Tag: writing for busy people

Math For Authors

[When I first started this blog, I promised to reprise some posts from my earlier blog, just for fun. There’s not much that has changed from when this post was originally written, except that the seven-year-old in question is now seventeen. (And he’s really good at math.)

It’s fun to look back at writing from the front lines of parenting. Those of you with younger children might appreciate this excerpt from the trenches. It comes with the promise that it does get easier, but also with the apology that yes, you will miss this.]

I failed a class once. Just once. A math class. It was while I was in CEGEP, which is a concept that exists only in Quebec, Canada. Basically, it’s a junior college that acts as a sorter for students. University? Over here. Trades? Over there.

And for those of us lumped into the university pile, the sorting continued: health sciences, applied sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and fine arts. That math class was not just a math class. It was the last thread between me and one of the more “serious” social science disciplines like economics or geography that might have resulted in, you know, a proper job.

I had to go to summer school to make up the lost credits. I took an art history course.

How to count to 100

The photo above is of my son’s recent math project. He’s in grade two, and this is how he learned to count to one hundred.

When I was seven, if I could have felt the smooth hardness of kidney beans under my fingers as I counted them out and ever so carefully glued them to ultra-big Popsicle sticks – well, I think I would have been better at math.

Don’t you?

Last week I was at a parent meeting and one of the school administrators said something interesting. He said: in order to be good at something, it has to be meaningful in your life. If there is a way to make math have meaning in your life, you’ll be good at math.

How to count to 100,000

Back in 2004 when that seven-year old was born, I made the decision that I needed to write the mystery novel I promised myself I would write when I was seven years old. The first thing I did was take a class. I can’t remember the instructor’s name, but the workshop was called something like “How to Write a Novel in 20 Minutes a Day.” It was my first introduction to what I now call “Math for Authors”.

Here’s how it works:

The average mystery novel is made up of about 70,000 words. So, basically, if you write 191 words a day, you can write a novel in a year.

My books are a bit longer. I think Confined Space comes in at 110,000 words, so I would need to write 301 words a day to pound that novel out in a year.

Simple. The instructor shared his method for outlining, so that you don’t lose track of where you are in the story. And off we went: parents, doctors, veterinarians, realtors, armed with the math we needed to fit novel-writing into our busy lives. Painlessly.

Writing is not typing

According to Wikipedia, the average computer user has a typing speed of about 33 words per minute. Using this math, it would take me about nine minutes and five seconds a day to write a novel in a year.

I tried this for several years. It was an approach that allowed me to think that, while I had two preschool children and a full time job, I could still fulfill my dream of writing mystery novels. And at the time, that was a very important idea to cling to.

Here’s the thing: writing is not typing. Counting is not writing. 100,000 words, typed into a document, do not a novel make. At least not one I would want to read. And that was my goal: to write a novel I would want to read.
However, as much as the 20-minutes-a-day formula has its failings, it did teach me something important. Write for twenty minutes (or even nine minutes and five seconds) every day and before long, you will find ways to write more, and longer, and better.

Math for authors 201

I started seriously drafting my second novel at the end of June last year. (Truth be told, this is my fourth novel, if you count the two that I wrote using the 20-minute method. Those are locked away forever and that’s a very good thing.) In any case, last June I had an outline, a bunch of research and about 15,000 words written. You could say I had something of a head start, but that is when the serious work began.

Everyday, I write my word count on a legal pad that I keep on my desk. Looking back on seven months of data, I can learn some very interesting things about my current writing habits.

My lowest output was on September 4th when I wrote 7 words. My highest output was on July 6th when some miracle of astrological alignment allowed me to write 3812 words. There were lots of days when I wrote about 1300 words, or 1000, or 500. There were two months when, because of moving and intensive editing of Book 1, I did not write at all.

I beat the words out at times and other times it felt like they jumped out of me all on their own. I held myself to a daily count and then negotiated up or down, like an alcoholic, or a dieter. I went with the flow and wrote when I had the chance, between writing press releases and e-newsletters and annual reports, between soccer practice and snow school, sick kids and dinner and laundry.

There were many days when there were no words added. I spent my writing time walking or thinking or reading a book. Writing notes and yes, stressing out that I was not adding words.

And in the end? Each and every month, no matter how I did it, if I was writing, I wrote 15,000 words.

The new math

Could it be that I have an internal writing rhythm, and that I have now discovered what it is? Could it be that, if I give myself time and space to write everyday, I will write 15,000 words in a month?  No pressure. No stress. No crack of the whip needed. I average 500 words a day.


Of course, now you’ve done the math and you’ve realized that I must be close to the 100,000 word point on this novel. You are right. I’m just a week or two away. That is, assuming the story cooperates and actually ends at the 100,000 word point, which is not looking promising at the moment.

But here’s the other thing that was left out of the 20-minutes-a-day formula: editing. That’s the part that comes next.

As soon as I get to the end of the story, word count becomes meaningless. On a good editing day I will take out more words than I put in. It will likely be June or July before I start this whole process over and start counting words again.

And next time? I’m thinking of getting tactile with my counting. I’m thinking 100,000 kidney beans and 10,000 big popsicle sticks. And lots and lots of glue.

[Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane. I can tell you that the lessons around word count I was learning here have really stuck with me. Indeed, I believe this post planted the seed for the title of this blog, Beyond Word Count.

If you’re curious about what I’m working on these days, I invite you to join my monthly letters, where I share stories from the journey of creating and sharing my next novel, a mystery set in Montreal in 1947. If you are interested, you can sign up here. ]

The Bad News for Writers

Way back in the Before Times, when we were allowed to gather in groups, I taught a writing workshop in a library. I called it, ‘Get Your Work Done,’ and we covered all the things that get in the way of writing.

