Nancy: Just 20 Pages

As regular readers here know, several months ago, I finally gave up my high-stress, pressure-filled, deadline-driven corporate consulting job and set up my own high-stress, pressure-filled, deadline-driven writing and publishing plan. It’s a much better gig! However, one good thing about a corporate job is the structure. (That, and cake. People randomly bringing in cake. Why do my new office mates, aka the cats, never bring me cake? But I digress).

When you enter the full-time writer world, your time is suddenly your own, even with a very firm stake planted in the ground somewhere out there in Future Land. When it comes to publishing schedules, suddenly you’re thinking in terms of months or even years. Gone are the daily and weekly due dates, the guide rails that keep you plodding along on the straight and narrow. Take the girl out of the corporate world and chaos follows. At least, that’s what happened to schedule- and spreadsheet- and calendar-loving me.

By mid-April, about six weeks into my newfound freedom, I was pretty sure I’d never work to a schedule again. Not for lack of wanting or trying. I just could not figure out how to do it. Sounds ridiculous, I know. Just write the damn book! One day, I’d get my butt in the chair for some serious binge-writing. Then the next day, something would come up and I’d jump to deal with it. A few days later, I’d get distracted by something shiny, and I’d indulge myself by following it. Why not? My time is my own! I am WRITER, see me procrastinate! And those stakes I’d planted somewhere out there in Future Land? They were looming ever closer, and I barely had barely scratched out a few pages to show for all those weeks of ‘writing’.

Enter a minor miracle, in the form of my book coach*.

I didn’t hire a book coach to get myself on a schedule or finally figure out how to do this full-time writing thing. I hired her because I wanted an impartial set of eyes on my story ideas and my pages as they developed, to help me correct course early in case of fatal flaws. I wanted regular interaction, like weekly emails and bi-weekly phone calls. What I got, in addition to expert advice as I now work on a second book with her, was a 20-page-a-week goal. You know I have all the love for goals!!! (So far, I’ve only missed my goal once, and that was due to a stomach bug.) And having that one weekly goal has taught me surprising things about my own writing process.

20 Pages Isn’t That Much

Using common wisdom, 20 double-spaced, manuscript-formatted pages in MS Word comes out to about 5,000 words. Except when it doesn’t. Apparently, I write some dense text, which is rather surprising, because my favorite writing exercise would be to just write characters snarking at each other all day long (dialog = fewer words per page). But between my dense text and my coach’s flexibility for me to go a little over page count to finish out a scene, I’m averaging somewhere around 6,300 words per week. If I were to space that out over a five-day work week (spoiler alert: I don’t), that would be less than 1,300 words a day. Easy peasy, right? I mean, there are writers who talk about their 8-10k word count days, and apparently meet those goals comfortably at least a few days per week. Twenty pages really is a reasonable, achievable page count.

20 Pages is So Damn Much!

On the other hand – and I hate to spoil it for the go-getters among you – those 8-10k-word-count-per-day writers are RARE. And some of them are binge writers who don’t write that way on a regular basis. So back to the 1,300 word per day, or in my case, 3,000-ish words per day for a couple of days: while it is reasonable and achievable, it is also hard. And some weeks, it’s damn hard. Because once you’re at the level where you’re working with an outside professional and, let’s face it, paying a serious amount for high-quality coaching, you don’t want to be dumping word salad onto the page. And one of the goals with a coach is to use the feedback from past weeks to up your game as you go along, not making the same mistakes or writing the same weaknesses twice. Or thrice. Or at least, not ten weeks running. So, you know, improving. Suddenly those 6,000+ words come with expectations of quality, and that means blood, sweat, and tears on every page. It can be exhausting.

You Cover a Lot of Narrative Arc in 20 Pages

These days, I actually think less about the number of new words I’m writing per week and focus instead on the number of scenes I’m capturing. I plan out all of the scenes for the 20 pages at one time, which allows me to set up scenes and sequels, play out narrative arcs, and move between my POV characters (hero and heroine) before I actually start writing the pages. While there’s no requirement that I plan in these blocks, it’s proven to be the most efficient approach, and it allows me to play with the scenes in skeletal form (often in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius scene card format), bouncing them off each other and making the narrative thread more continuous. And because of the weekly page requirement, I’ve always got the past week’s and the future week’s scenes in mind as I’m planning. This has taught me how to keep the story flowing, rising and falling naturally, without abrupt interruptions that have to be smoothed over later.

You Get All Up in Your Characters’ Business in 20 Pages Per Week

This, for me, has been one of the joys of adding 20 new pages to my manuscript every week. I’m never away from my characters long enough for us to become estranged. Because I’ve always just come out of their last week’s scenes and am always heading into their next week’s adventures, they stay with me every day, even on non-writing days (aka editing, marketing, planning, and researching days). While I already knew the characters in my current story from their secondary roles in the first two books in the series, I’m learning the inner workings of their minds and hearts faster than any characters I’ve written previously, and that helps me bring their motivations, emotions, and conflicts clearly onto the page in the first draft, as opposed to my usual process of not getting all of that sussed out until the third or fourth draft.

I know some of the 8 Ladies work with developmental editors or regular critique partners, which are other excellent ways of setting a work pace. How do you keep your creative projects moving? And if you’ve found a way to keep yourself accountable, what has it taught you about your own writing process?

*In a future blog post, I’ll talk about what a book coach is, how she differs from a developmental editor, and what you should consider if you’re interested in hiring your own coach.

3 thoughts on “Nancy: Just 20 Pages

  1. I was doing pretty well until I reached the point of juggling one book going live and one being in revisions while trying to draft a third.

    Other than that, over the years I’ve learned that it’s critical that I keep my personal life on a very even keel. If there’s emotion-making stuff going on in the background, it totally saps my ability to write.

  2. I think I need more personal accountability, too. My personal life isn’t on an even keel right now (see Jeanne’s comment) but it probably never will be. My dream would be to start a serial story on a blog site, and be accountable to some fans . . . but there are all kinds of problems with that. It’s considered published if it’s on the internet, right? So, it might not find a home with a traditional publisher, and readers might not buy the cow if the milk’s for free, as the old saying goes. And then there are just the normal nightmares: What if I run out of ideas in the middle of the serial and disappoint all those readers? What if someone steals my book and does it better? What if all the readers agree with the inner critic?

    Although, regarding the last point, I have to say that being a regular reader of comment sections over the past two years has been GREAT practice for toughening up my soul. It’s so easy to see that there are so many trolls and mean people out there who aren’t really responding to the work, but rather to something in their own heads. Of course, the other danger in dismissing bad comments as trollish is that I might fool myself and ignore negative comments that are actually useful. But, it’s a risk I should take.

    Hiring a coach sounds like a great way to circumvent a lot of problems. You get a cheerleader who also has the professional experience to tell you when you’ve gone off the track, and you do get that structure that you both agree upon.

  3. Pingback: Nancy: The Hardest Hundred Pages – Eight Ladies Writing

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