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As a writer, do you struggle with finding a way to go from start to finish in a novel?
Are you drawn to outlining but find most outlining methods too much of a cookie-cutter model?
Today, I’m going to share the method I use when I start a novel. I’ve called it the Fractal Method of Drafting because, as you’ll see, it proceeds much like a fractal.
Step 1: Start with a premise
The first step for me is always trying to come up with a sentence that tells me what the story is going to be about. This doesn’t have to be an exciting sentence. All it has to do is tell me three things:
1) Who the main character (protagonist) is
2) A bit about the setting
3) The main conflict and what comes of it
This is step 1, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. This also isn’t a “log-line” or “elevator pitch”. In other words, you don’t have to come up with something that would sell your book to an agent. Later on, you might get a better idea of how to make your novel sound exciting. For now, you just need a starting point.
Here’s an example:
A rural Manitoba boy will have to stop his new best friend when he learns that his friend extends his life by reading and capturing the souls of other children.
You’ll notice one important thing about this sentence: it is end-oriented. That is to say, it tells us where the story is going to end up. This is very important for this first step, as it will allow every other step to work.
Step 2: Expand your premise into a paragraph
Now you want to expand your sentence into a paragraph. You’ll do this by taking what’s there, breaking it into three parts, and zooming in to find more detail, much like in a fractal.
Here are the three questions to help you break your sentence up:
1) How did your protagonist get in this situation?
2) Who is the antagonist and what does he/she want?
3) How will your main character struggle and what is the result?
At this point, it will help if you make two cards. One for your protagonist, and one for your antagonist. On each card, be sure to explore the following:
1) What he/she wants more than anything
2) What’s stopping him/her from obtaining that
3) What he/she will do to get it
Don’t get carried away with hair color or mannerisms or occupation; simplicity is key. But keep this card as it will later serve as the place where you can develop these two characters. For now, stick to only these three things.
It might help to explore your characters before writing the paragraph. Or, you might try the two together. In fact, you’ll probably find that one will inform the other. You might write your character cards then realize more about the paragraph, and vice versa.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite your paragraph as you get to know more about the main protagonist/antagonist. Your goal in this step is to emerge with a strong paragraph that conveys how your novel is going to play out.
Following our above example:
Protagonist: Ronald Hall
Wants more than anything: to be able to escape to books instead of having to make friends in the small town where his family has just moved
What’s stopping him: his parents insist he make friends instead of reading, but he’s an introvert and gets made fun of by other kids because he’s geeky and awkward
What he’ll do to get it: he’ll befriend the stranger who he discovers living in the basement and keep the friendship secret from everyone so that no one will take it away, and trick his parents by having them believe he’s really out for the day when in fact he’s immersed in stories
Antagonist: Lucius Veritas
Wants more than anything: to live forever and read every book ever written
What’s stopping him: he’s mortal and is a very slow reader
What he’ll do to get it: he learned a way to split his soul from a Hashashin mystic secret society when he lived in Jerusalem in the 900’s, an act which requires absorbing one soul into his grimoire every 60 years
Ronald Hall has moved to Steinback, Manitoba, and he hates it. He has no friends and though he had few friends in Vancouver, at least in the big city he could spend his days in the libraries reading books. Now, his parents are insisting he make friends, but he doesn’t know how. To hide from his parents, he stays in the basement, which has several secret tunnels (his dad said it was for his “secret underground pot crops”). Because of this, he meets Lucius, a man who looks in his mid-30s and who knows a great deal about books. They become fast friends, but Ron has to keep the friendship secret because his parents also have taught him not to speak to strangers. No doubt, if dad finds out, that will be the end of Lucius. But soon Ron learns troubling things about Lucius, hinted at when the man tells him about tales from the medieval times as though he lived through them. Soon he finds out that not only is it true that Lucius is far older than 30 years, but that he might be after Ron’s soul to keep him alive. Ron decides to finally tell his parents, but Lucius won’t let that happen. He binds Ron in the cave where he lives and the only way out now is for Ron to discover the secrets within Lucius’ grimoire. Maybe that secret will tell him how his magic works, and there might be a way he can use it against him.
It’s very important to know that this paragraph is a sketch. You will be refining and changing its details in the next step. You don’t have to have everything figured out, but you should at the least try to expand around the 3 parts of the sentence from step 1 so that we understand how the protagonist and antagonist end up in the final situation toward which the novel will build.
