Category Archives: Writing Stuff
This is probably more appropriate for a simple “Ask the Twitterverse”, but this way I can make it more than 140 characters since there’s some follow-up…
Writers: What numbers do you track with regard to your writing?
I listen to podcasts where they interview writers and a lot of them mention at least something related to word count goals. I also read 2k to 10k: Writing Better, Writing Faster, and Writing More of What You Love, and Rachel Aaron talks about how she tracked her time and writing output fairly meticulously (at least for a period of several months).
I also get more obsessed with numbers during NaNoWriMo and also when it gets toward the end of the year and I have a lot of numbers to work with.
Anyway… Here are the raw and/or calculated numbers that I try to track on a year-to-year basis:
- Total words for the year
- Average words per day
- Average words per week
- Highest word count day (and date) during the year
- Highest word count week (and date) during the year (as kind of a back-of-the-napkin analysis of productive times)
- Words per individual project (since I’m usually working on 2-3 things during the year)
- Total words in November (for NaNoWriMo, obviously – to compare to previous years)
- Word count by week (I forgot to do this for 2013, but it seems like a good way to identify productivity patterns and use that to enhance my scheduling)
Besides tracking numbers to be able to do retrospective analysis, I also use them during the year (along with some basic spreadsheet functions) to calculate things like:
- Words needed per day to hit goals (~111,000 words this year)
- Words needed per day to match last year’s total
- Words remaining until 1,000,000 written total (since March 2011)
- Current average per day and current average per week
It’s always fun at the beginning of the year when a big day of writing pushes my average to numbers that are totally unattainable on a year-long basis… or at the end of the year when a similar day cuts down the number of words needed to hit my goals like a Hammer of Dawn tearing through a Berserker. (Can you tell I haven’t played video games recently? I should have a GTA or Destiny related metaphor here…)
Is there anything else I’m missing that other people keep track of?
tl;dr Applying the principle of interval training to my writing will allow for a nearly 50% increase in output while still giving me time to keep current on technology relevant to my daily (non-writing) work.
I’m doing a little (or large, I guess) experiment this year. Initially it started as a way to balance my writing output with what I repeatedly hear is an important part of a mid-list writer’s life: The Day Job.
So in order to allow myself periods where I focus intensely on writing, editing, learning about writing, reading fiction for inspiration, and not feeling guilty about dedicating more time to writing than to professional development, I adapted a technique I learned in high school cross country training.
Fartlek, which means “speed play” in Swedish, is a training method that blends continuous training with interval training.
The idea of interval training is probably more familiar than that of continuous training since it’s used in a lot of popular workout programs. It involves doing periods of high-intensity reps with a short rest in between. Fartleking (sp?) is like interval training but instead of resting, you just don’t run as hard you had been. That’s an important analog for my plan because I don’t want to try to write a whole bunch over a short period and then not write for a while. I think just about any writer will tell you that’s basically asking for failure.
For the last 6 months of 2013, I worked on a schedule that I broke down by days and then morphed to a weekly set of goals that allowed a little more freedom in terms of what I did on a given day.
But then in November, I did NaNoWriMo. (And even though I didn’t win, aren’t we all winners?) I realized that I could definitely push myself to write more than I had been in the months leading up to November. But instead of trying for 50,000 words per month (or even 27,000 like I did in November), I compromised on a schedule that would allow me to balance professional development in the workplace with development of my writing skills. By fartlekking my writing, I get to push my writing muscles past where they would normally go, but then I pull back give myself some time to recover from the exertion and mental fatigue that comes with the focus it takes to push those muscles. During that recovery, I continue to “run” but I also engage a different set of muscles (though muscle confusion is a whole different training philosophy).
Starting with a slow warm-up in December, I had my first push in January and am now backing off again for February. January yielded just over 18,000 words, which is double what I averaged per month in 2013. So, if I can do that much in my sprint months and then fall back to my average of 9,000 in off months, I’ll have about a 47% increase over last year. And assuming all goes to plan, I’ll still have a day job (with the all-important health insurance).
