04 Apr 2016
Recently, Sarah Dimento lamented that she found herself stuck writing the first draft of her novel. Worse, she was stuck on the first chapter. For a month.
She’s stuck in a familiar trap. She feels stuck about what she’s writing. She wants to do a good job at it. She doesn’t want to write crap to get through it because she’s already written that in “draft zero” and because she’s having to force her way through the chapter, she’s beating herself up because she’s not writing.
I’m not going to diagnose her case here. She didn’t ask me so it’s presumptuous; it’s public so it’s rude; and I don’t know enough about her situation to make a good diagnoses and that would be arrogant to do.
I would wonder, based on my experience in the same situation, if there’s something more behind it, like if her writer-sense is trying to tell her something about the story that she hasn’t realized. Maybe it’s not the right story for her to tell, or maybe there’s another character who’s demanding to take the lead, or maybe even a big problem with the plot.
What can be even more galling about this is that there are indie writers out there right now publishing stories that would not get a hearing in New York, and yet they’re finding readers and making a living at it. People like Michael Anderle, who discussed his writing career in two Author Biz podcasts: “Zero to $10K Per Month in 90 Days” and the follow-up “Hacking the Editing Process”.
Dimento and Anderle represent the two extremes of the process that turns words into books. Most of us fall somewhere in between. As the sole employee, we are in the same position as Dr. Edward Hyde. You are boss and employee; you hold the whip hand and suffer the blows when it is applied. As forgiving as you are about your weaknesses as a worker (“I’ve got such a hangover. I’ll call in sick.”), you must be equally unsympathetic as the owner (“You’ve got a headache? I got the cure: Get in here or get fired!”)
There are writers such Stephen King, who tells interviewers that he writes every day but Christmas, his birthday, and Easter, but confessed in “On Writing” that it was a lie: He writes every day. Many of us are either not as motivated as King, or we spend our creative energies on many projects.
For the rest of us, it helps to have something to goad us on. To admit it seems to be shaming. It shouldn’t. Or, you can accept the shame but redeem yourself by finding a way around it. If admitting you have a problem results in producing a book or two a year, I’d say that’s a fair trade?
The question is what kind of goad do you need. One of the most effective methods is also the easiest: keeping track of your progress, in particular the number of words that you produced in a day.
There are a number of ways to do that:
* Keep track on a page in your notebook, or attached to your whiteboard or bulletin board in sight from your desk.
* There are pieces of code that you can put on your website that announces to the world your latest project, its word goal, and how far along you’re on toward meeting it. This is a variation on publicly stating your goal (either to yourself, your significant other, your cat, or the world at large), keeping you accountable to keep it.
* Some people have found success with the Pomodoro method, in which a 25-minute timer is set. This gives you a deadline that puts pressure on you to focus on your work.
* An Excel spreadsheet can be set up to track each day’s work. This method is useful if you want to set up columns for words created versus words edited, or for different projects. You can add a column to create a running total, so that you can enter the number of words created, and see how much that added to your month’s total. You can even add a second table recording each month’s total, encouraging you to beat your previous month’s work.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to record at the end of each day your total word count. Take a moment to look at how much you added each day. Feel satisfaction that you’re moving forward toward your goal. This form of positive feedback can help you when you begin work the next day.
As for myself, I’ve found the greatest success, in terms of completing projects on time, by using a combination of long-term and short-term goals.
As the head of Peschel Press, I’m juggling a number of items on my to-do list every week. On the whiteboard in front of my desk is no less than 15 items, ranging from working on the current book to tasks that could be accomplished in 15-minutes.
So to keep myself in line, I have the major writing project. This month, it’s beginning the rewrite of “Ride of My Life,” my first novel for the Press. I’ve slotted two months for this rewrite. That is, by May 28, I intend to give the finished manuscript to my editor (e.g., Dear Wife) and to begin the production process.
With the deadline set, I need to set daily goals. This involves simple math: eight weeks, six days a week equals 48 days, divided by 75,000 equals The novel will be about 75,000 words, so this mean I need to finish about 1,500 words per day to stay on track. That’s 1,500 complete, finished, polished words per day, beginning today.
Feel the pressure? I can. So I guess I better get to work.