Step 3: Expand your paragraph into a 3-part sketch
Your paragraph should already feel like it’s ready to take off. This step lets you indulge a little by take it to that next level.
Your task now is to break the paragraph into its natural 3 parts:
Focus especially on the end. In fact, work on the end first. Why? Because this is where the sentence came from. This is also where the story lives. A story is not about how it starts, but rather about something important that happens to your protagonist. Your beginning and middle follow how your protagonist gets to that point.
To help, as with the previous step, you might want to start making cards for secondary characters and key settings.
For secondary characters, focus only on the ones who are most relevant to the story. For example, in Ron’s story, a relevant secondary character at this step might be his father, since he’s an alternate opposing force in Ron’s life. A good guideline is to stick to secondary characters who you allude to in the paragraph in step 2. You might also add some for secondary characters who appear as you’re working through the 3-part sketch.
As with the main characters, stick to the essentials:
1) What does he/she want?
2) What’s in his/her way?
3) What does he/she do to get it?
For settings, focus only on the ones that appear in your paragraph, or that emerge in your 3-part sketch. For example, the chamber in Ron’s basement where Lucius is staying seems pretty important. I’d want to know more about what he’s hiding here, how long he’s been there, and more about its secrets.
You can be free with your setting card. Think of it as a sketching tool and later reference to help you explore the stories the settings themselves might tell you. One thing I often do is sketch the setting and try to visualize what’s in it. This lets me get a sense of items in the world that might exist there, which can be useful for further expansion in the next steps.
As with step 2, let the process of exploring cards and the 3-part sketch inform one another. Continue to revise until you’re satisfied.
Your 3-part sketch will be about 1-2 pages long, the length of a synopsis. It will be in paragraphs, probably a few paragraphs for beginning, middle, and end. The sentences might be less polished or read like notes, and that’s fine.
Try not to fill in everything that happens in your story beat by beat. Only focus on expanding from the existing paragraph from step 2. Expand a little, like you’re peeking around the corners and writing down what you see there.
Step 4: Expand your 3-part sketch into a 7-part sketch
Your 3-part sketch should now show you the framework of a pretty cohesive story, but it might still feel like big pieces are missing. In fact, pieces should be missing if you follow the advice I gave above. In expanding, you’re not linearly mapping out your story, front to back. Rather, you’re expanding from the critical parts of story to get a better sense of how, on a deeper level now, it will begin, it will progress, and it will end.
Now we’re going to push that a bit further.
1) Take your beginning and start thinking about:
- a) How are we going to first meet your protagonist and get invested in his/her situation? (Example: Ron escaping to his basement after pretending to go out looking for friends, exploring the tunnels and being intrigued by them.)
- b) What event is going to kick everything in motion? (Example: Ron meets Lucius and Lucius tells him to keep his existence secret)
2) Take your middle and think about:
- a) How does your antagonist complicate the problem? (Example: Lucius is nearing the end of his 60 years where he needs another soul, so he is now set on capturing Ron)
- b) How does your protagonist respond to this complication? (Example: Ron wants to make a friend and doesn’t see what Lucius is trying to actually do)
- c) How does the complication in a) and the responses in b) lead eventually to the end of the novel? (Example: Ron is bound in Lucius’ cave where he has access only to Lucius’ book)
3) Take your end and think about:
- a) How does everything come to a head for the protagonist and antagonist? (Example: Ron discovers Lucius’ secret weakness and uses it against him)
- b) How does everything resolve and what end state is the protagonist and antagonist left in? (Example: Ron will actually spare Lucius by becoming his first real friend, helping him die in peace after he lets Ron go)
For each point, you’ll write a bit more in-depth than you did in the previous step. The result should be something that shapes up to about 3-5 pages.
This might sound like filling in an outline, but I’ll tell you why it’s not the same. It has to do with what I mentioned at the end of last step. You’re not filling in every single thing that will happen in your story. You’re only peeking around the corners from your 3-part sketch. As you do this, using the 7 questions above to help, you’ll fill in more. The story that comes together then is disproportionate to the actual story that will become your draft, and that’s okay. Your goal here, as everywhere else so far, is to connect to the core aspects of the story’s conflict that you pinned down in step 1, centering around protagonist and antagonist.
Now, as with the previous steps, you’ll want to use your cards to help expand. This step is one where you’ll likely revise a lot to fill it in.
