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2019 went by in a fire-enclosed blur. There were some things attempted that did not go anywhere near as desired or hoped, but did succeed in helping me shift some perspectives. On top of that, life went on.
Specifically, I want to post a few quick words, a recap of sorts, from my big plan from last year – the million words.
I fell well short of that mark. Woefully short – barely making it to quintuple digits, all told (based on my guidelines). But, over the course of the year, some of the things I worked through, personally, and books I read, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share, both for those who may find it useful, and for my own future reference.
1) Preparation is key. Where the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. When I crunched my numbers, building in “off” days for family things and holidays, I came up with something like 4,000 words a day average, but I was entering into that cold, with no established routine. Imagine starting a marathon but with no prior road work and endurance built up. The bonk will strike before even reaching the first mile point, in most cases. While I had plenty of projects to work on, I had no stamina in place, and no clear plan for writing time. (Some of the plans were derailed by work obligations in the spring that I had under-accounted for, which didn’t help matters.)
2) Reasonable expectations, and be prepared to reevaluate. I’m very close to being a Type-A personality about some things. While I had my numbers in hand, once I got off-track, I would beat myself up over what “is a perfectly reasonable, doable” amount of work. Only, like I indicated above, it wasn’t really reasonable for me. But I didn’t really realize that or have that epiphany until well after I had self-sabotaged my efforts and thrown in the towel on the effort. What I didn’t do was readjust my focus. While on one level I was okay landing among the stars, I really only wanted the moon, and if I couldn’t get it, what was the point?
The thing is, art in general and writing in particular are long-game endeavors. It requires time, practice and repetition. It’s an endurance process. While on one level I understood that, it took a psychologically rough year to help drive the point home.
I’m still intent on the “Million Words in a Year” goal, but I’m retooling my approach to actually position myself to stand a better chance of achieving it. It may take a couple of years, but I’ll be trying it again.
The Challenge: To Write 1,000,000 (yes, that’s 1 million) words in a calendar year.
Why?: Why not? There’s the oft repeated expression – and right now I’m drawing a blank on which writer the saying is attributed to – that essentially “your first million words are crap.” Or, more accurately, the writer doesn’t really start exhibiting mastery until they’ve logged close to a million words. Usually that’s considered to be across projects – individual (aka – trunk) novel projects, while figuring out story structure, etc.
I’m in my early 40s, with three kids and a full-time job. As much as I have in my head that I want to get down, if I don’t start doing it – and making it a priority – then it won’t happen. I’ve reached a point where I’m wont to simplify and refocus multiple areas in my life, with writing being one of my primary areas.
Since finishing my MFA program in January 2015 (four years ago, now), I’ve hardly logged any significant creative output. In the spirit of “Go Big, or Go Home” the idea for the challenge was born.
The alternate spin to this, as another adage goes, “Reach for the moon. Even if you fail, you’ll land among the stars.” It’s intended more as an accountability challenge – even if I don’t make the million mark, any accumulated total beyond 6-digits will still be a success.
The Criteria: This challenge is intended to measure creative outputs: 1st Draft prose, project developments (outlines, exploratory exercises, etc.), Blog entries (such as this one) and other essays (there are a few non-fiction series that I started, years ago, that I’ve wanted to expand on); creative exercises – fodder for “Fictional Echoes” from prompts, and things that might develop into other, unplanned projects in the future; other non-fiction projects (ranging from academic to work-related items). What I am not including are the dozens of emails or short-term items.
This is also driven by the amount of completed items. I’ll be using Scrivener to help keep track of everything. Blogs, once completed and posted (or copied over to WordPress and scheduled) will be moved to the “Completed” section. Exercises, likewise, once I’ve considered a particular itch satisfied, it will move to what is essentially “Counted Words.”
Outlines will be tricky. I could complete an outline early in the year, only to have a word count explode beyond that once I start drafting the thing. I am still working out how they might be handled (count the outline draft and count the executed prose, or only prose for projects that are actively being written, and only count the outline if it’s developed but no progress is made on the draft during the year…)
There will also be the question of any notes made on projects…
I intend to be journaling about the challenge, with a side-intention of taking all of the information and expanding it into a creative non-fiction work at the end of the year – expanding on the process, its evolution over the year, etc.
As with anything, the best way to plan for success is to break the big picture into smaller, manageable chunks. When considering as lofty a goal as 1 million words in a year, daily word count totals become the defacto metric.
That would mean: 1,000,000 ➗ 365 = about 2740 words per day.
But… BUT…. that’s not necessarily practical. I mean, yes, that’s a doable number, but in tailoring it to my specific situation it’s not really feasible. I cannot reliably plan to be able to log any significant word counts during a weekend, for example, with family obligations. Likewise, there will be known days during the year – holidays, travel days and the like – where logging words will be a challenge (my opportunities during these past holidays – Christmas 2018 – were practically non-existent for at least 3-5 of the 10 days I was out on vacation). Illness will come up at some point – if not me then someone I would need to take care of.
So I whittled the year down.
Drop 100 days for weekends.
Drop another 50 days, allowing for holidays, sick days or other incidental “out of pocket” days.
What was once a 365 day year is now 215.
Here’s how the numerical breakdown now looks:
365 – 100 – 50 = 215
1,000,000 ➗ 215 = about 4652 per day, on average.
Obviously, I am not limiting myself to only those 215 days. I could still cull together words on those other days and still chip away at the larger target, but I need to aim for almost 5000 words per day on most days to make sure I’m giving myself the best chance.
