Measurements, Goals and Progress
It’s almost kind of funny that I ended up posting this after the incident of Wall vs Writer. I had planned this post even before I did the one for the VIB award. I ‘m not sure whether this is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy or the kind of coincidence that you never find in fiction. But I promise you that this post is not actually a result of yesterday, really.
You see, I was thinking the other day about how we set and measure both our goals and our progress toward them. More specifically, I was thinking about how I do these things, because by now you all know I never claim to be the wise old expert on anything. There are definitely different ways one can measure progress on almost anything, but I find that there are two major ways with writing in my experience.
The first, the one that so many of us use, is word count. Word count is nice because it’s one of the few quantifiable things in a field that is generally highly subjective. Word count is relatively absolute, especially when writing a first draft NaNo-style because you’re supposed to just keep blazing forward, and then the counter coughs up a number. If you’re keeping track on a daily basis, then it’s a simple calculation to know how much you have accomplished. Then you have something to measure against that quantified goal for that period of time, so you can tell readily if you are on track for your goal. Of course, I never know for sure how long the story will be on first draft, because I always think you let that draft be as long as it needs, regardless of any other considerations, so it would be hard to give a percent to completion expression of this progress. But I definitely know how far I’ve come in a day.
While this is a great way to feel accomplished (I won’t lie, I love seeing the giant numbers), it does ignore the fact that writing is about far more than just writing X number of words, so very much more. As I said, it’s a subjective field, where “good” and “right” and “correct” get tossed around a lot but mean different things to everyone. For a while during university, I worked in a book store (lit major working in the fiction section, there’s a no brainer). When customers would express that they felt like they should be reading certain types of fiction, usually literary, because they were under the impression that those types were automatically “better,” I would point out that we have so many different types of books and authors because there is such a variety of taste in books, that no type is better than the others. I might be a little biased because I’m a committed reader of fantasy, mystery and to a lesser extent, science fiction, but I do stand by the statement to this day.
So, if this is a subject field, is there a way of making goals and tracking them that acknowledges that and works with it? This is what I was thinking about the other day that made me want to post about the subject as soon as I had my thoughts on it straight. Despite my saying that this post wasn’t caused by my afore-mentioned little difficulty, I do think that the wall and the fallout from it has helped to clarify my thinking on the subject, making it easier to write this post than I had expected. You see, I didn’t feel bad so much about hitting a difficulty, because those happen, but I felt (and still feel) a little bad about not making my word count goal yesterday. The only thing that stopped me from trying despite the way I felt was the realization that anything I tried to write at that point would be a pure waste, that I’d just be deleting it as soon as I had the problem sorted in order to move forward in the story. That leads me to think that purely number-based goals put undue pressure on us to perform even if we know we’re writing drivel. The number of times I’ve seen in the NaNo forums that someone just had to go through their whole book from November and put in all the contractions that they deliberately left out during NaNo purely for higher word count, or something similar in the name of word count, well, it drives me a little nuts. I mean, it’s good to hit the goal, don’t get me wrong, but what’s the point when you’re only writing it to add words you know, for sure, you’ll be taking out later? You’re making more pointless work for yourself, really. This is not the same as editing, where you might be tweaking to better express something. I’m talking words put in the manuscript purely for the count’s sake. There has to be another way, I thought to myself, something that lets me feel accomplished without driving myself batty on a rough day, or just a day that didn’t have a high number, but got me through something important. This thought led me to where I’m leading all of you.
You see, I do think there is definitely a more fluid, qualitative way to judge progress, though it’s far harder to set concrete, achievable, measurable goals. This would be measuring it by general progress through the story itself. Note to all the pantsers out there, this probably won’t work for you because you’re still discovering where your story is going, so it would be impossible to judge progress toward the end. But for those of us who plan and outline our way through the story, and then draft it, this is perfectly possible, if somewhat unpredictable.
I’ve done this method before. Because of the way I outline things, I tend to be able to say that I’m doing events A, B and C today. Those would be then 3 of a set number of events as laid out in my outline. Some of you who were reading this blog as I did the second draft of DM might remember me referring to entries in my outline, how many I had and how many I had completed. That’s basically what I was doing, trying to judge my progress by the amount of the story I had written, but in a fairly qualitative sense. The reason I find this subjective is that there are a number of factors at play in the length of draft an entry or event will turn into, including importance, intricacy, how much I need actually describe, things like that. Some of you might recall me first worrying that the second draft of DM would be too long, then that it would be just right, and in the end, it was about 30k shorter than I had anticipated. This is what I meant about it being unpredictable. But it feels like a way of measuring that is more fair to myself and the story. Why? Well, as a reader, I rarely care how long a story is, unless it’s either fabulous or crap. If it’s crap, well, I probably put it down before the end anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter then either. When it’s fabulous, I don’t notice word count, but I do notice that I don’t want it to ever stop. :) In other words, what I really care about is the story, so shouldn’t I, as a writer, be judging my work based on that same yardstick? I mean, I can’t be the only reader who views books this way.
I’m still not sure, given the unpredictability this method, how I would set about creating, maintaining and judging progress on goals in this fashion. All I’m certain of is that I have had days where I’ve struggled to put as many words on the screen as I feel I should, but when I look back at the section I did write, I felt accomplished anyway because it was either important or intricate to the point of requiring careful work on what words I used. That should count for something. Maybe there’s some hybrid of the two methods possible, if I can ever learn to maintain a sense of perspective and not drive myself into the ground wanting to eternally go faster and do more. Hmm, it’s a thought. I’ll probably be mulling this over still when I get to the point of setting the goals for The Nine. Maybe I’ll even post further thoughts on the subject if I have them.
Before you ask, I did get some writing done tonight. I have the problem licked, I think (edit stage will have the final say on that), and even managed to hit pace tonight. It’s not nearly as much as I had been doing, but it was important to me to climb back on that horse, and to feel out the solution. Green lights all the way. Now to rebuild the momentum, as I told someone else once.
Also, feedback on DM continues to be good. I’m thinking that the pace it’s being read through is probably a good sign.
And, before I go, I did promise a picture, so here it is. My mother loves growing these things, has had one at every house they’ve owned. I love the way the light plays across the leaves in this one.