Tools for Writers: Keeping a Daily Average

I’m a bit of a geek, so I enjoy playing with spreadsheets sometimes. If you’re similarly afflicted, you might be interested in something I’ve come up to track my productivity over time.

It’s easy to track your words written per day and watch the total as it gets bigger and bigger on a line chart. It’s fun, too, and I find it every encouraging to see that squiggle reach a little more skyward each day. (Except on editing days; then it can take dip. Feh.)

Wonderful as it is, the word total graph is always going to be moving up, overall. It doesn’t really tell you how effective your writing time is. I decided a good way to check that would be to keep a running average per day, based on all the writing days I’ve managed to accumulate for a specific project.

Here’s how to do that…

  1. Create a spreadsheet (I use MS Excel, but you can use whatever you like) with columns for Date (bet you can guess this one), Words (cumulative total), Written (words written today), Notes (for whatever comments), and Avg (for the average). It looks more or less like this:

columns-for-avg

  1. Set up the Written column so the word total from yesterday is subtracted from the world total for today, to give you a total for today. For example, in the illustration above, 17,651 words total for 8/10 subtracted from 18,138 words total for 8/11 give me 487 words for 8/11. You might have some in-line notes or something that keeps this from being exact, but the number will still be, as we say in the day-job world, “directionally correct.” In other words, close enough to give you an idea how you’re doing.
  2. Set up the Avg column so that the first cell in the formula stays the same and the second one increments when you drag or copy the formula to the cell below it. I know, that’s clear as a London fog, so let me break it down:
    1. Leave the first Avg cell, E2, blank, since there’s nothing to average yet.
    2. In E3, set the formula as “=AVERAGE($C$2:C3).”
      1. The $ signs keep the “C2” from turning into a “C3” and hosing your formula when you move it down to the next cell.
      2. The numeric value in the plain “C3” is going to increment by one when you move it copy it to the next cell down, which is what you want.
    3. Every day your write:
      1. Record your total words in Words.
      2. Copy or drag the formula in Written down to the current row.
      3. Copy or drag the formula in Avg down to the current row.
  1. After you’ve got a few rows of data:
    1. Select the data in the Date column.
    2. Keeping the Date data selected, also select the data in Avg. (To do this in MS Excel for Windows, you hold down the Ctrl key while selecting. If you use something different… Google it if you don’t know.)
    3. Using the Insert menu, select the line graph from the Charts section, pick the one you like best and click on it.
  2. You’re done! If all went well, you’ll get a chart that looks like this:

avg-chart

I can use this chart now to see how I’m doing, productivity-wise. Looks like I’ve been going pretty steadily at 5-600 words per writing day since September 2016, which is where I like to be. I can also tell that I had a higher average when school was out and I had more time in the mornings, without the chaos of getting people ready for school.

So, there you go. Go on and geek out. May your averages be high.

Cheers,

Carson

 

Please leave a comment, and maybe the Good Fairy will bring Wishie some shoes.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

Distractions

distractionsDistractions are all over, and they make life particularly hard for the part-time novelist. You’ve only got so much time, a limited time, to devote to your craft, so you don’t want to fritter it away on other things. Still, it’s easy to let your eyes wander from the page to the clock, or to social networking, the latest political debacle or the newest toy in the chest.

I have a hard time with this. I write in an office filled with distractions. There’s a music system, the day-job computer, guitars, microwave, electronic photo frame, iPad, art equipment… No wonder my attention wanders.

The obvious solution appears to be for me to create a space in which there is nothing but me and my laptop, but in my beloved suburban ranch, which I share with my beloved suburban family, my crowded little office is the only option for solitude.

Also contributing to the problem of distraction is my own tendency toward inattention, or, rather, paying attention to many different things in short bursts. I don’t know if an expert would diagnose me with ADD or ADHD, but the inattention thing is certainly present.

So, what am I going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, for that matter?

I’ve come up with something that I think is working, at least for me. It’s a combination of disciplining myself to pay strict attention and going with the flow of my inattention. Here’s the deal…

First, I accept that I’m distractible, at least at this point in my life. That clears the decks of guilt and all that useless garbage.

