As I wrote the rough draft of my current novel, a lot of people inquired as to my process. I kept a log and some notes along the way, primarily to keep myself honest about productivity. But recently some friends have had issues with their own work and began asking again. Putting this up may seem like supreme self-indulgence, but it’s dedicated to anyone whose work has ever struggled with their beloved medium.
In October of 2010, I realized I’d gone three years without a serious attempt at a novel. I had a dozen ideas and procrastinated on all of them in favor of paid articles, short stories, networking, catching up on reading, girlfriends, health, and plenty of other excuses that sound good at the time. These things also leave you going three years without a novel.
By November, I whittled down to the one idea I’d follow. By December, I had the outline. On January 2nd, the family was finally out of my house. I bought a pizza and locked my door.
January 2: 1300 words
There are at least four alternative drafts of the opening of Nobody’s House from January 2nd. I second-guessed myself so frequently that it was dusk before I realized I didn’t have to get it right. I could go back and change what stunk; all I needed was a launch. The one I settled for was still too passive, yet it set up enough of the big opening chapter that I know I could return to and correct it later. It was strewn with bold notes to myself on what I’d probably need to fix later. Recognizing what things I can fix now is essential to getting the work done.
Afterward I went looking for people to high-five; I was writing the damned novel!
January 3: ??? (about +1000)
January 4: ??? (about +1000)
Got carried away writing for a few days. Hit my word minimums but forgot to record the actual progress. I stuck to a minimum of 1,000 words, because while they’re crude, word counts are the most reliable evidence of getting the work done. Sentences, paragraphs, actions and plot points hit are much easier to fudge when you want a day off.
January 5: 5200
January 6: 6349
January 7: 7745
From my notes: “Feeling gleeful that I can routinely exceed my word minimum. I’m already a day ahead of schedule. I won’t use it to take a day off, but it does mean on a tough day I can fall a little short. Just have to hit that next round number. Tough days will come.”
January 8: 8687
January 9: 10,338
January 10: 11,675
January 11: 12,596
January 12: 14,534 (+1,059 existing words imported; edited them in)
I’d had the idea for Nobody’s House years in advance. I actually had a folder with many tidbits of documents. Today’s chapter was the first of several I was able to supplement with existing material. Same went the next day. I made sure to give the day’s work another Passover that night so everything fit together.
January 13: 16,381 (+992 existing words imported; edited them)
January 14 17,562
January 15 18,912
January 16 20,222
January 17 21,540
January 18 No writing, very sick, bed early
Knew tough days would come. The whole week was a fight to get out of bed. My syndrome picked up in this period. Tuesday was the worst day. My mind simply refused to focus, and sitting up was its own fight. A fight for another day.
January 19 23,622
January 20 24,732
January 21 25,920
Made plans to help my grandfather in Connecticut on the 24th. That would be a mandatory day off, because even at my healthiest, such a drive would wipe me out. I shot for 29,000 words before the 24th, to sure up any feelings of manuscript neglect.
January 22 27,277
January 23 29,103
January 24 Day out with Grandpa
From my notes: “Took the day off from writing. My maternal grandmother died of cancer a few months ago, leaving my grandfather alone in a nursing home. Though senile, he’s one of the most astute patients they have. He doesn’t see family often enough. I call him every night to ensure he has some sort of family contact. Today I actually got to take him out, for pizza and chatter. It’s a long drive to Connecticut. Good thing I padded the schedule.”
January 25 30,299
January 26 31,532
January 27 33,457
January 28 34,586
January 29 35,720 (mostly additions to old chapters)
Ted Hoagland used to tell me the answer to writer’s block is editing. Can’t create something new? Fix the old. In this case I had a lot of lingering gaps in early chapters I wanted to back-fill, and continuity to correct.
This is also the point at which I worried Writer’s Exhaustion was setting in. It was a hardcore month by my standards. Vacation loomed a week away, too – I was visiting some friends in Boston. So I made another declaration: if I could hit 42,000 words by February 8th, then in honor of Douglas Adams’s bad numerology I’d call it quits until I returned.
January 30 No writing, sick in bed
As though to confirm my Writer’s Exhaustion fears, stress feedback got so bad in my syndrome that I was stuck on my back for another day. May have snuck to the computer that night to add a little dialogue anyway.
