Thursday, June 11, 2020

One Foot in front of the Other for Eighty-seven Days from James W. Ziskin

With thousands of new titles being published every day, what do you do to try to raise your new book above the fray and catch the eye of readers?  We may have had a similar question before but things change so fast these days that what worked yesterday may not work today. So any new thoughts on this?

This week’s question is a simple one. Simple because I’ve accepted that there’s not much more I can do to promote my books. Not without making friends and strangers sick of hearing about my books. So I carry on with a two-pronged strategy: 1. Share news of my writing periodically on social media and 2. Write the best books and stories I can.

With that answer out of the way, I’m going off script this week to talk about writing. I’m hoping that’s something people who read this blog are interested in. Specifically, I want to write about getting the words down on the page. The first draft. Let’s leave revision and craft for another day.

Stephen King said that it should take no more than three months to write a first draft. That’s one season of the year. Ninety days, give or take. While I’ve always aspired to achieve that goal, I’ve never quite managed it.

But I’ve been in lockdown at home for the past three months. More than ninety days now. I’ve gone out for walks and a few trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, but that’s about it. About twenty days into my self-quarantine, I realized I wasn’t making any progress on my new book. I won’t say it was a revelation. More of a growing awareness that finally became impossible to ignore. And I decided to get moving or risk wasting the one good thing the lockdown provided: time. There was nothing else pressing for me to do, aside from some household chores, cooking, laundry. Things like that. I didn’t even need to go out to shop. Everything was delivered to our door, so I had no excuses to avoid writing. 

My new novel, code name “The Monsoon Project,” is set in 1975 India, during the Emergency. Danny Jacobs, a young American journalist, arrives in Bombay for a new assignment and gets caught up in the chaos of the Emergency. His enigmatic expat neighbor, Willy Smets, is helpful and friendly. But Danny is smitten by Smets’s enchanting and clever Indian lover, Sushmita.

So, as I began the book in early March, I set up my usual spreadsheet to track my progress. I’ve found that the spreadsheet is the best tool to shame me into writing more, into meeting daily goals, into putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward day by day to finish a novel. And here it is.

It works like this. I monitor my progress and shame myself into doing more. In March, I got off to a good start on day one and two. But then things went south. Look at all those zeroes in the Words column. Don’t forget that I was in lockdown from March 13. No excuse for this. My lethargic effort hit rock bottom when my daily word average dropped to 172 words per day. My spreadsheet told me I had to make a change.

But change can come slowly. I managed to lift my daily average word count, but soon fell back into the bad habits as April began. By April 4th, I was one word ahead of the lowest point in my production. 

April turned out to be a very good month. Only one day without any writing. Again, the spreadsheet compelled me to write. Slowly, my daily production improved, and that improvement spurred me on to write more. Soon, I was writing more than a thousand words a day, then two thousand. My daily average rose from the low point of 172 words per day to 660. I managed 30,516 words in thirty days in April. Better, but not good enough for someone with nothing but time on his hands.

Then came May. I wanted to have the first draft done by June 1st, and a thousand or two words per day wasn’t going to get me there. Watching the numbers on my spreadsheet, I willed myself to do better.

Two thousand words per day became the norm. Then 3,000 or more. A bad day was 1,500. My daily average soared. Suddenly, thanks to my spreadsheet and the growing numbers I entered there, I was inspired to write more, even when I was tired and ready to turn in. I reached 4,145 words on May 16th. More than 3,600 the next day. The words started piling up and the end of the first draft was in sight.

I missed my self-imposed deadline of June 1st, but only by three days. In May, I wrote 73,572 words. That’s enough for a novel. Maybe not this one, but 73K is a lot of words. By the time June arrived, I’d improved my daily word count average from a low of 172 words per day to 1,300. Then in June, I added another thirty-one words per day and finished on a high.

There’s plenty of work left to do on this book. I typically revise eight to ten times before it’s ready. But you can’t revise what you haven’t written. So the first draft is a major achievement in the life of a book.

