This January, I am looking at what I learned last year, so I can do better this year. The first post was about Christmas, but now the festive season is well and truly over. Epiphany (the feast of) has come and gone, the Christmas decorations have been put away (with the exception of the one that got missed, which will now sit on the windowsill until Michaelmas*) and it’s time to think seriously about what 2013 has taught me about writing and what that means for 2014.
*I don’t know when that is either. But it’s a long time from Christmas and it sounds good!
First, partly because it’s the most recent lesson, and because it encompasses some other things I’ve learned about me and writing this year, I have learned that…
…NaNoWriMo is not for me (don’t all faint at once).
For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a joint effort where people around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in November. People do it as a way to encourage them to write. The idea is to give yourself a challenging word count every day for a limited time as a spur to persist, push through and get down some words.
It sounds like a good idea and for several years now, I’ve given it a go. In none of them, have I got anywhere near writing 50,000 words. More to the point, I think I would have written more in November if I hadn’t attempted it. And here’s why:
- Arbitrary goals set by someone else (or even set by myself) with a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ status attached to them get my back up. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I think I’m naturally ornery. I don’t like being told what to do. Even when it’s good for me. Maybe especially when it’s good for me. But it also stems from my long and disastrous relationship with weight-loss dieting. I have learned the hard way that diets don’t work. They set you up by making you obsessed with food, then telling you not to eat. They divorce you from your natural relationship with hunger, by dictating what, and sometimes when, you will eat, with no reference to individuality or circumstances. They make you crazy. (There is a much bigger post – indeed, thesis – in this, but I’m restraining myself because that’s not what THIS one is about.)
And I worked out this year that NaNoWriMo feels like a ‘diet’ to me. An arbitrary set of rules, that may or may not mean anything useful, that you ‘win’ if you follow and ‘lose’ if you don’t. This makes me cross. It also makes my subconscious run screaming from engaging with it (which is also my response to anything that feels like a ‘diet’). Which may explain why I get LESS done when attempting NaNo that I would normally. For people who don’t have my background, the rules and the ‘win/lose’ thing may be a useful spur to action, but for me, they are anathema. So that’s one reason it doesn’t work for me.
- November is a really bad month for me to attempt anything out of the ordinary, work-wise. It is abnormally busy with other priorities. I realise this may sound like an excuse, but truly, almost any other month would be better. Calmly continuing my regular work-schedule is a sufficient achievement for November. Trying to something special is just setting myself for failure. See previous point about how well that works for me…
- Another problem is that the nature of the goal gives me the irrits. It’s right there in the name: Novel Writing Month. Unless you write short romance, or are working on a novella, 50,000 words is not a novel. It can be the beginning of one, or a really well-fleshed out outline of one, but it’s not complete. So the way many people talk about it as though they have actually finished something in the month sets my teeth on edge. Again, I realise this is just me – I do know that many happy participants are perfectly well aware that it isn’t a complete novel, but enjoy it anyway – but that’s another reason for me not to engage. Why bring my irritatedness into a space where less persnickety people are having a good time?
- The daily word count doesn’t do it for me either. This is a problem I have had since I first started engaging with other writers and I know that this too, puts me out of step with many, or indeed most of them. But word counts as a measure of productivity – especially, word counts as the ONLY, or gold-standard measure of productivity – give me not so much the irrits as a raging, whole-body case of hives. Writing a novel includes lots of stages and steps and activities and not all of them produce a lot of words on the page. I understand the need to have some measure, especially when you are encouraging yourself to be consistent with working – I do, really. And I also understand that it’s easy to kid yourself that you’re ‘working’ when you are really just avoiding putting words on paper.
If committing to a wordcount works for you, then I am pleased for you – go to it and may the words flow. But it doesn’t for me. I know when I am being productive and when I am work-avoiding. And the latter is always accompanied by a lack of focus. For me, committing to an amount of time working – using a timer, if necessary and stopping and starting it, like I used to when I charged by the hour – is a better discipline. For me , lack of focus is not the fault of the internet, or any distraction. It happens as a direct result of my subconscious avoiding work it knows will be hard.
