Anyone who knows me well knows that I like data. No, scratch that; I love data. The more I know about something quantitatively, the better focused I feel.
I bring this passion to my fiction writing, which many people find surprising. Because of the odd juxtaposition between creating writing and data analytics, I thought I would explain how I write, what information I track, and why I think it’s helpful.
I prepare for all of my novels the same way. You’ll notice right off the bat that I fall into the Plotter side of the Plot vs Pants argument. While I have incredible respect for writers who can write “by the seat of their pants”, I’m just not wired that way. So I plot.
First, I research a particular topic or idea until I have enough information to build a rich, textured story. Accuracy and depth are important when telling a story. When a reader seems something that is clearly inaccurate, it pulls them out of the narrative and breaks the mood. I don’t want to do that.
Then, I create an outline for the story of my book. It starts as a one-sentence summary of the plot, but evolves into twenty or so bullet points, each with a small summary of that portion of the novel. Each of those becomes chapters, so each point gets a lot of sub-points.
Once the outline is complete and I feel comfortable with the direction and resolution of the story, I begin to write. That’s the easy part, honestly. I do all the heavy lifting in the outline phase, working through challenges in timeline, when to reveal what, who needs to be in the story, and so on.
Writing it all, though, is a joy. Because I plot, each writing session begins by checking my outline, finding where I left off, and then picking up there. I write till I hit my word goal for the day, and then walk away.
I mentioned word goal. I decided at the end of December to leave behind my old method of writing once or twice each week in massive sessions of 3-4,000 words. That’s just not healthy, and it doesn’t allow me to keep the story alive and active in my brain. It worked as well as it could, but I knew a better system could product better results.
With the new year, I ushered in a new habit: 1k per day. Every day I have the goal to write at least 1,000 words. It’s evolved to be more like 1,500 each day, but sometimes it’s less and sometimes it’s more. The goal is regularity, though. Daily, incremental writing.
Along with the new habit, I started to track new data. Specifically, I’m tracking the following items for each writing session:
- words written
- time of day
My hope is that I can make some correlations between the amount of words I manage to write and the variables of what I drink, where I write, and what time of the day my sessions are. I track all of this in a Google Docs spreadsheets so that I have access to it anywhere I go.
I let the spreadsheet do some calculations for me, too. The big one is my progress. Because I know my average words-per-chapter, and I know my planned chapter count, I go into each novel pretty sure about my final word count. That lets me compare my progress with my goal. As of tonight, I’m 64.84% of the way to the finish line. That’s a number that encourages me, especially since I only started writing this book 28 days ago!
I also get to see my average words per session, as well as how many sessions I’m likely to need before the book is done (15, if you’re wondering). Because I’m a nerd, I am also calculating the average words written per session based on beverage. Interestingly, coffee is not my most “helpful” drink for writing. The winner in that category is water. Yeah, crazy I know.
I’m sure many of you are wondering why. Why track all of that? Why is it important to know that water is more effective than coffee? What does it matter if you can track where you were sitting when you write each day?
The answer is about hacking. If I learn that pushing the big red button earns me a kick in the head, but pushing the small green button earns me a donut, I’m going to push the small green button. Every time. Knowledge is power, and the more I know about my writing habits, the better I can tweak and adjust them to get the best results.
I’ve started to drink more water when I write, rather than coffee or tea, because historically my word production is higher. And as a result, I’m writing faster. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where I write, so I’m not obsessing about getting to my favorite seat at Starbucks or using the same desk in my office (I have two). I just write wherever I can.
Look, writing is still a creative art. I might be wrapping my creativity up in habits and data and hacking, but I’m still making stories up and writing them down. I want to get better at how I write, and that can only come with practice. By adding in a few rules and recording some extra details, I’m investing in the future of my storytelling. Hopefully, that’s something that will pay off in the years to come.