Yesterday marked 100 consecutive days of fiction-writing for me, a feat that I have never come close to equaling in the past. I suspect that part of the reason it took me 14 years of writing stories and submitting them before selling my first one was because I didn’t write every day. Eventually I did start selling stories and nonfiction articles, too. But even the motivation of a story sale didn’t get me writing every day. My biggest hurdle was finding the time in the day to write. I have a full time job during the day. I have two young children. I have family obligations. It didn’t seem possible. But back in late February, I really wanted to get serious about my writing and I found ways to work in my writing every day, despite everything else going on.
I sometimes get the idea that non-writers really have no concept what goes on behind the scenes. It sounds easy. It even looks easy. And I also have a sneaking suspicion that writers who have not yet sold something look at writers who have sold things as having some kind of magic formula for getting it done1. So I thought it might be interesting for folks to look at what 100 days of writing, day-in and day-out, really looks like for someone who has nearly a dozen short story sales and numerous nonfiction articles published.
Thus, the infographic above, which you can click on to see the full-size image.
Before getting into the details, let me first say that the data used to produce the infographic is collected entirely automatically. I no longer spend any time counting works, building spreadsheets or capturing the changes I write each day. I have a series of scripts that do all of this for me. Other than putting together the actual infographic from the data, I didn’t spend any time on the data collection. This is important because I could spend that time writing instead.
About the infographic
Each square represents about 100 words of writing. There are 100 days and you can see pretty easily from the x-axis that each square also represents one day.
Green squares represent new writing. That is, stuff that I made up from scratch on that day. Yellow squares are minor tweaks and edits to previous material, usually stuff I’d written on the previous day. Blue squares are nonfiction writing. Purple squares represent outline writing.
And then there are the dreaded orange squares. Orange squares represent complete rewriting, from scratch of some previous material. They differ from green squares in that they usually retread and replace material already written, but using a completely different approach. I call them the “dreaded” orange squares because I usually try to avoid this type of rewriting until the first draft of a story is complete. Otherwise, I get bogged down in rewriting and the story itself doesn’t move forward. Put another way, when you see orange, it means I am struggling with the story.
I didn’t think about any of this as I wrote. I just wrote the same way that I always do and allowed my automated systems to captured the data. I wanted to be able to truthfully show how at least one writer (me) works behind the scenes.
So what does the infographic have to say about the way I write? Well, let’s start with some basics:
Over the course of 100 days, I wrote a total of 83,385 words. All but about 1,500 words were fiction. The 1,500 nonfiction words were for my book review column in InterGalactic Medicine Show. That means that, so far, the blue squares are the only ones for which I have been paid during the 100 days.
This comes to an average of 834 words per day, each and every day. That, of course, is an average. For the statistically-minded people, the standard deviation over that period of time is 491.7. That makes sense, given that on my worst day, I wrote 99 words and on my best day I wrote 3,200 words. Still, I was aiming for 500 words/day and for one hundred days, I’ve done much better.
You’ll notice on the infographic that I called out the weekends. I was curious to see if I wrote more on the weekends than on other days of the week, given that on the weekends, at least, I didn’t have to go to the day job. Surprisingly, the weekends were not my best days for writing. I averaged 783 words/day on the weekend. My best days, however, were Mondays and Friday, with 990 and 925 words per day respectively. If you break things down by days of the week, here is how it looks:
One of the things that affects my writing is breaks in my routine. This most frequently happens when we go out of town or we have visitors. On the infographic, below the months, there is a mostly-green bar that runs across the bottom. This is where I was when I did my writing, and green represents “at home.” You’ll see three days of red and five days of blue on this bar. The red days are the days I was out of town. The blue days are days when we had house guests. I’d point out that my lowest word-count day (99 words back on May 26) came while I was out of town. I was writing in a hotel, after spending a day out with the family. I’m just glad I got some words down.
Okay, so what have I learned from these 100 days of writing? Well, several things:
1. It is possible to write every day, even with a full time job and 2 little kids
For a long time, I didn’t think it was possible. I read a lot and often times, reading took precedence over writing. As Stephen King says in On Writing, you have to do two things to be a writer, read a lot and write a lot. I had the first one covered, but often at the expense of the second. Two things combined to make a difference for me.
- Switching to audio books as the primary format for my reading. I made the switch to audio books back in February, not long before I started on my 100 consecutive days of writing. I haven’t looked back. I’ve been able to read more than ever before, but because I can do it while doing other things–like commuting, or on my daily walks–it doesn’t consume the same time slots as it used to. This, in turn, frees up more time for me to write.
- Writing in small scraps of time. Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of routines to make my writing a regular thing. I’d get up early. I’d stay up late. I’d write during my lunch hour. None of these worked. I already get up pretty early. Getting up earlier to write never really worked well because half the time I wouldn’t do it, and then I’d spend all day feeling guilty about not writing. Staying up late never worked because I was always too tired. Writing at lunch never worked because I wanted to read. What I needed, I realized, was a time when I wasn’t particularly tired, but that was guaranteed to be available to me on most days. I found that time. It falls right in between getting my kids ready for bed and actually putting them to bed. During that time, the kids are watching their TV shows and I have anywhere from 20-30 minutes to write. I sit in the rail chair in our bedroom, while Kelly and the kids sit on our bed, and I spend those 20-30 minutes writing. In 30 minutes, I can write 500 words.
2. It is important for me to write when I don’t feel like writing
There are some nights when I just don’t feel like it. I may be tired, I may not know where the story is going next. But I sit down and write anyway. On a few such occasions, I’ve turned out some of my best work. Other times, I’m writing crap. That’s okay, because I’m working on the first draft and I’m the only one who will ever see that crap. Even the crap moves the story forward.
Sometimes, I’ll only write a few hundred words and it will take up my entire half hour. Other times, I’ll zip through 500 words, and the Little Miss will be telling me she’s ready for bed. I’ll get her to sleep as quickly as I can, put the Little Man to bed, and instead of quitting for the night, write another 700 words after the kids are asleep.
However, the biggest motivation for me to write on those nights when I just don’t feel like it is that I don’t want to break the streak. That is because…
3. The writing streak is incredibly motivating for me
I look back across 100 consecutive days of writing and think, there is no way I’m going to break the streak now! It would take me 101 days to break my record if I had to start from scratch! This notion of not breaking the chain is sometimes referred to as the Seinfeld technique, because it is similar to how Jerry Seinfeld kept up his own productivity. It works for me.
My toughest night was probably May 26. We’d spent the entire day running the kids around Dutch Wonderland, and having a blast. We stayed until the park closed at 8:30pm. Then we headed back to our hotel, got the kids ready for bed, and let them watch one of their shows before going to sleep. It was probably 9:30 before I had a chance to write. I was exhausted. I hadn’t thought about my story all day and had no idea what to write. But there was no way I was going to break my streak. I only wrote 99 words, but the streak remained in tact and I was back to normal the next day.
4. Planning ahead helps
I don’t mean planning the story ahead. I’m not talking about outlining. I’m talking about knowing what your days and nights are going to be like and anticipating difficulties. I learned this pretty quickly. The first 10 days or so went very smoothly because I adhered to the same schedule rigidly. But life gets in the way. If you anticipate and plan around things, it helps a lot.
For example, I occasionally attend a writers group on Wednesday evenings. On the second Wednesday of my 100 days, I went to a meeting, and didn’t get home until 9:30pm. I had to cram in my writing for that evening and felt a little rushed for time. I learned from that. When I next went to a writers group meeting, I did my writing earlier in the day so that it was out of the way and my evening was free and clear. Now, I do this for all kinds of evening-related events and it helps ensure I get the writing done, but also reduces the stress in wondering how I will manage to fit it all in.
5. I still rewrite too much in the first draft.
I’m referring to all that orange you see in the infographic. The yellow I don’t mind at all. That is normal, and is often the first thing I do when I get started each day. I re-read what I wrote the previous day and make little additions, subtractions or corrections, and that’s what the yellow squares represent. My Google App scripts capture all of these changes and send them to Evernote so that I have a complete record of what I wrote on a given day and how it changed the next day.
But the orange squares–they are bad. Usually what happens is one of two things:
- I write a scene on Monday and then decide on Tuesday I want to completely change the scene because I think I could do it better from a different character view point, or something like that. So Tuesday’s writing, while, “new” writing, is really a retelling of what I wrote on Monday. It covers the same ground.
- I’m struggling with the overall story and try a shift in direction that requires a significant amount of rewriting. You can see this happening right around mid-May, when the orange really starts to show her color. (It started with some outlining, something I’d been trying to avoid, but I resorted to because I was beginning to feel desperate.)
I’ve been learning the hard way that it really is better to avoid the rewriting in the first draft. If the story is terrible and not moving forward and I don’t have much invested in it, it is better to give up and move onto something else. But if I am invested in it, rather than rewrite in first draft, I’m starting more and more to make notes in the manuscript about things that need to be fixed in the second draft. And then I move on.
So what about the next 100 days?
There are 3 pieces of information missing from my infographic that I think would be interesting to track and include on the next 100 days:
- The time of day during which I did my writing (something as simple as morning, afternoon, or night).
- My feeling before I started: “tired”, “frustrated”, “excited”, etc.
- My feeling about the writing when I finished: “crap”, “wow!”, “not to bad”, etc.
I might help to identify trends that would allow me to better refine my habits and take better advantage of those times when I am more productive.
I also plan on moving from a fixed goal to a sliding scale. Let me explain. My daily almanac scripts email me each morning to tell me about my previous day’s efforts. If I break some kind of record (best word count in one day, best consecutive days of meeting my goal, etc.) the almanac tells me this. Here is the almanac entry I received this morning:
You can see my 100 consecutive day streak in this message. You can also see that “you’ve hit your goal for 6 consecutive days.” This means that I’ve written at least 500 words for 6 days. It is far from my best, which is 25 days. That goal is currently fixed at 500 words per day.
In the next 100 days, I’ve converted it to an adjustable goal. It works as follows:
At the end of each month, my daily average is calculate for the month. Say it comes out to 800 words. My current goal is 500 words. The difference is 300 words better than my goal, on average. So my scripts will increase my goal to 500 + 300 words, and then reduce the total by 20% to give me a little breathing room. So my new goal would be 800 – 160 = 640 words/day. In order to meet my goal each day, I would now have to write at least 640 words. And this would change month-to-month.
Meeting my goal and writing every day are two different things. I get credit for the day even if I write 1 word, but I haven’t done that yet. More than anything else, I want to continue my streak so that on September 15, 2013, I can post a new infographic that covers 200 consecutive days of writing, and then spend another 2,500 words analyzing it for you as I’ve done today. 😉
- I have this suspicion because it was one that I once briefly held for a short time way back when I was starting out. ↩