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.


About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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9 Responses to Measurements, Goals and Progress

  1. subhanzein says:

    I’m not a fan of sci-fi, but I totally agree with your views. It’s the story that counts…:-)

    Warm regards,

    Subhan Zein

    • Julie says:

      My own experience, from reading across multiple genres and talking to others who have pushed themselves to read ones they wouldn’t normally, is that a good story will get people regardless of genre. I tend to view that as something to shoot for 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. About genre and the value of story types. It’s funny because on the one hand there are the ones like you mention, who either are among the “literary elite” or think they should be, and look down on the fantastical genres as less refined, too easy or whatever. Then there are also those who are sort of the opposite…who say they just don’t “get” or understand fantasy etc, who find it too complicated to try and understand which group of non-humans is which or what this or that device does and/or who simply can’t relate to anything that is so different from “real life.” I personally find most “fantastical” fiction to reflect reality far more accurately that most supposedly “realistic” stuff, of course that’s probably partially because I’m a mystic and actually believe in most of the components of fantasy.

    As to goals, I’m not a super goal-oriented person. I’ve just start my first novel in the last 6-8 months after several years of writing short stories (still doing that too of course.) I’m somewhere in the middle between pantser and plotter, and I’ve been doing it on a chapter by chapter basis, figuring out what’s going to occur in each chapter and then starting to write and seeing what happens, guided by an overall concept of where the story is going to go. My main goal, which I usually achieve, is simply to write each day, even if its only a few hundred words. Sometimes I will often have a specific story goal…write this scene, figure out that plot complication, develop another character. In the future, when other aspects of my life are more squared away again, I will probably try to set goals a little more especially with the novel.

    From what I am seeing so far, you don’t seem to have any trouble with goals or motivation. I hope to match those kind of production levels some day.

    • Julie says:

      Thanks! I’m trying to learn balance on the goals, because I’ve been driving myself… maybe a little too hard lately. Balance is one of those things that’s really important to me in my life, even though I’m not always good at it. I tend to embrace things to their fullest, often at the expense of everything else. I’m working on it though.

      I try to keep my worlds accessible to non-genre readers, which I do agree sometimes involves not overcomplicating things. I don’t even always include non-humans in them. It’s a matter of keeping things on terms the reader can connect with, in some ways.

  3. quix689 says:

    It’s funny – I used to be one of those people who didn’t use contractions. Then I went back to edit it, and I almost drove myself crazy trying to fix them all. I don’t do that anymore. That was the only thing I ever did solely to pad my word count, though. Now I agree that it’s stupid to write something JUST to meet your word count goal. Sometimes if I’m stuck I’ll include a short dare, but even then I make it relevant to my story and something that I might actually use later.

    I try to measure my progress by both how many words I have and how far I’ve progressed in my outline. I generally guess that my novels will end up being around 100k, and my progress estimates are based on that, but that number isn’t set in stone or anything.

    That said, I am about 10k behind my goal for FebNoWriMo and several chapters away from the end of current novel, so I should probably go work on that now. 😀

    • Julie says:

      Sounds like you’re on the right track with things, and I’m sure you can make that 10k up, sans word count padding. And even if you don’t, as long as the story is progressing well, that’s the important part. That’s really what I’m trying to teach myself.

  4. A very interesting discussion, and I like your take on it. I struggle with this as well. I think first drafts are primarily a push to get to “The End” – to just get the story on paper (or computer). But since my goals are often wordcounts, sometimes it is tempting to just dwell on part of the story longer than I need to, so the story suffers and it doesn’t get further along in the outline, just longer. But it is also hard not to judge by word-count, because that is the easiest marker of accomplishment, like you said. So it’s really hard to strike a good balance.

    This post of yours inspired me to take a look at my current WIP and my goals for it. I had been just trying for a monthly word-count goal to finish it this year, but I don’t know how long it’ll be, like you said. Because of this post, I decided to go re-outline my story the way I outlined my latest Nano – I broke it into three parts, and then broke each of those parts into 3 subsections. And it worked really well! So now I have a new plan, which is to write one subsection every month, and hopefully I’ll get it finished by October (I have no illusions that it’s actually going to work, but sometimes big goals help to get more done, right?).

    So I just want to say thanks for this post – it really got me thinking and helped me with my current problems! Thank you, Julie, and keep writing 🙂

    • Julie says:

      Just remember, some sections will undoubtedly be longer than others, so a measure of care should be used with that method, at least a willingness to place things in that context. Glad to have helped though, and to hear you’re working on another project as well.

  5. Yeah, I’m well aware of that, but thanks for the warning 🙂 That’s part of why it might not work, but I figure it’s worth a shot to try a different method. I may end up with a mix of that and wordcount goals. And actually this is my main project, which I took a break from for Nano 🙂

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