Writing Month in Review: October 2020

Number of Writing Weeks: 5 out of 5

Total Word Count: 9,944 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 3,973 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 199%

Other Stats: 3 Writing Days per Week; 43,545 words year-to-date

October saw a modest drop off in my productivity from September. But I’m still churning out new Word Count at a healthy clip, so no complaints from the peanut gallery of my brain.

You may (all two of you) recall that last month, as a result of my sudden surge in productivity, I revised my goals for the remainder of the year to effectively double the word count I expect to produce by the end of the year. Up from 24,000 words total to 48,000 words.

Well, as you can see, I’m tracking quite favorably against that revised goal, and in all likelihood I’ll hit that benchmark sometime in November (which as of this writing is almost half over) if I continue the rate of productivity I’ve had so far this month.

There’s one caveat however: as of this week I’ve hit a bit of a snag in my forward momentum on the novel. My notes and outline for the book call for a the main characters to now have a moment of respite during which they engage in a brief theological discussion.

Between the different characters involved in the discussion there are actually four different theological perspectives on offer (if you count the protagonist’s agnosticism as a type of theology), plus a fifth that will come into play later in the story. There’s just one teensy little problem: while I have a copious volume of historical background notes, I never actually finished fleshing out my world-building notes with respect to the major world religions in this story. A pretty significant oversight considering how central religious belief and ideology is to the theme of the book.

This leaves me with a bit of a quandary. Do I (1) handwave the theological discussion, plow ahead with the main plot lines, and come back to this later during the revising and editing stage; or (2) do I take a beat on pushing forward with the novel itself and shift focus to building out my bare-bones notes on the major world religions in this story so that the characters in question have something to talk about during this scene?

Either scenario will technically count as writing productivity, so I’m not worried about missing my goal. Words are words, whether it’s outlines and notes or its actual novel words – they’re all integral to telling the story. And whether I do the religion worldbuilding notes now or later, I will have to do them eventually.

As it is… during the eventual revising and editing stage I’m already going to have to go back and do some heavy edits in a lot of the earlier scenes and chapters of the book to more correctly align the character’s thoughts, words, and actions with their specific religious beliefs and worldviews. For example: does Religion A require that its adherents pray in a certain way or at certain times of day? Then I ought to show that at some point in the story, probably sooner rather than later.

Anyway… I’m inclined to go with option 2, pause on the novel momentum, and focus my attention on the gap in my worldbuilding. I think doing that will make future scenes and writing go more smoothly due to having already fleshed out the details of the religions. Once I have a firm “bible” (did you see what I did there?) on what the story’s religions each believe and how they practice their faith, I will be more easily able to reference that quickly and incorporate those details in the moment, rather than having to stop all the time and think about it. Not sure if it’s more efficient on net, or just “six in one hand, half-a-dozen in the other”. But it’s what I think is the right approach.

What do you think, dear reader?

If you write, how much worldbuilding do you do before writing the story, and do you ever have to stop writing the story to do more worldbuilding?

Redesigning My Homegrown Writing Productivity Tracker: to Database or Not to Database?

I honestly don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this here before: but I track all of my writing in a homegrown little productivity tracker that I built in Google Sheets. It’s pretty nifty, and I’m reasonably proud of it: it was a pretty good balance of easy-to-build with richly-detailed-stats.

VoilĂ :

It’s been great… so far. But then I blew past my word count goal for the year. And now I’ve found that this tool, as flexible and simple as it was… doesn’t really have what it takes to adjust on the fly to a changing situation.

Case in point?

As previously reported, I’ve already met my word count goal for the year 2020. But now I want to stretch my goals further. I can simply adjust my annual goal upward – but then weeks and months in which I met my goal for that period will no longer show that as being the case. There’s no way for me to put a cap on the goal that I have – maintaining my past success – while setting new goals going forward. And that’s to say nothing of how I track goals and productivity once I enter the editing phase of this novel – a phase which I can now conceivably imagine happening!

So I started working on an updated format that would be more flexible, but I quickly realized something: the sort of functionality that I want can be done in Google Sheets, if I’m willing to do some twisting of arms, etc. But it would be better served by a simple Database application.

