Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Well the good news is 2021 is a week old and hasn’t (yet) given us a reason to think it would be worse than 2020 (the opening sentence to this entry was written last Monday, two days before it stopped being true). The bad news is just because 2020 is over doesn’t mean it stops existing, which means I’m still doing my writing and reading retrospectives to start off the year, and will hopefully avoid retraumatizing myself in the process.
In today’s post I want to celebrate my writing successes of the past year, because despite the pandemic and the continuing crushing succession of rejection letters that have spilled into the occasional mopey blog post, there’s still plenty for me to feel good about.
First off, let’s take a look at the graph of my daily productivity comparing most of the years from 2005 and 2020:
2020 continued the positive trend I established in 2017 and became my fourth consecutive most productive year, completely crushing 2019’s output. It hadn’t started off that way, trailing behind 2019 for the first few months, and suffering from a period of prolonged inactivity at the start of the pandemic. But then it took advantage of last year’s vacation lag in May and once it overtook 2019 had pretty much steamrolled ahead and even the complete one-month break during my paternity didn’t change the outcome. I’ve already talked about how I exited the pandemic doldrums into the most productive writing period of my life, so there’s no need to rehash that here, but it is nice to see a visualization of the outcome at the end of the year. It’s also worth mentioning that in the same entry last year I had expressed hope that I would be able to hit 120,000 words this year, and met that goal and more with a final tally of over 155,000.
The next visualization I use is my bullet journal entry that is a colour map of daily writing productivity by the amount of words written each day.
As you can see, the legend shows which colours correspond to how many daily words, and the little black numbers next to those show how many times each colour is represented on the graph.
It was another year where red had come out on top, but with forty-three less unproductive days in 2020 than in 2019 I’ve also met the goal that I set last January to write for more than half the days of the year. You can see particularly long stretches of red around March and April, the previously mentioned pandemic slump, but also the paternity leave in October and the slow ramp up back to a normal functioning human being through November and December. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, as the baby still has those days where he wants to party well into the night, but everything will return to normal in due course.
The streaks that are more interesting to me is that concentration of blue from June to August, and the fact that I hadn’t missed a single day of writing in August. This was the productivity boost I’ve talked about, represented so neatly by this bullet journal entry. The primary goal this year is to keep trying to find that groove and if I succeed, 2021 promises to be crazy.
That said, let’s have some other lofty but at the same time realistic goals for 2021. Firstly, I’d like to see if I can replicate the jump from 2019 to 2020 and break 200,000 words this year. Maybe stretching the definition of “realistic” here a bit, though it’s not like I would beat myself up if I don’t meet it.
Secondly, I want to continue this trend of reducing the amount of red in this chart. Though the most productive year, it wasn’t my most consistent year, as 2018 had two fewer unproductive days at 147. My goal is to make 2021 my most consistent year, by a comfortable margin, so I’m going to shoot for at most 110 days with no words written. I don’t even care how many orange squares I end up with – it’s red I don’t want to see.
I’ve also met some of my other goals I had set for myself last year, like restarting my web novel, The Bloodlet Sun, which has been consistently posted for four months now, and I’ve got a buffer to last another three. I’ve made 29 regular blog posts this year, which doesn’t include The Bloodlet Sun installments and is therefore 8 more entries than I did last year. Hoping to improve on that number this year to an eventual average of 1 post per week, though I don’t expect to meet that in 2021.
And there’s the usual optimism about how far I make it into my other projects. Didn’t get to turn over two drafts of my novel this year, but I did do one, and planning to do one more this year, possibly bringing it to a completed version. And I promise myself to renew my publication efforts after somewhat of a discouraging year.
All in all, there’s reason to feel good, and I’m going to use that throughout this fresh unwritten year.
In the early days of the pandemic, when the uncertainty and newness of the situation was bearing down on me in full force, I talked about here on several occasions how it had been killing my productivity. I wrote almost nothing for the entire month of March and felt only spurious signs that I would ever get out of this funk.
