Thursday, February 1, 2018

My Burns Year: By The Numbers

Like I said when I did this after the first 20 weeks: "What follows is, on one level, meaningless. It doesn't matter how many words I write, or how quickly. All that matters is what ends up getting published."

But I'm gonna do this anyway.

Let's start with the biggest number:


That's how many words I wrote towards things I deemed meaningful enough to record in my almighty spreadsheet from 1 February 2017 to 31 January 2018 (a.k.a. my Burns Year).

Just how were these words expended, you ask? 

Why, here's a pie fresh from the Excel oven:

Or put another way:
  • Four-fifths of a novel manuscript (more on this later)
  • Blog: 26 fortnightly updates and 12 monthly consumption diaries on my blog
  • Essays about NBA2K18 and narrative, the moves in contemporary NZ short stories, the end of the world, Recurrent Neural Network poetry, Chris Cornell, writing my previous novel and a review of three books
  • Short stories: one completed (and submitted) story, one half-finished first draft, one quarter-finished first draft
  • A handful of poems produced used a recurrent neural network trained on Dunedin Sound lyrics.
  • Other: pitches for articles/essays/conference papers, responses to journalists, preparation for talks delivered.

All of those bullet points beneath the first one fall into the category of nice-to-have. They're what made my Burns Year fun and varied. I said YES to many, many things, and I sought out even more side-projects. Sucker. Glutton. Dope.

Because it's all for nought if the novel I set out to write isn't finished.

And it's not. Not yet.

But it's getting there!

By one measure -- the raw tally of words I added to the manuscript each day -- I wrote 142,436 words towards my novel about a dude sent to scout locations for someone else's biopic of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Taking these numbers and plotting them against time, you get a worm like this:

What happened in those flat patches? Mostly travel. And my deliberate decision to start my Burns year bashing out short stories before resurrecting the novel. And all the nonsense that happens when Christmas and moving back to Wellington and roadtripping collide.

But this count of 'added words' oversells the total size of the manuscript I printed out in early January. 

That manuscript stands at only 90,090 words.

So a better indication of my year's work on the novel looks more like this:

I can't bring myself to go back through my working versions of the manuscript to see exactly when I 'lost' large chunks of the text. In broad terms, these were times when I realised I was going off-track, or stumbled upon some change that needed to happen...and went back and changed it.  

I'm not one of those writers who can bash through to the end of a first draft with BIG THINGS left to change. I've tried that before and I couldn't unpick just one thing without the whole thing falling apart.

So my 90,090 words is four-fifths of a first draft that'll be 110k-120k words, but most of that 90k is a fourth or fifth draft. 

A lot of my two-steps forward, three-steps back moments occurred in the second half of the year. I still haven't properly cracked the section in San Marino - which is at once the most important and potentially the most extraneous. I would write a couple of pages, or a scene, or a whole chapter, then realise it had to be handled differently a day or a week later.

This is part of the natural process, so it's only fair those thousands (THOUSANDS!) of futile words count towards the blue line alongside those that make the final cut. 

Most productive day

Friday 15 December: 3,426 words (1,758 on the novel, plus work on my best albums of the year blog post and answering questions on the NZ short story from a student in Sweden)

In second place:Monday 13 February: 3,215 words (923 words on a short story - the one I actually finished and the rest toward my first fortnightly blogpost and consumption diary)

No other day cracked the 3,000 word mark all year.

Most productive day on the novel: Friday 21 April, 2,500 words (a suspiciously round number, but there you have it).

The next two most productive on the novel were  4 April and 28 March, so I must've found a sweet spot around then... before my trip to Italy fricked it all up (boo-hoo!).

Lessons in productivity

Here's something I was surprised by: 43% of the days during my fellowship, I didn't write a single word.


Okay, 84 of the 158 non-writing days were Saturdays or Sundays, and I made a deliberate effort to spend weekends with my young family and exploring Otago and beyond. When you add in my various trips (see above) and the days I spent in conferences and the like, you get 158.

The days of the week with the fewest goose eggs were Thursdays and Fridays (12 apiece). Monday (18) was the weekday upon I was most likely to leave the keyboard be.

If you take the total words written by weekday and divide by the total number of those days during my Burns year (there were 53 Wednesdays and 52 everything-elses), this is what my average productivity by weekday looks like:

So Tuesdays are King, trailed slightly by Fridays. Okay. 

And Wednesday sure looks like hump-day.

When you get rid of the non-writing days and divide only by non-zero writing days:

Monday and Tuesday are virtually identical. Friday drops back into the pack. But Wednesday still looks sluggish.

This is pretty similar to the picture after 20 weeks... so there's clearly something about Wednesdays that weren't doing it for me.

Back at week 20 I thought blogging dragged up my averages for Monday and Tuesday and this held true. I also said I hoped to get my average writing day above 1,000 for Monday to Friday (Wednesday was standing at 740 and Thursday 788), and I did this comfortably, breaking the 1,100 word barrier for all five and even getting Sunday into four figures.

(I'd forgotten completely about this goal, so there's no way I wrote something last Sunday to make this one graph look better).

Takeaways and targets

My clear goal for this first part of 2018 is to knock the bastard off and get my novel into the hands of publishing types. 

To that end, how about a completed first draft by Easter Monday, 2 April?

I'll be in paid employment three days a week from the week after next, with Wednesday and Thursday as my allocated 'writing days'. 

(I'll be treating Wednesday as my 'writing Monday' to get that productivity boost, rather than falling into a midweek slump.)

That gives me 14 'writing days' between now and the end of Easter. Assuming I do nothing on the novel outside of those days, and I have 30,000 words left to write (I could be way off, but), 
I'd need to write over 2,000 words a writing day - and all of it must count! 

If I waste a third of what I produce like I did in my Burns Year, I'll need to aim for more like 3,000 words, which I did twice all year and never on the novel alone.  

So I'll have to make progress on 'non-writing' days, too. 

Which is fine. I want far fewer goose eggs than in my Burns year, and should have fewer excuses (I've already explored Wellington; no one is gonna ask me to do anything).

Ideally I'd write in the 5am-7am slot every day -- though this relies on two kids sleeping until 7. My son (the problem) has been doing better lately, but he's one bout of sniffles away from completely changing his sleep cycle again.

But this process (a 1,400-word blog post and a few shitty graphs), which might seem the height of writerly onanism or nerdy procrastination, has helped me shape what the path to completion (no pun intended) will look like.

Now, to deliver on that plan!

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