Measuring Progress

I’m not sure when the idea of writing stories to publish first occurred to me. I’ve always dabbled in various creative pursuits, but the first time I really took my writing seriously was when I started reading the drafts a friend gave me and I realised that I could write better than that. This friend had been intent on getting published, I don’t know if they ever accomplished that goal, and I didn’t even go into my largest writing project with the idea that I would write a novel for public consumption. I just wanted to write something better than they could. Yes, I know how that sounds, and I’ll own it.

However, to this day, I still haven’t finished a single publishable work (I do have two short stories on SmashWords, and some flash fiction on Deviant Art, see the links to the right). I have a tendency to put things aside, go to bed, and never come back to them. My “studio” is littered with half-started projects waiting for me to get back to them, and I still promise myself that I will. One day.

Over the years, the thing I struggled with most when trying to re-involve myself in my magnum opus “Broken Wings” was starting again from the beginning. I’d edited the first chapter a thousand times, but the drafts of the later chapters hadn’t been touched since they were written. I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was just repeating the same, pointless cycle over and over again.

Eventually I hit on the idea that would prove to set me free. That might sound a little overblown, but the difference that it’s made in how I feel about my writing has been immense. All I needed was a way to show what parts of a work in progress was off-limits. That way I could leave a project for any length of time and when I came back I could pick up where I left off, not begin again as I’d always done.

I use yWriter almost exclusively for writing anything longer than a short story & the scenes offer you the choice of marking them as outline, draft, 1st edit, 2nd edit, or done; but there isn’t anything similar for chapters. I needed something that I could use to make an entire chapter “off limits”, this is what I came up with:

Locked Chapters

Now, when I open Broken Wings I was able to see immediately that those chapters were off limits. I am able to pick up from a non-locked chapter. But locking chapters on it’s own wasn’t enough. It was easy enough to say that certain chapters really don’t need attention, but what about the chapters that had been reworked but still needed review? Like a fine wine or cheese, writing is best when allowed to age, so I started marking my chapters thusly:

BW Update

I’d now given myself two points to work from. The next time I pick up Broken Wings I’ll be able to start working on a chapter that hasn’t been reworked yet – and it will be the furtherest into the novel that I’ve been able to work since I drafted it, and that feels promising. I don’t feel anywhere near as overwhelmed anymore.

Earlier this year, I had something of a motivational slump and I shelved Broken Wings indefinitely. But something strange happened at the end of Novemember. I had just finished NaNoWriMo and I wasn’t ready to put my story idea aside when I crossed the 50k word mark. Speak for the Dead is a compact story, falling well below the word requirements for traditional publishing, and due to its smaller size I didn’t find the locking/maturing idea to be entirely necessary. I did, however, make this adaptation to the system:

Starred Chapters

A single asterisk lets me know that I want to develop a chapter more, while two asterisks denote that a chapter hasn’t progressed to the same stage of completion as the other chapters (in this particular case Chapter 13 hasn’t been reviewed, and Chapter 14 still contains a scene that I’m in the process of writing).

Keeping track of your progress is an important part of keeping motivated and these visual markers have worked wonders to keep me going long after I would have normally have gotten distracted and quit.

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