The following is an excerpt from Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page, available February 18. Mridu is giving away three free copies of her new book! Comment on this post for your chance to win — after two weeks, we’ll randomly choose a winner to receive a copy. Update: Congratulations to Katherine K., Robyn C. and Jay L.!
Here’s a truth that changed my life: Those 30 unfinished projects I have lying on the backburner? I’m not going to be able to finish them all this year.
Shocking, I know. But if you’re anything like me, you secretly hope you’re going to make tiny bits of progress on each of them and then, magically, they’ll get finished in one go. It doesn’t work like that. Ever.
Even if you’re prolific writer with no life (guilty— I wrote 240,000 words in the last six months in personal projects alone), you’re still only going to be able to tackle between two and 10 projects a year. There are people who write a book a year and others, like novelist Dean Wesley Smith, who can write a novel a month.
You decide where you fall on this productivity scale.
Even if you were superhuman like Smith and wrote a quality novel a month, that still means that you have to pick 10 ideas from your long list (I’m hoping you will take a few weeks off here and there to recharge your batteries).
Which brings us to the difficult task of picking projects that are the most important, the most beneficial to our careers, or the most potentially profitable. Then we must run with them.
At the beginning of this year, I undertook the maddening exercise of selecting ideas. It drove me nuts. Of all the dozens of ideas I wanted to be working on, how on earth was I going to pick six or fewer? This is where the whole “being realistic” thing comes into play. Sure, you could pretend you’re going to write two novels and three nonfiction books in a year while blogging three times a week and bringing in freelancing work to pay the bills. All on top of raising your three children.
But deep inside, you know the truth. It’s not going to happen. Aren’t you better off picking a project and sticking with it? Isn’t it better to finish it, send it out into the world and hopefully make money with it? Or perhaps you learn from your mistakes and move on to the next. Isn’t that a saner way to do things?
I have a gazillion ideas that beg for my attention every single day. When that happens, I throw them into an idea file. I have projects selected for the year and I will focus on them. Next year, I will make another list, pick again, and every idea will get its chance.
Once you’re done with the step involving picking your projects for the year, you should think about how long each will take. Do you need a whole year to finish your novel, or can you get it done sooner? Perhaps it will take even longer. How are you to know?
One of the best ways I know to estimate how long a project will take is this:
- Figure out how many new words you can write in an hour. We’re talking new words and not rewriting. For me and most writers I know, this number is around 1,000.
- Think about how many hours a week you have available that you can devote to writing new words. Again, we’re talking first draft, new words only. If you need to revise work, set a different time in your week to do that. You don’t want to mix the writing part of your brain with the revising part, because that’s what leads to five-year novels. Trust me, I know. Let’s say that this number is five hours. That is, you can devote one hour a day to writing new words while taking weekends off. This means you can write a minimum of 5,000 new words a week.
- What’s going to be the total length of this work? Sometimes this is hard to predict. Almost always, however, you’ll have a rough idea. If you’re writing a nonfiction book such as this one, you know it’s more likely to be in the 30,000-word range rather than the 100,000-word range. Similarly, mainstream fiction will be 80,000 words and romance novels will run a lot lower. Based on the scope and market of your project, how many words do you think your project is likely to run? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that number is 60,000.
- Let’s do some math now, shall we? If your manuscript is 60,000 words and you’re writing at a pace of 5,000 words a week, you can easily deduce that if you work diligently, show up at the page each day, and write your 5,000 words for the week regularly, you will have a completed first draft in 12 weeks, or three months. If all your manuscripts are similar in length, you could easily finish four manuscripts by the end of the year, working only an hour a day. Not bad.
- Finally, pick a daily target and put aside everything else and focus on hitting that day after day, consistently. This target could be project-based, such as “one short story a week,” or process-based, such as “1,000 words a day.” It could even be time-oriented, such as “one hour a day.” Choose what works for you, but make sure it helps you feel positive and optimistic about coming to work every day. By focusing on the daily target and not the project as a whole, you make progress every day. Before you know it, you’re typing the words “The End.”
This is why production schedules help. They allow you to see, in black and white, how staying on track can get you to your goals. When you’re feeling unmotivated and discouraged, look at your production schedule and see the date on the calendar for when you’ll be finished, if you stay on track.
Once you know what your deadlines look like for each project that you’ve picked out for the year, mark those big deadlines in your calendar. Break those big deadlines into smaller chunks if you can.
For instance, with this book, my goal was to write a chapter a day, regardless of the word count. Some days I wrote much more than that, but one chapter was my bare minimum. That was my daily deadline. If you’re working on a larger project, such as a novel, you could have deadlines for the 10,000-word mark, the halfway mark, and so on. Mark each of those milestones on your calendar so that you know how on- or off-track you are as you move through the work.
If data and spreadsheets inspire you, as they do me, create some of those as well. Personally, I have a notebook that I use in which I’ve written down dates and word counts like this:
November 1 (Sunday): 1,000 words
November 2 (Monday): 1,000 words
November 3 (Tuesday): 1,000 words
Then, I cross out the word counts as I move forward. Sometimes, I’ll work ahead. When that happens, I allow myself the flexibility of taking time off or giving myself leeway for when, undoubtedly, life gets in the way in the form of a sick child, a fried brain or a car breakdown.
Moreover, if you’re a freelancer or work in an industry that already drowns you in deadlines, you need to juggle so you don’t end up with four work deadlines and a novel deadline in the same week. The week you’re traveling abroad for work is not the week to schedule the start of a new book project. Having a production calendar helps you keep daily word counts in sync with the rest of your life.
No matter how you eventually publish your work, you’ll have to create room in your day for dealing with pesky publication issues as well: Edits, back cover copy, design, blogging, promotion, events and so on. While you may be able to continue your writing during those times — and you should! — sometimes it’s impossible to fit everything into a single day. Allowing for that helps keep self-loathing at bay.
My favorite reason for having a production schedule is that it keeps me from getting hung up on or too attached to one single book or project. The day after I finished my first novel — a feat that took five full years — I began work on this book.
It was bad enough that my first one had taken that long, but I didn’t want to spend the next three months obsessing about agents, publishers, and advances. While those things were important and got their time, I also wanted to move on to newer work so my self-esteem and career goals weren’t tied up in a single book.
This is fairly common among writers, as you might already have noticed. They’ll finish writing a book and then spend weeks, months, or years trying to get it published while writing nothing else in the meantime. A production schedule or calendar allows you to have more work in the pipeline so that there’s something else to focus on when you’re finished with the current project.
Let me add, right away, that to the creative writer, “production schedule” seems like a very business-like, no-nonsense term that grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Calling a book a “product” is like someone calling an article “content.” I don’t like it.
Yet, I’m a firm believer in looking at your work as art when you’re in the process of creation and a business when you’re looking at it from a career standpoint. In that sense, think of yourself as a publisher who has books to ship. By doing so, you have the best of both worlds: The creativity that comes from the art, and the money, sales and motivation that comes from a business.
Just because it’s numbers doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Find beautiful and artistic calendars for your walls that you can color in when you meet your goal for the day. Or, if you’re like me and you enjoy crossing things out, buy a moleskine and cross out word targets as you go along. The more fun and entertaining you make it, the more likely you are to stick with it. Just remember to make it simple and not overly complicated.
Now you have a road map, a production schedule for a year, six months, or however long you’ve planned ahead. A road map can tell you exactly what to work on and what lies ahead. It shows you that if you commit to the work every single day, you will have a finished project in your hands — or three — by the end of the year.
All you have to do is show up.
Have you used a production schedule? How did it help you meet your writing goals?