In the examples above, you’ll notice I left the points bare. In fact, 3a) is pretty weak. What does it even mean to “discover Lucius’ secret weakness?” I’m going to use this to illustrate how cards work hand-in-hand with the 7-part sketch.
Take your card for your protagonist and antagonist that you created in step 2 and work more on it. Develop it as you go, but pry a bit further to see if it reveals more to you at this stage.
Likewise, you might push your secondary characters further for secrets that help you clarify the 7 parts better. More importantly, now is the time to dig for another secondary character and see how that character adds to the story.
Coming back to the problem above, I need to figure out what Lucius’ secret is. That might lurk somewhere in a secret from an already existing character. Or it might come from introducing a new one. For example, Lucius, I decide, has a sister. She was the first person he bound to his book, and he kept a lock of her hair. As soon as it’s burned, his spells break. When I make up her secondary character card and explore her motivations, I realize that when she was first bound and realized what was happening to her, she wrote about this secret using a cipher so that Lucius wouldn’t read it and destroy it. To date, no one Lucius has taken captive has been smart enough to discover how to read the cipher (even Lucius doesn’t know about it), but somehow Ron is going to figure it out because he loves secret codes.
If that sounds like a lot of by-the-pants invention, it is. And this is exactly what happens here by exploring new characters as a way of trying to push deeper into the 7 parts at this step. But as you can see, this exploration now allowed me to discover something important about Ron, that he loves secrert codes, and I can work that into his character sheet and refer to it when I start actually drafting.
Do this with settings (old, and new) as well, and now at this stage you can start creating world cards.
World cards are simply cards that capture some aspect of your story world. For example, I’ve discovered that Lucius’ spell to keep his life going originates with a secret mystic society from Jerusalem in the 900s. That would get a world card that I’d label with the society name (or simply call “mystic Hashashin society”). Exploring that card will give me some answers, particularly about Lucius’ spell and how it works and some properties that might come in handy for the problem Ron has to solve.
World cards can cover items, religions, languages, societies/organizations, families, you name it. The idea is this is distinct from settings in that whereas settings are specific places that relate to your story, the world is the next level of abstraction (or expansion, in fractal lingo) outward from character and setting, the collection of elements that cohesively define the world in which they exist.
Step 5: Expand your 7-part sketch into frames
Your 7-part sketch now should be pretty cohesive. You’ll have cards for your protagonist, antagonist, most important secondary characters, most important settings, and important parts of your world like societies, cultures, organizations, religions, etc.
Where do you go next?
Not to drafting. Nor to scene sketching. This step is one step between, and here’s how it works.
At this point in development, no doubt you’re picturing parts of your story. In fact, you probably want to jump in and write those parts right now.
These are your frames. They are units of story that live in your head already and just need to get down on the page. Sketched out and put in order on the wall, they would become the frames of a storyboard by which you’d be able to walk something through a loose mock-up of your story.
For example, as I made up this example with Ron and Lucius, I can already see the scene where Ron explores his basement for the first time, the scene where Ron and Lucius first meet, and the moment when Ron spares Lucius as an act of mercy in the end.
At this point, you want to make a card for each of these and put them in order. Again, you’re not going through your story and filling in everything that happens. You’re capturing each idea for your story as it comes to you, then putting it in order. After you’ve emptied your mind of everything obvious, spend time peeking around the corners of every part of your 7-part sketch and look for more frames that come to you.
For each frame, there’s no hard fast rule what you have to write down. Just write down a sketch of what you see happening. Don’t overload it. Stick to essentials, remembering that you’ll come back to this for further development.
Spend lots of time with this. At this point, you can really push hard to complete your secondary character cast. You might also start to develop a tertiary character cast too. These are characters who might part of a given frame. They don’t get a complete card, but you might list them out so that you can make the frames in which they appear more complete.
You can develop more settings (even if you don’t use them). Spend time with each setting not just peeking around the corners for more frames of your story, but around the corners of what else that setting might reveal that will develop your story. Get especially in touch with what the setting looks like, what secrets it might have, what kind of history it has, and what items might be there and what you might see happening there while your story is progressing.
You can explore more of the world. Start organizing these into categories as they come together for easy access later. You can do this by thinking about what each element of the world is. Languages for example would go together, as would societies, as would families. You can expand the fractal another level here too by peeking around the corners of the categories themselves: as societies group together, what other societies are there in the world that might inform you more about your story?
