Monday, November 05, 2012

100 Themes Writing Challenge - Lessons Learned

So there you have it. 100 days; 100 themes; 100 posts. Some of them linked (quite pleased with the way I managed to do that, and how they've turned out), some of them work better than others (yes, there are a few turkeys) but in a way it's turned out to be a bit like photography. Professional photographers take hundreds of shots to guarantee capturing the one, or two that really pop. Professional writers write hundreds of pieces (and/or go through hundreds of edits) and only really hit the mark a few times (unless they're geniuses).

And remember none of those 100 pieces I've written in the days since July 28 have been edited. They're all first draft, written off the cuff, with only the vaguest notion of what I was going to write about at the beginning and often including ideas that dropped into my head as I was writing.

So there's lesson 1: running out of steam, or full steam ahead?
Without a firm writing plan it's easy to dry up, even in half an hour! You feel as though there's no mileage left in the idea, or maybe you've taken it down a dead end, or it wasn't such a great idea in the first place. But whatever the idea was, it must have felt good enough to write about to start with. So more time spent plotting would (maybe) have uncovered the dead ends and the dross. On the other hand - again maybe - you just have to try writing it out to prove that it doesn't work so well.

And then just occasionally I'd hit on an idea that felt as though I could keep writing MUCH longer than half an hour. It didn't take long for me to get a feel for 30 minutes, which is why some of the early stories stop in mid sentence but later on I was able to bring them to a satisfying (if cliff-hangery) conclusion. On a handful of occasions I reached this point after much less than 30 minutes, and if this happened I didn't force it.

Lesson 2: The more you write, the more you want to write
I had a particular reason for wanting to get ahead of my schedule - I was away for the last week of October/first two days of November, so I needed at least 5 posts in hand and, because this came right at the end of the challenge I wanted the tail-end posts done too, so I didn't have to come home exhausted from a week in London and have to sit right down and do another two posts. So I needed to be ahead of the game by seven days, but what I found as I wrote those extra posts was how easy it was to do two a day rather than one. Some days three in one day. By the time I wrote post #100, I was 21 days ahead. And on (notional) day #101, with no prompt, I quite missed the impetus of "having" to write. Which brings us on to lesson 3...

Lesson 3 (a good one for us procrastinators): JFDI
Having not only a pre-defined theme but also the public declaration, or commitment, to write something every day is a great enabler. Out of the ~80 days I actually spent writing I can remember less than half-a-dozen when I really "didn't feel like it." Ordinarily on days like that I wouldn't have bothered, but I felt the need to keep up - with the momentum and my growing stash of scheduled posts - so I made a start with the next theme and after only a few minutes I would usually find myself getting into it. Making a start is the thing.

Since writing post #100, I've given myself a break. Legitimately I feel -- we all need some time off even from the things we love doing -- but even so this "lessons learned" post has been waiting 10 days to be written. No impetus now, see? So before I fall back into my old habits of spending days on end not writing anything, I will have to come up with another trick to get me started every day. I've proved how easy it is to write a lot (see Lesson #4) with even only a short commitment of time, now all I need is a reason - a good enough reason - to do it. I don't have an editor-imposed deadline, or an agent-imposed publication target. It has to come from me.

Lesson 4: 100 days worth of word count
Quite a revelation this. I wasn't but a week or so into the challenge when it occurred to me (OK, sometimes I can be a bit slow) that it would be a good idea to keep track of how much I was writing. Regular readers will not be surprised to read that I graphed this up:

Allowing time for the average to establish itself, it's clear that as I got into my stride, my average word count increased through the challenge, ending up at 720 words for half an hour's writing. That's overall -- from all 100 posts.

The fact that I became more prolific, word-wise, over the 100 themes is even more clearly demonstrated by a graph of a sliding 10-day average word count:

As you would expect this line bounces around a lot more, but shows an even clearer increase in my output in the last quartile, peaking on the last day at an average of 897 words for the previous ten days.

Obviously, it's not all about the numbers. But leaving everything else aside for the moment, the lesson here is that, with only half an hour's effort per day, in 100 days I could have the equivalent of the first draft of a novel. War of Nutrition is about 80,000 words. That's 800 words a day for 100 days - easily what I was achieving in the latter half of my challenge. Bringing back all that stuff I left aside before, it would still need plotting, character development, editing, and all those good things. I'm not pretending anyone, least of all me, could just sit down and write a novel in half an hour a day for 100 days (although, you know, many tens of thousands of people are attempting to do just that this month, if they're taking part in NaNoWriMo). But it certainly shouldn't take anywhere near seven years ;0)

Lesson 5: You can write something about anything
Finally, although as I mentioned earlier what I wrote for some themes worked better than others, it's obviously possible to write on any given topic. Even those you wouldn't normally consider writing about. Some will be shorter, some not good enough to keep, but there'll be some hidden gems in there too. Among my 100 I had a fair crop of rough diamonds. To be sure they would need polishing and developing if I were to (for instance) include them in a collection of short stories, but when I started this back in July I didn't have anything. Now I have starting points for at least a dozen strong stories.

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