Monthly Archives: February 2014

How a Tracking Journal Can Make You a More Prolific Author

More than a year ago, I joined a different kind of writing group than I usually participate in: instead of emphasizing craft and critiques, this group focuses on building a writing habit.

I joined because I was hoping that peer pressure would motivate me to write more.

It worked even better than I expected.  I had to check in daily to report my progress, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.

As I got into the rhythm of daily writing sessions, I started to experience an odd sense of relief when I sat down to write each day.  In the past I’d always felt conflicted about writing–as soon as my butt hit the chair, I’d be slammed with a wave of guilt about all the other things I should be doing.

But knowing that other people expected me to write made the writing feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a priority.

Not too surprising, right?

That isn’t the best part.

In addition to reporting my progress, I was also required to answer a series of questions about each day’s writing session, including:

How creative did I feel that day?

What negative thoughts did I experience as I was writing?

What obstacles did I have to overcome to write?

At first, I thought these questions were a waste of time.  But it was part of the group’s process, so I answered them anyway.

When I started seeing the patterns in my answers, I was shocked.

I thought I knew what factors were influencing how much I wrote:  what mood I was in, how healthy I was, and whether or not I was feeling inspired.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mood

It turns out that my mood didn’t correlate with how much I wrote on a given day.  I didn’t write more on days where I was happy, and I didn’t write less on days when I was annoyed or had the blahs.

Health

I discovered that if I wrote at my scheduled time, I wrote about the same amount whether I felt great or had a cold.  Hayfever and other everyday physical complaints didn’t decrease my output at all.

Inspiration

While I’m not the type to wait for inspiration–I know that it often strikes when you’re already working–I did assume that I need inspiration to have a really productive day.

Not so, it turns out.  In fact, I often wrote more on the days that I felt less inspired.  It’s possible that I was pushing myself in the hopes that inspiration would come.  Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction I felt on the days when my muse was generous made it easier to quit early.

In other words, how I feel–physically, emotionally, creatively–is not an accurate predictor of how much I’ll be able to write.

Seeing the cold, hard data made it impossible to ignore the patterns.  For years, I’ve been allowing myself to skip writing sessions when my mood was bad or when hayfever had my sinuses in an uproar.  And I’d been blaming my uninspired days for my slow progress.

My faulty assumptions about how my creative process works were keeping me from reaching my full potential as a writer.

So what factors did affect how much I wrote each day?

Only two:  sleep and how active my inner critic was.

Days where I got eight hours of sleep or more were days where I exceeded my word count goal.

Days where I got less than eight hours of sleep were days with lower word/page counts.

Days where I got less than seven hours of sleep were days where I struggled to write anything.

And as for my inner critic–recording the negative thoughts I experienced as I sat down to write was enlightening.  There was an almost perfect correlation between how many negative thoughts I experienced and how little I wrote.

And the thing that really stinks:  my inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about!

When I went back to look at the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was throwing a tantrum, I discovered that they weren’t any worse than the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was silent. They both required about the same amount of editing.

That’s right.  My inner critic wasn’t helping me improve the quality of my writing.  At all.

Lessons Learned

Now that I’ve seen the real factors that affect my productivity as a writer, I’m doing things a little differently.

1.  I don’t let how I feel on a given day determine whether or not I write.

2.  I go to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that I’m increasing my capacity to write tomorrow.

3.  I’m exploring ways of taming my inner critic.

Just knowing that my inner critic isn’t giving good advice makes it easier for me let those negative comments go.  When the voice in my head tells me I’m writing crap, I now shrug and reply, “That’s your opinion.”

The group has also taught me that positively reframing my inner critic’s negative comments helps take the sting out of them.

When I find myself thinking that I’ll never finish this novel, for example, I remind myself that I don’t have to finish it today.  I just have to write the next scene.

Challenging my assumptions about what factors affect my creative process has allowed me to more than double my writing productivity in a mere two months.  I encourage you to do same.

Make a list of the things you think are affecting your productivity.  Time of day you’re writing, noise levels, diet, sleep, inspiration, mood, exercise. If you’re not sure what to track, start with your usual excuses.  What are the things you usually blame on the days you decide not to write?

For the next month, commit to writing for at least five minutes each day, and track each productivity factor at the end of your writing session.  You might track hours of sleep, or rate your energy levels on a scale of 1-10, or simply note your mood at the time you started your writing session.  You might start a list of negative thoughts and put a checklist by the ones that show up as you write each day.  Whatever you think is important, track it.

At the end of the month, look for patterns.  Did you write more on days when you felt blah and less on days when you felt angry?  Did your output go down on the days when all you ate was pizza and milk duds?  Did you discover that you write best after a brief nap or a snuggle session with your cat?

Once you see the patterns, you’ll know exactly what you need to change to become a more prolific author.

Using Symbolism to Flesh Out Your Characters

You had a dream about a man on a motorcycle, and you can’t stop thinking about him. You’re convinced that he’d make a great hero, if you could just find the right story for him.

But you can’t remember the rest of the dream. You don’t know anything about him except that he rides a motorcycle.

How can you get a handle on your mystery man? Start by asking:

“What do motorcycles symbolize?”