Months have passed, and I’m happy to say the writing funk has not only passed, but transformed itself into a frenzy, as evidenced by the last four months of my bullet journal productivity tracker:
This productivity tracker is one my favourites, obviously not because it’s pretty or elegant, but because it gives me such a good bird’s eye view snapshot of how much I’ve accomplished. I’ve introduced it in more detail in an earlier entry, but the basic summary of how it works is: the little numbers on the left-hand side represent the day of the month, and each column is devoted to a type of writing activity. The dots in the boxes means that I didn’t do that particular activity that day, a checkmark means I did, and a number represents the specific word count, if applicable.
As you can see, April was still a recovery month from the doldrums of March. The later months are much stronger, while the heavy stretch in July represents some of the best writing weeks of my life. Those last couple of weeks, I routinely hit more than a thousand words per day, which I know for some writers is the bare minimum goal, but for me is a relatively rare occurrence. I don’t really have set goals per day though I have an idea of how many words I want to hit based on how busy the day is going to be or the headspace I’m at. I’ve talked before how I’m not really a believer in daily word counts as I think there’s a risk that they become counterproductive for a writer. As you can see from the bujo spread – I usually take weekends off, and even though I have discovered time to write on the weekends, they tend not to be my most productive days.
I did however, recently implement weekly writing goals for my specific projects. Since I’m juggling so many at once, I find that tracking a reasonable weekly goal helps me make sure that none of them slip through the cracks, so I find these, on a balance, to be more of a motivator than a demotivator. Not to mention that it also helps me to keep on top of the buffer for The Bloodlet Sun, since I promised myself I won’t be dropping the ball on its updates this time.
The previous time I talked about this particular bullet journal tracker – I didn’t include word counts and the whole thing was checkmarks. Switching to word counts had actually helped me immensely with my weekly word count goals. I made a few attempts to track my weekly goals in my Moleskine notebook instead, but they were too disorganized to stick. Instead, looking at the word count in the project columns of my bujo tracker gives me a real quick look into which projects have reached their goals and which ones need more work, allowing me to prioritize and vary throughout the week, something that has helped me immensely with writer’s block.
One last thing I want to mention about this particular spread, is that in June you will see I added a new column for “Dad Project”. I lost my dad three years ago to cancer, and we had a complicated relationship, so I’m using this for now to reflect and I’m still experimenting with how it will develop.
So as you can see, the tracker is also customizable in terms of projects as these can be added and dropped every time you fill in the columns for each month. This is just one way to track writing productivity, and I hope you might be able to take some inspiration from it.
When I set out to do this blog I hadn’t expected that my highest traffic would come from entries about my bullet journal (I use the term “traffic” very loosely – imagine a dusty country road which sees a couple of horse buggies and a pickup truck pass by every week). But it does seem that bullet journals, or “bujos” are still pretty popular and I’d be happy to share one of my favourite entries – my reading tracker:
I always think it’s pretty self-explanatory until I show it to someone and they greet me with a “wtf” face, so I think this one needs a little bit of explanation.
Firstly, the title “Kindling” is easy to miss since it runs across both pages both pages. This is a result of a very corny metaphor that came to me around the time I turned thirty (which is when I started my bujo) and refers to the fact that I think reading is the kindling that starts the mind’s fire. I’ve posted before about how important I think reading is to a writer, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though perhaps as an eye-roll moment.
The basic premise of the entry is based on Tetris. Each colourful piece represents a particular reading medium (yes, I count audio books and will fight anyone who argues otherwise). Usually the threshold is about a half-hour of reading in the specific category, the notable exception being short stories where a single block represents a single short-story, even though it might take me anywhere between five and forty minutes to read one. The grey block that’s “blog/misc” is the loosest category, and I usually count this only if the reading is particularly involved or informative, but really it’s whatever I feel like (as you can see, I don’t often count it so it’s not exactly a “cheat” category).
