Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tools for the process

Some writers love deadlines, some hate them. Many find that they are more productive when writing under a deadline.

A traditionally published writer has a deadline imposed by someone else. Going indie means taking on all the phases of a project, from inception to release, and that includes deadlines. When you go indie, there is a temptation to throw out deadlines and take things as they come. In my humble, but accurate, opinion, that is a mistake.

I've read a lot of books on the craft of writing, but I've never seen anything on the mechanics of tracking projects and hitting targets. Back in the day when I had contracts and publisher-imposed deadlines, I developed a few tools to help me hit word-count targets and analyze a project for weak points. Now that I'm an indie author, I still use these tools.


When I'm in first draft, I keep a log of hours and word count. It looks like this.

The first column shows the number of words in that session, then the date, start and end times, total hours, words per hour, then word count and hour count per day and per week.

You can see that in this period my words-per-hour ranged from 182 (on what evidently was a particularly bad day) to over 500, which is where I like to keep it. Most serious novelists have a word count target for the finished work and a daily word-count target. The word-count journal allows you to track your progress and kick into gear if the weekly target is in danger.

I recently read a biography of P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 90+ novels in his 90+ years. He was always very aware of word count and productivity. He did a daily 2,500 words or more during the bulk of his career, and when he was in his 80s and 90s, he still averaged 1,000 words a day. And I bet he didn't even have a spreadsheet!


In a large project like a novel it's easy to miss issues that can affect the reader experience, such as keeping multiple plot lines or points-of-view alive.

For example, in Living with Fred I had story lines for:
A. Mark's encounters with WWII veteran Vernon.
B. Mark's escalating battle with Deacon Fry.
C. Mark's ill-fated romance with Jolene.
D. The Parker-Sonia-Mac love triangle.
E. Mark's attempt to answer the question "What would Jesus do?" This theme is interwoven into the other four story lines and has other scenes of its own.

Like a juggler spinning plates, I had to touch on each one often enough to keep them all present in the mind of the reader. That means I couldn't allow one particular story line to dominate long stretches of the narrative. Otherwise, after a hundred pages or so I'd bring up Vernon and the reader would say, "Wait, what was that about? Who is this guy?"

My solution: for each scene, track what happens and the word count, color-coded to show which story line it covers.

The same technique is helpful for tracking POV. Here's the chart for the first 16 chapters of Endless Vacation, a project in progress with multiple points of view.

You can see in the sample above that the first ten chapters are told from ten different points of view. That's probably a bad idea, but I'm always willing to try something daring. I'm sure my critique partners will bludgeon some sense into me before it's published.

With this tool, it's easy to see when long sections are dominated by one or two characters. In the sample below, you can see that the rainbow we had going earlier in the book has become less variegated. For nine scenes in a 3-chapter stretch, from 29-31, we only get two points of view. That's 5,000+ words, 20 pages. If I didn't have this chart, I would have to read through the entire book to get a sense of where I might need variety. With a chart like this, I can see potential problem areas in a glance.

This may seem like a lot of work, but when I'm working on a project approaching 100,000 words, I'll take all the help I can get. The goal is to get a book completed and delivered to the reader in a timely manner and to make the reading experience as seamless as possible. Tools like these help me keep on deadline and catch and fix problems that would be hard to see otherwise.

What tools have you developed to manage your writing or publishing?

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and the soon-to-be released Muffin Man.