Why You Must Track Your Writing Sessions

Do you track your daily writing sessions? Do you just note it down on a calendar, or do you put it on a piece of scrap paper? Do you write down your daily word count? Or do you just mark that you did some writing today?

I am going to suggest that you cannot improve things about your writing life if you don’t write them down. If your big problem is that you don’t write every day, you need to put a mark somewhere that you did write today. If your problem is that  you only write a few words each day then you need to track your word count. If you write slowly, you need to determine your writing speed and see if this is improving.

Chris Fox suggests that you do your daily writing session in the form of writing sprints. He has a tool at chrisfoxwrites.com/5kwph, a spreadsheet,  that will help you calculate your writing speed in Words Per Hour. This is very helpful. You may do writing sprints of five minutes or 10 minutes or 30 minutes. In each case write it down in the spreadsheet.  It will calculate words per hour so that you can tell if your writing speed is improving.

I have used the Chris Fox spreadsheet in both Mac and PC computers. In both cases it works well enough. I would suggest if you are doing different kinds of writing this month, you track them on separate copies of the spreadsheet. For example, I am writing this current blog post using dictation. I don’t always use dictation to write however. I have two copies of the spreadsheet for September, one for dictation, and one for ordinary writing. In that way I don’t mix up the writing speeds for the two kinds of writing.

What do you do when you have a record of your writing speed? If you write faithfully every day, over time you will see your writing speed go up, just because you’re doing it everyday. It’s the same as if you made a tuna casserole every single day at noon. Before long you will be making it more quickly because you were doing it every single day.

Why writing sprints? There are two reasons. First, a writing sprint is a way of tricking yourself into acting more like a better writer would. A good writer writes every day. He devotes time to getting the writing done. And he keeps track of how much he gets done. In this way, a writing sprint encourages you to do things you should be doing anyway to make your writing dream come true.

Second, doing writing sprints encourages you to learn how to write in what is called a flow state. Writing in the flow state means that everything is going well. You are not sitting in front of your screen for a half hour and then taking one comma out. Something is happening in your story. It is flowing out of your brain on to the screen.

A writing sprint does not guarantee that you will be writing in a flow state. But if you write day after day in writing sprints, in which you are not allowed to break the flow of your writing by going back and making corrections, you will soon find that at least some of the time you are writing in a flow state. And as you continue doing your daily writing sprints, you’ll find this happening on a regular basis, before long a daily basis.

Writing in the flow state is something writers hope for. But many writers don’t know how to make that happen. This is how. It’s not my secret, I learned it from Chris Fox and other people who’ve written how-to-write books. You learn to write him a flow state by doing things that make the flow state more likely to happen. The rules of a writing sprint, which include not going back, not editing, not making corrections, are rules that help you get into the flow state by eliminating the distractions.

But the key thing to remember is that you must track your writing sprints and your writing sessions every single time. If you write these things down, you cannot have a week or a month in which you do not write. Taking one day off, when you do not track your writing, can lead to more days off and before you know it, you’re not a writer anymore. You are just someone who used to dream of being a writer.

Some of you may find it very hard to establish a daily writing habit. For others it is easy to write every day, but they don’t get much accomplished. Using writing sprints and tracking them is a way to bring your actual deeds in line with your writing goals.

RECOMMENDED READING

Chris Fox: 5000 Words Per Hour  Click on the link to get the ebook for free, in exchange for signing up for the author’s mailing list.

Monica Leonelle: The 8-Minute Writing Habit

Rachel Aaron: 2000 to 10000

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Setups and Payoffs in Fiction Writing

I’ve been reading Plot Gardening by Chris Fox, and he introduced to me the concepts of setups and payoffs in a fictional plot.

What is a setup? What is a payoff? Actually it’s easier to define the payoff first. A payoff is a story event for which the main character (and the reader) need to prepare. If your fantasy novel has at its conclusion a sword-fight between your hero and the Dark Lord, you need to set that up. Your hero needs a sword, and needs to know how to use it. Perhaps he needs a magic sword in order to win a fight with that particular Dark Lord.

Payoffs don’t always happen at the conclusion of a novel. Perhaps in your historical novel your heroine needs to be put into a position where marrying a (handsome) stranger seems like her only choice. This marriage is a payoff, though it will probably happen closer to the beginning of your novel. To set up for that payoff, you may perhaps need to turn your comfortable middle-class historical heroine into an orphan, and have a loathsome step-brother offer her a position as an unpaid nanny in his home. Perhaps the step-brother tells her that is her only choice to avoid ending up in a workhouse or worse. That kind of setup would make a marriage to a stranger seem like a plausible choice.

Setup scenes make the reader expect a payoff. If we are shown a firearm in an early scene, we expect that firearm to be fired in a later scene— not necessarily a self-defense or murder type firing, it could be hunting or target practice. But if something is mentioned in a significant way, we expect that it is a setup that will be paid off later in the story.