And, for me at least, writer’s block doesn’t exist. I know when I’m not writing, it’s out of laziness. It’s because the prospect of 400 plus blank pages is daunting. It’s hard work and, like Dorothy Parker, I love having written but writing itself? Not so much. Writing a book in ninety days is tough, but not impossible. I just did it. The key is to put words on the page. Day after day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And, I’ve found, tracking every word every day is one of the best ways to push yourself to fill the pages. When you’re done, you can bask in the glow of having written. It’s a nice glow.

Try tracking your progress. If it doesn’t work, take it up with Stephen King.


Richard Krauss said...

This is exactly why NANOWRIMO works! Thanks James!

James W. Ziskin said...

Richard, I agree! My only issue with NANOWRIMO is that it’s November, which is a tough month to write, what with Thanksgiving. But it’s still worth it.

Matt Iden said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Jim. I found writing sprints to help get up the word count, esp. during quarantine when the news cycle took over every day. Set the timer for 5 minutes, no interruptions, no deleting, no editing. Write, repeat.

There'll be a lot of crap, but surprisingly more to save and keep than I'd expected.

JD Allen said...

WOWZA! Go you.
I've been embarrassingly lax. Some of it wavering between projects - no contract right now- some of it is stress. But Maybe a spreadsheet would do the trick in getting me shamed into some better production. Looking forward to this book of yours. Sounds amazing.

Finta said...

Hey, I’m impressed. And I’m eager to see India thru your eyes. And Smets. Does he own a pug per chance?

I just finished planting the patio pots. I despise gardening but I love having gardened.


Susan C Shea said...

Too many zero days for me during what - as you say - should be a gift of staying at home. I used to aim for and almost always reach 1,000 words a day, but that was with characters I knew well. Getting to understand a new character and a different time in history has been a bit of a slog for me, sadly. You're inspiring me this morning.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Matt. I neglected to mention in my post that I probably spent five to six hours a day in a chair writing during this period. And then some lying in bed. And you’re right. If you want to get the first draft done faster, don’t edit as you go. I’ve got lots of crap to fix in this book.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Jules. Everyone works at a different pace. And congrats again on your Shamus nomination!!!


James W. Ziskin said...

Ann, I don’t think Willy Smets will have a pug. But he has the girl Danny wants...

Love the gardening quote. And since Dorothy Parker didn’t mention gardening, that’s YOURS!


James W. Ziskin said...

Go for it, Susan! You’re right, too, that new characters make the writing go more slowly. That was part of my problem at the start. I knew Willy Smets pretty well, but the MC took some time.


catriona said...

I hated reading this but I - checks notes - yep, hated having read it too. No but seriously you are showing us up, Jim. I've never been so unfocussed and ready to down tools in my life as in this lockdown.

Susan Courtright said...

Thank you always, Jim. Juggling thesec3 projects isn't easy, but right? If it was easy anyone could do it! I set up spread sheets for each, including research hours into writing. It works!

James W. Ziskin said...

Susan, you’re right. Just because I somehow managed it, doesn’t mean it was easy. Glad I have a fellow devotee of tracking progress.


James W. Ziskin said...

Dear Catriona,

Congratulations on your (Insert honor) __________ for the (insert year) _____ (insert name of award) _____________! Answers are: nomination, 2020, and Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. (This template will make it easier to congratulate you the next time you are nominated/win.)

I’m sorry you’re feeling unfocused in these strange times. Try belting yourself to your chair. I used to do that. Don’t get up until you’ve focused up three pages. And repeat.


catriona said...

Hhahahahahaha. I have just asked Neil about a spreadsheet. He has never looked happier.

catriona said...

1200 words, Jim. 15% sound about right? (Thank you.)

Ingrid Thoft said...

This is inspiring! Can you remind me if your a pantser or a plotter? Also what do the abbreviations at the top of the columns mean? I get WPD, but not sure about the others. Thanks!

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Ingrid. Usually, I’m a plotter. I had some of this plotted, but not the same as in the past. The difference, I think, this time was that it was a thriller not a mystery. That gave me more freedom. Just my initial thoughts on this.

How are you doing? Long time.