If only there were a simple and flexible database system that lived in the cloud the way Google Sheets does that I could use to build out the Writing Productivity Tracker of my dreams.

Well… turns out, there are some cloud-based DB tools; some even free-to-use! But there are so many caveats to that statement, I feel totally unqualified to analyze all the possible options!

Of those that I’ve looked at, the one I feel most comfortable giving a go is Airtable. Having played with it a bit (due to testing Airtable for consideration of deploying it as a tool for my team at the old desk-grind day-job). I feel like it has just the right balance between spreadsheet-like table functionality and relational database tools. And… If I understand correctly, I can publish a blank copy of the Airtable Base for use by other authors, writers, and various like-minded folks. Which is something I was considering doing with the revised Google Sheets tracking tool.

The downside, unfortunately: the free tier of Airtable is pretty limited in terms of the size of the database. Limited to 1,200 records per database, a particularly prolific author could easily burn through the limits of a free account within a couple years. Even the lowest paid tier has a pretty strict limit of only 5,000 records per database… depending on how many active projects a writer was working on, that limit might only carry them through five to ten years worth of writing productivity.

Contrast this with a Google Sheet, which is free and which has an upper bound on the number of rows in a sheet in the range of upwards of something like 40,000 rows. Built right, a Google Sheet could last years and years of tracking writing. But since it’s a spreadsheet and not a relational database, doing it right is super complicated. You end up having to sort of reach around your elbow to scratch your nose to make it function more like a database.

In terms of time to develop my solution for 2021 and beyond: Airtable likely wins hands-down. I could throw something really impressive together over a couple weeks of downtime. In terms of cost and longevity: Google Sheets wins the prize with flying colors. But it will likely take me much of the remainder of the year’s worth of downtime to do figure out how to make it work right in Sheets. Which I’m willing to spend the time to do it right… but I worry it would eat too deeply into actual writing time. Which, you know, as a writer the actual writing has to come first.

So Google Sheets or Airtable? Major caveat though: I know next to nothing about the myriad of other options for free-to-use cloud-based relational databases. My research uncovered tools that go by names like “Grist” and “Obvibase” and “Ragic”. All appear to have different strengths and limitations – especially on their free tiers. And while I’d potentially be open to paying a small fee for the right tool… this isn’t a business for me, but something I want to create for myself and potentially open up to the world of like-minded data-geeky authors and writers for free. Ergo: ideally what I need is a free-to-use option.

Here’s where I’m hoping you, dear reader, can help. Fingers crossed someone reads this who has somewhat more experience than I in working with database tools and has a good feel for the types of tools out there and – hope-against-hope – has some good suggestions for what I might explore. Google Sheets vs. Airtable vs. Some-other-yet-to-be-considered solution. Given the constraints of needing a free-to-use tool, ability to publish a copy publicly, with enough room to grow for years of any given writer’s productivity (i.e. I’d like to see a minimum of 10,000 records worth of data available on a free-to-use tier): what would you do dear reader? What functionality would you want to see in such a tool? Would you use a writing tracker if it were made available and free-to-use? Let me know what great ideas you have!

Writing Month in Review: September 2020

Number of Writing Weeks: 4 out of 4

Total Word Count: 13,395 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 3,349 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 670%

Other Stats: 3 Writing Days per Week; 37,370 words year-to-date; 199% of Annual Goal

Well, would you just look at those stats! You’re not seeing things. I actually and truly wrote over 13 thousand words in September, averaging over 3 thousand per week. September was a legit writing month for me!

Out of a monthly goal of 2,000 words I more than sextupled it. How did this happen? Well, thing one: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my dear, wonderful wife. She’s always been super supportive of my writing, but she really went above-and-beyond this month in making sure I had the time and space to write. I can’t thank her enough. And thing two: it helps that I’m feeling so energized and engaged with the story. Not saying that the part of the story that came before was boring – far from it – but there’s a myriad of factors that are really pulling me into the story and feeding the energy to be productive. Right now I feel positively driven to write, to keep going as often as feasibly possible.

Last month I was in a pretty nebulous place – feeling simultaneously in despair that I’d ever finish this book and determined that I must and will, come what may. This month, the energy I felt from that latter sentiment has been amplified. I’m absolutely committed to getting this story out of my head, out of my notes, and onto the screen.

