Last week I started writing full time. I used to be a university professor, and this last summer I left that job and moved and it’s taken some months to be able to settle down, get unpacked, get the family sorted out, and so this last week was really my first week being a full time writer, where I actually kept a schedule and wrote.
It’s divine. And it’s also potentially crazy-making.
When I worked as a professor, there were measures in place for getting my job done. Those included student progress, actual teaching days, grading, and so on. But writing is more like cleaning house. You clean and clean and clean and every time you turn around, there needs to be more cleaning. It constantly gets dirty again. There really is no good measure of accomplishment, except when you finish something. But for me, that’s a little crazy making. My husband is a machinist. He makes stuff. He sees what he finishes every hour, every day.
Writers have to find a way to set measures for success, for achievement, for accomplishment.
A lot of writers will set goals on a weekly basis. Maybe those are word count goals, or finishing a piece, or what have you. But there’s a perpetual danger of feeling you’re not getting somewhere, especially if you have to abandon chapters or chunks of writing and start over. Plus you’re worried about, as Mindy put it last week, Words That Count. You start thinking that you have to subtract out what you threw away and write extra to make up for it–makes you nuts.
I realized I was getting anxiety about this. Writing something didn’t seem enough. Sitting my butt in the chair for so many hours wasn’t really a great measure of doing anything. What I decided to do was go with a mix of word count and also finishing something. I have a book due early in spring. I want to get it done by January 1st. So I figured out how many words I had to write to finish–figuring a 90,000 word book–and I divided out to come up with a word count per week. That will be first draft material. It may turn out that the words don’t count, but I’m hoping they do. Even if they don’t, this is the process. Revision will come and if I have to throw away things, then I still have succeeded because I’ve sorted out the story and I needed to go through the process to do that. I still win.
I plan on hitting that minimum. It isn’t actually very big–all of about 5K a week. This first week I wrote over 16K. The fact that I may finish sooner or that I did more than my quota, does not change that I will work toward 5K next week. I won’t have to try to get 16 K just because I did one week. I am going to work steadily forward. That’s one project. I’m also working on a synopsis for another book proposal. I’ve done the chapters, but the synopsis is giving me fits. So I’ve made myself stop working on the words for the first book and switched gears over to the synopsis when I hit a certain time in the afternoon, so long as I’ve made my 1K minimum for the day.
So for instance: I work on Trace of Magic for three or four hours in the a.m. and get 4K done. After lunch, I switch to the synopsis. There’s no sense of when that will be done. Word count is no help because I already wrote a lot on it and it didn’t work so I scrapped it. The measure of success for this one is a) getting it done, and b) making it work. I would like to be done with asap, but I realized that because it’s not working, all I can do is devote daily time to it and hope I can bring it together quickly.
I don’t make myself write in the evenings or weekends. I can, and I often will, but the thing about being a writer and working from home is that the work is always there, always waiting. And I WANT to work on it more and more. But that can burn you out. You have to have balance. For me that means focusing on my family when it’s family time. Focusing on whatever I’m doing when it’s time for that, just like when I’m writing, that’s what I’m doing.
It’s critical, I think, to set yourself a measure of success. Otherwise, for writers, it doesn’t really ever come. You finish something, but doubt it’s good. You revise, but doubt it’s done. It is published, but did anyone like it? All those measures depend on someone else’s judgement. It will kill you. So you have to find something that makes sense to you and is achievable. I write reasonably quickly most of the time. I know I can hit 3K a day on most days without too much trouble. So why don’t I set the bar there? Right now it’s because I’m uncertain I can maintain that for the long term. I’m new to writing full time and I’m afraid I’ll set a measure that I can’t hit and that will drive me to anxiety and self-punishment, both of which are bad for creativity.
If I do 5K a week, I will finish this book well before deadline. It’s a good, achievable standard. If I get it done early, then I can begin the next project early, or I can squeeze in some other work that I have passion for. That is a good way to refresh yourself, btw.
One good thing about setting a measure is that when you complete it, you can get up and walk away from the computer. That’s a good thing because it gives you options for doing some other things so you don’t get behind in your life. For instance, I get my quota done, I can go cook, or garden, or run errands, or clean house (ug). I don’t have to beat myself up about not getting my writing done because I have already pre-decided what I will do and I am done. By having these measures, you stop the typical writerly feeling that you are never doing enough, that you are behind, that everything else is wasting precious time and you should be working–it causes a lot of anxiety, which undermines the creativity and writing. Vicious cycle.
Do you have measures of success? What are yours?