January 31 37,437
February 1 38,685
February 2 40,185
February 3 41,221
February 4 None
February 5 42,648
And so my little vacation began. Then it began growing.
March 3 Return home
From my notes: “Well. That was humiliating. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation exploded into nearly a month of no productivity. I also gained about ten pounds. I know where every pound came from. Think I’m getting more shameless about junk food. That needs to cut out soon. We kept pushing back the end of my vacation. It was a lot of fun, but good God was that a long period of no productivity. Kicking my butt into gear tomorrow. I hope “tomorrow” doesn’t turn out to be a lie.”
March 4 45,008
From my notes: “Wasn’t a lie! Over 2,000 words in one sitting. Even if that vacation was too long, feel energized. Love jumping into blank scenes.”
March 5 46,173
March 6 47,236
March 7 Argh
If you’ve followed the blog, you know what happened here. A severe ice storm hit New York. It took out our power for a week, and NYSEG pretty boldly lied to us about restoration times on an hourly basis. I was left very sick. No computer to type on for a week, and then a period of being too down under to compose. Then? A period of self-enabling bullcrap. No way should I have gone twenty days without writing.
March 27 48,136
Power and health in order, I got back in the saddle and forced myself to write. It was six hours to produce under 1,000 words. This was the kind of event writers are always afraid of after a break, and it made the post-February splurge look like a fluke.
March 28 ~49,000 words
March 29 50,000+ words, reassess layout
From my notes: “I’m back to daily writing and have steady electricity. But my main document is too chunky. At over 50,000 words, all the chapters and notes make it difficult to navigate. As much as I enjoy having a perpetual total word count, I’m dividing the book into chapter .doc’s. It’ll be easier to edit each individually at the end, and much easier to navigate the day’s work.”
PS: It really is ridiculously easier to edit individual chapter documents. I’m doing that now. One bulk document would be a mess at this stage.
March 30 +1433 words (~51,433 words)
March 31 new chapter: 1070 words (~52,503 words)
April 1 2303 words (~53,636 words)
April 2 new chapter: 1265 words (~54,901 words)
April 3 2,418 words (~56,054 words)
April 4 3,446 (~57,082 words)
April 5 Nothing, family visited and took up whole day
April 6 Nothing, family again
April 7 Nothing, lazy
From my notes: “Too easy to follow the suit of not writing. My guests were gone by the 7th and I still let myself not write. I slip easily.”
April 8 new chapter: 1,061
April 9 2,759 (~59,831 words)
April 10 new chapter 1,125 (~60,956 words)
April 11 2,221 words (62,052 words)
April 12 - a two-day vacation with a friend
April 13 – a two-day vacation with a friend
April 14 new chapter 1,115
April 15 2,385 (~64,437 words)
April 16 3,419 (guests coming on 19th; hope to finish two unfinished chapters before)
April 17 4,234 (finished chapter)
April 18 1400 words (finished spare chapter); ~500 words on new chapters (~67,000 words)
April 19 Visitor took up the day
April 20 Visitor took up the day
April 21 The end of a three-day vacation. A friend came in to town from California. Though I’d planned to sneak away to write, all I came away with was a page of notes for potential revisions. Once again, excuses make Johnny a lazy boy. However I’m now considering taking every Wednesday off. I’m concerned about burnout and think having a day off to look forward to might alter things.
April 22 1,107 words (new chapter)
April 23 2,537 words
April 24 3,170
April 24 Merely edited and shaped the chapter
Easter Sunday. I drove to Connecticut to spend the day with Grandpa. The roundtrip was so draining that I spent an hour misspelling every five or six words at the computer and nearly gave up entirely. Finally psyched myself up to hit a round number – 3,000 words between the 22-24th would average to 1,000 per day. Work was done. I backfilled a little hole in the existing chapter, expanding from the skeletal notes I’d left behind.
April 25 None, very sick
From my notes: “Whether the Easter exertion made my syndrome worsen, or it was all the smoke I inhaled from church incense, I was unable to rise today.”
April 26 4,371 words
April 27 5,833
April 28 Day off (forgot it was Wednesday previous day)
April 29 7,124 (finished scene) (~74,124 words)
April 30 1,081
May 1 2,552
May 2 3,707 (chapter done) (77,831 words)
May 3 1,105
May 4 2,240 (chapter done?) (80,071 words)
Some days you just can’t tell if that ending was the ending of the chapter. It turned out to be.