Only one word of advice to make sure this stays on track: stick to your 7-part sketch from step 4. Use it as a reference. Remember, this is a fractal expansion, and this is the next step. It should emanate from that step. Try to peek behind as many corners as you can and everywhere you can, keeping in mind your central aim: to capture another frame of your story.
It will feel like you could keep going with some of the secondary tools like character, setting, and world cards. If you do, stop. You can (and will) always be able to come back and expand these fractals further, but it’s best to let them expand in proportion to the development of your story.
Step 6: Expand your collection of frames into a scene map
I want to say this step is optional, but that depends on what you prefer when writing. However, I do want to emphasize that this step is not the creation of a solid blueprint which you must follow when you draft. Rather, it’s one last deep glimpse into the story you’re going to write, as deep as you can go before actually writing draft prose.
Your frames, character cards, settings cards, and world cards are all going to tell you a whole lot at this point. In fact, it’s enough for you to write a draft that will be amazingly cohesive.
But you might want to dig into more cause-and-effect logic beforehand to make sure you don’t write yourself into a corner. After all, I’m really excited about Ron breaking the secret code and discovering Lucius’ sister’s locket, but how exactly is that going to work? Where would Lucius keep the locket, especially knowing it’s his weakness? How would Lucius not know how to break the cipher, given that he’s read almost every book ever written?
So in this stage, the idea is to actually start mapping out scenes based on the frames. If you want to refer to the storyboard metaphor from last step, this would be a more detailed version, more like the prototype made for a game before coding begins.
You might render dialogues in point form, or block out what will happen in individual scenes in the order you see. What you’re doing here is grouping your frames together by trying to imagine how everything will fit into complete scenes. You’re peeking around the corners from there to see what cause-and-effect trajectories might exist between these various frames. Some frames will be multiple parts of a scene, or might define one moment in a scene, and some scenes will be wholly invented based on your explorations in this step.
Just remember, above all, you’re not trying to fill this in linearly to get a blow-by-blow. The danger if you do that is you may end up with lots of unnecessary filler. Instead, as with each step, expand from the frames using questions to dig deeper so that what you’ll have is an exhaustive scene map to follow in the next step.
For instance, the three questions I asked about Lucius’ secret are worth fleshing out more scene material because they emanate from a core piece of the 7-part sketch. I might decide that we need to find out somewhere that Lucius has never read the letter with the cipher because it’s still sealed with wax and his guilty conscience has endowed him with a strange sentimentalism. I’d develop his character card, then in turn I’d think of a scene where that might go.
Step 7: Expand your scene map into a draft
Once you have your scene map complete, it’s time to start drafting. This is where you’ll likely want to start at the beginning. I know of writers who do not write books in the order a reader encounters them, but they are the exception. Narratively, it’s important to experience your story in the same order a reader will encounter it.
Approach this step just like the previous steps. Use your scene map, character cards, setting cards, and world cards to ground you as you expand. As you write your story, rather than thinking about what words to put on the page, instead try to think of how you’d expand what you see on the scene map into prose. Once more, you’re peeking around the corners, but this time it’s to help you see what will flow in the prose you’re writing.
Develop your cards (and scene map) as you go. Let the two components inform one another, just as they did in the previous steps.
This by no means suggests your draft will be perfect, only that you’ll have a helpful process by which to write a story that began, and evolved, as something grounded in the core struggle of the protagonist and antagonist. It will help you draft material that’s relevant and emergent from this, since every deeper structure of story originated from a previous fundamental structure.
Exactly like a fractal.
Steps 8+: Revision
You can imagine all subsequent drafts as step 8, step 9, and so on. In each step, treat your previous draft and the character, setting, and world cards that developed and evolved through the process as reference. Peek around the corners into a story that’s even more complete as you write a new draft.
Linearity is important in each step. To do this, spent a lot of time with the draft in the previous step going over and marking it up with “hit points”. These are comments you might make in the margins that tell you what needs to change. You can also explore your character, setting, and scene cards to help you see more that will help you make the best “hit points” for the next draft.
As you work on the next draft, proceed to rewrite it everywhere your hit points tell you to. These spots contain instructions on how to make the story truer. Go to town and rewrite completely in these spots, following your instructions in the hit points. I like to use a colored font to mark each draft so I can keep track over time what changed from the first draft.