In the same way, big payoffs in a story have to be set up. Is your character going to undergo a major change— perhaps learning skills or becoming more independent? You can’t just state that fact in your climatic scene, you have to set it up in earlier scenes, or the change seems unrealistic and unmotivated.

Chris Fox says that to avoid ‘plot holes’ you have to pay off your setoffs and set up your payoffs. Setups make your future payoff scenes seem less random and ‘out of the blue.’ Actually having the payoff happen means that those setup scenes had meaning for the story as a whole.

One way to start thinking about setups and payoffs is to think about your climactic scenes. What payoffs will happen at that time? What might you need to do to set up those payoffs? And if you have a scene, often near the beginning, that feels like a setup, think how that scene can lead to a payoff. (If your scene sets up something that will never lead to any kind of payoff, it may not be an important scene for your novel.)

Assignment: Read a favorite novel and note scenes that seem to be setups or payoffs.

3 Elements of a (Writing) Habit

What is your writing habit like? Does writing happen daily? Twice daily? Twice weekly? Or irregularly, whenever you feel like it, have a good writing idea, or have lots of free time?

Chris Fox, who writes books about writing, has a book out with the title “Lifelong Writing Habit.” In the book (which I highly recommend) he talks a lot about habits. Habits you have, good and bad, and habits that can be changed, or ‘flipped’, into better and more helpful habits.

A habit, according to Fox, consists of 3 parts:

  1. The Trigger
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward

The Trigger is the event that triggers the habit. In a writing habit, the trigger can be based on a certain time (4pm) or an event (getting up in the morning.) Getting an great writing idea can also trigger a writing session, or feeling ‘inspired’ or creative.

The Routine is the meat of your habit. In a writing habit, it is when you sit down and begin to write. The actual events of the writing session vary from person to person. One person does most of his writing in timed writing sprints, the next person does one long open-ended spontaneous writing session. One person outlines the day’s writing, the other person wings it.

The Reward is what you get when you do the Routine of the habit. When you habitually brush your teeth, your Reward is a clean mouth, and the hope of better dental health.

When you write, your Reward might be a feeling of accomplishment. When I was a kid and did writing assignments in school, my ‘reward’ for finishing the assignment was to have my paper all marked up with teacher criticisms. With a reward like that, you can bet I didn’t finish my assignments too often.

Think of the habits you have that you really do every day, without thinking. Make a list of at least 5 of them, and think about this for each habit— what triggers it? What is the meat of the habit? And what do you get from it?

For example, I have a habit of putting on clean clothes every morning. I don’t even think about it— unless I’ve gotten behind at doing laundry. The trigger is getting up in the morning. And my reward is that when I go out in public, I don’t feel ashamed when people notice me.

That’s an example of a good habit. What about a bad habit? One I’ve had for years is that when I see an appealing but unhealthy/carb-filled food I like, I buy it and eat it. The reward is nice taste and a sugar/carb rush, followed by a lack of energy, weight gain, and higher blood sugar. The immediate reward— taste and rush— often outweighs my concern about the long-term consequences. What I try to do is NOT look at the high carb foods (junk foods, even ‘natural’ ones) when I shop. And keeping plenty of the foods I can eat in the house, so I’m less tempted when I go shopping.

Exercise:

For the next week, track your writing. What triggers you to have a writing session? What is a writing session like for you? How many times do you actually write during a week? How many words do you write each day? In a week? And what are the rewards you experience when you complete your writing session for the day?

Have You Eaten Your Frog This Morning?

frogIn the book 5000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox, he makes a rather startling recommendation. It’s about eating a frog.

It doesn’t mean for you to sample an exotic low-carb cuisine, however. It’s about your writing— or about any other tasks you have to d0.

If the toughest thing you will have to do all day is eat a frog, Fox says, do that first.

For many writers, getting that butt in that seat to do your daily word count is the toughest. Burning the midnight oil may make you feel like a writer, but as far as getting things done it’s often best to get up  earlier to fit your writing time in there. I’ve been a morning writer for a long time now, and it works better than any other time of day for me.

But sometimes your eat-a-frog task is something else. Today, my first-level frog is getting a blog post out in the morning which is the time most likely for my posts to find readers.

My second-level frog is major housecleaning in my kitchen. Since I live alone and have much to do and little energy with which to do it, things can get out of place. I need my kitchen in tip-top shape because I am on a strict ketogenic (low-carb) diet for my health, which means I have to cook almost everything I eat from scratch. Once I get the kitchen in line, I can do some major cooking and freeze individual portions. That way when I am not feeling like cooking, I have options.

Other chores include my writing sprints, a book review that must be written, and sorting out my chickens— the chickens willing to actually lay eggs right now will be granted comfy housing and better food while the ones who won’t lay at all will be finding new homes. Some of them in soup pots, I imagine.

I am a highly disorganized person due to my Asperger’s Syndrome, and so the eat-a-frog concept is really helping me to set priorities. Maybe it will help others, too. So the big question I have for you, blog reader, is: Have you eaten your frog this morning?

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is today. Have a blessed one.

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is today. Have a blessed one.