And you know what? In one month I produced more than half my total word count goal for the whole year. I blew past my annual goal so thoroughly that it’s choking on the dust of my passing. I went so far and so fast that I haven’t even had the time to reconsider my goals for the year and set up a new, stretchier goal for myself… For that matter, in the Google Sheet I built where I track my writing productivity, I simply never contemplated such a potentiality, and there isn’t really a way for me to easily update my goal for the remainder of the year…

Furthermore… let’s say I can only sustain half the rate of productivity I had in September, going forward. Over 6,000 words per month – triple the monthly goal I’d been working with so far – if I can sustain that rate month-after-month (and I’m optimistic that I can, now) then I’m looking at writing “The End” not in six or seven years, as I earlier estimated, but in two or three years. That starts to feel real, not like something that will never happen, but something that’s legitimately within reach.

Last month I said that once I beat my annual goal, I’d be adjusting my goal in 2,000-word stretches. Pocket change, that is, now. I’m over 37-thousand words for the year, now. That’s over 6 new 2,000-word stretch goals. My goal planning can’t keep up with that. So I clearly need to “go big or go home” as it were.

My new goal for 2020: beat 48-thousand words. That’s double my original goal for the year. But with September as my guide, it’s totally doable. i only need just under 11,000 more words to beat it – approximately 3,500 words per month remaining in the year. That’s small fries compared to September, so I’m literally splitting the difference between going truly ambitious and cutting myself a little slack here. Seems fair to me.

Can I do it? Yes I can!

See you here again, next month – in which I shall hopefully be reporting some great new progress toward my revised 2020 goal!

Writing Month in Review – April – August 2020

Okay so I didn’t mean to fall off the wagon, but sometimes things happen…

Number of Writing Weeks: 14 out of 22

Total Word Count: 9,288 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 422 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: between 33% – 168%

Other Stats: From 0.5 to 2 Writing Days per Week

So April through June were kind of lost months. Hardly any writing at all, and looking back I can’t exactly say why that happened. Life stuff, I guess. Those writing challenges, obviously, extended to my reporting on it here. Thus, here I am, playing catch-up and reporting on the past several months all in one go.

As it turns out, July and August were pretty healthy rebuilding months – I actually got quite a lot of writing done overall. The caveat being: I’ve started splitting my writing time between the novel and another project that has recaptured a lot of my creative energy after a few years of dormancy. That being a role-playing game design that I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off for well over a decade – in fact, much longer than I’ve been working on The Book of M.

In the not-extremely-distant future I hope to start sharing some thoughts on that RPG design effort: my goals for the design, a little retrospective on how it all started and how it’s evolved, and a little insight into my current thinking on it. But that’s for later. I’m not ready to spend a lot of time blogging my game design process just yet. Rather… let’s just ease back into reporting on my writing and the progress on my novel first before I get too ambitious with this blog.

Speaking of the progress on my novel: how about those numbers? 116,000+ words and counting. Not a short novel, and as the that progress bar on the main blog page indicates, I’m still only somewhere in the neighborhood of just shy of half-way. I continue to remain excited about the way things are going – even if the details of the events are a little more, umm, detailed than my original outline calls for.

Turns out, less than 70 words of plot outline can balloon into more than 14,000 words of actual fiction! And I’m not even all the way to the end of that bullet on my outline. In fact, this one outline bullet accounts for in the neighborhood of 70% of all my novel writing for the whole year-to-date. That’s impressive, I think, for seventy little words worth of outline. So what am I to make of an outline that’s over 13,000 words by itself?

Luckily, different parts of my outline vary a great deal in the level of detail. Some sections go into a lot of detail on what’s happening, and others, like the section I’m working on now, gloss over a series of significant events very quickly. So I don’t think this 200:1 ratio is meaningful in terms of the size of the book getting out of control. I still think that 250,000 words is a realistic upper-bound on the length of the book. And if I do go over that, I should probably be looking for ways to cut a lot when it comes time to edit.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First draft first, thank you very much. Editing… after I give the dust from finished draft some time to settle.