As in a fractal, the steps expand infinitely inward, and hence with writing a book, you could redraft and redraft endlessly, only getting closer and closer to the heart of making your story better. However, eventually a given publisher prints your book and tells you you’re not allowed to improve it anymore, so that’s where you stop.
Then, you move on and write another, starting again at step 1.
Step 0: Extending to a series
Now, here’s where I might blow your mind. This process can be extended upward. By that I mean everything we’ve been doing from steps 1-7+ can itself be seen as steps emerging from a more fundamental “step 0” of a larger process. This is another property of fractals.
What the heck to I mean? I’m talking about a series. Yes, if you want to plan a whole series, then rewind to step 0.
Take everything you developed in steps 1-7+, and start to think of a more all-encompassing statement that covers:
1) What kind of adventures your character will have
2) What settings these will cover
3) How your character will struggle and grow throughout
This then becomes a new starting point. From this question branches the fractal structure of steps 1-7+ for each book in the series. This of course will evolve as you write your first book, but it’s a handy reference for you to think about the larger series arc of several books as you go through this method so you can appreciate how the fundamental conflict is developed in each book.
Imagine you could be involved in NaNoWriMo every month, without having to worry about writing 1,666 words of your novel’s first draft every day. What if instead, you could write whatever you were able, on whatever project is important to you at the time, and get the added boost from a community of writers who are doing the same?
Perhaps a writing day might look like:
- 1,543 words of your first draft
- 678 new words on your second draft, and 5600 words reviewed/polished
- 9800 words polished in your fourth draft, 123 new words written
- 5 20-minute sprints focused on various levels of writing, 340 tracked new words written, approximately 3000 words reviewed
- 1275 words of first draft of novel A, 4500 words revised of novel B, 3×20-minute sprints pre-planning work on novel C
Depending on where you’re at in your process, and what kind of writer you are, you might fit into any one of those categories.
What if you could track that in a simple way, and join a club of writers who were doing the same so as to feel the same push and group accountability as NaNoWriMo, without the pressure of having to finish a novel in a month?
This problem is what led me to create the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet, which launched this month. Simply put, the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet allows you to track:
- Your new words written (“word count” in NaNoWriMo lingo)
- Your words edited (rounded to the nearest 100)
- Your time intervals (measured in 20-minute sprints)
It also rewards you for writing every day, and if you need to take a day off (or two), you also get residual rewards for your total days in (consistency over time). The formulas in the spreadsheet compute a “word score” which is a relative word count which assigns a weight to your writing time in on a given day. The more your write (on that day, and over time), the bigger your score.
I’ll talk about each part of the sheet in turn.
1. New words written
One challenge I’ve heard voiced from writers who have gone through NaNoWriMo is the pressure to just get words down and not think about them. While there’s value to pushing the words out, there’s also a lot to be missed by not allowing yourself to rewrite.
Most writers rewrite sentences as they go. The result is, after about an hour of writing, they might have 300-400 words to account for their progress. This is not tinkering. This is discovering. So, while you must write forward, sometimes to understand how to write past a wall, you must go back to where the writing went off track and discover just what you were trying to do. All in all, it’s a balance, which means thinking differently about “new words written”.
For the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet, you can keep track of the total new words you’ve written in a day by keeping a tally as you go. It’s not about the word count in your document but about the word count you’ve been keeping track of. I personally find doing this every time I have a creative burst and stop to think gives me an added boost because it’s a measure of my progress. (I simply highlight the text and copy it into http://hemingwayapp.com/ where the word count is automatically tracked on the right.)
2. Words edited
The needs of a given writing day might vary depending on where you are in your project. If you were doing NaNoWriMo and the novel you’re having published next year suddenly arrives from the first editor guess what? Bye-bye novel project, editing mayhem has begun.
The beauty of the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet is it allows you to keep track of the words you’ve edited so that, regardless of where your focus has had to shift, you have a sense of forward progress every day. Whether you’ve decided that in order to best ground yourself in where chapter 22 is going, you need to spend time reading over chapter 21 and a part of chapter 18 where the events you’re building on took root, or if you’ve had to start multitasking by dealing with edits and cutting back daily progress on your new novel, this feature is handy.
Because the amount you can go over previous words written and read/analyze much quicker than writing new ones, the “word score” for this one is set at 1/10. So, for example, if you read over chapter 22 and it’s 4500 words long, then you’d get 450 word added to your word score. If you managed to write 750 words of your WIP, you’d get 1200 words total in your word score for the day from these two contributions alone.
