Dana's Dojo: Progress? What is This Progress You Speak Of?

Today in the Dojo: Your progress mileage may vary. And that’s perfectly fine.


Anne Jefferson started a SciWrite challenge to coincide with NaNoWriMo. Now, before we have any talk of word counts or other arbitrary measures of success, go read her post on progress. I mean it. Do it now. Then you can head back over here and listen to me natter on.

So. Progress. NaNo’s definition of progress is words. Good words, bad words, necessary words, superfluous words, any words at all. Pad your word count if you have to! Stop using contractions! Babble on and on about incidentals. Anything! Anything that helps you get to 50,000.

And that can be useful, especially for those who’ve never written 50,000 words in a month, don’t believe they can, and need to learn otherwise.

NaNo, the first (and only official) time I did it, taught me that I could write flat-out, without thought of quality, every damned day, huge amounts every day, sacrificing anything and everything to make it, and still end up with some useful words at the end. I actually quite like my original NaNo project, and when the series rolls round to it, most of those 50,000 words will make the cut.

There’s another NaNo project I did, unofficial, that was a non-fiction book. I’m afraid to go back and look at it now, because I suspect my thinking on the subject has progressed to the point where I’ll hate it. But it still taught me that I could write 50,000 non-fiction words in a month. So that was a little bit of all right, then.

There’s a year when I wasn’t doing a NaNo project at all, but merely writing scenes and re-writing chapters in what will be one of the last books in the series. Why was I messing about at the end? Because it’s what was in my mind, and because knowing where things ended up tells me what I need in the early bits, and I needed the practice. That was during a time when my writing made a quantum leap from being pretty good to actually satisfying me. Considering how much of a critic I am of my own work, this was a virtual miracle. And I shadowed NaNo that year because those words were getting written anyway, so why not stretch a bit and make it 50,000? Most fun I’ve ever had doing anything related to NaNo, I can tell you.

This year… this year I’m not even trying for 50,000. Okay, yes, I would like to make it there. You will hear no complaints if I do. Well, complaints from my poor tortured tendons, but they can cry all they like, the whiners. But I likely won’t make it, and not just because of them.

I only just now broke 15,000 words. That’s fairly far behind the mid-point for 50,000 in 30 days, but I’m extremely pleased with my progress. I’ve got most of a novella done already. That’s more than I had at the start of all this.

Mind you, it was supposed to be a short story. And it was supposed to be about solitude, but it ended up being about loss and memory and why, when one goes home again, that may be the time that ensures they can never go home again. So if I define progress by the original metric – i.e., short story, theme solitude, done within a week or so – I’ve failed miserably. Doesn’t feel like failure, though. Feels like the opposite of failure. I’ve gained enormous amounts of insight into my various characters, the social circles they move in, their attitudes and expectations and cultural quirks. I’ve seen sad things and beautiful things and hurtful things and thoughtful things. They’ve surprised me repeatedly, and confirmed my suspicions.

When it’s done, I’ll have a novella. It’s nothing epic. In fact, I likely wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher – despite the occasional unicorn and dragon (well, species we would call unicorns and dragons because they resemble them, although they’re not, really), despite the inborn power some people have and the external power others use, despite the fact it’s set on an alien world, it’s a very ordinary story. I’m telling it with people who could pass for human (this becomes an important plot point later in the series, so shut up about aliens needing to be alien). If I took out all the fantasy bits, I could still tell nearly the same story. And there’s no huge character development, just little shifts, and a fairly large rift at the end. It’s nothing epic.

But it lays the foundation for the epic to come. All of these things are essential to my own understanding. And I suspect readers, although not publishers, will like it just fine. I’ll trim some of the fat from it, and bundle it together with the other stories I’ve got planned for this collection, and refer back to it constantly as I’m writing the novel itself. It will have given me the basis for understanding I needed in order to successfully write that novel, and the confidence to do so.

I think that’s enough progress, thank you.