One of the wonderful things about the way this graph is set up is that I use it as a way of self-manipulation, specifically exploiting my competitive nature. It’s a point of pride for me to avoid any gaps between the pieces until the last possible moment and to leave as few as possible before the “play area” fills up. Based on this, not only do I sometimes need to read a particular genre or medium in order to make sure I don’t leave any gaps, but sometimes I intentionally place pieces in order to push myself towards doing something.
For example, if I find that I haven’t read a short story or a graphic novel recently, I could place an audio book or novel piece in such a way that the only pieces that would satisfy the remaining gap are the short story or graphic novel blocks. Boom! Suddenly I’ve found additional motivation to reach for those. Not to mention what’s going on in the far right part of the player area, where I leave an empty single block wide column that’s quite familiar to Tetris players. The only way to fill this one is with my most often neglected medium – poetry. I’ve never been a poetry connoisseur, and most of it admittedly flies right over my head (feel like the proverbial swine before a whole pile of pearls), so I tend to steer away from it. That said, I do occasionally enjoy it, and I find it to be a valuable literary exposure, so I have to find ways to read it, or I will be left with an unsightly gap in my log. This has worked out great over the last couple of years as I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Wisława Szymborska, and I’ve got a lot of others on my to-read list.
A couple of interesting observations from the spread that I included above:
As I’m sure a lot of other writers do, I like to embrace some of the stereotypes that are associated with being a writer. Since I’m a creative type, this must mean that I thrive in a little chaos, since over-organization will stifle my creative spirit. While I might feel as though this is true, I also know that if I fully submit to my propensity towards the “creative mess” or “tvorcheskiy besporiadok”, as they say in Russian, nothing will get done. The only solution to this is to organize myself … creatively.
In an earlier entry I described one of the ways in which I do just that – when I turned thirty, I downloaded a lot of my organization into a bullet journal, which tracks and logs various aspects of my life. I went into detail about my exercise tracker, which alas is not as colourful now that the autumn months and my wife’s new school semester have kicked in, but today I want to talk about one of the entries that specifically relate to my writing:
As you can see, the reason I chose to talk about this entry now is that I had just completed a six-month spread of May through October 2018. If it looks familiar, that’s because I featured it briefly in that introductory post, but I figured I’d go into more detail here.
Primarily this entry is organized by month, day, and type of activity. The activities are broken down into eight categories – used to be seven but I recently added the eighth and finally filled-up that empty column.
Of the eight activities, three are purely “content creation” – novel, short story and blog. That is, any time I write new words for any of these, I earn my check mark for the day. This interacts with my “Words per Day” bullet journal entry, but I can discuss that one in greater detail later. Note that I don’t break these up by works within the categories. For example, I’m currently working on two novels, but any additional words to a “novel” are just categorized in this column.
“Editing” usually relates to the three categories described above. Any time I take a draft of whatever has already been written and start tweaking it, the check mark for that column was earned. It was my choice to collapse the editing across genres into a single column, but I suppose you can be extra and subdivide each of the genres into “writing” and “editing” columns.
“Outlining” was added quite recently as a result of my realization that I need to outline in order to get any projects off the ground. So I wanted to separately track this activity in order to make sure I’m not lapsing and that I’m working towards having a robust outline by the time I need to launch into a new project. Due to the nature of outlining, both editing and adding words to an outline would earn me a check mark for this.
“Poetry” is also one of those categories that collapses outlining and adding words. I feel it’s kind of pointless counting the word count for poetry because it tends to be shorter, and because I find that for me 95% of the work on it is revising. Not that I know much about poetry. As you can see, poetry doesn’t get much love. I had to flip back all the way to January 2018 before I could locate the most recent check mark. But I have to admit that sometimes I get a feeling or an idea that seems to beg to be expressed in verse, and off I go to my handy poetry notebook where I jot down some words and then edit them again and again and again until I’m too intimidated to go back and try to sift through the scribbles to find some finished product.
And this bullet journal entry remains as a reminder that this notebook exists somewhere and I should probably go back to it and finish the poems some day.
