100 words for 100 days

I missed the end of 100 x 100.  Hell, I missed the last half thanks to my family’s and my own health issues.

But it was a glorious ride.  I wrote a phenomenal amount in the first half, 45,000 words in 50 days.  If I’d managed to finish, I would have been close to 100,000 words.  That, my friends, is an entire novel.

Kerryn and Matt both wrote summaries of their experiences, which I think you will find interesting.

Distractions are my writing kryptonite. Whenever I tried to write, even with a timer, surrounded by other people or the TV I couldn’t sink into the story and the words would be stilted and slow. I tried blocking the distractions out with music and sitting with my back to the TV but still my super-human hearing caught onto the other storyline. I have to physically remove myself from distractions so it’s just me, my story and my timer.

Kerryn Angel – 100 x 100 – Thank you

Before I did this challenge, I was aiming to write every day, but I just couldn’t manage it. This challenge really made me accountable, and I quickly got into the habit of writing every day without fail. If you have trouble writing daily, get a friend to keep you accountable. I found that it only took me a couple of weeks to get into the right habit.

Matthew Dodwell – 100 x 100: Lessons Learnt

Drop in and see what other lessons they have to share.

So, will I run 100 x 100 again?  I’m not sure.  If there’s interest out there I might.  Otherwise I will add it to the list of tools-that-have-helped-me-write, which also includes the Novel Push Initiative (NPI) and 750 Words.

Techniques to get you writing, Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum

This is part three of the “Techniques to get you writing” series.  These posts are aimed at beginning writers struggling to develop good writing habits, or experienced writers who are struggling to get momentum on a project.  Part 1 looked at the psychology of failure, and how we sabotage ourselves without realising it.  Part 2 was about designing effective goals.  Part 3, this post, is mostly about counting, and how to count in a way that makes your brain think you are moving faster than you are.

This is a timely post, since I’m in week 5 of a personal marathon, and running a Novel Push Initiative marathon for a group of writers.  So lets talk further about using wordcounts not just as a way to track your progress, but as a way to drive your writing forward.

Before we start, let me just say that I do not endorse NaNoWriMo as a writing technique.  That sort of output, more often than not, just leads to pages of unfocussed dross.  I’m not saying don’t do it; it’s a great way to have fun in a community environment.  But if you’re looking to use the exercise to help you write, you’re better off learning good writing habits first.

Set up good writing habits: devising daily goals.

The maxim is “write every day”, but it’s never that simple.  Unless you’re a hermit or independently wealthy, life gets in the way of writing.  And when you’ve come home from work, fed the family and/or pets, cleaned the kitchen, put out the garbage, listened to your mother whine on the phone for an hour…  You feel more like collapsing into bed than writing.  And if your goal is “write every day”, it’s easy for that goal to get lost in the crowd of daily goals, along with “remember to keep important receipts” and “water the houseplants before they get crispy”.

Remember part 2 of our series?  Small goals.  Goals you can achieve in a short period of time.  “Write every day” is a big, sprawling goal.  “Write half a page” is a nice, neat little goal, and you can encourage yourself to achieve it.  “Ten minutes, easy.  I can do that after I load the dishwasher, before Gossip Girls comes on”.  Talking yourself into an activity is much easier if the activity is small.

And of course, chose a wordcount that you can comfortably achieve.  Don’t look at someone’s 4,000 words a day output, if you know you can only reliably manage 400.  Do what is achievable.  Remember:

It is better to overshoot a small goal than fail to reach a large one.

Give yourself a boost: writing marathons.

Once you have set your daily goal and you are consistently hitting that target, it’s time to stretch yourself.  The best way to do that is with short bursts of writing called “marathons” or “wordathons”.  There are two ways to use these.

If you know you have a day coming up which is free of distractions, then prepare yourself for a 1-day marathon.  You’re going to sit down on that day and aim for a wordcount that will feel like an incredible achievement compared to your daily count.  You can sit down and just write and see what you get, but you’re more likely to get a good result by setting yourself a target.  If your daily 100 words takes you 10 minutes, and you know that you can count on 6 uninterrupted hours, then set yourself a goal of 3,000 words for the day.  Remember that you may need time to stop and recap during the day as you pump out the words.