I get some of my distractions out of the way up front, when I sit down to write. Email, making sure my coffee is hot enough (remember that microwave?), etc.

Now I minimize distractions. I turn the music system off, unless it’s playing white noise or some specific, spacey sounds I often write with. I turn the picture frame off.

At this point, I may set a timer or not, depending on my inclination for the day. The timer sets my period of strict focus. If I don’t feel like setting a timer, I rely on my gut to tell me when to look up (this is riskier, but it works for me if I insist on a strong gut feeling, not just any old antsy notion).

I fire up the old manuscript and get to work. I bend over the keyboard and focus completely on the story and the words (well, 90% — I’m not perfect).

When the timer or my gut tell me to stop, I stop and indulge a distraction. I keep this time short! Five minutes max. A timer is particularly useful here.

After the break, I go back to focused writing. I repeat the writing-break-writing cycle until my time is up.

In all honesty, I must admit that this approach decreases my words-per-day output, but then, I didn’t get into the writing business to produce a certain number of words per day. I got into it for the joy of it, and giving my distractible nature a chance to flex increases that to no end.

Happy writing!

wishie-cropped-for-090916Please leave a comment, or Wishie the troll might climb into your bedroom one night and stand beside your head until you wake up. It’s quite a shock when you turn your head and see him there, believe me.

 

Cheers,

Carson

P.S. My first novel, Trouble Spots, is available in hard copy or Kindle soft-copy on Amazon, and it’s coming soon to other outlets.

Down the Writing Rabbit Hole

rabbitholegraphThe Rabbit Hole

Because I’m kind of a geek, I like to keep a line chart of the number of words I’ve written in my novel to date. Usually, this is an encouraging exercise, because I can see the number of words mounting up, day after day, week after week, passing the magical 50,000 mark that separates novel from novella, and heading on to the 80,000 words that, in my mind, signals a robustly realized book.

Sometimes, though, the graph ends up looking like the image above (or next to, depending on your display) this line. Note the steady climb upwards (wild cheers!) followed by the precipitous drop (miserable groans and sad emojis rabbitholesademoji). The drop represents a trip down the writing rabbit hole.

rabbitholeholeWhy The Drop

I was writing along my merry way, following the adventures of a major, though non-leading character, when a terrific idea for his backstory smacked me upside the head. He’s an assassin, and the backstory was going to be about the first time he killed a man. It was all there in my head: he’s just a kid, he gets imprisoned by some bad guys, escapes, and makes the kill to avoid recapture. There was a little circus troupe and a mysterious, crumbling wall in the middle of the forest. Gripping stuff! A no-miss detour off the main story line!

Until I started writing it. The dratted thing just got longer and longer, rambling along with no end in sight. So I started over. Same result. Ramble, amble, bumble. Undaunted, I went at it again, determined to keep it short while retaining the excitement. The result of that venture was something akin to an overused dishrag.

Eventually, after about two weeks and five or six thousand words, I just excised the whole thing. That’s where the drop comes in. All those words, all that time, zapped.

Feh. rabbitholesademoji

Not a Complete Loss

I was pretty well disappointed and annoyed about that loss of time and words, but, as you can see, the graph took an uptick right away. Having freed myself of the backstory and gotten back to the present condition of this character, I found the story taking off again, better than before. Even though the backstory adventure was incomplete, it had given me a better grasp of the character’s background and motivations, which made his current situation easier to write about.

So What?

  1. I didn’t get rid of that backstory altogether. I cut it out and pasted into another document, to be saved for later. It might be useful for reference, or for another entirely different novel, or for a later section of this one.
  2. I got to know the character much better. Now, when he has to turn right or left, I’ll have an improved intuition about which he will choose.

Go ahead and curse those rabbit holes, but not for too long. You never know when you might come out the other end and find a pot of gold. I know, that’s rainbows, but you get the idea. Right? Sure you do. See you next time.

Comments?