And speaking of using the journal as a reminder to do things, the “blog” column is exactly that. It existed for over a year before I actually put this blog online, serving as an almost daily reminder that I have been meaning to undergo this task. So I would say not only does this spread serve as a tracker, but it could be used for goal-setting as well.
“Side Project” is really the “miscellaneous” category. This can range from things like work memorandums that I deem to require a sufficient amount of creativity to working on my alternate North American history project that I have no intention of utilizing in any way except for fun. For this reason “side project” also often contributes to the word count tracker when it can’t be fit into any of the other categories.
This leads us into “Publication” which is meant to capture those times that I work in some way or another on career management. Presently, this involves spending time on my short story publication efforts, such as searching for new journals or submitting the stories, either online or through the mail. It can be a daunting task sometimes, especially in the face of all the rejections that steadily trickle in now that I have so many stories submitted somewhere. It can be a discouraging task, but this bullet journal entry assists me in keeping focus and not staying away from the efforts for too long.
So that about wraps it up. As you can see, this bullet journal spread helps me keep on track, to set goals and to see which parts of my craft I may have been neglecting. Not to mention that it provides me with statistics about my own writing, and statistics are fun no matter how much my Psych stats prof tried to convince me otherwise. It could easily be adapted to whatever kind of writer you may be – if you never plan on touching a short story in your life, no need to include this column. Hopefully this might inspire you to pick up your own bullet journal and give it a shot, or set up your own spread that works for you.
Wanted to also make a quick note on the title of the entry. It’s a reference to some of the material in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. While not a magic number, he posits that is about how many hours most experts require to actually become masters at a certain activity. Oh, and it’s the title of an awesome Macklemore song. Pretty sure I’m yet to clock my 10,000, but this’ll help me get there.
I have this vague recollection that in a previous blog entry I vowed to update more frequently. Upon recent reflection, it would appear that I’m a shameless liar. Aaaaaaaaaanyway:
In an earlier blog entry I shared with you my mild obsession with my bullet journal – something I use to log, track or otherwise organize various aspects of my life. Some of these trackers, like my words-per-day chart, are geared directly towards my writing. Others; however, have more general everyday application, like my exercise log. It’s because I’ve reached a very significant milestone in my tracking since I first started the practice at the end of 2016 that I wanted to share with you another one of my bullet journal entries. Hold onto your hats, folks, this one’s colourful:
I would like to say the chart is self-explanatory but I’ve made that mistake in the past and I’m not about to do it again. Apparently not everybody can readily understand what’s in the mind of a madman. Each “block” of varying size appears underneath the label for its respective month. As you can see from the very depressing months of November and December 2017, it starts as a blank outlined square. Once I do an activity that constitutes exercise, I fill in one square.
There’s a legend at the bottom of the page that indicates the kinds of activities that make it in here. Some are fairly straight-forward, like running, swimming, and yoga. Others have some caveats. The biking one for instance, refers to actual hard-pedaling for distance (although I suppose calling my pedaling “hard” is being a bit generous). The 30+ minute walk usually refers either to a straight walk longer than 30 minutes, or a couple of intense walks at around 15-20 minutes each. Even if I ended up walking for hours that day, I still give myself only one light green square for that day, otherwise the light green would be too dominant here.
The most flexible category here is “gym”. This has included everything from an actual trip to the gym, to a particularly intensive chore day, to a half-hour session of Beat Jedi on the VR. And if you laughed at that last one, how about you try swinging your arms for 30 minutes to the tune of “Gangnam Style” and then tell me it wasn’t a workout.
So long story short, any time I exercise, I fill in one square on the chart, completing them in a sort of spiral pattern. To better see how the spiral works, look at the following months in succession: May 2017, March 2018, April 2018, December 2016, and so on.
So in the end you end up with a log that not only allows you to see the types of activity you’ve been doing, but also the relative volume of said activity month over month. I like this particular chart also because of how much time is captured in a single 2-page spread. Here we see 21 months worth of exercise, and as you can see, much can change over that time.
