Pinning the Wings of the Muse

I had so hoped that my next writing-related post would have been an awesome, jumping-up-and-down, post about a shorty story acceptance to an anthology I was dying to get into, but I narrowly missed the cut on the second round. Il est l’auteur de la vie. Oui? Story is back out to the next market.

In the meantime, I have been trying to get scientific about my process, as much as I can be when it comes to something as nebulous and squishy as writing.

This yen to put things on graph paper has been brewing for a while, prompted by this post. I kept coming back to it, imagining what-if, could that sort of boost in output be possible for me? I don’t want to be a meat-grinder, but I know that there are days where I hit my words no problem, and I’m trying to tease out the conditions under which these days occur. I doubt I’ll ever be able to hit 10K a day, as days where I hit 5,000 or more words leave me feeling weak and hung-over the days following, but I would like to be able to reliably hit 2,000-3,000 words during a regular session. Partly it’s a matter of focus, partly a matter of flailing self-confidence. I want to improve the former and viscously stamp out the latter.

So I’ve been getting rather intimate with a large sheet of engineering graph paper over the last couple of days. I’ve been tracking my word counts, more or less, for the last couple of years. Originally it was done for the RA-RA-RA-WRITE! encouragement reasons. And it worked. Seeing that momentum in tiny black numbers, day after day, did bolster my confidence. However, the spreadsheet become a bit of a chore to maintain, so I switched to a little graph paper notebook where I crossed off blocks of words. (Mmm, graph paper.)

Problem was, I wasn’t writing down enough data. Word count is great, but without context, what can you hope to get out of it? Not much. I could see the numbers go up and down, but I couldn’t tell you why for the most part. Big life-events were immediately obvious, but why did I dip down consistently for that week, spike over there, go bananas for the first two weeks here, and then dropped down to dribbles for the rest of that month? No answer.

Let’s go sideways for a minute. This will come as no shock to anyone who knows me IRL, but I’m a bit of a notebook fiend. I journal constantly (obsessively?) and each major project gets its own notebook, too. Back in the days before decent novel-writing software, all the specifics of the novel went into those books and nothing else. (And they became cumbersome, too, for a variety of reasons.) As time went on and more of the world-building ended up in the computer, these notebooks morphed into focused diaries tied to those projects, where I would talk about when I was writing, how much, what I had written to date, what I needed to write next, what might happen down the line. I also noted my mood (as the mood struck me). I’d laugh at myself, needle myself too when I was being obtuse or flailing about. I would cheer myself on when I made and beat a short term goal. These books aren’t just writing notebooks, they are a dialogue between me and the novel … and me.

Which, weird, I get that. Weird, but helpful. This trend started on small, throw-away projects. I was working in a job I hated but that afforded me free reign with a pen. These small moleskines were the perfect cover — lightweight and small, reasonably disposable so I couldn’t get precious about them, and practically invisible to my co-workers. They were paired with throw-away ‘fun’ projects that didn’t freak me about about being important or meaningful. I could write and noodle with impunity. And I did.

And when I did, boy howdy, productivity went through the roof.

In looking for more data, I turned to these diaries for context for the raw word counts. Gold mine! And I could instantly see the difference between my “serious” projects, where I kept the notebook free from such trivial blatherings, and the fun ones, the ones I became accidentally passionate for, like the werewolf horror movie novel where I unwittingly beta-tested this process all the way up to the fan fiction experiment that refined the process.

Back to the main topic. Armed with new information, I charted out the months of this year so far. Instead of just day-of-the-month and word count, I compared them to days I worked the day job verses weekends off, as well charting the number of pages of long-hand prep-work. This created a very illuminating chart, one that clearly showed lulls in raw word count consistently occurred after days passing without planning. But when I had a good rhythm going, you can see the inverse relationship between pre-work and writing output — writing until I had exhausted the number of scenes mapped out ahead, followed by intense brainstorming, followed by more writing.

There’s more to do, of course, and I have set up a system to track my writing on a more granular level to track things like time of day, location, mood. (More graph paper. Mua-ha-ha! Though Numbers for Mac has been surprisingly useful.) Not to the point of utter cat-waxing, mind you, but having a system that will help me catalogue the conditions that I write under will help me make better choices.

Is it just about productivity? Yes and no. More than anything else, this whole thing has taught me that when I think mindfully yet playfully about something, it has a better chance of happening.

And that the reverse is true: that the I IZ SERIOUS WRITER attitude is not a helpful one for me to have. It’s overly harsh, and it gets in the way. Off it goes.

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