(You round your words edited to the nearest 100 to avoid decimal word counts.)
3. Time intervals
During NaNoWriMo, many writers motivate each other by going on “20-minute sprints”. I love these because everyone in a given group can coordinate and say “timer on” then they all vanish into their projects, coming back when the timer goes off. Rather than working for 2 solid hours, these sprints allow you to make solid progress in smaller units.
You might prefer working for a long block of time, but even so the point is sometimes focusing on time put in is a better way to measure your productivity. What if you’ve spent a good deal of time on a given day involved in analysis or problem solving while at a critical spot in your manuscript? The timer is on and you’re writing and you are making sure Facebook and other distractions are closed, but you haven’t made progress in terms of new words or going over edits, but you have made progress that just doesn’t compute to a simple word count.
The Awesome Writer Spreadsheet lets you put in your total time in (in 20-minute units, rounded to the nearest unit), and you receive a bonus accordingly.
This is probably the most complicated part of the sheet. But don’t worry! This is the part of the sheet you won’t even see happening because I did all the hard work in the background using the script editor, so all the mathematics and programming happens in a flash. You just have to put your time interval in, along with your words written and words editing, and presto, a word bonus appears and gets added to your word score.
Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty, I will give you a rough idea of what this computation does:
- Analyzes your total new words written and total words edited and measures them against your target word goal
- Compares total new words and total words edited to time interval and assigns a weight to the time based on how much you exceeded your target
- Assigns extra bonus based on the value of your streak
- Assigns extra bonus (but less than with streak) based on overall consistency of writing over time
- Gives you more bonus if you’ve written less new words and revised less new words, since it robustly assumes this means more of your focused time was spent on analysis
A few more awesome things about this spreadsheet
To use this spreadsheet, you only need to enter your new words written, total words edited, and number of 20-minute time intervals in a given day. You get a word score (and therefore you continue your day streak and add to your consistency score) even if you wrote for 20 minutes and managed 15 words. In other words, the goal of this sheet is to encourage you to put in the time more consistently and build a consistent habit, not to push for an artificial word count that can lead to strain in your personal life.
You can also set your target word score based on what you think is reasonable. If coming out with a word score of 500 words every day is meaningful then you set that. This way, you’re not comparing your score to everyone else’s and feeling like you’re not measuring up.
The spreadsheet also computes a suggested word score target for you based on how you actually do. So if you set your word score target to 500 words but daily your output is close to 700, you can adjust it based on this number.
The spreadsheet also is a great way to network with other writers. We put our social media and website information in our rows and you can feel free to connect with those whose progress you see every day you go in.
The best part: I’ll be managing all of this so you just need to show up and add your word count and I (and the formulas chugging in the background) will do the rest.
Do you want to get in on the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet? Let me know by email — email@example.com — and I’ll help get you set up to join.
You can also join us on Twitter at #AwesomeWriterClub.
I am an avid runner. I used to run 5 times a week and have done a full marathon, and a half. I sprained my ankle 3 years ago, and during the year it took for that to heal, I cut back on the frequency and soon got into strength training. Now, I run 2-3 times a week, and I get to the gym for a 40-50 minute strength training workout about that many times as well, depending on rest/recovery needs.
I used to be motivated by competition, but now it’s simply health. I push myself because I want results, but that isn’t so I can get better body or place in the summer Olympics. It’s because I know that if, week after week, I continue to either maintain or slightly improve on how I performed previously, overall my fitness becomes that much better. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable and attainable because I’m not pushing toward a synthetic goal, but rather, am working on how I can improve upon a previous result I know I have attained.
To do this, I need to keep track of my progress. I do this using a note in the Notes app on my phone. In a given 7-10 day period, I do about 30 different strength training workouts, which I break into 3 sessions. Over about a 12-17 day period, I do 5 different kinds of runs that target different intensity intervals. The reason for this variance in numbers is because I do not stick to a cookie-cutter workout of XX sessions per week. Instead, I follow a rule of alternating days between run / strength / run / strength and so on, breaking this up for 1-2 days of rest as needed.
For strength training, I track my reps in a given set. For running, I track my heart rate (I wear a Polar M400 monitor), speed, and distance of a given interval (the Polar has a GPS built into it, which tells me my speed). All these numbers go into my note in the Notes app.
