Wordcount wisdom

Sunday November 22, 2009 @ 01:21 AM (UTC)

I always feel a bit self-conscious posting about my writing process. Not only do I believe fiction is a bit like law and sausage, but I’m also keenly aware the internet teems with unpublished novelists. I may be a special snowflake, but it’s positively blizzing in the intertubes. However, I’ve been encouraged to post about process, so here it goes again.

Some time ago, I made a daily wordcount goal. I stuck with it for three months before I missed a day. The day I missed was the day before my move, and then the day of my move, and the second day on the road, and, well, once you break a habit, it’s hard to glue it back together. My daily wordcount has been more of an unpredictable hare than a methodical tortoise of late. Over the summer, I started it up once more, and declared that, should I miss a day, I’d have to make it up plus penalty words the next day. That worked fine for a while, occasional deficits being repaid in massive fits of productivity. I filled a lot more pages in my journals. But eventually a hundred words lost here and there added up, especially with the steep interest applied by “penalty words.” The system was joyless and disheartening, and made me feel like a debtor to myself, rather than a creator. So I forgave my debt and scratched the system.

This tale I told, in brief, to some fellow writers at World Fantasy. (Specifically, over lunch at the delicious and reasonably priced Tandoori Oven in downtown San Jose.) “So I need to find a way to keep myself on the wordcount system without sucking the joy out of everything,” I said.

“What you need is positive reinforcement,” said Vylar Kaftan. This was one of the many times people have told me things that should have been perfectly obvious, but they break across my thick skull like glorious sunbeams, and I am filled with gratitude. I know I respond better to positive reinforcement than to negative reinforcement. I’m the kid that would stop putting her oboe together to practice when her mom yelled up the stairs “Why haven’t you played your oboe today?” but practiced ’til her lips lost sensation when her teacher said she was improving markedly. This is how I work. I should know this.

The brilliant Vylar suggested rewarding myself with $20 fun money for a week of accomplished daily wordcounts, but my new problem was that I can’t really make the reward monetary. And apart from money and things that require money, I couldn’t think of a reward. Making cookies for myself would be a reward (for me and for Ryan) but it would also mean I had to, you know, make a whole batch of cookies. Not so rewardly: another task to do.

And then my second wordcount angel flapped in. Ruth, Ryan’s mom, is a psych nurse. I told her I was thinking of just making myself Reward Coupons for successful weeks, and figuring out what they stood for later. “Honestly, that should work well,” she said. “You’d be surprised by the motivating power of gold star stickers.” I realized she’s right. Marking success is its own reward. After all, I want to write. I want to see the pages fill up and the stories finish. Why wouldn’t I feel richer when I see what I’ve accomplished?

I haven’t gone out to buy my packet of star stickers yet, but I have started counting again, as of the day Ruth and I talked, the 15th. And today marks the first completed week, each day over my wordcount goal, even when I spent hours revising (which has a tendency to generate something like -30 words per hour). I have more than a hypothetical gold star to show for it: I have a story more than halfway done. Many thanks to the wise women that turned my snoozing hare back into a tortoise.


hee! Yes, I’m not surprised that gold stars are all you need. My gold stars are the act of putting the word count onto a spreadsheet and watching it add up.

Yeah, Thoth gets that from its grandpa, Poseidon. It lost the family trait toward threaded comments though.

Since I haven’t bought the stars yet, my system is much the same as yours. There’s a column for whether I hit or exceeded my 500, though, and it’s all green YESes thus far.

When I was being negative, I kept track on the back of an envelope. Heh.

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