Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing by the Numbers

I've always been a writer that sets lots of goals (heck, I've always been a PERSON that sets a lot of goals), but those goals tended to be flexible and non-numeric: write a chapter a day, finish this draft by the end of the month, write three books this year (ok, that had numbers, but they're small).

Being an ex-engineer, you would think I would track everything with charts and graphs, like ninja writer Adam Heine. And I do that in many areas of my life, but not with the writing.

Hm.

Then I did NaNo this year, while simultaneously launching Open Minds, and discovered the power of numbers to keep me on track with my writing as well.

50k words and a WIN

Numbers Motivate
Our brains are naturally wired to like numbers. Before you erupt into protests about how much math perplexes and tortures you, ponder this: Do you track how many followers you have on your blog? Do you pay attention to how many friends you have on FB or followers on Twitter? If the answer is NO, good for you! (Truly, those things will make you crazy.) But you're fighting against the natural human impulse to track numbers and want them to change in a positive direction (usually up, but in the case of the scale in my bathroom, most definitely down). Every game known to man uses the principle of MORE POINTS = MORE BETTER. It's not quite Pavlovian, but the reward centers in our brains light up when we cause a number to positively change. My mom (the psychologist) would call it Behavior Modification or possibly a form of biofeedback, where the "bio" part is your brain going nuts over reaching 500 followers (or some other nicely round numerical milestone).

Numbers have the ability to "feed back" the results of your efforts in a clear, unambiguous way. Being able to measure the results increases the intensity of the reward. (These speakers go to eleven!)

Back to writing.

Chasing that wordcount line for NaNo was such a powerful motivator, I found myself needing to create an psuedo-NaNo environment in December to complete my first draft by Christmas (#MissionAccomplished).
Draft 1: Complete at 86k

Second Draft-itis
Now that I'm diving into the second draft, I'm facing another challenge. I would like to complete the draft in a (relatively) short period of time, but how can I use this numeric method to help keep me on track? Revisions are not like drafting. You don't have a relentless march of wordcount to keep you moving forward. I may spend an hour creating new slang or inventing a new technology or fleshing out a character arc that weaves through the story, with no noticeable change in wordcount or progress.

I decided all that doesn't matter.

In spite of the amorphous nature of revisions, in this second draft, I also need to march through the MS, line by line, making craft changes - and that's something I can track! So, I set up a new spreadsheet to track my progress. I had a revision checklist, revision notes, and a firm grasp on my expectations for the second draft (something presentable that I could give to my first round of crit partners): seemed like a great plan.

Road Bumps
The first road bump came in having to rewrite the first chapter. And rewrite and rewrite. I mean, I knew it was bad, but holy cats! Next road bump was in having to finish revisions on my short story for the upcoming Anthology with the Indelibles. Totally fun and good to do, but didn't count for any progress on my chart. Then the second chapter revisions required more rewrite of the first chapter and suddenly I was going BACKWARDS and ready to tear out my hair.

I wondered:
1) Were my goals completely unrealistic?
2) Was I losing my touch? No matter what I did to chapter one it was sucking socks.
3) Should I consider selling real estate instead??

Learning Hurts
Writing is a constant process of learning (one reason I love it). Not so much learning to moderate your use of adverbs, but learning about your process and yourself. One thing I've learned: whenever the writing process becomes painful for me, it's because I'm about to learn something important.

So I took some time to journal about my writing, and I quickly realized the lesson: the first chapter wouldn't be perfect in the second draft. Or even the third. That I had room in my schedule for at least four substantial drafts, because my Logic Brain already knew that was how long it took (maybe more). The problem was my Creative Brain wanted to reach the finish line too quickly, all in one draft. (Creative Brain is not patient or logical.) I could see the end goal: I could picture the final version of the story in my head. Creative Brain wanted to skip ahead to that awesomeness NOW, rather than waiting for the process of creating it to unfold. 

Patience, grasshopper.

A funny thing happens whenever I get through the painful part of a lesson and really absorb it. My productivity kicks into high gear, and I start to do what seemed impossible the day before.

The happy in my brain lights up as that green bar rises. By the time I'm done with Draft Two, it won't be perfect. It will be Draft Two, and hopefully good enough that my crit partners won't choke on it (too much), so they can help me find where the story might be going off the rails. This is an important step, one I can't skip over. 

Having to chase the line taught me a lesson in patience. #irony

Do you use numbers to motivate your writing?

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35 comments:

  1. As I continue to evolve as a writer I'm sure my methods will change. For now, though, I keep it fairly simple when I'm writing with regards to numbers. Mostly I'm talking about quotas. I will usually establish a minimum avg words / day and a goal #. For my last book it was simple. My goal was 2k words / day. However, my min was 1k. If I was having an off day, as long as I got that 1K done (which usually isn't too hard) then I didn't beat myself up over it.

    All bets are off when it comes to editing, however. :)

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    1. I think flexibility is key, and I'm glad you have a way to avoid beating yourself up about it! For me, negative motivation doesn't work very well, but positive motivation does. #KnowThyself

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  2. Funny enough, I've found that numbers absolutely help motivate me--a reason, I think, that I found I really enjoy using Write or Die. In the Write or Die app there's a constant little word count tracker at the bottom that tells you how many words you've written that session. Racing against the clock and the word count meter works really well with me.

    I have to know though...how did you track/measure edits?

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    1. I've heard about Write or Die, but never used it. I DID do Word Wars during NaNo and that was cool.

      For edits, basically I track how far I am through the MS. I may still go back (and often do), rewriting the sections before, but the line-by-line forward progress marches on (and provides how I track it).

