Writer, Celebrate Thyself

I decided to make this a full week away from my analysis of heroism because, well, I wrote about writing on Monday and Wednesday and I'm a fan of discrete units. "One week" might be an arbitrary unit, but I'm trained in weeks. When I teach, the semester is broken down into a number of weeks. When I write, I set my word-count goals by the week. When I plan time with friends, I think of it in terms like "this week or next." So I've decided this is going to be "writing week."

On Monday, I wrote about how other people respond to unfinished work. On Wednesday, I wrote about process. I think I'll close the loop today and write about how I'm learning to understand the value of my own unfinished work beyond the final product.

Here's a thing: writing fiction professionally is not career that naturally provides positive reinforcement. The process by itself takes a long time, so external reward is almost always long delayed; even a short story -- 6,000 words or so -- takes me a little over two weeks to draft, distance myself from, run by my faithful reader, and fully re-write once. That assumes that 1) I'm able to work diligently on that one story during that period, and 2) it only needs to be revised once, neither of which are remote givens. And even then, reward is still delayed because getting the story out to the market is time consuming. I'm just starting out here, professionally, and I don't have much to my credit (see: my Fiction page, which I'll be blessedly updating in a couple of months, when an original story of mine comes out), but not for lack of time: I've been submitting my work to magazines off and on for almost 10 years and only have that meager Fiction page to show for it. The story I did, blessedly, sell this year was in the submission cycle for close to 300 days after I "finished" it, which does not include the days I was too down after a rejection to send it back out again. During that time, the only external response I got for my work was rejection and, if I was lucky, criticism (which, recall, I can be kind of a baby about).

That's a punishing cycle.

So, like, I can't go the year-plus it currently takes me to develop, write, and sell a good story (a marked improvement over the ten-year timeline I was on before!) with no reward system worked out and survive. Some kind of positive reinforcement has to happen in the meantime, and it's not coming from the market.

I would really like to say that writing by itself is its own reward. And it is, but that's not always enough. Part of my compulsion to write is simply the satisfaction of self-expression and creative exercise, but part of it is also social and egotistical (I want to share, yeah, okay, and I want to be seen), and part of it is also purely practical (I want to be compensated). The act of writing, by itself, only satisfies one of those three parts, and one out of three ain't half good.

To make up for it, to survive, I've taken to manufacturing rewards. Which in my case is maybe less a matter of manufacturing rewards than it is of allowing myself to recognize accomplishments outside of the endgame. This isn't something I used to do, and perhaps not coincidentally, I didn't used to write the way I do now. My most precious novel-in-progress, the baby I've been nurturing in my heart since 2002 (oh, god...), is about 30,000 words into its primary draft at the moment. That draft has, admittedly, changed five or six times as I grew up and became a better writer and saw more and more of the flaws and tried to correct them as I went, but... that's paltry. 30,000 words is not a novel, and 13 years is a long time. For comparison: a month ago, I started working earnestly on a new novel. It was going to be a short story, and then it blew up in my face and turned itself into a novel-length idea, and then it decided it was just going to be written before anything else. Today, assuming I don't just screw off completely, I'll cross 30,000 words in that manuscript (I expect this first draft to top out around 80,000-90,000).

One manuscript: 13 years, 30,000 words.

Another manuscript: 4 weeks, 30,000 words.

So what's the difference? It's not affection for the material. There is no story that is more dear to me than the one I've put a third of my life into developing. It's not difficulty: The new manuscript is by far -- orders of magnitude -- more challenging and more frightening than the other. Some days I stare at my hands and wonder why I'm even trying to do this thing I'm trying to do. It's not work ethic, exactly. I don't feel materially different about working than I have in the past. And yet, I am working a lot more, and a lot faster than ever before.

What I think is happening is that for the very, very first time in my career, I'm allowing myself to take pleasure in micro-accomplishments. In the past, I've been very focused on endgame-level accomplishments, or on recognizing big chunks. So, 30,000 words in my other novel was never an achievement to me. It's not even 100 pages -- a satisfying, chunky discrete unit in my mind -- of writing the way I have my document formatted (which is, I admit, a stupid formatting choice on my part because if I've done my math correctly, 25,000 words is roughly 100 pages in a mass market paperback). So in those 13 years of struggling through a mere handful of pages, I never once celebrated what I was doing, because I never once saw the writing as significant enough to celebrate.

Imagine that. Just for a second. It's pretty depressing.

When I started my new manuscript, I did this one weird trick, quite by accident. I brought my official twitter account out of hibernation, and I had to decide how to use it. I knew it was going to be a place to promote my work and the work of my friends, and to signal boost my blogging, but that was never going to be enough. I've followed a lot of people on twitter, and I stop following them really, really quickly when all they do is link me to their website. So, like my blog, I wanted twitter to be a place where I could be social, talk about TV, make terrible puns in the direction of Patrick Rothfuss, and engage socially as a writer. Quite by accident, one of things I started doing was posting my daily word counts, which haven't been super awesome. 1,000 words here and there, a 3,000-word flurry once a week. But then, the more I acknowledged my daily word counts, the more consistently I wrote by the day. And the more satisfied I became when I closed up shop for the day after another 1,500 down. And daily word-counts turned into cumulative updates. And I crossed 10,000 words after two weeks, and I realized I was 1/8 of the way done, and recognizing that, I realized how much I had done. 1/8 is a lot of work. 1/8 of a book in two weeks means an entire book in four months, and that's crazy.

Last Friday, I set my end-of-day goal at 20,000 cumulative. When I crossed it, I involuntarily double-fist-pumped into the air and made an unintelligible noise.

And every time I cross a mini-milestone in this manuscript, this devilish, impossible manuscript that is pushing every ounce of my experience and skill daily, I think about what it means for my other one. If I'm going to knock out 5,000-10,000 words a week based simply on the fact that I'm recognizing for the first time ever how much of an achievement that actually is, even though these are words that nobody will see for months -- and when they do, it will be to criticize me, and then oh god it's going to take forever to sell -- I realize that this time next year, my other manuscript will be done, and I'll be trying to sell two novels while I work on a third. And, man, you know: That feels good. It really, really does. It helps make the rest of this punishing cycle worth it.

Today, my end-of-day goal is 30,000 words. And, you know what? I’m gonna hit it.