Over the past couple of months I’ve been neck deep in planning, drafting and editing book #2 in my Ascendancy Trilogy, and I’ve learned a great deal about writing productivity. And quite a bit about how perfectionism plays into—or rather against it.
It’s no secret I have an issue with perfectionist thinking, as it’s one of the most limiting and damaging mindsets one can possibly have. So when I set out to write this time around, I was determined I wouldn’t let that hideous little troll on my shoulder harass me any longer. I was going to focus on something else this time, other than how my first draft reflected on my worth as a human being (*). I was going to focus on learning productivity skills.
(*) If you’re wondering WTF, that’s a typical example of how a perfectionist mindset twists your self-perception. Perfectionists always worry that if they don’t get something Right(TM) from the get go, they’re irredeemable losers. No exceptions. Way to motivate oneself.
There are a ton of awesome books about how to increase your productivity, but most of them involve planning more, working harder, and using a ton of apps and spreadsheets and to-do lists to organize your life. Even the thought of that makes me cringe. I’m a proponent of minimalism in all things, so this over-planning approach is definitely a no go. There had to be a better way, one that could help me work less and smarter, and simplify my approach to the point it becomes a no-brainer. Writing a novel is hard enough, and fighting my perfectionism is an added battle every day. Why add even more complexity?
So I took the essentialist approach.
First, I broke my project down into parts: Pre-Production (research, brainstorming, outlining), Production (the actual drafting), and Post-Production (editing, formatting, publishing). I broke each of these even further into parts, but I won’t go into any detail now. There’ll be an organizational blog post on how I do my project management later. For now, it’s only worth mentioning that I went about it very deliberately and with a lot of enthusiasm. I even created a work schedule, in which I tried to estimate my necessary daily output and find the best strategies to avoid procrastination, interruptions, and false starts.
And things went swimmingly!
In the first month (August) I did all the planning and I poured out ~60K of first draft material. I was going at an average of 3.5K/workday which felt like flying! But then I had an epiphany of how to make my plot even better, and I stopped and replotted. Reworked the outline, did some worldbuilding, and then… well, then I had to scratch 36K from my first draft. So by the end of August I had not 60K but 23K.
Then came September, and my momentum took a dive. I wrote 15K more, and then had the brilliant idea that I could make the protagonist’s arc even better, so I stopped again. And replotted, and reworked the outline. And because character arcs span the whole novel, I had to go back over the 38K of draft I had so far, and EDIT. And that totally stabbed my momentum in the kidney. I spent 2 weeks editing, and when I was finally ready to continue drafting, I was way slower than before. September ended with my first draft being at roughly 52K. Two months in, and yet still below my initial outburst.
What happened? I started second guessing, that’s what happened. And my focus drifted from my bit-by-bit plan, to the grand murky scope of “finish this novel or you’ll be a failure” (grunted the troll).
October is still slow. I know the month is not over, and I’m generally optimistic, but facts don’t lie. My new-words output has practically halved each month, and that’s a very big red warning sign. Sure, technically I wrote over 100K so far, and that’s no little feat, but not all of it made it into the first draft. And most importantly, I realized that—
Momentum is impressively powerful.
It’s worth all the effort in setting up an approach that is geared toward generating and keeping momentum. And it’s super important to eliminate all potential distractions (external or internal) that might disrupt it. Because once it’s gone, it gets increasingly hard to pick it up again.
So what’s the best way to create & preserve momentum?
That’s been my biggest project lately apart from writing my novel: to find out how I can get on top of that wave and keep riding it.
And this is what I found out. After chewing it down, I wrapped it up into 3 essential components, which luckily also start with the same letter, which pleases that bastard troll too.
The Tripple C of Productivity
The first important thing is to break your project down into concrete little nuggets of work (scenes, or even beats) that you tackle in a concrete amount of time (say, 15 minutes per session).
While it’s nice to think in broad strokes in the name of creative freedom, saying “I want to write a novel by the end of this year” or “I want to write a chapter this week” is a lot less clear and motivational than saying “I’ll write the scene where Taryn highjacks a military Dart today” or “I’ll describe the space battle in one paragraph in the next 10 minutes.”
You can break it down into words-per-day, too, if you like. Or scenes-per-day. Or chapters-per-day. Whatever works.
Breaking projects down into small, manageable bits is the oldest trick in the productivity book, and everyone from managers to moms apply this day-to-day. This works wonders for writers, too, regardless if they’re planners or pantsers. If you’re a pantser, you can start your writing day without a plan, but thinking a little ahead and then working toward that concrete, close target makes you way more productive than just hoping things fall into place and your novel gets finished.
Create a consistent routine that will help you generate momentum and keep motivating you even in moments of doubt.
Creating good habits is something most people want, and plenty of scientists have devoted their life to understanding how our brains help us achieve that (or sabotage us). The simplest way to approach habit formation is by understanding they consist of three parts: (1) the cue, or trigger, (2) the routine, or response, (3) the reward.
When it comes to writing, in order to define a consistent writing habit, we have to work on finding a good, consistent trigger that starts all of our writing sessions, and a simple reward that always wraps them up, and leaves us satisfied and looking forward to the next session. Something like… always brewing a cup of coffee (or tea), then sitting down in the same place, taking the same approach to writing (like sketching out the scene before hand, or listening to a certain song, or doodling something about the story), and when we’re done, taking a minute to mark down our progress (for planners and trackers), or just celebrate the successful writing session.
All that planning and writing will be for naught if you don’t complete the novel. Completing projects, even if they never get published, is very important for our evolution as writers, and for our confidence. When your draft is finished, even if it sucks, you notice things about plot or characters or setting that you just can’t see if the story remains in your head, or on the planning sheet. Completing things is also hugely important for your motivation. And without motivation, you’ll have a hard time gaining any momentum the next time around.
Researchers found out that whenever you start something and don’t finish, your brain keeps an open “channel” tuned to that frequency, looking for ways to get closure, even when you’re not consciously working toward that. It will keep trying to close the loop, and that additional, subconscious effort will slowly drain you of energy. This applies particularly to small tasks. So make sure you break your project down into such small tasks that they will be easy to complete even if you have a bad day.
In essence, the best way to create and keep your momentum, and get to enjoy working on big projects such as novels, is to:
Break down your project in small, concrete tasks that you can work on consistently, and that will lead to a complete project.
Sounds like Duh!, but it’s a lot harder to implement if you’ve got a day job, a toddler, a little game and book addiction, and a penchant to sabotage yourself mid-way.
Hopefully—no, definitely—by my next blog post, my novel will be finished and I’ll have more useful bits about Writing Project Management. And an amazing book cover to share with you guys!