Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spreading Out as a Writer

Starting to get back in the writing swing, which I have let trail off a bit the last couple of months. Between various family errands and day-job work, it's easy to let that slide. But a couple of things have popped up the last few days to give me that kick in the pants I need to keep going.

The first was this quote from a literary agent's blog. She was writing about how not to give your "power" away. This line rang true to me.

"Everyone, no matter their career or chosen field, must do the hard work of becoming good at what they do. That’s where a great deal of your power lies – in your ability to study, learn, research, practice, whatever it takes to become the best. Don’t give up this key element of control over your future." Rachel Gardner

And this one even more so. It came from The Writer magazine, in an interview with notoriously obsessive, nit-picky Broadway playwright Doug Wright.

"If the subject isn't sufficiently compelling to occupy your time and attention for the three to five year time span it takes to write and rewrite a good play, then why should an audience give you 120 minutes out of their lives?"

Three to five years. Did you see that? It's a rebuke to those who think, for some reason, that writing is or should be easy. We've all heard them say it. "Oh, when I leave this job I'm going to write." Like it's just something you decide to do. You wouldn't say, "Maybe I'll try my hand at brain surgery," or "I'll tear down my car's engine this weekend." Not if you have no experience at medicine or mechanics. But people think they can start writing, because how hard could it be?

Someone said that to me just last week. Seriously. "I'm retiring next year, and then I'm going to start writing." And maybe she will. But I always want to ask, "OK, but what are you doing RIGHT NOW to get ready for that?"

Because you don't just say, "Now I'm a writer" and money starts rolling in. Even if you're good, some savant with all this raw talent, it just doesn't work that way. From the day you decide to start writing a story, with luck and hard work, you might start to see some return three or four years down the road.

And that was where the third kick in the pants came in. Mystery writer James Scott Bell is one of a dozen mystery writers/editors who contribute to the Kill Zone blog, and he's far and away the most helpful. The blog is not specifically or only for mystery writers, although of course that's their forte, but 95 percent of it is generally applicable to writing.

In his column Sunday (which I highly recommend you read here) Bell looks at an article on the habits of wealthy people, and applies those habits to writing. I think they really are applicable to just about any endeavor, but he's a writer, I'm a writer. We're talking about writing.

What it boils down to is asking yourself, on a daily basis, "What am I doing today that will lead me to become better in my field, and improve my chances of success." What am I reading, what am I studying, what am I doing today that will help me ultimately succeed?

He also draws an important distinction between having dreams and having a plan. "I'm going to be a New York Times best-selling author" is a dream. So is, "I'm going to make enough money on my writing to buy a six-pack of beer every other week." It's nice to have dreams like that, but just having dreams doesn't get you very far.

It's your plan that gets you there. In an earlier post, Bell once wrote, "Plans are what put running shoes on your dreams." A dream is something you hope will happen. A plan is what you do to increase the odds in your favor.

And here's maybe the most important thing Bell said. (Seriously, read the column.) A plan has to be measurable. You have to be able to count the steps, you have to be able to gauge your progress. If you can't, it's just a dream, just wishful thinking.

And part of what Bell does to achieve that really opened my eyes.

"Since 2001 I have kept track of my writing on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote, and on what projects, day by week by month by year. I prioritize my projects and know each day which one I want to work on."

I hate spreadsheets. I can see how they're handy for accountants and people who need to count large numbers of things, but I hate when I have to use them. Still, I can see how this is a good idea.

I have a target when I sit down to write. I always aim for 1,000 words a day. If I go over, that's gravy, and I usually do (my best day I got on a roll and knocked out almost 5,000 words. It felt amazing.) But it's very easy to say, I've got to do this, that or the other thing today, and not get around to writing on my WIP (work in progress.) That's a dangerous. It's easy to get out of the swing. Which is what I did.

But now I've got a spread sheet going, and I will mark my progress every day – every day – not just for my WIP, but for all the writing I do for the Source and for this blog. It's harder to ignore. I know that if I skip a day, that blank space is going to be in my word-count log forever. Or until I die, whichever comes first. 


Lilly Faye said...

Hello from another Shark fan! I hate spreadsheets, too. Well, at least I hate creating them.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Love your quotes and your name. I'm visiting from JR's.

AJ Blythe said...

I've tried spreadsheeting my writing before, but it didn't last. Maybe I should start up again. Will follow the link and read the post (thanks!).

Stopping by from QOTKU blog :)

Anonymous said...

Arrrrrr matey! :) Walking the plank from JR's blog.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Hi John,
My first visit to your blog.
I appreciate your comments on QOTKU's blog and even more your post here. WIP = RIP sounds like a tactic. Logging writing time sounds like digging the grave. But interesting. Maybe long-hand-writing and not excell spreadsheeting, OK.

Anonymous said...

Hey, John! I'm stalking you from JR's blog too.

I shouldn't admit this, but I love spreadsheets. A holdover from the day job working with numbers. But it wasn't until this year that I made one to keep track of my writing. ALL my writing, not just the WIP. Guess I should have made a column for blog comments, since I think I've written several hundred words all over the interwebs today, trying to track down all these links. *sigh*

I hope yours helps motivate you to write more words, more often! JSB does give some good advice, doesn't he.

As an aside to your earlier post, have you tried MyFitnessPalDOTcom? A friend recommended it to me and it has been a HUGE help in keeping track of what I eat and analyzing what it contains--- not just calories, but also carbs, fat, protein, sugar, sodium. I cook almost all my own food, too, and this thing makes it very easy to add recipes. Just FYI, if that kind of thing interests you.

Lilac Shoshani said...

Excellent post, John! I loved what you wrote about the distinction between a dream and a plan.

What I was missing was having a very specific daily plan.But yesterday, I made a commitment on Donna's blog to edit/re-write at least 1,000 words every day, since I'm still at the editing stage of my MS.

Thank you John for this helpful and timely information: it's perfect. :-)