Motivation’s a tricky thing. Sometimes, it seems like staying motivated is the hardest part of writing. Like when I’m stuck in a scene and three days into a migraine, or when my favorite author’s latest book just came out and it’s so much more interesting than what I’m writing.
I’ve tried various schemes to keep myself going. For a while, setting a daily word count goal and reporting in every week to an online crit group worked. I drafted The Null Prophet in twelve weeks that way, and it was great. But straight word count goals don’t work for editing. And what about the time spent plotting and researching for the next book?
I had a rockier time drafting Unborn, and I found I just couldn’t make the same word counts as before. Instead of changing my goal, I kept beating myself up about it. By the time I did change my goal, failing had become a habit. All of these tricks are just mental games we play with ourselves, and this one had lost its power for me.
After wallowing along for a while, I finally decided I needed a new trick last fall. I Should Be Writing is a pretty good source for these, so I tried Mur’s “don’t break the chain” trick. I printed a couple months’ worth of blank calendars, and I put a big green X through every day that I wrote. No word counts, just a yes or a no. And below the X, I kept a running count of how many days in a row I had written. It worked for a little while, but every time I took a day off for a migraine or for my writing group, the chain would break, and it’s a little depressing when it never rises above 13.
In the new year, I tried giving myself a deadline. Finish the revision by the end of March. I made out a schedule and hung it on my whiteboard, but after an initial rush, I stalled out and fell behind. March ended, with weeks still to go on my revision.
Turns out, these tricks only work if I never fail.
Well, I think I might have found one that works. A couple ideas got mashed together in my brain, and instead of taking someone else’s trick whole, I custom tailored it to me. Idea #1: Chuck Wendig wrote two posts on a writing plan and an editing plan, the basic idea of which is that you can set a very reasonable daily goal for each of these tasks (Chuck uses 350 words for writing and 5 pages for editing). Idea #2: Mur Lafferty started talking about her friend Tony’s Magic Spreadsheet on I Should Be Writing, which combines a daily writing goal of 250 words with a weighted point system that rewards you for keeping up a long writing streak.
I mixed these two together to make my own version of the Magic Spreadsheet. I have two goals: 250 words written or 1000 words edited (I write in Scrivener, so there are no page breaks). When I feed in my numbers for the day, my spreadsheet calculates my combined progress, so if I only edited 500 words but I wrote 140, it says I met my goal and gives me my points for the day. First day, one point. Today, 42 points. If I double my goal, I get double the points. That’s my motivation to keep writing once I’ve hit 250, and I know it works, because several times I hit 350 or 400 words, and thought “Wow, I’ll get another 13 points if I just write a little bit more.” And then it turns out I hit 700, and I’m so close to another 13 points, or 15, or 22…
The last feature of my spreadsheet may be the most important. If I skip a day, I get no points and the streak starts over. But if I write a little and don’t hit my goal, I don’t get any points, but the streak doesn’t change. If I come home exhausted from my writing group and eke out a single sentence, I get to keep the streak alive. I’ve had three days like that so far, and it’s probably the reason the spreadsheet is still working. And just as soon as I get a handle on how quickly the points add up, I’ll start bribing myself with prizes when I hit the big targets.
Yes, I designed the spreadsheet to give me as many points as possible. But it’s not cheating when I’m only playing against myself. The points are just a sideline, anyway—the writing is the objective. And right now, I’m at 18,594 words written and 13,804 edited. Not bad for a silly mind game.