Now, why am I getting at this and what does it have to do with writing?
The whole point of tracking myself is so I can measure my performance. My goal is not to strive toward a given result. For instance, I might wish I could run 10x 100-meter sprints at 17mph, keeping my heart rate about 185-189, but this isn’t very realistic. I don’t even know what it will require for my body to adapt to that kind of result!
I know only how I performed in a given session. The next time I do that exact same run, because I wrote down the critical information — speed, distance, heart rate — I can set that as my goal. Maintain, that’s all I strive for. In reality, more often than not, it gets easier and I make a gain. Then, the next time, I maintain that.
It’s this last part that is crucial. In my last run, I was working on 1600m sprints. In that run, I do 3 of these, with about a 2-3 minute walk in between. The first two are difficult. The last one is usually where I want to quit. But because I’d written down my previous results, I pushed myself to at the least maintain. The last 400m of that last sprint was where I hit the true edge and would have quit.
At that moment, I recognized that this exact pain and burn I felt was that exact moment I’d pushed through 2 tough sprints and the first 1200m of a 3rd one to get to. This is it. This is where the real work is happening. I grit my teeth and pushed through, and pain turned into satisfaction until the end. Not only did I maintain and get to the end of that interval, my heart rate was lower than last time and my speed was 0.1mph higher.
The aim to maintain led to a gain. I cooled down and wrote it down for next time, and now for next time, I’ll work to maintain that. And in this way, continually improve in a manner that my body is able to accommodate.
This concept translates to any act that requires perseverance. Productivity especially.
The goal of being productive is not to spend all day working and getting as much done as possible. (Should not be, anyway.) If you enter your day with a to-do list the size of a mountain and decide that success on that day is getting it all done, you might be skipping lunch and working until 10pm and going to bed with a tension headache. Never mind what that’s going to do to the rest of your week.
If on the other hand you enter the day with a to-do list and an intention to set aside focused work periods, tackling this list in order of priority, then you might not get everything done, but you can end your day knowing with satisfaction that you advanced your tasks with the same — or slightly better — efficiency than the previous day.
In my work day, I set aside 2 hours for writing every day. Then I set aside 2 hours to do work that requires focus. For example, writing this blog post right now is part of my 2nd 2-hour work period and all my attention is on this one task that I know, from previous weeks, I can accomplish in well under 2 hours. For the afternoon, I push for 5 20-minute focus periods and tend to tackle projects that have short-term shelf life, like answering emails, supervising editing projects, anything under deadline.
In all cases, having this specific time window forces me to push at some point. I always find that there is a drop off on a given day during one of these periods. But because I have this structure as my template, I push during that time and find that often, that’s when the best solutions happen.
The same applies to when I write. My focus is time spent at the keyboard, so if I have a tough revision task, or see an opportunity to one-up my game in a given scene, I don’t decide that I’ll tackle it later because it’s hard and I need to be “in the right head space”. Instead, I’m there, “doing my time” so to speak, and this fosters a willingness to push. Because of this approach, I’ve come back to the manuscript for A Thousand Roads for now more than 180 days and have maintained the quality of writing, with incremental gains, which I continually maintain. Comparing the results in my writing efficiency to what I was doing in December, I’m seeing a quantum leap rather than a slight gain (or the merry-go-round of frustration rewriting/revision can feel like when it comes at you left, right, and center).
This is the true beauty of adopting this maintain-only mindset. When you are focused outwardly on results, your attention shifts away from the most important thing: the specific work you are doing and how you can improve that. For a runner, this leads to injuries. For a creative or freelance person, this leads to burnout. For a writer, this leads to stagnated writing, frustration, half-solutions, circular revision, chasing ideas that lead nowhere.
When you are focused inward on process though, you truly grow because your mind is on the specific work before you and how you can bring everything you have to that work. This lets you be in tune with that awesome meta-moment that comes right when you hit your edge. It lets you decide, Good enough, I’ve made progress today, so you can go on and do the same, or better, tomorrow. It’s the kind of focus that will take you 10x beyond what you’re doing now.
I have a long way to go on A Thousand Roads. But I stare ahead into what will be 13 months of rewriting every day, numerous drafts, continual improvements, a strong, relentless push right until the end, and I’m encouraged by the mystery of thinking: if I’ve improved this much since January, what is the final book going to look like?
Do you relate to this in your own work? Please, do share you thoughts and some examples below.