letters, reworking my query, a scene or two in the book. On less good days it’s getting into arguments on football or TV message boards. At my very worst it’s a journal entry, unfairly bitching about my life or politics or snow or the lack of trees or the fact that the damn hot tub’s valve won’t fix the way the videos tell me it will be fixed.

But one way or the other, the goal is 600 words.

Not 600 combined words, but able least 600 words on a subject. A scene. A way-too-long poem. A rant about a neighbor or a long-winded question about snowplowing versus shoveling (and that’s not even considering attempts to battle the gelling of diesel fuel). 600 combined words, linked by a theme if not an idea.

But regardless, one way or the other, I put at least 600 words down on paper. Or on a screen, a text window. Letters leaving my hand and appearing in pixels.

When I’m trying to really write, I’ve found 600 a good benchmark. It’s not a number that you just slide into — 200 is like that, if you’re not a self editor, 300 or so isn’t much of a stress — 600 requires a degree of dedication to an idea. You can’t back away from the effort of 600 words.

My daughter is wiped out by the thought of 600 words, like it’s an almost impossible milestone even when given a subject as wide open as the first 75 pages of In Cold Blood. I can’t blame her. I remember when the prospect of two and a half typewritten pages seemed daunting, a weekend of avoiding football and beer in order to have enough time to finish.

Then I started reporting, and eight inches of copy on a basketball game seemed indomitable. A 15-inch profile seemed impossible. Until I’d written a few, and before long length became an issue rather than stretching.

So I told her the secret. The more you write the longer you write. Your fingers develop muscle memory, your brain learns to consider the next thought rather than searching for it. Words eventually flow, but they only flow once you’ve taught your fingers to move in the right way across the keyboard.

She does not believe me yet. She goes to college in 19 months, so I’ve got 19 months to convince her that the benefit of writing is writing. You learn to write by writing, just as she learned to pitch by pitching or learned to filter her Instagram photos by filtering her Instagram photos. Natural talent exists, but no one comes out of the womb typing.

The key for me is 600 words. It doesn’t even have to be 600 good words, but it needs to be 600. If I start with 600, I can turn it into 2000 or a whole day, whatever the job or the scene takes. Then the fun begins, because the next step is to learn to cut those 600 back to 400, then 3. To learn the ecstasy that comes with deleting a paragraph. But to cut them, you have to write them.

Everyone has their own. For me, it’s 600 words.

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