In this, the first of a multi-part series, I’ll look back on how I wrote my first novel, describe how I tracked my productivity in doing so, and examine what the data I gathered tells me about myself as a writer.
In August of 2015 I did what many aspiring authors yearn to do: I left the reassuring cradle of gainful employment and embarked into the perilous realm of full-time writing. While that’s a story in itself, it’s not the subject of this post. This is instead a look at my actual writing process, the nuts and bolts of the things I did – or did not do – on the way to my novel’s completion, as seen through the lens of compulsively recorded data.
Before I begin, a brief word about the book itself. Not in regard to its substance (though if you’re interested it’s called Warden Of The Lost Way and you can read about it here), but what it actually is. This is By The Numbers, after all, so that means data.
When I closed my laptop on May 4th, 2017, my book weighed in at 520,525 words. (I know, I know – it’s too long, publishers won’t touch it, it’s an out-of-control, ravening beast, &c, &c, &c. I’ll blog about slashing it another time.) By that time I had been tracking my writing for over a year and seven months – 585 days to be precise. In that time I had logged 499,028 words. (The difference of 21,497 words had been written prior to my data logging project, either scribbled during my precious spare time while working, or more likely in that first heady month of panicked unemployment.) Some simple math tells us then that I had managed to write, on average, more than 850 words per day. How it happened in reality, though, was not nearly so tidy.
…I had been tracking my writing for over a year and seven months – 585 days to be precise. In that time I had logged 499,028 words.
As I said, I began without keeping track of anything. My only concept of progress was a document word count and bleary-eyed fatigue. But as that word count increased each day I became curious to know by how much, and how that number compared to the day before, and the day before that. So I began recording my daily word totals, and that was good. I could quantify my progress. But I soon realized word counts alone didn’t reflect my actual productivity. An inspired hour which yielded 1000 words was not the same as a day’s long toiling at the keyboard for the same output. For the data to be meaningful I needed to track time as well. I needed to know how long it took to get the words out.
Accordingly I began logging my start times, finish times, and any breaks I took. I further refined the data by separating my writing sessions into mornings and afternoons. I used Excel to log all the data, evolving and refining my spreadsheet over time. In this the skills I’d acquired back in my corporate days stood me in good stead. I used individual rows for each writing session, and thus often had more than one entry per day.
This may sound like a lot of extra work, but in fact recording the data took almost no time at all. A few formulae and keyboard shortcuts (thank you ctrl-shift-semicolon!) reduced the data entry process to just a few keystrokes at the beginning and end of each writing session, mere seconds out of the course of many hours. And knowing I was ‘on the clock’ lent me a certain focus. If I zoned out so far that my inner boss began scowling and tapping his watch, I’d log out, make a cup of tea, and get myself back together.
The result was that before long I had data. Lots of data. And behold, when I looked at those data, trends and patterns began to emerge.
If such minutiae is of interest to you, read on.
Part I – Word Counts
Let me pause here to say a few words about my routine. I wrote almost exclusively on weekdays, keeping to a loose 9-to-5 schedule which worked well around my family and synced with my post-employment internal clock. My wife and kids were out of the house by 7:30, so I was usually at the keyboard between 8 and 9. Weekends and evenings always were, and will remain, family time. Still, that left ample solitude for writing. Quitting times of course varied for an array of reasons – more on that later.
…sometimes, even though you are living the writer’s dream, the words won’t come and the gears will seize up and the train will go off the rails and you’ll just have to say ‘fuck it’…
My daily goal was simple: write 2000 words. It’s a target I adopted from Stephen King after reading his outstanding book On Writing. The fact that you’re still here reading this means you are probably like me and are fascinated by other writers’ methods, so if you never have, I highly recommend you pick it up. If there is a role-model for writing productivity, I can’t think of a better one.
The title chart above, while an excellent representation of my cumulative writing process, is somewhat deceiving. Its relentless ascent gives the impression I was a chugging, word-spewing engine. I mean, it even looks like a cross-section of Mount Everest, base-camps and all. Well let me tell you, my view on any given day was more like peering out of the trenches than commanding a sweeping vista over the Himalaya.
The chart below gives a more realistic depiction of how my days went. It shows each day’s writing output as a vertical blue bar, and at a glance it corroborates much of what I said about my routine. Writing sessions are clustered together, typically with weekend breaks in between. (A notable exception was in November of 2016, when I participated in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. More analysis on that in a later blog.) That month I managed to write every day, and so we see a nice solid block of blue there. Conversely, there are a few periods of total inactivity, corresponding to two Christmas breaks and one summer vacation (the ‘base-camps’ from the title chart). While not ideal, I was at least conscious of these hiatuses as they happened, and in each case I had a schedule for getting back to work.
As for my own daily 2000 word goal, you can judge my successes (or failures) for yourself. You may notice there were many days I fell well short. Most days, in fact. Of the 585 calendar days in this period, I wrote on just over half of them (311) and achieved my 2000 word goal only 128 times.
The reasons for this varied, from appointments to interruptions to simple writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to go to the dentist, sometimes your kids will puke at school and need to come home, sometimes a construction crew on the street will back up all of your plumbing (yes, that did happen), and sometimes, even though you are living the writer’s dream, the words won’t come and the gears will seize up and the train will go off the rails and you’ll just have to say ‘fuck it’ and close the laptop and go sit in the dandelions.
There were also days when it just worked. My most productive day ever was October 20th, 2016. I hit the keyboard at 8:48 am and by 3:47 pm I’d pounded out 4011 words. They hadn’t come any easier than usual, I just kept my butt in the chair longer.
You might ask why I continued to write on that day (and many others), when I’d already achieved my daily goal. A fair question. I’m sure there are advocates among the writing-tips crowd who would say, ‘quit when you hit your goal’, ‘reward yourself’, or ‘don’t risk burning out.’ And while I don’t oppose such reasonable advice, it’s not a philosophy to which I subscribe. The reason? Because I know, I know (data, remember?), that I’m not the sort of writer who often hits his goal. I need all the output I can get. So if the words are coming, I say let them come.
To get a bigger-picture look on my word output (and to ease the eye-strain that was the previous chart) I have summarized my word count totals by weeks and months.
One benefit of looking at the data like this, for me especially, is that those unsightly blank spaces disappear. Suddenly the fact that I didn’t write every single day, (and sometimes missed whole weeks) doesn’t seem so disheartening. Yes, some of those columns are pitifully short, but at least there was never a whole month in which I didn’t manage to at least put down a few words. And more importantly, I was able to get back into my routine after those periods of inactivity.
My big takeaway from having done all this is to understand that writing a novel (and a big one, at that) is more about mindset and endurance than inspiration. I set a goal each day which was ambitious but not unrealistic, and worked towards it. There were days I limped my way across the finish line, and there were a few where I smashed it like Hulk playing Whack-A-Mole. But days like those were the exception to the rule. If anything the rule was that I would actually fail four days out of five. 2000 words a day? Are you kidding? Who do I look like, Stephen King? And yet it wasn’t making my word count goal every day which got me to the end of the book. It was the persistence. By striving for my goal each time I sat down to write, even though I knew I was likely to fail, I still achieved words. And that’s why I put the title chart, the Everest Chart, at the top of this post. Because it shows I got there. I stuck it out. All those words added up, all the way to a half million.
Success through failure. Sounds like a good motto to me.
In my next installment I’ll examine the Time Factor – how tracking my hours kept me motivated, how it helped me understand my productivity as a writer, and how it proved definitively whether or not I’m a morning person.