The only writing instruction you’ll ever really need from Hugh Howey. This blockquote probably violates fair use or something… but this is the core of the post with the preface stripped away.
No excuse is good enough to NOT WRITE. Being on book tour? Not a good enough excuse. Having a day job, a family and house to take care of, meals to cook, a dog to walk and exercise? Not good enough excuses. The people who make this work find the time. I told myself, even knowing that my days were blocked up with interviews and bookstore events, that I would find the time.
SAND was written on trains and in airports. It was written in Finland at five in the morning before I went to the Helsinki Book Fair. It was written on the stoop of my hotel while I waited in the freezing cold for my publicist to pick me up. It was written in the back of the cab on the way to the fair. It was written at the fair while I waited on interviewers and while between interviews. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the plot, my characters, having conversations, making notes in my cell phone.
I flew to Amsterdam where I wrote more. Every day, I wrote at least 2,000 words. I had a few 3,000 and even 5,000 word days. These were crucial, because my mother was meeting me in Italy to spend 10 days of my book tour on vacation with me. When she arrived, it meant getting up a little earlier every day and writing before we set out to see the sights. It meant writing at night before I went to bed. I wrote in a laundromat in Venice while I refreshed my single carry-on of clothes. When I got to 50,000, my mom and I toasted with glasses of wine and had a nice meal. And then I powered on, knowing this wasn’t enough.
I’m very tempted to take this as a soul-crushing defeat because I’ve struggled just to get to an average of 755 so far in 2014 (and yet am proud of that average). But, I am not a full-time writer like Hugh, so instead, I should probably take it as inspiration. Or maybe a challenge. A New Year’s Resolution, perhaps?
I do: Write on trains, think about the plot, characters, conversations, and make notes in my cell phone. I do: Get up a little early to write. I do: Write in airports and on airplanes the one or two times a year when I’m in an airport or on an airplane.
I don’t: Go to the Helsinki Book Fair, or wait on the stoop of my hotel for my publicist. I don’t: Get interviewed. Though I do interview someone else about once a month, but when I’m waiting for those interviews, I’m usually doing work for my day job. I don’t: Fly to Amsterdam. I don’t: Ever write 3,000 or even 5, 000 words in a single day. I don’t: Write in a laundromat in Venice, or any other laundromat. I think the last time I was even at a laundromat was nine and a half years ago. I don’t: Write at night before I go to bed. I usually follow Tim Ferriss’s advice to have Fat and Fiction before bed. A bit of fat to keep the blood sugar up and the fiction to disconnect the thinking part of the brain. (It’ll be even better when I get my Kindle Paperwhite)
If I can somehow manage to maintain that average of 755, I’ll be at 275,000+ words for the year. That would be almost 100,000 more than what I tallied in 2012 (my previous best year*). My actual goal is 210,000 which is only 575 per day, so I’ve got a something of a buffer right now (yes, that’s a bit sarcastic; we’re barely 2 weeks in to the year!).
But whether you take it as an admonition, a guilt shaming, or a guantlet in the dirt, Hugh provides one last piece of advice to go with his tale of extraordinary, overwhelming production:
The only wrong system of writing is to not write.
* Since I started keeping track
Some of these will certainly be a bit glib, but beneath that veneer of humor slash sarcasm lies nuggets of truth that helped me to get to 27,113 words this year during November’s NaNoWriMo. It’s not 50,000 I know. Not even really that close (not even a passing grade unless there’s a curve). But it is the highest total for any given 30 day period for me this year. So, there you go.