Early on in the process, there was a lot of running and swimming, and generally I was pretty active. Then it all kind of fell away for over a year (and there’s reason for that, if you feel like reading up on it). Running was replaced by biking due to another in a string of running injuries, and swimming never went back on the table because I switched jobs and no longer had a YMCA within walking distance of my office. I guess the other couple of things to note is the brief appearance of Yoga, which had to be put on hold due to lingering wrist sprain, and the last ice hockey game I’ve played so far, owing mostly to a busy life with two kids and the rink being a half-hour drive away. But hey, I scored two goals in that game, and was apparently dubbed the “Winter Soldier” by the team captain. And if there’s one thing I love collecting, it’s badass nicknames (it’s a very small collection).
Then after hitting rock bottom late last year, and then slowly getting out and walking in the spring, I finally turned things around, and had my most active months yet. This culminated in the most recent month where I set another record for having times I’ve exercised that month.
Some of you may not see this as a particularly big deal, but between my work and my hobbies, I’ve never been the most active person. A lot of this takes effort for me. Exercise has to be squeezed in before work so most of the time I’m up at 6 am to get this done. Walks are fit in at lunchtime, and thank goodness for Pokemon Go to help me get out of the office for a bit of fresh air.
And I think having this tracker helps as well. Not only does it add that one extra piece of motivation – being able to go home and fill out another square, but it also allows me to see how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. No matter what life throws at me, whether family tragedies, or injuries, or change in jobs, no matter how much I falter, I end up picking it all up and not abandoning my overall fitness goals.
And I think this one of the important things to accept about life, sometimes goals don’t arrive in the way you expect them to come. Sometimes there will be a drought. And this relates to writing as well. Whether a string of rejections or a prolonged case of writer’s block, life is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be ups and there will be downs and when you’re in a down it’s important to recognize it for what it is – temporary.
There are constantly shifting periods within my life that my wife lovingly calls “side-projects” but most of which she wants to call “What the hell are you even doing you’re a grown ass-man.” This is why I married someone who knew me in high school, because if she could like me through that, she would be able to handle anything. These side projects are as varied as they are ill-advised. For instance, for three years, I drew a webcomic (it was terrible and needs to be burned with fire but I had fun). Or how about that time I built a little house with popsicles, carpenter glue, and a pocket knife, and used our clunky second-hand CRT television as a work bench?
These little flights of fancy stick to me too easily, so it’s no surprise that when my wife and her sister were one evening going on and on about bullet journaling, my ears pricked up.
Graphs are an obsession of mine. If there’s anything that I learned in high school that came to any use in my later life it would be learning to use Excel in Ms. Hubbard’s Info Tech class. Whether it’s our car’s mileage, the success of national hockey teams or my words per day output since 2005, there is a chart or graph on my computer that covers it.
So when I found out that someone invented a paper journal (despite my affinity for Excel, I am still a sucker for physical media) whose dot pattern could help track a bunch of my goals and habits, I hit up our local bookstore and impulsively bought the only one that was available at the time, despite its slightly nauseating colour and the fact that the entire lineup appeared in the same store only a couple of weeks later.
My entry into the world of bullet journaling also coincided with an important life milestone. Despite my best efforts and pleas that had fallen on deaf ears, I was turning 30. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the way I handled my 20s, but I was determined to “Do my 30s right”, and if I could track sleeping, eating, exercise, language learning, productivity and a bunch of other crap found in self-help seminars, and put it in a neat little notebook, well then there was something right with the universe.
For those of you that are familiar with certain aspects of bullet journaling, you’re probably asking: “But Michael, you can’t draw for crap, what the hell are you doing getting into the girly art of bullet journaling?”
Firstly, I resent that first accusation. I’ll have you know that my stick people have the most intense expressions. Just look at this son of a bitch over here, judging you silently (may have been a product of 5 hours of intense sketching.
