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Everybody say it: Whatever works! - The Motive Center
October 18th, 2005
09:44 pm


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Everybody say it: Whatever works!
At various points and in various places I have extolled the value of setting goals, and in fact consistent, measurable, reliable goals that allow you to know you are making progress. A few examples:

1. Word counts, x times per week
2. Scene counts
3. Chapters
4. Height of the stack of manuscript pages (make sure you get the same weight of paper every time!)

...and so forth. I've been accused of being too "mechanistic" with this, that somehow it sucks the art out of the process, like Michelangelo measuring his progress on the Sistine Chapel in terms of square footage covered. Au contraire! The point of this is not the number itself, but the feeling it evokes in you, so you can feel gratified with your progress. All I suggest is that it is a measure linked to writing progress, and that it is, in fact, measurable!

Evidence of my belief in this after the cut...
Case in point is in this current book (yeah, it's definitely a book at this point) I am writing. I set some rules for myself, including writing every day I'm in town, but I didn't set specific goals for wordlength. Instead, I am allowing myself to "feel" the goal, as long as I am making real progress--and I won't feel that if I don't. In practice, that works out to about 700 words a session on average--a bit less than three manuscript pages, or around two paperback pages.

Here's what I've really been doing:
1. On some nights, I shoot for at least 600, because I'm comfortable with it.
2. When I'm really tired, I have to write at least a few coherent sentences--no nonsense allowed--but I find myself restless if I don't do at least 150 words.
3. One night I knew I wasn't going to make it to 600, but somewhere around 350 I realized my total word count was approaching a thousand-mark. I think it was 40,000--a nice neat number. So I wrote to get to 40,000, even though my actual count for the night was sort of weird. ("Yay! I've reached 379!")
4. One night I was going to finish a fight scene.
5. Another night I carefully set up the fight scene and stopped, saving the whole scene for the next night, and letting my subconscious work on it. (It's an occult mystery--my hero's been shot at by two people so far, and he's a vampire!)
6. Another night I decided to go until I felt the chapter was finished.

There were (and are) really only two criteria:
1. I had to feel a sense of accomplishment (even if it was dragging out three sentences when exhausted)
2. I had to feel stretched to get there--not worn out, but that I had to work at least a bit to get there--producing a certain degree of useful tension.

Because as long as I was doing both, I was making clear progress. A word or two wouldn't have done that for me, frankly; I know myself. If I couldn't get out 100 words, I'd be very unhappy with myself. (Heck, I routinely write emails twice that length.)

And that's the key. If I required myself to write 600 words every night, I couldn't do it. I knew had to feel I was still moving significantly, even if the exact amount varied from night to night, and I knew I couldn't do the same maximum every night. When I feel less tired, it tends to encourage me to write more--and I'm a "burst" writer anyway, so when I'm alert I can sustain a longer burst. So on average, I'm hitting about what I would hope, because if I do two in a row that are short, I feel anxious to write more on night three.

To steal a term from Charles Atlas--it's dynamic tension!

Current Music: Slowburn

(2 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2005 07:34 am (UTC)
Whe I wrote my recent novel, using the "get it done in a month" criteria, I found the nightly goals changing as well, thoough I adhered to the 1667 words a day guide in general. Some days I couldn't write, some days I could write twice that much, or once or twice three times. As long as I was on track or felt I could make up the work towards the overall goal, it seemed to work for me. Some nights, I wrote utter dog poop, but still put it in there, leaving it to stain the first draft as at least it was something. Since I wasn't plotted out to start, I found myself really having to guess at the pace, seeming to have tons of room in the middle of the month, then suddenly having to rush everything along at the end. Roller coaster!

Your theories, as usual, seem totally sound. Especially for someone that's as busy as you are, rolling goals would almost seem a must. And progress is the key; continued forward "movement," and with it, that feeling of accomplishment.

Good luck with the vampire, too! When do we get to read?
[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2005 06:54 pm (UTC)

Whatever works

I don't hold with "discipline" as the way to sustain writing over time, but I do consider it a way to keep going on the occasional bad times and keep going. As for writing crappy stuff, no one has to read anything but the last draft! Even Shakespeare, despite the legend that he "never blotted a line," clearly did rewriting based on the different versions of his plays we see around. (I just read Will in the World, which is both brilliant and highly readable.) I'd bet the first draft of Titus Andronicus was even worse than the final, which was the Friday the Thirteenth of its day.

Some people don't do well with variable goals--they immediately drop to the lowest goals. But for someone like me, who writes in bursts anyway, as long as I have some kind of minimum, it works. You raise an interesting point, too, which is maintaining an average--the goal setting doesn't have to be one at a time, but in groups! Toni did that when she first started--she did 600 words per day, four days a week, but her fallback was 2400 for the whole week, so if all else failed, she could whale away on Sunday and still score!

I'm not showing anyone the story yet, not even Toni, until either I'm done with a first draft or I am totally stuck and need outside assistance. I thought I was going to need that recently near the 40K mark, but managed to move on. Let's see if I still like it when I'm done--though I think that is likely...
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