Forcing myself to account for a certain amount of time on the job produces results, while still allowing me the flexibility to stare out the window, or mindmap or edit, or whatever is necessary at that stage of the book, without worrying about ‘failing’ at that day’s target. The corollary is that, when I put the work in, my word count is frequently more (sometimes MUCH more) than the NaNo average goal anyway!
- Lastly, as a professional writer, who wants to get more professional, in every sense of the word, I think my productivity efforts should be consistent over the year. It is no use to me to work my butt off in any month if I then fall in a heap for another three. I’m already good at deadline ultra-focus. I’m wired that way naturally. What I need to work on is being more consistent. NaNo is probably great for people who need a push to get started, or to get past a lump, but if I need that, I’ll create my own deadlines whenever the need falls. In the meantime, I’ll work on being more productive all the months of the year.
So, no NaNo for me. What else have I learned about writing?
- Blogging less doesn’t necessarily mean writing more. During this year, during a period when I was really deep in deadline mode, I released myself from my commitment to blog three times a week. It was taking time I needed to spend writing. It was the right decision at the time. But I found what happened was that I was going weeks without posting at all and that I missed it. And also, after those few, intense deadline weeks were over, I wasn’t spending the saved time particularly wisely, or even on writing. Not the desired effect.
But in thinking about it, I also realised that I’m not interested in posting just for the sake of it. Of course, sometimes I’ll do a post that just shares things I like, but mostly, I like my posts to have some meat to them – and that means they can take quite some time to write. So I’ve decided I will commit to posting at least once a week. That’s enough to keep me working (and not fiddlefarting around) and, I hope, enough to serve those stalwarts who are kind enough to take an interest in the blog, without draining the time-tank too much.
- Social media is a time-sink. This is not news to anyone, but I need to restate it to myself – possibly daily. ‘Dropping in’ during break times is theoretically fine, but it can easily lead to hours lost. It’s not some computer-created black magic that does it. It’s the lure of company, mostly. Back in my uni days, I could fall foul of exactly the same sort of time sink, except that I did it in the coffee shop with three-dimensional friends. It’s just indulging in something that is easier and superficially at least, more fun than the hard work you are avoiding. It’s also the insidious lure of habit. But for the same reasons I needed to get my butt out of the coffee shop and back into the library, I need to control it. This year, I will be setting a timer before I log on and using a blocking program that I can’t change the settings of in the intervening spaces.
- This year has also taught me, that if I am really trying to avoid work, and I deny myself the internet, I’m quite capable of reading a book for the same amount of time as I would have spent on the ‘net. So I will be applying a timer to those breaks as well. Although…
- I need to give myself permission to read. For a writer, reading is not wasted time. I just need to crib the time from housework-time, rather than writing-time. 😉
- With regard to break-times, I have realised recently that, often, my need for a short break from what I’m working on is not intellectual, but physical. So, rather than hopping on to Twitter when I lift my head from the work, I am going to try moving around, doing some stretches, or even moving location. I have many spots inside and outside the house where I can work. Shifting the laptop is easy, takes less time than getting drawn into reading blogs and actually solves the problem (too long in one position) that probably made me restless in the first place.
- Lastly, if this year has taught me anything, it is that priorities need to come FIRST. This may sound obvious, but I don’t mean just on the list, I mean, in terms of each day and what I actually do. It’s easy to say that ‘I will make writing a priority’, but that means nothing without action. If it is truly the priority of my working day to spend X amount of time working on my WIP, then I need to do it FIRST. Immediately after breakfast. Before checking the email, or checking FB or even emptying the dishwasher. Then, and only then, will I get to the end of this year happy with how much I got done. (Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion. The pattern in this post by Catherine, Caffeinated, was horrifyingly recognisable.)
Also, I have decided that, if it is truly a priority, whatever I need to do to make it happen, I should just do. If that means starting the day at the coffee shop, because there’s no wifi, so I can’t get suckered off-focus before I’m made a start on the writing, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll budget the coffee money! Whatever works – or whatever helps me work – is my new motto.
So, to sum up, if this year is going to be informed by what I learned, it will be the year of the timer and of focus. I know what I hope to finish as a result of those things, but it’s the focus that will be the *ahem* focus of my efforts!
Has your year taught you anything about your work practices?