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  3. As a writer, I often get caught up in the numbers game...but over the years I've learned how to filter the numbers so that only the positive and encouraging ones come through. As my husband (the scientist) says, 'When all else fails, manipulate the data.'

    This is a wonder post...thanks for sharing! I'll be sure to pass it along.

    Cheers, Ash

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    1. Ha! I love your husband's take! I mean, no! NO! I would never do that! :) Positive and encouraging is key - some people are motivated by negative goals, but for me, it's damaging to the creative process. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I'll be honest. I've never done this. But I really want to give it a try because it's always great to have a motivator! Clarissa's doing some 1K/day challenge for like 100 days or something. It sounds like a cool technique I might try. Just to get the wheels turning again. You're so funny, though, with the graphs. But you are the scientist, right? ;p

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  5. I am a hopeless quantifier. Numbers drive me, but they can also make me obsess. This post gives me a refreshing reset button.

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    1. I have those obsessive tendencies too, so I have to be careful!

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  6. I set up a goal to write at least 2,000 words a week. Now that I have a specific number, it motivates me to get my butt I gear and write.

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  7. Okay, that was awesome. But for some reason I want a pie chart. Mostly because I like pie.

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  8. I know my goals and keep them in mind. First chapters are tricky. I find that I write the final version of the first chapter - last! After I've polished, revised, sent it out for betas. Somewhere in there I figure out what to do!

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  9. Excellent post!! I am almost so comforted when I learn others in the world suffer as I do with all of these motivational and drafting challenges. Not to find joy in your woes... but you know. ;)

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    1. I know! That's why I post it. ;) (I love reading about the struggles of accomplished writers, ones who've been in the business for decades - not because I want them to struggle. Because I want to know that success comes because we struggle, not because it's easy.)

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  10. Interesting stuff, Susan. By the time I get around to editing, I just tell myself that I need to get through at least one chapter. On print outs, I track my progress by how many pages I cover in a day.

    I never say I have to write x number of words in a day. Again, I tell myself that I need to complete at least one chapter. To each his own, I guess.

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  11. I don't tend to write by numbers but I do set my own deadlines. My hefty goal is to write 3 novels this year and I'm already behind, lol! So my numbers are already underwater.

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    1. Ha! I know, I was underwater before I started too! Just means we have to swim harder, right?

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  12. My word count varies when I'm creating the first draft. Some chapters are easier than others, but I generally stick with J.S. Bell's guidelines - at least 350-500 words a day and more if possible.

    When editing, I try to work through a set number of pages, but I don't force it.

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    1. I'm a J.S. Bell fan - I just finished his Art of War for Writers! And I was afraid of that too - that tracking would force the edits. But I know better than to do that, and I'm flexible enough to take the hit on "progress" in order to do what the story requires. :)

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  13. This is wicked. I love tracking my writing with numbers but I've never thought of putting them in to graphs before. This ups the geekiness significantly!

    I did also find it really frustrating when redrafting that I couldn't set myself a certain amount of pages to edit within a certain time, because some chapters were pretty good as they were and some were a mess.

    My first chapter was also a massive problem, I ended up having to hack it to pieces and put back only the essentials, that real helped me. But it took me almost as long to perfect that first chapter as it did the rest of the book.

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    1. Is it wrong that I like to "up the geekiness"? :) #hopenot

      And I hear you about that first chapter!! I'm with Laura ... I think I tweak that first chapter right up until the day of publication. ;)

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  14. I used to be the poster boy for OCD and I lived for charts and graphs and projections. These days... not so much. I think I could go back to that if I could just tell the world to go away and leave me alone. But as soon as I map a course and print a graph of what needs to be done when, life steps in with a shotgun and blows a hole in it. Goals a wonderful. But for me at least, I have to build in enough flexibility that I don't drive myself bonkers trying to stay on track when the cars are detailing around me.

    Congratulations on your NaNo success!

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    1. Flexibility is so key. The only reason I can even attempt something like these goals now is because I give myself all kinds of permission to flex out and achieve on a different path. You have to do what works for you!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  15. man, i really need to figure out how to make me some charts, i think that would really help with the productivity! thanks for the breakin' it down, chicky!

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  16. MORE POINTS = MORE BETTER

    You made me laugh. I've learned I do better with goals too. I'm going to post about it tomorrow. While I don't want to write a novel in 30 days, I do want to make sure I write everyday. When I challenge myself, I have to step up to the plate.

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  17. Really interesting post! I'm in the middle of revising so I understand how it's hard to track progress. I've had to remind myself that my book won't be perfect after the second draft, but with the help of my critique group, it'll get closer with each draft. Good luck!

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  18. Hi Susan, I've been lurking for a bit, and I finally wanted to jump in and say how much I enjoy the voice in your posts; always very nurturing and supportive. I laughed out loud at "the happy in my brain lights up as the green bar rises." Great post!

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    1. I'm so glad you de-lurked (sounds almost as cool as de-cloaking)! I'm glad you found the post supportive! *makes my day*

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  19. De-cloaking is way cooler! I'm hoping my profile pic shows up in this reply by virtue of switching to my google account. I seem to have failed Gravatar in college...no matter what I do I can't seem to get it to show up, except on its native Wordpress.

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    1. I can see you now! You are officially de-cloaked. :)

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  20. I don't use numbers except to shoot for word counts--about 2000 to 2500 for a chapter draft. I like your charts, esp. the blip with the note "turkey coma"! I'm impressed that your charts all move upward.

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    1. The turkey coma is real! (Or perhaps I just didn't want to write over the holiday. :)) The beauty of cumulative graphs is that they always move up ... unless they flat-line, then you know you're in trouble.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  21. I teaching or maybe it is training myself to be flexible this month.

    --I love the graph with the "turkey coma" pointed out.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers