Saturday, February 19, 2011

Some Crazy Pie (Or, Another of My Weird Writing Methods)

So I posted not long ago about the madness of my writing methods. Did you think that was the only insane part of the process? Ooh, no, my friends. The madness never ends.

I sometimes joke about the crazy things OCD drives me to, but I'm not actually kidding. Officially diagnosed? No. Spend five minutes with me in a room with a crooked picture on the wall, asymmetrically arranged knickknacks, haphazardly formatted spreadsheet data, disorganized file folders, or books not shelved according to some sort of aesthetic pattern and -- I mean, seriously. What the hell. How does that not bother you? It's a rectangular frame hung on a rectangular wall with angular furniture. Is it so hard to raise the upper left corner three millimeters so all the vertical lines are parallel and all the horizontal lines are parallel and when your files are scattered all over one folder on your computer, how do you find anything and--

Annnnnnnd breathe.

See what I'm getting at? I swear I'm not making this up. Honestly, if I need to settle my nerves or bring my blood pressure back down after something upsets me, ten minutes of organizing a folder of photos into subfolders will have me completely zen. Not. Kidding. I could fill up an entire blog entry with nothing but my weird little OCD habits, but I'm going to focus on the one place it's most apparent: my writing goals. The thing is, I found a way to use my OCD to my advantage. Stay with me here...

Before my writing career, I was the queen of procrastination. If starting but not finishing were an Olympic sport, I'd have more gold medals than Michael Phelps. Seriously. In school, I was the Writing Papers The Night Before Ninja, and when I used to show horses, I was the Jedi Knight of Scrambling to Polish My Boots An Hour Before A Class Instead of Doing It Two Days Before Like Everyone Else. Writing was what I always wanted to do for a living, but my arch nemeses -- the Procrastination Poltergeists, Slacker Demons, and Lack of Motivation Banshees -- made it appear I'd never be able to pull this off.

But then along came NaNoWriMo. I'm sure many of you have heard of it. Annual event, November, 50,000 word novel in a month, etc. In 2008, I gave it a try. After all, I had nothing going on that month besides, like, moving to Japan and stuff. I won NaNo that year, but I also learned something about myself: Give me a tangible, quantifiable goal, and I will sweat bullets until I reach it.

Upon this epiphany, I narrowed my eyes, steepled my fingers in front of my chin, and gave the most menacing laugh I could muster. It was pretty impressive, actually. Somewhere between Mr. Burns and Stewie Griffin. The other passengers on my flight were decidedly unamused, but no matter. I'd discovered the cure for my own procrastination: NUMBERS.

Yes. Numbers. Word counts. Daily goals. Monthly goals. Yearly goals.

Did it work?

Yes. Yes, it absolutely did. I aimed for 1,000,000 words in 2009, and I made it. On most days, I shoot for 5,000 words, and I get twitchy if I don't make it. For over two years, this method has worked. It's kept me going for -- to date -- 22 novels, 4 novellas, and roughly 2 million words. This method of motivation may not work for everyone, but it has certainly worked for me.

But how, you murmur quietly behind your hand as you eye this blog warily, does one keep track of all that crap?

The answer is simple: spreadsheets. Obsessively maintained, meticulously formatted, pretty little spreadsheets.

OCD and Excel are a match made in heaven. Of course, spreadsheets are generally boring to anyone besides the one using them, but as you look at these, just remember that they're the manifestation of unspeakable degrees of madness. That makes them kind of amusing, anyway...

First, I have to keep track of the word counts of every chapter. Since I outline in Excel, it's also convenient for adding up chapters, figuring out how much I have to go, and keeping track of which chapters still need to be finished. The result looks a little something like this:
The blurred out information is the outline itself. No peeking!! The rest is pretty self-explanatory. White X = chapter is finished, "EP" = Epilogue, third column = current word count for the corresponding chapter. Oh, and the decimalized chapters? That's because I ended up adding a chapter after I'd already started writing, so rather than renumbering every single Word document, I just decimalize it and straighten them all out later.

But that doesn't address daily goals, now does it? Of course not. We need another spreadsheet:
Plug in one number ("Current"), and all the other numbers adjust. Formulas are a beautiful, OCD-soothing invention. The two columns on the right let me know how much I still have to write today (left) if I want to reach certain milestones (right). 5,000 is my customary daily goal, which is why it's in green. Target EOD WC refers to the end of day word count. In other words, where the book will be at the end of the day if I reach my goal.

Ahhh, pretty numbers. *insert floaty hearts here* If this sounds crazy, let me tell you: when you hit a speedbump when you're only 400 words away from your daily goal, it's amazing how motivating that can be to just sit down, shut up, and reach that damned goal. There have been many, many days in the last two years -- easily in the triple digits -- where the only thing that's kept my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard has been a not-quite-reached goal.

And if that isn't enough to keep me twitching and sweating, there's the day-by-day progress sheet.
(Grey spaces are editing days, days off, or times when I had to work on something else, such as a galley copy)

I swear, my brain starts acting like a high school gym teacher at this point. When today's output is sitting at 2,500, a little voice in my head starts in on the "well, you did 5,000 yesterday, what's the problem? Hell, look at that, 9,000 words. And you can't even do another 500 today? Not even enough so you can shade the box pink instead of yellow? Do you really want another yellow box?"

I'm insane, I know.

And just in case the little colored boxes and that gym teacher voice aren't enough, there's also the yearly goal and monthly goals:
"You really want to make this a 2,500 word day? Want to leave the last 10 days of the month to try to play catch-up? C'mon, woman, you did almost 100,000 last month. You can do this."

Stop looking at me like that. This can't be a surprise to any of you anymore.

Okay, so what's the point of all of this? Because yes, there is a point to it. Well, besides giving everyone the opportunity to point at me and laugh (which you're welcome to do; I'm totally doing it to myself just by writing this blog entry).

The thing is, I've heard a lot of people criticize the idea of using word count goals for motivation. And for some, word counts are not the way to go. For some of us, though, they are perfect. It's not to say we're putting quantity over quality. Not by any means. For me, at least, it's the only way to force myself to put the words on paper. Those words may not be perfect, but that's what revision is for.

The point is, I found a little quirk -- the fact that I sweat over numbers and obsess over spreadsheets -- and used it to my advantage.

So, I will point to my wacky number-tracking methods above, and reiterate my previous statement:

There is no right or long as you finish it.


  1. I knew you were a nutball. Now I have proof.


  2. Oh, right, like you don't already have mounds of proof of my insanity.