And secondly, there is nothing inherent to bullet journaling that requires artistic flourishes or stickers. Outdated gender norms aside, there is nothing preventing anyone from becoming a bullet journal enthusiast. I mean, sure, did I immediately go to Michael’s and buy a set of 20 Staedtler coloured pens? And did I update my hideously overpriced Micron pen collection? Maybe. But I didn’t need to do any of these things. I could just as well have pulled out a Bic pen and set to putting my bullet journal entries together.
So, what exactly went into the goal of doing my thirties right? With two young kids, one of whom was five months old at the time, it comes as no surprise that sleep was an important factor. Kids will eat away at enough if it without any effort on your part, so I figured I could tackle getting to bed on time easily. It’s not the easiest thing to do to go from 12:30 am bedtimes on weekdays and 2:30am on weekends only four years ago, to desperately trying to get to bed before 11:00 pm every day just so you wake up a semi-functional human being. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not whining. Kids are the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life. But they take their toll, and I needed to track to make sure I wasn’t exacerbating the problem.
Okay, given how that went, perhaps that wasn’t the best example to lead with. Another endeavor that I started to immediately track was my feeble attempts at learning Spanish through apps and reading literature I don’t understand. I recognize my failure as a Canadian in my inability to speak fluent French and then hopping on to trying to learn another language. But I will blame my teachers for compromising my love for the French language and my eternal fascination with Cuba for my attraction to Spanish. I put together an entry that tracks my use of the Memrise and Duolingo apps and whether I read or listen to any Spanish that day. As you can see from the tracker below, my results have been streaky.
Here you have another entry that doesn’t show the most stellar track record. But that’s the beauty of it. Even if I hit my lows or my busy periods, the fact that I’m still tracking this keeps pulling me back, and I’ve never fully given up on my goals. That’s kind of what I discovered on this journey, there’s only so many hours in a day, so there’s only so much you can do. Requiring perfection from yourself is about as unfair as requiring perfection from others, but as long as you keep trying at least the journey would be fun.
So now you’re thinking, “Thanks Michael, I don’t need a journal to tell me I don’t sleep and for my own sanity’s sake I won’t track my caffeine intake. So how will this help me in my writing?” Ah, there’s another advantage to bullet journals – you’re only limited by your imagination. Anything you want can be tracked, if you’re brave enough.
Take this spread here, which tracks my general types of writing output. This hits on everything from novels, to blog posts to time taken for my publication efforts. Even my hesitant forays into poetry are tracked here. Sometimes it’s hard to see what we’ve done, especially when jumping from project to project without taking anything to completion. But here I can quickly see where my time goes, and be assured that I’m putting in my hours to chip away at the coveted 10,000. Not a magic number, necessarily, but I thought it would be nice to take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he talks about how most experts at something tend to clock at least 10,000 hours in that activity. It's also a pretty sweet Macklemore song.
And that’s not the only writing-related bullet journal entry that I have. Since about 2005 I have been tracking, on-and-off, my writing output in terms of words per day. I know some people feel that this turns writing into a chore, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why I would stop for long stretches at a time. But I found over the last couple of years that now it aids in motivation, and going back at the end of the month and seeing production in graphic form encapsulates what I had done nicely. So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to do this in bullet journal form, where I would track the days using colour-coding based on how many words I wrote, with a little legend on the side to help me remember what the colours mean.
As you can see there is a significant bite taken out of the middle of 2017, and I elaborate on this a little bit in an earlier blog entry. But aside from that stumble, I think it’s pretty neat. You can easily see how 2018 has been significantly more productive than 2017, due to several factors of maintaining a good streak, having a variety of projects, and being in a good general state of productivity since November 2017, which again is covered in said blog entry. I want more days to be in the blue rather than in the green, but with work and other commitments it’s tough to fit that much writing into my day.
So there you have it, a bit of an insight into one of the many things in my writing toolbox. I would encourage you to pick out a bullet journal of your own and see where it takes you, or otherwise find a way of tracking and visualizing your progress. But remember, steer clear of anything that will suck the joy out of your art. Track to write, not write to track.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.