Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Tracking Your Work

I've written a few times that I work best under a deadline. Deadlines are awesome. They focus the creative mind wonderfully. An author without a deadline can pick at their work and keep polishing it until they're old and gray. An author with a deadline mailed their manuscript out at 11:59 p.m. last night, and got a receipt so they can prove it when rabid wolverines devour their work halfway to the publisher.

The only problem with deadlines is that they need to be... toothy. Bitey. A deadline set by an outside agency is a ravenous monster that will eat you for your failures. And they can smell failure. But a deadline you set yourself can be more of a tame pet. You can stroke it, give it a few treats, scratch its ears, and before you know it you're two months behind and your deadline is fat and sleeping on your sofa.

This is not helpful.

I've been trying to reckon a way around this problem for awhile now. My first instinct was to go the NaNoWriMo, Stephen King, every-damn-writer-who's-written-a-book-on-writing route: set a word count every day, meet it, repeat. And that worked. For a bit.

"Authors live or die by their word count." I'm certain somebody's said that at some point. And if you're a full time writer it's true. Every word you write is another nickel* in your pocket to, say, pay your rent, or buy that medicine for your sick kid, or, y'know, eat.

So I respect the word count. 1,000 words a day, 1,667 words a day, 2,000 words a day, whatever target you can reasonably shoot for, go for it! And when I'm writing a first draft I'll go for my own target (1,000 words per day). It's respectable. It's The Tradition.

But let me ask you something, if you happen to be a writer out there.

What about all the work that doesn't include a word count? What about sketching out a map of some Godforsaken island your story takes place on? What about figuring out the names and backgrounds of that pantheon your protagonist worships? What about the hour you spent in a library (oh let's be honest, on Wikipedia) digging up names from some obscure language so everything sounds like it fits? What about the photos you pulled off of TMZ so you know what your cast looks like?

What about the stuff that only gives you a piddling little word count? Outlining, jotting notes on index cards and pasting them to a wall? Hell, how about the time you spend staring at said wall and rearranging those fucking cards? (Bob gets to Chicago here, but he meets the Mayor here, and that can't happen under the laws of physics so he has to fall in love here, and that means his car breaks down just outside of Chicago and I have to introduce a rabid wolverine here...)

In short, a fair amount of the work in writing isn't measurable by word count. The majority is, absolutely, but not all of it. And if you try to measure your work solely by word count, you're going to write a first draft in a very respectable amount of time and then end up feeling at loose ends, feeling like you're not getting anything done, when you find yourself facing the editing process. I know, I've done it.

So I've refactored my goal setting. Rather than track my daily word count, I pick a goal every night before I go to bed. If I'm writing, it'll be a word count. If I'm editing, maybe it'll be a page count to review. If I'm outlining, I'll set a chapter count to summarize, or pick a chapter and break it down by scene. If I'm brainstorming, I'll pick something I want to flesh out and... well, flesh it out.

The point is to set a goal I can mark as Done or Not Done, every day, and then get it done. Then get it done the next day. And the next day. And the next day, too. Pretty soon you've got a Seinfeld calendar going and all you've got to do is avoid breaking the chain. I keep mine on my Google calendar.

I broke the chain a few times.
Am I overthinking this? Maybe. But I'm getting more writing done, too, so I'll live with it. Now excuse me, I need to get this rabid wolverine off my leg.

*I suspect I'm inflating the figure here.


Unknown said...

I followed a link from Google+, and am so glad I did! I really need to force myself to A)set definable goals and B)avoid being eaten alive. Thanks so much for this!

David said...

Much appreciated! Glad you enjoyed the post.