I have goals.
I am easily distracted from those goals. Apart from being married, having kids and being tired all the time, I’m also prone to addiction to television series, I’m an avid consumer of social media, I have still not shed my youthful predisposition for playing video games for many hours at a time, and I have a to-read pile that would exceed a storey in height if most of the items in it were not digital. If my tabletop gaming hadn’t tapered off to a mere trickle during the year it would have continued to be a major non-writing interest.
So, like a lot of writers, I have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to deciding what I would rather be doing than writing. It’s not as if the above list is exhaustive.
Lately – by which I mean, since about last July or so – other things that aren’t writing have been winning the battle for my free time. I’ve read a crapton of books (shallowly, for the most part), played out a few of the games in my collection, knocked off the odd season or two of TV favourites and spent way too much time trawling through Twitter.
Since July or so, my writing productivity on my draft novel dropped from 200-300 words a day (peaking at over 500 words a day in May) to less than 50 words a day by September and more or less nothing between October and the end of the year. The decline coincided with the worst of the lethargy that led to my sleep apnoea diagnosis, but it would be disingenuous to put the sharp downward slide to zero wordage down to a health-inspired break.
What really happened was that I lost my streak. I’d been writing continuously – not necessarily every day, but often enough to hit satisfactory weekly targets – for eight or so months straight. When I hit the wall and lost that uninterrupted run for about three or four weeks, getting started again seemed impossible. I had established an expectation of my own output (I won’t talk about quality here, just word count) that I couldn’t possibly achieve on nights when keeping my eyes open much past 9 pm was out of the question.
Rather than settle for a lesser word count (an option that in retrospect I think may just not have occurred to me) I fled the novel altogether. I told myself that I needed to think about the ending (lie). I told myself that I needed to think about the critiques comments I’d received in September (true but not relevant to finishing the draft). I told myself I didn’t know where the scene I was in the middle of writing was going (true but not very difficult to solve).
Basically I told myself whatever I needed to hear to excuse myself. Then I played Just Cause 2 for a bunch of weeks.
(I also started my treatment for sleep apnoea, which is not irrelevant, but was not the primary obstacle to my writing productivity for the entirety of the fallow period. I’m feeling much better now, by the way).
And to be a bit fair on myself, I wasn’t completely idle during that period. I wrote two 5000+ word stories during that time, one of which went through three rounds of edits in order to get it in its best possible shape before a submission deadline. Both are pretty solid pieces, I think – or will be with a bit more polishing. I’m proud of having written them, but they do represent my failure to meet my primary writing goal for the year.
And now it’s a new year, and while I don’t really do resolutions as such, it seems like a good time to set some goals for the coming year. Finishing the novel remains at the top of the list, but I now recognise that this piece, at least, is a marathon and not a sprint. I can’t sustain late night writing stints, especially not over a protracted period. That’s likely to remain true for the foreseeable future. So I need to have more modest goals for now.
At the same time, I need to build some momentum. I know from past experience that once I am in the habit of regular writing, with a set routine (“sit down, review output of previous session, review notes, start typing”) the words and ideas tend to flow easily. I also know that that is a rhythm that I need to build up to. It’s not my natural starting point.
My solution is to set a modest minimum daily word count (starting at 400 words, which is achievable in under an hour even when I’m having a very rough writing day). I’m going to focus not on producing huge blocks of words, but on hitting my target every single day. I’m going to play up to my gaming instincts and try for unbroken streaks of writing days. The knowledge that if I miss a day I will have to reset the clock should be enough to motivate me to effort when I might otherwise decide to vegetate in front of the telly. (It worked last night).
The other rules I have set for myself are:
1) Until I finish the current draft of the novel, the first 400 words have to be novel writing. I am allowed to work on other projects as well, but only after I’ve hit my daily target of advancing towards a finished draft.
2) If I know that a prior commitment is going to prevent my writing on a given day, then I am allowed to bank up that day’s word count ahead of time (i.e. dedicate some prior days’ writing sessions to accumulating the expected deficit). No retrospective allocation allowed – I can’t declare after the fact that back on Monday I wrote 1000 words so on Tuesday I can take the night off. That breaks the streak – but I can say on Monday that I will write an extra 1000 words, knowing that I am going out to the movies on Tuesday night.
3) As soon as I break the streak I have to declare it here, so as to keep myself honest (and for later reference, when I get around to analysing whether this experiment has been of any benefit whatsoever to my writing…)
Progress to date: I started on the second, and haven’t hit my word count for today (yet). So far my streak is a run of four consecutive writing days.