The reason for all this rambling is this: don’t let progress be defined by a set criteria. If the progress you’ve made doesn’t fit the original mold, but is actually better, then there’s no reason in the universe to feel like a failure. And every reason to punch the air and tell the universe you are teh awesome.

Don’t get hung up on 50,000 or whatever other goal you set at the beginning. Certainly, keep on keeping on – use those original goals as useful goads to keep you writing. But don’t let them blind you to your success.

Oh, and all you fiction writers? Be extremely fucking grateful you’re not writing a scientific paper. If there’s one thing watching SciWrite has taught me, it’s that as difficult as the novelist’s job is, we’ve got it pretty damned easy when you compare the two!

One final word for both SciWriters and NaNoes, from my brilliant, beautiful Nicole, on the reason why not having many words shouldn’t matter to you: “Because even if you only have 1,000 words written (or even less!), it’s more than you had on October 31st!”

Absorb the truth of that, and write on.

Dana's Dojo: Progress? What is This Progress You Speak Of?
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6 thoughts on “Dana's Dojo: Progress? What is This Progress You Speak Of?

  1. 1

    My wife’s about 1/3 through her 40k novella (target for the month) so far. But she’s had a lot of other projects pop up this month, too — including revising and checking the proofs on a novel.

    I don’t think it’s so important to hit the wordcount as just to keep progressing. If it takes a little longer, you’ll still get there.

  2. 2

    In the Song of Ice and Fire series, one character is sent out into the city each day, and when she returns each evening, she is asked, “What three things did you learn today that you did not know before?”

    If I’ve learned something about my characters, my plot, or the world I’m building which I didn’t know before, that’s progress. Doesn’t matter if I’ve written a word — if I don’t know my character well enough, or if I haven’t worked out basic plot problems, writing will just pile on nonsense which I’ll have to trash anyway.

  3. 3

    I write both science papers (but not currently!) and fiction, so I appreciate what’s difficult about both. My bio friend said something along the lines of ‘Well, Nano should be easy for you because you can just pull things out of your ass.’ I replied ‘Kind of, but only if I want the shittiest pile of slush ever.’

    That said, I really like your sane approach to writing fiction. One of the best, mind blowing writing tips I’ve ever heard was don’t write the story in order. Now, I’m not saying I’m writing the ending first, but I have several documents of random/scrap writing saved. If I get a scene, I write it because I have the feel for the characters later in the story, and then, I try to work them to that point. Sometimes I use the scene, sometimes I don’t, but it helps me move my ideas along. Also, I take notes on what I’ve done everyday. On who I include in what scenes, some important topic I want to discuss again in several chapters, ect. I draw diagrams to remind myself how a room is laid out. Organizing my ideas has really helped propel me to 30000 words with very little pointless description or ‘filler’ moments.

  4. 4

    I have only been reading your blog a few weeks… You seemed so busy, and so keen to write about writing fiction instead of actually writing fiction, that I was wondering when you’d actually write any. So, congratulations on the 15,000 words!

    I have written scientific papers, not fiction. I am (supposed to be) writing a scientific paper now. But I do sometimes think about stories that I might write if I wanted to be a writer, which I don’t. And I do invent characters, or they invent themselves. They tend to take over any stories I imagine. Do invented characters go away when you have written them out, or do they continue to pester you?

  5. 5

    let your data become your characters. Let them pester you with their story. It makes the writing much easier. (I just did this for an MS thesis, and it didn’t come together until I let the data pester me.)

    As for fiction: I’ve written 388,449 words in a story which isn’t finished yet, but I told the characters to go away and stop bothering me unless they had something useful to say about my thesis topic. Since none of them are geologists, they obligingly went into hiding. Now that my thesis is turned in, the most persistent character has started to nag at me again. He keeps asking when I’m going to turn this mess I’ve written into a proper book, even if it’s not for publication but to please me and my characters. (He’s a mathematician by training, though not by trade, and he likes to see things tidied up and finished.)


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