What is it that stops writers, or would-be-writers, from getting down to the work they are so drawn to?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of scheduling writing time and showing up for yourself, session after session, month after month. I encouraged you to find 20 minutes a day, or 45 minutes, two or three days a week, in order to write.

When I said this at the library workshop, hands started to shoot up.

“But — but — but…” People said.
(And maybe you said “But!” while reading my last post.)

The “Buts” were along these lines:

“But my husband…”
“But my wife…”
“But my kids…”
“But my grandkids…”
“But my parents…”

I listened to a few of the Buts, and then I put my own hand up to stave off the onslaught.

“It is okay to spend a few hours each week doing something creative that your loved ones don’t necessarily understand, approve of or think is a valid use of your time.”

There was an audible gasp from the back of the room.

It’s Okay to Put Your Writing First for Twenty Minutes

I imagine that your days are pretty full, even without writing. We’ve all got our things we need to do: work, family, exercise, household management, life admin, leisure, friends, sleep. It’s not like any of us are sitting around.

If you’re going to find a few hours each week to write, that time needs to come from somewhere. It means changing a pattern. Dropping something you’re doing already, or doing less of something else, in order to prioritize your writing instead. It means asking for help.

It might mean asking your spouse to do more around the house; to take on the bedtime routine or do the soccer drop-off a few nights a week so that you have time to write. It might mean watching less TV or giving up a weekly social night, which can involve saying no to friends and family. It might mean going to bed later, or getting up earlier (very quietly, so you don’t wake anyone else up.)

If you are a grandparent, it might mean saying no to last minute babysitting requests from your own children. (I recognize that this is doubly difficult, since you need to say no to both your kids and your grandkids. And yet, I ask you, if you are not going to do the writing that is calling you now, when exactly are you going to do it?)

You might not answer the phone at certain times. You might not be free for coffee or volunteer work when people used to always be able to count on you to say yes. You might actually need to leave work on time.

You are going to carve out two hours a week in whatever form you can, and you are going to put your writing first.

Your People Will Not Like This

When you start prioritizing your writing time, the people around you might not like it very much. (They won’t like it at all.) You’ll probably get pushback. (You definitely will.) You might have to handle hurt feelings. Someone you love dearly might get mad at you and you’ll have to navigate discomfort and conflict.

In order to start down the road of writing this thing that will not leave you alone, you are going to have to hold boundaries and advocate for yourself and your creative time. You are going to have a difficult conversation or two. You are going to need to change some patterns.

You are to going to need to plop yourself down and write for twenty minutes. You are going to need to walk out the door at the time that you have freed up for yourself, and go to your selected writing place and write, even in the face of disapproval, or annoyance. In the face of the unwashed dishes, your unwashed hair, and the thirty-two unopened emails.

I can hear your “Buts” already.

You are an adult, you say. You have responsibilities!

I am not asking you to shirk them. I’m not asking you to neglect your children or let your house go to ruin or get fired from your job. I am suggesting that, if you want to write, you will need to negotiate with your spouse or children or parents or employer to carve out a little time.

I believe that most healthy relationships can handle this level of boundary-setting. After all, you’re not setting out to do anything dangerous or immoral. You’re just writing.

If negotiating this with your spouse or parents or children feels dangerous, please do not do it unless you have reached out for crisis intervention and support. If it feels scary, because it wasn’t okay to have boundaries growing up, then it’s time to learn. (I had to do this. It was not easy (still isn’t) but it’s easier than ignoring the call to write.)

How do you set boundaries with loved ones? Google some strategies and try them, ask a friend or colleague that seems to have mastered the ability, or ask a professional counselor for help.

Do Not Ask Permission

You are not asking for permission to engage in the act of writing. You are simply arranging some uninterrupted time for yourself, on par with your partner’s floor hockey nights.

You do not need anyone’s permission to write. You’re not hurting anyone by writing. (I would argue that, if you feel called to write, you are hurting those around you by denying the call.)

You are not asking permission. You are arranging time. You don’t need anyone else to think what you are doing is important. It’s important to you. That’s enough.

It might be in your kitchen or against the steering wheel as you wait in the car outside the indoor soccer gym or in the chair in the orthodontist’s waiting room — I have written in all these places and more. More pleasant might be in the guest bedroom/home office with the door closed against interruptions, or maybe a coffee shop during Cub Scouts. It could be at the dining room table with headphones on. It does not need to be fancy.

Inner Resistance is Not Outer Resistance

It’s important not to confuse your own inner resistance to creativity with the outer resistance of families and friends. Inner resistance is something all creatives need to learn to face, over and over. (Sorry to say, it doesn’t really go away, but you can get deft and working around it. I’ll cover that in my next post.)

Inner resistance can feel insurmountable, and yet it comes from nowhere. It’s easy to want to blame the people around us, since we can see them after all. They want to keep us from our creative truth, those meanies! But while it can feel like sitting down to write for 20-30 minutes is an epic battle against an invisible enemy that is out to stop us no matter what, that enemy is not your spouse, your child or your grandchildren.

Now Write

You’ve negotiated the time, now use that time to write. Don’t know how? It’s true. You may not have done this before, or at least not for a long time. Give yourself a chance. You’ll learn. Your first writing session, like the first of any new venture, will be about creating the space, going through the motions: Get to the place, open the computer or notebook, write a few things down. Write a list, write a goal, write the exact colours of the shawl the woman across from you on the bus was wearing. Write about how she tied that shawl. Where do you think she got it? Or did someone give it to her? Write that story down.

Writing will come with practice. You’ve carved out some space and time. Now commit to yourself. Keep showing up. Allow yourself to be a beginner. You’ve already started.

Write something. Anything. Write one sentence. There now, see ? You’ve already started.