Moving the goalposts

I’ve been slamming through Endurance at a pace which might almost qualify as alarming. This is for a number of reasons. First and foremost, that’s my natural process: a swift pass through what is sometimes unkindly referred to as a “vomit draft.” Fred, aka my writing subconscious, is one of nature’s sprinters. He’s proven this over and over. My journey as a writer has been in substantial part a process of learning to ride the brake.

This time around, as I’ve discussed before, the pressure’s a little different. Not deadline pressure. I literally have a year to deliver this book. Not performance pressure. This is a sequel with a character I know and love, in a place I understand. But the pressure of time, of urgency and mortality, of the big, pink hammer of the demon cancer.

And all that has forced a change in my process.

I’ve always accounted for my effort on a words-per-day basis, and over the past few years, a words-per-hour basis as well. I used to be a consultant, and time-effectiveness measurements are natural to me, though I realize that sort of thing is poison to most writers possessing even a modicum of their sanity. Color me with the weird crayon and call it done.

The trap of such an accountability metric is that one finds oneself in a footrace. Running solo, always trying to do better than the last, best time. There’s a time and a place for that, but being in the middle of a novel draft is not necessarily it. Not much percentage in being the fastest gun in the West in this business, not when I already have a solid reputation for efficient productivity and ironclad adherence to deadlines.  You the reader can’t tell how fast I wrote, only how well I wrote.

Last week I managed to come down with an intestinal bug which sidelined me completely for a day, then left me a little looped for a few days after.That  same week I had an MRI, which while not an invasive procedure in the usual sense of that term, was almost as mentally and emotionally disruptive as if it had been. Plus my sweetheart came to town and we hied ourselves off to a weekend workshop at Iron Springs, on the gorgeous Olympic Peninsula of Washington State’s Pacific coast. All the sort of thing which puts a crimp in daily production targets.

At my sweetie’s advice, I took a step I’d been noodling with and resisting for a while. I formally shifted my self-evaluation process and success metrics from a daily timeframe to a weekly timeframe. (Told you I used to be a consultant.) Instead of 2,500 words per day minimum, I’m now responsible for 17,500 words per week. And I’ve dropped my daily time quota completely.

Old habits die hard, and I’ll be arguing with myself about this for a while, but the change has already been liberating. It means I can travel, as I am this week; or take a family holiday, ditto; and not feel as if I’ve sold out the writing commitment. It means that a slow day or an off day or a flat out bad day isn’t cause for recrimination and self-examination. At most such a lacuna in word count is motivation for the next few days.

I don’t need to be a faster writer than I’ve been before, I need to be a better writer than I’ve been before. This move of the goalposts gets me a bit less focused on wordcount and a bit more focused on the process. I can’t see this as anything but good.

One final note: This is my last blog post for my June guest slot. Thank you to every one who came along for the ride. I’m glad you’re reading.

Jay Lake is the author of the author of Mainspring and Escapement, and winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His latest novel Green is available now from Tor Books.


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