If you want to see whether you can write more per day, then set yourself a short marathon, 5 to 7 days, where you will increase your daily count by a set amount.  If you normally write 100, aim for 200.  If you write 1,000, aim for 1,500.  Stick with it for those 5 to 7 days, come hell or high water.  When you go back to your daily counts, they will feel like a breeze.  Afterwards, you will often find that what you thought was your limit has been stretched, and you are able to reach a higher target more easily.

Sounds easy!  What’s the catch?

At first glance, wordcounts seem to be a simple target to hit.  Novel length 100,000 words plus writing time 6 months equals 500 words a day.  Easy!  So why is it that we often come to a grinding halt after a couple of weeks?  Why doesn’t everyone win NaNoWriMo?  Story issues aside, a lot of the time it has to do with the way the brain measures progression.

Let me give you an example.  If I asked you whether you prefer to run uphill or downhill, which would you choose?  Most people choose downhill, because it’s easier.  This is a fundamental ‘truth’ that our brain knows; uphill hurts, downhill doesn’t.  So unless you’re a masochist, you’ll prefer to run downhill.

How about this one?   The journey out always seems longer than the journey home, especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before.  The reason being, on the way home you are going past things you have already seen.  The brain doesn’t need to assimilate them again, and half the time the recognition and processing go on in the subconscious mind.  The brain is physically doing less work, so psychologically it feels like less time has passed, when in fact the journey is the same length.

What does this have to do with wordcounts?  These little ‘truths’ can be turned into techniques to trick your brain into thinking that you are going faster; that you are ‘going home’ or ‘travelling downhill’, feelings that give you a little psychological boost to keep you moving.  Now lets look at how to use it in your writing.

Travel downhill.

Personal trainers are smart people, or at least one of them was, once. Because they figured out a secret to get people to run farther, and harder, by the simple method of counting down, not up.

Your PT doesn’t set the clock at zero and tell you to run 5 kms.  They set the clock at 5 kms and get you to run to zero. Watching that distance count down, not up as you run makes it seem easier, because as you run the goal gets smaller. 5 km, 4 km, 3 2 1 home! This trick is pure psychological balderdash, but it works.

So use this to trick your brain into making the writing marathon easier.  The goal will be the same; 50,000 (or 25,000) words, which can be a daunting amount, especially if you’ve powered on for a week and only have 11,600 words to show for it.  What your brain says is “Only 11,600?  Look how far we have to go!”

Turn it around, and look at it another way.  Instead of saying “I’ve only written 11,600 words”, tell yourself “I’ve only got 38,400 to go”.  Your goal has now gone down from 50k to 38k.  The mountain just got a little bit smaller, a little bit easier.  Instead of struggling up the 50,000 word mountain, you’re coasting down the slope, getting closer and closer to the bottom with every word.

Logically, this makes no sense, but let’s be honest, we’re not the most logical of creatures.  It’s the same goal, you’re just looking at it differently.  Don’t just take my word for it, give it a try.  You might be surprised.

Stop watching the clock.

You write and you write, and you check your wordcount again.  78 words?  Oh come on!  You’re sure you must have written more than that!  You’ll never make it at this rate.  Cue self-defeating behaviour and the end of your writing day.

The more you check your progress, the slower you will go.  Forget watching the scenery.  Stop looking for landmarks.  Just drive.

There are several ways you can defeat the need to check your progress every few minutes.  One is to count pages; tell yourself you won’t check your wordcount until you’ve made it to the next page.  However if you are a compulsive checker, this can be just as bad.  Another way is to get an alarm clock.  Set it for 20 minutes, sit down in front of the page and force yourself not to check your wordcount until the alarm goes off.  Once you stop interrupting your flow every few minutes, you’ll find the journey fades to the subconscious, and your mind will focus on the story.

Don’t count the shortfall.

You’re in the middle of a writing marathon. You miss a day, or two, or four, and suddenly you’re 7,000 words behind and wondering how on earth you can catch up. If you keep telling yourself that you are 7,000 words behind, you raise the stress levels and promote avoidance behaviours, which just exacerbates the problem.

Here’s a trick I learned from my budgeting coach. One of the most common ways that budgets fail is overspending; you make a few bad purchases and suddenly you’re over budget for the month and then you think “why bother” and the budget goes out the window and you’re back where you started.