…For I shall be embracing the thoroughly checked answer to the life, the universe and everything. That answer shall be embraced for the next 364-ish days, until I move beyond that answer. This year’s mantra? “Don’t Panic,” of course.
If you’ve been anywhere near Facebook for the last couple of weeks, and especially if you have any writer-minded friends (and, really, to be honest, who doesn’t), you’ve likely seen or at least heard referenced a recent interview between George RR Martin & Stephen King. King is on tour for his latest book [End of Watch], and the final question of the conversation is that infamous one about writing speed.
Here’s the full video… the question is asked at about the 50 minute mark.
I am on record as being a pro-Writing Excuses person. On more than one occasion I’ve suggested particular episodes to fellow writers/crit partners for something they’ve had trouble with, or just spread the gospel of “you should listen.” Several episodes happened to hit at just the right time while I was completing my MFA that forced me to think about aspects of my thesis as I was moving from finishing my first draft and facing down the revisions. A central part of that comes down to Brandon Sanderson.
Outside of his active writing career, he also teaches a writing class at BYU. Sanderson recently posted this on his website:
Several years back, grad student Scott Ashton asked me if he could record my BYU lectures and post them for an online curriculum as part of a project he was doing. I said yes, and it was never supposed to be “a thing,” not really. It was a student doing a project, and using my lectures as a way to explore online education.
Well, since that time, those lectures (which are collected at Scott’s site, which he called Write About Dragons) have been viewed tens of thousands of times, and become one of the big hallmarks of my web presence, at least as far as writing education goes. I’ve been blown away by the reception to them. At the same time, I’ve been keenly aware that the recording was subpar. This isn’t Scott’s fault—he actually did an excellent job, considering his background. But the lectures are at times difficult to hear, and the filming was handled on a single amateur camera.
For years, I’ve been wanting to do something better. And this year I had my chance. My good friend Earl is a semiprofessional filmmaker, and was looking for a new project. I pitched a better-recorded set of lectures, filmed this year in my class, and he jumped at the idea.
The TL;DR of his post, in case you couldn’t guess from where I ended the copy, is that he has a “newly recorded” set of lectures that will be posted over the next few months. Since I have, in the past, watched several clips and pointed writer friends to the above Dragons site (and with an interest in teaching this stuff, myself), I’m stoked to be able to check these out.
Here’s the first lecture, so you can start checking them out yourself.
Context behind the conversation that happened last night…
So, MC is a GOT person (Game of Thrones, for those few not aware). She has seen all of the episodes, is caught up on the story lines and will read most of the “speculation” posts that get circulated on Facebook during the weeks between episodes and months between seasons. See, she binged most of the first few seasons when she was on bed-rest with the twins.
Me? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s VERY much in my wheelhouse, I just have not had the opportunity to get caught up, especially with 3 kids. I have seen several, or at least pieces of, episodes – more from this season than any of the previous 5, which leads to last night.
The Eldest is with grandparents this week. The twins went down at a semi-reasonable time and without too much trouble, but I was out of the room first, about 20 minutes before MC. When she finally comes downstairs, an episode of GOT played on the Roku.
MC: Which one are you watching?
Me: The second one.
MC: Of the season? [currently Season 6, for anyone reading this in the future]
Me: Second. Period.
MC: Seriously? [THIS reaction is what made the exchange.]
Yes, before last night I had only truly, with intent, watched the first episode – S1,E1.
Disclaimer: The central piece of this post is being cribbed from a guest post from Matthew Quirk at Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid site (as filtered through Steven Pressfield’s)… I follow both, and saw the link at Pressfield’s first, but there is additional advice in the Story Grid post that is worth reading.
So, on with the cribbing:
Use TK. This is the essential lubricant of the rough first draft. It’s a habit I learned from working as a reporter, but didn’t realize the novel-writing magic of it until I read this advice from Cory Doctorow. TK is an editing mark that means “to come” and is equivalent to leaving a blank or brackets in the text (It’s TK, not TC, because editorial marks are often misspelled intentionally so as not to confuse them with final copy: editors write graf and hed for paragraph and headline).
Can’t figure out a character’s name? “EvilPoliticianTK.” Need to describe the forest? “He looked out over the SpookyForestDescriptionTK.” Need that perfect emotional-physical beat to break up dialogue? “BeatTK.” Just keep writing. TK a whole chapter if you want. Those blanks are not going to make or break anything big picture. Come back for them once you’ve won a few rounds against the existential terror of “Is this whole book going to work or not?” There’s no sense filling in the details on scenes that you’re going to cut.
Disclaimer the Second: I read the same advice from Doctorow, just from his essay collection Context instead.
That second point, actually, is what prompted this post… As my MFA mentors and crit partners can attest, I fully endorse this idea. If the idea is to get the story down, get through a first draft, this can be very useful.
I use it as reminders for flavor ([TK – add more about wound/colors]), or as a scenic placeholder for moments that need to happen, but I haven’t quite figured out how the sequence will play out ([TK – adventures happen in cave until emerging on the other side of the mountain]). Or, if there’s a detail that I’ve already established but don’t remember in the moment? [TK – Guy’s name from chapter One].
That, by the way, is how I use it [TK – (note)]. Yes, it might throw of some word count estimates, but most of the time those notes get replaced with longer passages that any disparity washes out. The brackets help the note stand out more prominently in hardcopy, and the “TK” instances are easy to move through using the “Find” feature.