Looking forward, what’s my timeline for finishing this behemoth? Well, realistically I’ve been at this for years now, working in fits-and-starts as life demands and energy levels come and go. Right now I’m working with a goal of 24,000 words of writing for the year 2020 – of which I’ve now written over 20,000 to-date, with the vast majority of that in the novel. (I haven’t kept very good track of my writing on my RPG design project, as I’ve gone back and forth about whether to even count that as writing…) If I can maintain that pace, which – let’s be honest, is truly a snail’s pace in terms of writing – then I can look forward, finally, to a finished first draft sometime in 2026!

Putting it in black-and-white like that… makes me sad. That’s not how I always envisioned my writing life going. What’s worse, consider how long it takes to edit and revise and rewrite! I’d wage any well-established professional author will tell you that writing the first draft is less than half the work involved in bringing into fruition a publishable final draft. Finishing that first draft: that’s table stakes. That’s the first step of a marathon.

If you’d asked me ten years ago where I’d be in my writing career by 2020, I know I’d have said I’d be somewhere between “I’ve officially sold my first novel” to “I’m getting started on my second/third/fourth book under contract”. I’d never have predicted that I wouldn’t even be done with the first draft of my first book. But that’s reality.

It’s a reality that’s absolutely depressing. It’s a reality that whispers to me: you’ll never actually get a book published; you’re just too slow; you’re just not good enough.

I don’t want to wait until 2026 to see a finished first draft of Book of M. Maybe that’s what’s realistic. Maybe that’s what’s actually going to happen. But I need to set a more ambitious goal for myself. I need to believe I can do better at writing than I have heretofore. Though the world around us is on the doorsteps of the Apocalypse, on the very cusp of self-immolation, yet I still need to believe that I can do this. Whatever happens over the next few years, I’ve got to try to be the person – the author – I truly believe I was always meant to be.

Accordingly, I know I need to set – and keep – a far more ambitious goal for 2021 and beyond. For 2020: once I’ve officially met my goal of 24,000 words, which still looks achievable, I’ll start adding on personal stretch goals, 2,000 words at a time. But after this year, I need to ramp up dramatically. My 2021 goal is going to be double my 2020 goal. I aim to write over 48,000 words in 2021. If I can meet it in 2021, then my goal for 2022 will stretch even further, until I’ve got myself in such a pattern that I can reliably produce a completed novel draft in less than two years. If I’m ever going to break the barrier between me and professional publication, I have to prove to myself that I can do that. One completed novel every two years, and maybe I have a shot at becoming who I know I was meant to be. Maybe. That is, if the world doesn’t end in an abrupt and devastating cataclysm. (To which, well, I’m not holding my breath on that count, let me tell you. But that’s an entirely different topic of conversation, isn’t it?)

So there you have it. I am going to beat my 24,000 word goal this year. I’m doing it, and I won’t let myself off the hook for it. And I’m going to push that boundary farther and farther every chance I get, month-after-month, year-after-year, to prove myself worthy of the epithet of author, come what may. And when I cross that line: I hope it finds its audience, that maybe that audience is you, and that you’ll enjoy what I’ve created.

See you here again, next month.

Writing Month in Review – March 2020

March turned out to be a really great month for writing! I’m super-pleased with my results:

Number of Writing Weeks: 4 out of 4

Total Word Count: 4,836 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 1,209 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 241.8%

Other Stats: 3 Writing Days per Week

Now things are really chugging along. Not that they weren’t before, mind you. But, put this in terms of the Hero’s Journey: we’re now crossing a second Threshold, initiating a new round of Tests, with new Allies, Enemies, and Rivals to be revealed.

In fact, my protagonist has just now met the deuteragonist, a character who serves as something of a foil. Both characters are, I believe, necessary to provide multiple perspectives on the main issues that drive the plot. Shortly, within the next chapter or two that I write, these two will come into conflict – neither yet fully aware of the antagonist‘s ultimate aims.

All I can say is: I hope somebody reads and enjoys it once it’s done.

Writing Month In Review – February 2020

I thought January went pretty well – I got super-close to my goal for the month. But what I could really use in my writing life is more months like February.

