Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Career Chat: Writing Progress Goals

One of the most common questions I get asked is how I schedule my writing time. Non-writers often think we either write only when the muse strikes (and then, accompanied by quantities of alcohol, swathed in tobacco or other botanical smoke, and living in the most depressing garret imaginable, surrounded by the wreckage of countless relationships) – or we get up at 7, sit down at the computer/typewriter at 9, take a one-hour lunch break at noon, and work steadily  until 5. I am quite sure there are writers who do follow those schedules, but I’m not one of them.

 Some writers need long stretches of time to dig deep into their stories. I’m not one of them, either. I’m a slow-and-steady plodder. There’s nothing right or wrong about either way; each writer discovers what’s right for them. So the following comes from my own experience.

If I’m going to write a novel and a couple of short stories every year (or two novels in 18 months), I need to write consistently, especially when I’m in the early drafting stages. All bets are off when I’m writing proposals, rewriting, or revising to editorial order. Most of the time, I find daily goals helpful, so long as they are achievable. I don’t find it at all supportive to post my progress in terms of words of pages. One writer of my acquaintance used to post not only words written but anti-words; words the writer had deleted. I like that the writer acknowledged that not all progress can be measured by the total number of words.

A better goal for me is to write well.
That means different things at different times. I might be daydreaming and discover a better ending to my novel; that’s a great day’s work without generating a single word. I might pound out twenty pages that take the story in such a colossally wrong direction that it takes me a week to untangle the mess. I usually feel happy when I end my work day knowing that I have advanced the story in the right direction. My yoga teacher says progress is directional: it’s not how far you can stretch but whether you’re facing the way you want to go.

Over the years, I’ve learned to pay attention to resistance. The story just isn’t coming together; the characters are not doing what I want them to do! I simply can’t settle down and focus. As frustrating as it is, resistance can be my friend. I’m not inherently a reluctant writer; I love it when the story in my imagination flows through the words. I love discovering things in the story I didn’t know were there when I began. So I trust that if I’m restless and grouchy, or the story is restless and grouchy, that there’s something I need to pay attention to. I might need to go for a long walk and talk things through out loud. (At various times, I’ve had nonwriter friends who were nonetheless wonderful sounding boards for story problems.) I might need to go back to where the story lost its balance, that ghostly box canyon of ideas, that out-of-character decision. Or that point where the story started deviating from my outline, but in the right way, and I’ve been trying to deform it back to the prearranged path.

When things aren’t going so well, or at all, I can help myself to focus by deciding what I want to happen today. It could be a certain number of pages or words, especially if the story is flowing smoothly. Or it could be to find out where I went wrong, so I know how much to unravel. It could be to write one scene, but a scene that has to be nailed exactly right, like the dismount of a Gold-medal Olympic gymnast. This helps to relieve the pressure to produce words, regardless, and also eases the way through those thorny passages to full speed ahead.

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