Do you have trouble staying on task during the summer? I live in Oregon where sitting down at the computer is easier in the winter with the relentless rain and 4:30 darkness. But summer... Warmth, pretty flowers, BBQs, hiking, sunlight till 9:30... Who wants to concentrate on a keyboard and screen?
Getting words on the page is the writer’s first, last and always task. But sometimes that task gets overwhelming, confusing, and lost in the shuffle. So I created a spreadsheet—here’s a screen shot of the file where I tracked the hot draft of FORGED OF SHADOWS, my June release—to help me focus.
I got the idea from paranormal romance and romantic suspense author Stephanie Rowe who shared her spreadsheet with my writing group. She explained that, to her, writing was a business—a creative business, but a business nonetheless—and she wanted to honor it with the same dedication she would give a “real” job.
Now whether or not you agree writing should feel like a day job, you can believe the industry treats it like a business. And keeping a spreadsheet like this one gives you a couple advantages:
1. You’ll better understand your own process and productivity.
Maybe for now your writing goals are soft and self-imposed, but when you sell, those goals become deadlines, rock hard and closer than they appear. Knowing where you are in a story, how far you have to go, and how long it will take you to get there can help you best schedule your time to nail your deadlines.
2. You can prove your productivity to people who matter.
Who are these people who matter? First, yourself; I built my confidence with this spreadsheet. Next, the people who always seem to want some of your time; you’d be surprised how often you can derail interruptions just by showing pesky people your spreadsheet and saying, “See? This is what I have to do. Now go away.” After all, who can argue with Excel? Lastly, you can use a solid history of spreadsheets to show prospective agents (who can show prospective editors) that you are a focused, productive, results-oriented writer.
Setting up your spreadsheet
I’m a plotter with a touch of OCD and ADHD, so my spreadsheet reflects my, um, personality needs. You’ll see I have a lot of columns, all of which basically show the same information in different incarnations: How long until The End? Maybe you don’t need quite so much detail, but I use it as a tiny carrot to reward myself. At the end of every page I write (and sometimes in the middle of pages too) I take a break to switch to Excel and plug in my word count of the moment. I get a warm fuzzy glow watching all the columns update as I inch closer to my goal.
I used to set up my spreadsheet to track my writing goal for an entire book. I aimed for 85,000 words because I write lean hot drafts and I know I need to save space to add stuff, like, you know, staging, dialogue tags, the romance... Knowing my deadline, I’d back it out from there, and figure out how many words a day I needed to hit that deadline.
Personally, I found that the numbers changed too slowly to feel satisfying, so I recently decided to try three monthly goals of 25,000 words each month. As you’ll see in the top left of the spreadsheet, that works out to 1,000 words a day for 25 days out of the month. The remaining days are catch-up days. At the end of three months, I have a respectable 75,000-word hot draft.
(The shorter hot draft works for me because I discovered—thanks to my spreadsheets—that while I spend an inordinate number of days behind my goal, as I approach the deadline, I not only catch up, I usually surpass my word goal. That puts the completed drafts at a slightly higher word count than I want, so I’m scaling back my hot drafts to avoid major cutting in subsequent revisions.)
Now, as I plug in my daily word counts, the new monthly spreadsheet updates with pleasing quickness. Plus, I read somewhere that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Fulfilling this monthly spreadsheet is a good habit for me.
Devil is in the details
I’m a self-taught Excel user, so this spreadsheet is fairly basic, with simple mathematical formulas worked into the cells so the spreadsheet updates automatically. You can customize to your heart’s content. If you aren’t an Excel user, here are a few tips:
If you double-click any cell in row 6, columns E-K, you’ll see the formulas in the background that allow the program to automatically update your numbers. To start a new day with the formulas, you highlight the row above (click and drag your mouse) from column E across to column K. When those column are highlighted, you’ll see a heavy black outline and a small black square in the bottom right corner of the highlighted cells. When you hover your mouse over the black square, your cursor will turn into a crosshair. Click on the square and drag down one row. That new row will autopopulate with the formulas. Put the start of your new day’s words in the green column, hit enter, and watched your numbers update.
To change the days of the week and dates in columns A and B, do the same. Input your preferred start day and date; highlight cells 5A and 5B until you get the black box; drag downward through the days until The End!
Changing your words per day:
If 1000 words a day sounds too fast or too slow, you can make your changes to the formulas. Change cell 6C to your new daily word goal. In cells 6F, 6J and 6K, change the number “1000” to your new goal. Cells 6H and 6I need to be updated from 25,000 to your new final goal.
A note on “Notes”:
I added the “Notes” column a few manuscripts ago, and it has proved strangely interesting. I jot down start and end times of my writing session, what else was going on in my life, words of congratulations or derision as needed. It has helped me see where, when and why I’m productive. Or not, sadly.
I find the structure of the spreadsheet not only works on the micro level—with each day’s goals tracked—it helps me concretely visualize my progress on the macro level, which I think would work for pantser/organic/freewheel writers as well as plotters. The spreadsheet has taught me how quickly I can write, and shown me where I can stand to improve. (Planning for the holiday crunch? What a concept.) I know where I can squeeze in a spec manuscript or maybe plan a vacation.
Now if I could just find a program that would write for me...
Jessa Slade’s first novel, an urban fantasy romance SEDUCED BY SHADOWS, came out in October 2009, with the second in the Marked Souls series, FORGED OF SHADOWS releasing June 1. She likes to procrastinate by playing with software she doesn’t know very well in the futile hope that it will make getting words on the page easier. She also procrastinates by friending and following other writerly types at http://www.facebook.com/jessaslade and http://twitter.com/jessaslade. Her equally obsessive plotting spreadsheets can be found under tips for writers at her website http://jessaslade.com