- Use “///” instead of “###” for “Do or change this later”. One of the keys to NaNoWriMo is to just keep putting words down. That was one of the reasons I wanted to actually try to Win this year instead of just saying “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a try.” One of the things that allows me to keep putting words down is to be able to stop my Inner Editor* by simply telling him: “We’ll come back to this, okay? I know it sucks, but right now, we’re just trying to get the words down and then we can revise and make the prose sing like Tom Bombadil.” I used to use “###” because once upon a time I saw somewhere that some other writer used that. In doing NaNoWriMo, though, I realized that “///” only requires one finger to type (as opposed to Shift + 3 for a #) and is just as recognizable as something that would never actually appear in a manuscript. Jason Hough uses Scrivener’s Comments to achieve a To Do List like functionality, which is a great idea, but takes even more time than “###”. I will be using that in the future for larger actual To Do-like items, but for quick notes while you’re trying to stay in the flow, I think some key sequence that can be easily seen when looking at a paragraph or easily found using Ctrl + F is the best way to go. The final nail in the coffin for “###” is that when writing on an iPad virtual keyboard (which was a key component of my NaNoWriMo strategy), the “#” takes three taps (switch to non-letters, then switch to alternate non-letters) while “/” takes only two. I was writing 200-800 words per weekday on my iPad, and using probably 10-20 “///”s per 200-800 words, so that half second saved me 5-10 seconds per writing session. Now that I actually calculate the time saved, it doesn’t sound like much, but over 20 or so writing sessions, that’s close to three minutes (hmmmmm… still not impressive). I will also argue that since it takes less thinking to only make one keyboard switch, my brain was able to continue writing faster on the iPad after a “///” than with a “###”. And since now I’m feeling the need to justify it, I think that re-reading something with a “///” is much less jarring to the eye than the “###” so it makes it faster when I look over what I just wrote to see if I need to add anything more to clarify or expand.
- When you’re at 1,400 words for the day and each word feels like tearing out a fingernail, start a new scene. Yeah, it’s kind of cheating, but NaNoWriMo is about getting words down. It doesn’t matter if they all come in order. You could write sixteen chapters 100 words at a time for 30 days…
Anyway: I found that getting 267 words when starting a new scene was easy compared to trying to fight through a scene that started with 0 words at the beginning of the day. I then found myself coming back to the existing scene the next day (or a few days later) and having new, fresh ideas to put into it to throw additional words in there. I realize this shows some lack of “writing endurance” on my part, which I will wholeheartedly cop to. I think it also leads into my next point, though…
- Outline. I thought I’d be cute and just dive into an idea I’ve had for a while and see where it led. I’ll tell you where it led: to a lot of unanswered questions that I had to spend time thinking about. It led to a lot of “where is this scene going?” questions.
I was about a week in when I decided to entirely shift the focus of the story from “kicking off at one point in time, slamming through to set up something bigger, and then continuing that storyline” to “the slam is now the late-middle part of the store with different plot lines at the beginning to wrap up at the end after that middle section.” It actually allowed me to write a lot more since I was fairly stuck at where to go when using that middle part as the beginning, but it would have been nice to have a better idea of where I was going.
The more I listen to author interviews, the more I realize that there is less of a difference between the so-called Outlines and Pantsers than the number of queries about it out there would lead you to believe. I’m perfectly happy with the “bit of an outline and fill in the rest” middle ground. The fact that this styled is used/approved by authors like Brandon Sanderson, Chuck Wendig, and Jason Hough doesn’t mean it’s the one true way, but it does make me feel good about myself since I’m comfortable using this approach.
- Get a good playlist before November 1st. I create (and then morph) a playlist as I go through the process of writing a book. It doesn’t have to be a specific theme or anything, but just songs I like that go in a general vibe with what I feel like I want to write. I don’t spend too long on the initial creation… but a half hour here and there starts to add up when you’re trying to get 1,667 words per day. Since I was just trying to power through words, I generally just put on a “radio” station either in Spotify, Pandora, or iTunes with a seed that fit what was I going for. The next time I do NaNoWriMo, I’m going to work on my playlist while I’m working on my outline in October.
* Note: Not the Inner Critic. That guy has to be completely absent for NaNoWriMo if you hope to even come close to getting 50,000 words.