Friday, February 16, 2018

Don't Break the Chain

I have a 2018 Buffy the Vampire Slayer calendar. That's important later on in this post, but I wanted to let everyone know up front because it's awesome.

I've got a new productivity philosophy I've been trying out, and I'm going to tell you about it because, so far, it's working out pretty well for me.

I've always been a streaky writer. When I'm on, I'm on, and words spring forward from me like Athena from Zeus' skull. When I have the right combination of momentum, positive peer pressure, and atmosphere, I can churn out five, six, sometimes more than ten thousand words in a day. Those streaks are pretty fantastic, and I love how productive I can be when I'm on.

There's one major downside to this condition, and it doesn't actually have much to do with "off" periods--even when I'm not "feeling" it, I can still achieve at least 1k words, usually a minimum of 2k, if I go full bic-hok. It's more effort and takes a lot more time than the periods when I'm "on," but I can still put the work in.

No, off-periods I can handle. What I've realized, after a few years of writing full time, is that the most disruptive thing I can do to my writing schedule is take a break. (🎵 "take a break!" 🎵)

For a long time, I'd take a much-needed, and usually well-deserved, break after I finished a draft of a novel--typically two or three days, or at least that's what I'd tell myself. But two or three days would turn into a week, and a week would turn into two. Eventually I'd start a new project, but starting a project usually involved outlining character arcs, structuring the story, research, and other pre-writing. This takes anywhere from a week to a couple months depending on the scope of the project and number of characters.

A little insertion, here: there's a big difference, at least for me, between composing, or writing first draft prose, and pretty much every other part of the writing process. Composing is why I write; it's the part of the process I find most interesting. I think it's the most fun. And I love it. Pre-writing and revising, while each are very different in their own rights, both have more of an industrial, day-to-day grind feel for me. I enjoy them, but not nearly as much as composing. For me, composing is the heart of writing. Taking what I've planned in the pre-writing phase and forming it into prose is what it's all about.

So, after my three-day to two-weeks long break, I have another period of time, sometimes as long as a few months, where I don't do much actual writing, which for me is composing first draft material.

(And that doesn't even include holidays or vacations, where I usually take a break from writing as well.)

Trying to get back into composing--into the literal and, in my opinion, purest shape of writing--after that long of a break is very. very. difficult. It's sometimes so difficult that I've spent weeks (and, once when it was at it's worst, and combined with a number of other psychological, existential, lifestyle-ish issues, months) paralyzed as I stare at a story I either haven't started yet or haven't touched in a bit too long.

I've tried a few things to deal with this problem, but nothing has really stuck--until now.

My new goal: Don't Break the Chain.

Anecdotally, this advice is attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. That's a pretty reasonable suggestion, if you ask me, because Jerry Seinfeld generally knows what he's doing. Supposedly, when asked what his pre-eminent advice to an aspiring stand-up comedian would be, it was to write new material every day, and that, more or less, i what I've been trying to do.

The basic gist is this: My goal is to write new prose every day--to not break the chain. Every day I write, I mark an X on a wall calendar I recently purchased for my office. As I start to accumulate a "chain" of unbroken writing days, I get this positive motivation to keep that chain going. This consistency accomplishes, chiefly, two things. (1) I'm writing every day, and I'm only going to get better at it when I'm writing every day, and (2) I'm solving my re-starting problem--by writing every day, I'm keeping my momentum going and always staying more or less in the zone.

Now, to be clear, I'm not writing 2k words every day. 2k is still my baseline goal on weekdays, and I'm happy to write more than that when I can, but on weekends the drops to a mere 250-500 words, and honestly, I think that's enough. I don't need to kill myself on the weekends to get an extra 3k words in/week; I'm not worried about my quantitative output, but I am focusing on consistency. 250 words takes me between 5-15 minutes to write, and that's something I can do on my phone right when I wake up, or on my computer right before I go to bed, or whatever.

One drawback for me: when I missed two days after about a 70-day chain from September-November (my current streak started on the 21 November, marked below), my gut reaction feeling was shame--it felt like I was an addict who'd lost his sobriety, if that makes sense, and I don't think that's a healthy way to approach this (aside: I have strong opinions on shame, basically that it is never, ever a positive thing). Fortunately I recognized that feeling pretty quickly and was able to acknowledge it was silly and get over it, but still. There's that risk, I suppose. That said, whenever I do wind up missing another day in the future (which I imagine will happen; it'd be a pretty amazing, but unlikely, feat to end up writing every day for the rest of my life), I'll hopefully have a better emotional approach to the whole thing.

But, generally, it's going very well! I don't know how many days I've racked up at this point, I'm not really keeping track other than x-ing them out on my calendar, but it's been about three full months' and I think that's pretty cool. Productivity is on the up and up, and I see myself pretty much sticking with this Don't Break the Chain concept for the foreseeable future.

You can see I wrote all the way through December, which included a two-week trip to see family, the holidays, and my birthday. There were a lot of smaller word-count days in the second half of December, but getting back on the horse in January was so much easier--because, basically, I'd never gotten off the horse to begin with.

Wrote every day in January. Also, bask in the awesomeness of Giles' page on my Buffy calendar.

February is going well so far, too. Still unbroken. Also: Spike.


  1. I can relate to everything you say about how hard it is to write again after a "break"--even if you're pre-writing or revising during this break! I may steal your technique--thank you for sharing!

    1. By all means! It's definitely working well for me so far :-).