Saturday, March 11, 2017

When Things Go Awry, Spreadsheets Are Your Hero

Scott D. Parker

I finally had to figure out what mysterious object my western hero was hunting for…and it took out an entire writing session to accomplish it.

For those not following along with my writing this year, I’ve embarked on a new series featuring Calvin Carter, former actor and current railroad detective. I wrote his first book in January (Likely titled Calvin Carter and the Empty Coffins). I wrote his second in February (Calvin Carter and the Hell Dragon). For his third outing, I wanted a treasure hunt story. Something Carter could go after a la Indiana Jones or any type of adventure hero, but still within the context of an investigation.
So far, all of these stories have been written into the dark. That is, without an outline ahead of time. I have a vague sense of where the story is going but, at least for this initial draft, I’m the first reader…and the storyteller. And it’s a blast! At least for this kind of story, I may have hit upon a winning writing strategy.

When I began Carter’s third case, I merely called it “Calvin Carter and the Treasure Hunt.” I had no clue what was stolen. But I knew that I’d figure it out along the way.

I just didn’t figure that an entire morning’s writing session would be sucked up doing it.
I wrote six entire chapters, all with nice action scenes, gun fights, and corpses. I managed to get all the way up to the moment when one character tells Carter that there was a burglary in a museum. That was where I ended my writing session this past Tuesday. The next scene, scheduled to start at 4:30am on Wednesday, was the scene every treasure hunt story has: the explanation of the thing that was stolen and that needs to be recovered.

So far this year, my subconscious brain and my Creative Voice have worked in sync. If there’s an issue, I get to mull it over all day at my day job and by the next morning’s session, things are figured out.

Not so with this one. What the heck was stolen? What did Carter have to find?

I spent the entire hour this past Wednesday figuring it out. The end result was not only a McGuffin but the likely title of the book*. At the time, however, after a productive hour of research, I also realized I had written exactly zero new fiction words. I have an extra fifteen minutes I get to write after I’ve got my boy to the carpool and before I have to get to work myself, and I blew threw a healthy 535 words, but I was officially “behind” in my mind.

Until I opened my work tracking spreadsheet and breathed a sigh of relief.

You see, I’ve keep track of word count and time taken every day this year. I have two months of data detailing two novels written. And I saw, quite clearly, that there were a few days in January and February where the word count for a particular day was substantially less than other days. Moreover, some days—weekends and holidays—I have extra time to write and produce more words. It all averages out.

The other cool thing about a spreadsheet with historical data is that I can compare a given day with the same respective day in earlier months. For example, it took my five writing days in February to reach the 10,000-word mark. (I don’t count January because I started with 11K from a previously abandoned book.) By the 8-hour mark in both February and March, I had written just over 13,000 words. I was perfectly on track. I breathed a sigh of relief.

So if you are ever wondering what possible benefit having a spreadsheet for your writing could be, this is it. In addition, if someone ever asks me, “How long does it take you to write a western?” I have the data to answer with certainty.

If you don’t already keep a spreadsheet, I would recommend you do so. You’ll be amazed at what the numbers can reveal about your productivity.

*Oh, and the McGuffin and title for the third book? Calvin Carter and the Aztec Sword.

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