Wishie says to leave a comment or he will keep staring at you with his mildly creepy fixed expression.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

Boxing for Writers: No Fisticuffs Required

time_box_for_090916If you’re a part-time fiction writer like me, with lots of other demands on your time, you’ll probably go through periods where your opportunities to write are constricted. I’m in such a time right now and was getting pretty frustrated about it when I read an infographic that reminded me of a useful technique from my day-job world: time-boxing.

Time-boxing is just a way of saying you have so much time for activity X in a given day, so you’re going to set aside that much time for it, no more, no less. The time box might not be as big as you’d like it to be, but at least finishing the box’s work allows you to feel you accomplished something concrete and met your stated goal. It’s much less of a drag than saying “I wish I had two hours!” over and over. You might as well wish Donald Trump was a monkey. On another planet. Without a breathable atmosphere. But I digress…

Right now, circumstances have whittled my writing time down a lot. To deal with that, I’ve created a 20-minute time box each morning. I start on time and at the end of 20 minutes, I stop, even if I’m in the middle of typing a word. I can feel good about it, and writing happens; the story moves forward.

Time boxes are not the only sort you can create. Many writers have word-boxes; they write until they have a certain number of words and then stop. Others have page-boxes; they stop when they’ve reached a particular number of pages. You could have an M&M-box if you wanted to; write until you’ve finished a bag of M&Ms. Of course, you might get a lot of time and word count variances with that one, depending on how hungry you are.

Time management is crucial for the part-time fiction writer and time-boxing, or other-types-of-boxing, is a handy way to pull that off. I’m looking forward to the day when I can expand my box to an hour again. From there, who knows? An hour and fifteen minutes?

A guy can dream.

 

wishie-cropped-for-090916Wishie begs the indulgence of a comment from you. Perhaps about how you manage your writing time? If he gets enough comments, he might put on pants.

 

 

One Bite at a Time

Duck taking single stepAllow me to begin this post with a few timeless proverbs:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Laozi, philosopher)

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” (Creighton Abrams, general)

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying small stones.” (Chinese proverb)

“How do you write a novel? One word at a time.” (Me, but somebody else probably said it first.)

I recently started a job that takes up a lot of my time, usually a normal workday plus two to four hours. It’s a good job in most respects, and glad to have it, but it does eat into my leisure time.

Time I might ordinarily spend writing.

Too often, people stop writing or don’t write at all because they believe they have to devote large chunks at a time to the pursuit. I know this, because I was one of those people for a long time. Then, somehow, I discovered the magic of small steps.

When I started my novel, I had to manage my time, so I set aside one hour a day, Monday through Friday. It took a while, but now my first novel is finished and I’m shopping it to agents. I have also started my second.

That second novel is going to be written under even greater time constraints than the first one was. I’ve had to cut down to one page a day, about 300 words, which takes me about 30 minutes to write. If I keep up at this pace, I can have a good 300 pages done in a year, maybe more (maybe less, but I hope not).

I had a brief Twitter conversation with a lady a while back who told me she made time for writing by always having the project with her and writing in tiny spaces of open time, like when she was stopped at a traffic light. Wow. Talk about small steps.

Don’t hang around waiting for those big chunks of time. They might never do so. Write a page a day, 10 minutes a day, a sentence a day. Get your novel written one word at a time.

Thanks,

Carson

 

Nascent Novelists: Don’t Let Fear of Failure Stop You

 

tunnelThe Tunnel

The time just before starting your novel is like standing at the mouth of a dark, strange railway tunnel, preparing to enter. You don’t know where the other end comes out; you may think you know, but you can’t really be certain until you’ve walked the whole way through. You don’t know exactly what awaits you inside. There might be bats, or rats, or giant spiders. A speeding train might appear out of nowhere, hurtling toward you, glaring with its one bright eye. It might even race up behind you and smash you flat before you even have a chance to turn around.

Putrid Failure

Scariest of all, failure might be waiting for you in that tunnel, by which I mean failure to finish the novel. Fear of failure can be so large and awful its putrid stench can reach out of the tunnel and wrap itself around you before you even set foot inside. It can make you freeze to the spot, where you’ll stay for a long time, maybe the rest of your life, wishing you could go in, but not quite finding the will to take a step. It can make you turn around and walk away, thinking anything that smells that bad can’t possibly be worth getting close to, much less grappling with. It can make all those voices in your head that say you’re not good enough and that this writing business is a waste of time drown out every creative impulse you ever had.