  • Motorcycles are fast. Maybe this man loves zooming along on his hog because it gives him a sense of movement that’s lacking from his otherwise stagnant life. If he feels like he’s in last place in his career or his marriage, going for a ride on his motorcycle might be how he copes—with the landscape rushing by, he can pretend for a few moments that at least he’s winning this race.
  • Motorcycles are agile. A man who prefers a motorcycle to a car might have an agile mind—he might be the kind of person who thinks on his feet and isn’t fazed no matter what you throw at him.
  • Motorcycles are small enough to pass through spaces where even the most compact car won’t fit. If this is what your rider loves about his bike, it’s possible that he’s someone who doesn’t like following the rules and is constantly looking for loopholes that will allow him to get what he wants. Or maybe he’s impatient, and he knows that as long as he’s on his motorcycle, he’ll never again be stuck in a traffic jam—wasting time is agonizing to him.
  • Motorcycles can handle terrain that a standard car can’t. What if your mystery man was injured during a tour of duty, and now he can only limp along slowly with a cane? But when he’s riding, he’s no longer limited by his injuries, and he can go anywhere, including the wilderness areas where he used to hike. The motorcycle could be a symbol of freedom for him.
  • Riding a motorcycle is riskier than driving a car, not because motorcycles are inherently unsafe, but because other drivers on the road are less likely to notice a motorcycle or to give the cyclist enough space. So the fact that this man is riding one demonstrates that he’s a risk-taker to some degree. He might be the kind of person who takes calculated risks or he might be a reckless adrenaline junkie.
  • Motorcycles aren’t a mainstream form of transportation. Why has he chosen an unconventional ride—is he rebelling against mainstream society, or is he just a free spirit who marches to a different drum?

You can probably think of other things that motorcycles symbolize to you, and one of them will give you a toehold into this character’s personality. He’s a creation of your subconscious, and he’s riding a motorcycle because your subconscious is trying to tell you something important about him.

Once you’ve worked through your personal symbolism around motorcycles, ask yourself a second question:

“What is this character’s relationship to his motorcycle?”

In other words, what could the motorcycle symbolize to him? How is the bike an extension of this man’s personality?

  • Does he see himself as a knight in shining armor, and the motorcycle as his modern day steed?
  • Is he a geek who’s trying to change his image by riding a hog with a flames-and-skulls paint job?
  • Is he trying to impress the girl in chemistry class who doesn’t even know he exists?
  • Is he a wanna-be cowboy with a fear of horses?

These two questions have probably given you a feel for the character’s personality. Now it’s time to get more specific.

“How does this character use his bike?”

In other words, what meaningful role does it play in his life?

  • Is this man a recreational rider, one of those people who get together in groups and take caravan-style road trips together during their vacations? That suggests he’s got a stable job and a reasonable source of income. He probably also has a car for daily use. It also hints that he feels the need to regularly escape from his everyday life or that he’s periodically struck with wanderlust.
  • Or maybe he’s a member of a motorcycle gang. He still might ride around in a group, but for completely different reasons. And he’ll have a completely different lifestyle than our recreational rider. His bike may be the thing that keeps him ahead of the law, or a symbol of his status in the gang, or an expression of his personal bad-assery.
  • Could he be an amateur racer, moving from one town to the next and scraping by on the money he wins in illegal or barely-legal contests? Maybe he’s always dreamed of being a Nascar driver, but he’s got a disability that disqualifies him. Or maybe the death of his high-school sweetheart in a drunk driving accident has so scarred him that he can’t stand to be in one place for more than a few days.
  • Has he deliberately chosen the motorcycle as his sole source of transportation? He’s probably a lone wolf without much of a social life or a family. You can’t drive a group of friends to the movies on a motorcycle, or strap on an infant car seat.
  • Is the motorcycle his only transportation option? Maybe he’s trying to bootstrap himself out of poverty, and the motorcycle is a step up from the bicycle that he used to ride for his courier job.

How did he get the motorcycle?

How the motorcycle entered his life will also hint at what it means to him.

  • Did he clear out his savings or work two jobs so he could afford it?
  • Did he buy it as a present for himself when the company he started in his garage went public?
  • Did he inherit it from his father, who died when he was a baby?
  • Did he build it from junkyard parts one summer in high school, as a way to keep busy after that cheerleader broke his heart?
  • Did he steal it from his abusive step-father when he left home at 16?
  • Is it an antique that he’s lovingly restored? Is the bike a link to his beloved late grandfather, who once owned a bike just like this before he shipped out to fight in World War II?

Can the symbolism be twisted in an interesting way?

  • A lot of bikers enjoy (or are at least comfortable with) the riskiness of riding a hog. What if your character is the opposite? He’s a mousy accountant who’s terrified of riding his motorcycle, but his wife has just left him for a Neanderthal, and he’s convinced he can win her back by changing his image with a shiny new Harley.
  • Your mystery man was raised as a Hell’s Angel by his father, but left the gang as a teen because he couldn’t stand the violence. Now he’s grudgingly rejoined in order to solve the mystery of his brother’s death. Every time he gets back on his motorcycle, he’s reminded of the terrible person he used to be.
  • He’d rather be driving a sports car, but your character has been pressured by his coworkers to buy a motorcycle and go riding with them after hours—and he does, because he really wants to fit in. In this case, the motorcycle is no longer a symbol of rebellion, but a symbol of his need to conform.

You can also come at the symbolism of your character’s possessions from the other direction, of course—if you already know that your character is a loner or a non-conformist or a sociopath, you can give him a motorcycle and a related backstory that emphasizes the traits you want to communicate to the reader.

Can you think of a symbolic object that your main character might possess, or want to possess?