May 5 1,156
May 6 2,300 (chapter done) (82,371 words)
May 7 746 words (chapter done; weird one) (83,117 words)
May 8 1,195 words
This is the fourth day in recent weeks when I hit my word minimum, still wanted to write on but was pulled away by something, figured I’d come back later, and didn’t. I’m taking these incidents as conclusive evidence that if I break my flow then any outside business will preoccupy me. It’s too easy to get burned out. Writing this way is a lot like daily exercise; at twenty minutes in I can keep going, but if I stop then half an hour later I won’t be able to move. But I don’t enjoy exercise. I love this book. I wanted to get back to this chapter today and still got absorbed in conversations with friends and cleaning the house before the movers hit. There shouldn’t be guilt about stopping after the minimum is hit. There is.
May 9 1,195 words
May 10 3,128 words (chapter done) (~86,245 words)
May 11 Day off
Officially instituted a mid-week day off. Wednesday or Thursday seemed like a good one. It wasn’t enough to take the day off as needed. The “Friday effect” of knowing when I finished today I would enter the free-zone was just as important. Unwinding was essential or I’d crack up. So many days now I could feel the syndrome bubbling up, muscle pain and fatigue exaggerating based on anxiety from the manuscript.
May 12 1,600 words
May 13 No progress; errands left me wiped out.
May 14 2,896 words (chapter done) (~89,141 words)
May 15 3,042 (chapter done) (~92,183 words)
May 16 1,172 words
May 17 2,794 words (chapter done) (~94,977 words)
May 18 Day off
Had a massive furniture delivery from the closure of my grandmother’s old house. Had to clean it and move it. And despite being owed a day off, by the end I still mapped the final chapters. Was too darned excited about where these characters were going, which is a wonderful feeling.
May 19 1,512 words
May 20 2,638 words
May 21 “It’s Complicated” (~98,434 words)
A rare case in my writing. Realized the current chapter needed to be split into three smaller, more focused ones for the events to be comprehensible. Typically I get that in hindsight if I get it at all. Did this one on the spot. My final total included May 19-20’s productivity was 3,457 words total; 3,156 for the first chapter, and then moving onto the next, which I decided to add to Monday’s tally
May 22 Visiting Grandpa for the day
Returned home utterly exhausted and passing out in my room. Do not recommend doing this.
May 23 1,713 words
May 24 3,561 words (chapter done) (~101,995 words)
From my notes: “Only two chapters left in the novel. Very excited, probably won’t take a day off from writing this week. I just want to end it.”
May 25 1,157 words
From my notes: “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anxiety like this over literature. It’s like when I graduated high school, and then college. I have this routine, and I’m used to it. I think I’m good at it. I’m glad to have succeeded, to have finished the cycle, yet I’m anxious over having to do something else. Editing, seeking critiquing, querying professionals and/or finding self-pub markets will all be mentally easier than this. I’ve sucked down hundreds of rejections for non-fiction and short fiction in the last two years. Getting this published will be a different kind of difficulty, and I’m not anxious about that in particular. This is pure anxiety of separation from the routine. It’s magnifying every doubt I have in every paragraph. As this week went on, the time it takes me to write anything has jumped up, and it appears my word count is halving. There is a very real tightness in my chest as I’m trying to form a climax that I have plotted thoroughly. I know what happens. There are no surprises. I only have to fill in a few pages of gaps, and these may be the hardest pages of the book to compose solely because of nonsense.”
May 26 3,025 (chapter done) (~105,020 words)
From my notes: “What’s funnier is that at around 5:30 PM, when I was shaking with stress-related syndrome issues, I opened the document up just one more time to arrange some paragraphs. Even though the pain kept intensifying, until it was too bad to hold up my head, I finished the chapter with my head resting on the desk. Then I opened the final chapter, to get the opening out of the way since I had a good idea for it. 1,183 words later, I wrote the closing paragraph on accident. I actually sat up in shock. I finished the book by accident in the middle of a miserable funk. I think it's my favorite chapter. Re-reading it actually cured the funk.”
May 26 1,183 words (chapter done) (~106,203 words) (draft done)