Number of Writing Weeks: 5 out of 5

Total Word Count: 4,125 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 825 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 206.25%

Other Stats: 2.6 Writing Days per Week (I had a lot less consistency on which days of the week I actually sat down to write: four times on a Sunday, twice on a Monday, once on a Wednesday, twice on a Thursday, three times on a Friday, and once on a Saturday – overall Sundays were my most consistent writing day for February, followed by Fridays.)

Taken altogether, February was an excellent month for my writing. Not only did a write a bunch – by my historically anemic standards – but I also crossed a very meaningful threshold. February was the month in which I crossed the 100,000-word-mark in my novel. That’s a HUGE symbolic milestone for me. I’ve got something real going on here: it’s a big story, and I’ve got the words to prove it.

Story-wise this was a pretty big landmark, too. While I now expect that 100,000 words will prove to be somewhat less than the halfway mark for the finished novel (as reflected in the revised word count totals shown in the right hand sidebar), I’ve nonetheless reached something akin to the book’s spiritual halfway mark. Based on the remaining outline for the book, I’m thiiiiiiiiiissss close to the point where the heroine’s journey shifts gears, where she experiences a sort of mini-epiphany and really takes charge of her story.

Up to this point, I’ve thrown a lot of evil stuff at her, tossing her from one unfortunate circumstance to the next, and never letting her catch her breath. This is not to say her character wasn’t an important driver of the plot. But her goals were small and personal, while the world around her was demanding something more of her. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, she’s been resisting the “Call” for most of the first half of the book, even as circumstances dragged her kicking and screaming into the world of adventure. But now? This week, or possibly the next, I will write the moment when she stops resisting her destiny, and comes to embrace it.

There’s a lot to unpack in all of that, of course – it seems the first half of my novel goes against conventional wisdom that the hero character should be the primary driver of the plot, rather than letting plot happen to them. But I feel this is critical for her journey. In the end, however, it will be reactions from test readers – assuming I can find some when I finally reach “The End” – that will determine whether this approach works for this story, and whether the first half stays engaging despite my heroine’s staunch refusal to accept her role as protagonist. But one step before the next: before I can worry about that, I have to finish the first draft! 2020 may not be the year I do that, but if can repeat February a few times, I’ll start to make some satisfying progress toward that years-long goal.

Writing Month In Review – January 2020

First a quick note about how I’m reporting my stats month-to-month.

The writing progress stats tracker I built (in Google Sheets), first, treats a week as running from Sunday to the following Saturday – nothing weird there. Using that definition of a week, it derives weekly writing stats for me. Then it looks at monthly writing stats.

Because calendar months don’t align neatly with actual weeks, I built a work-around to better align the two. Instead of each month ending on the last calendar date of the month, my stats tracker ends it on the last Saturday of the calendar month (with the next month officially beginning on the Sunday after). This neatly ties my month-to-month stats to my week-to-week stats – with the slightly weird artifact, naturally, that some months have 4 weeks and some months have 5.

January was a 4-week month in this system (running an even 28 days, from December 29th to January 25th).

The peculiarities of my tracking system dispensed with, it’s time for my first self-report on my writing progress for January 2020:

Number of Writing Weeks: 3 out of 4

Total Word Count: 1,957 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 489 words (652 on weeks where writing occurred)

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 97.85%

Other Stats: 2 Writing Days per Week when writing occurred (primarily on Fridays and Saturdays)

January was actually a decent month to start my Year Of Writing off with, all things considered. My annual writing goals for 2020 aren’t overly aggressive – but they’re more aggressive than in recent years. Translated to monthly progress goals, I’m expecting to do 2,000 words a month. And I’m as close to almost-on-the-mark-but-falling-short as you can be. The one week that I didn’t write was expected. (My oldest and I had a weekend trip to go to Space Camp with the rest of his Cub Scout den; seeing as how my writing is predominantly on Fridays and Saturdays, it simply wasn’t possible to put any words down under the circumstances. Regardless: it was a Fatherhood Win!)

All in all, in spite of falling juuuuuuust short of my goal for the month, I’m still pretty happy with the results. I feel I’ve set myself up for a year of success, and I’m ready to take the second half of this novel on and wrestle it into a workable first draft!