A mighty slayer of dreams, fear of failure is. (Is that a Yoda quote?)

failureBridgeAcceptance

So what’s a writer to do? Or an almost-nascent novelist, standing on the hairy cusp of doing and not doing?

I suppose there are many different answers to this question, but here’s mine:

I said, “Okay, I’m going to fail. Fine.” Once I accepted the worst, failure lost a lot of its power. It didn’t smell as bad or look as big.

I took a step into the tunnel and started walking, one slow step at a time.

And I failed. I came up with stinky plot lines. I created characters that wouldn’t work. Settings both preposterous and unappealing bloomed from my keyboard. But each time I failed, I patched up the disaster or razed it and rebuilt, and then moved on to the next failure.

After several years of doing this, I came out the other end of the tunnel, into the sunshine, with a finished novel. Failure and I had made an odd friendship over all that time, and as I walked away from the tunnel it stood at the entrance with a long face, waving.

“Don’t be so bummed out,” I said, “I’ll see you right down there,” and I pointed. Not far down the track stood another tunnel.

I ran for it.

 

My Pal, the Subconscious (and my Smart Spouse)

041016subconsciousNot Writing… Consciously

For the last week, I’ve been camping on a barrier island in the Florida Keys, running around with a group of Boy Scouts, including my son. We explored, we fished, we snorkeled, and we ate – a lot. I discovered the joys of sleeping in a hammock, after years of tossing and turning on the ground. It was a joyful time spent with the young person I love the most.

I did not think about writing my novel once…

…not consciously, at any rate. But when the sand started to come out of my ears at the end, I discovered the novel was still there. I hadn’t been thinking about it, but somewhere in my brain, the story was churning away, telling itself to my subconscious.

When we left on the trip, my second novel (working title, “The Farthest Hour”) was giving me some small measure of fits. I had to get my heroine out of a compound surrounded by a formidable wall – thick, tall, and topped with a myriad of pointy bits. I was getting her over said wall, and there was plenty of action, but on the whole the result was, well, kind of meh.

The Subconscious to the Rescue041016mindtriangle

My clever wife had suggested that I send the character under the wall instead of over. It was a good idea, but somehow, I couldn’t wrap my imagination around it and I had to leave that loose end dangling when I left for the wilderness. Then, with the island trip over, my subconscious knocked on the door of my waking mind and presented me a silver platter with a vision of the idea. Not only could I take my heroine under the wall, I could use the scene to build up two or three characters whose roles in the story have to this point been uncertain. In addition, I had an image of what “under the wall” would look like and what it would take to get there – think miserable prisoners and metric tons of stinky muck.

Certainly, going underneath the wall has been done numerous times before, which opens me to charges of being trite, but if it’s good enough for George R. R. Martin (in one of her early conquests, the forces of Daenerys Targaryen go under the city walls via the sewers to attack) and J. R. R. Tolkien (they went under the mountain, remember?), surely it’s good enough for me, And surely I can make it my own.

What’s In It for You?

So, what’s the point for my fellow fiction writers, especially those of us who ply the craft part-time? I’d say there are bound to be times in your life when writing is just not going to fit, no way, no how. But that doesn’t mean your creative process has to stop altogether. Let your subconscious chew on things for a while, and hopefully when you return to creating fiction you’ll have some choice ideas on your plate. (It also helps to have a clever and beautiful wife.)

Tweaking the Subconscious

Here are a half-dozen ideas to keep your brain-pixies percolating:

  • Don’t worry about not writing; the time will come (with some attention on your part, but attention is not worry).
  • Keep an ideas list.
  • Knock out a 5-minute mind map of ideas once in a while.
  • Keep a swipe document with you when you watch TV and jot down good ideas you want to use.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • In bed, before you drop off, think about your novel; it might prime the pump of your subconscious.

I wish you the best. See you next time!