My budgeting coach says this; “everyone overspends. It happens. Recognise that it has happened and move on.” At the beginning of every month, you tally up what was overspent in the previous month, and you pay it from your income. Then it’s gone; the sins not washed away, but dealt with and not hanging over your head.

So, we deal with it. Take your shortfall, divide it by the number of days remaining in the marathon, and add that to your daily goal. You’ll find that you’re only doing a few hundred words a day more to catch up.  Suddenly it’s not so scary. A huge shortfall has been transformed into an achievable goal.

These techniques all assume you are facing the page with something to say.  But what do you do on the days when writer’s block hits like a sledgehammer and you just have no words left to write?  Next time we look at bargaining with your brain: using threats and blackmail to get you moving again.

Drawing water from the well

Yesterday was the last day of the mini-marathon, and I ended up with a total of 10,400 words over 5 days.  I’m pretty damn pleased with myself, and also fragged.  I envy those writers who can churn out the pages in great chunks, but I am not one of them.  Which is why I don’t do Nano.

I was reading Owl and Sparrow’s blog (the post on beer, actually) and she mentioned something that struck a chord with me.  She said:

Lately, I’ve been able to absorb myself into the story and get some good work done.  The only problem with this is my tendency to stop after I get a decent chunk of words written (the 1000-1500 word range, usually).  I tell myself, “That’s good enough for one day!” and while it is, I could probably spend at least another hour or so getting a bit more than that accomplished.  Probably lots more, actually.

Rather than gum up her comment trail with a long response, I decided to muse on the topic here, where I can be long-winded and opinionated in peace.

I am the same.  My daily comfortable wordcount at the moment is 1,000; I push myself to 1,200 but no more.  Some days I get lucky and hit 1,600, but those days are rare.  By doing the 2,000 words/day marathon, I’ve proved I can pump out the words if I push it.

However.

Experience from this marathon and my previous participation in Nick Enlowe’s Novel Push Initiatives (I hope to run one, once I hear back from Nick) has taught me a few things about daily wordcounts.

I firmly believe that everyone has a ‘comfort zone’, a wordcount they can reach daily without struggling in any way, and that daily comfort zone varies depending on the story, on where you’re at, on how in tune you are with the characters.  It may be 100 words/day, 200, 500, 1,000, or higher if you’re one of the lucky ones.

In other words, it’s variable.  But notice I didn’t say anything about varying with the stresses of your life?

I’ve learned, from application, that even when I’m flat out, I can hit my daily wordcount if I sit down in front of the paper.  Even when I’m tired or stressed, if I sit down with my cup of tea and pick up the pen, the words will come.  Some days they spill out faster than I can write; some days they dribble out and the pen moves very slowly indeed.  But they come when they are called.

(This may not be a revelation to other writers, but it was to me.)

Like Owl and Sparrow, I reach my comfort level and stop.  I stop not because I’ve reached the wordcount, but because the scenes in my head come to an end.  They’re like waves; inspiration rushes in, I write, then the water slides back over the sand and I’m empty. To do this 2,000 words/day marathon, I had to write in two sessions, then stop and let the creative well refill by doing other things.

The concern I have with pushing past your daily comfort zone, whatever it is, is that you can drain the well.  If you keep pushing and pushing faster than it can refill, you’ll reach a day when there are no waves to rush in; the sand is dry and the page is empty.  Then the writer says they’re ‘blocked’, and they fuss, and stress, and the momentum is gone, and possibly the enthusiasm for the project.  They spend time and energy on looking for the problem, when perhaps what is most needed is just a rest.

That’s not always the case; there are other reasons for writer’s block.  But think of all the times you rushed through the beginning, throwing out pages and pages of prose, only to come to a thundering halt after 10k, or 20k, or 30k words.  The story feels flat, it gets put down and forgotten.  The well is empty.

Writing, like any other project, requires long term commitment and sustainability.  What you can comfortably produce varies for each person, but you need to pace yourself.  Part of that is finding out how much you can draw from the well each day, and still have something left in there for tomorrow.

That’s my opinion on the subject, anyway.  Now it’s your turn.  Does this ring true for you, or do you think I’m talking through my hat?  What’s your comfort zone daily wordcount?  Do you push yourself, and for how long?  Do you find your inspiration comes in waves, or is it a steady flow like a stream?