The most wonderful time of the year

The tree in question. Also, the Flames vs the Avalanche and a black cat lurking in the corner.

The tree in question. Also, the Flames vs the Avalanche and a black cat lurking in the corner.

Christmas can be a hassle. I’m not a huge fan of how busy it makes us, or the things we do just because we’ve always done them. Those parts of Christmas can pretty much take a hike. But there are parts of Christmas that I cherish. I love spending time with friends and family. I love the experience of giving a great gift. And I love sitting in the gentle light of the Christmas tree to write.

This year, I’m doing some of those things! But others (primarily the latter) will fall by the wayside.

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On a patio in Palm Springs, fingers to keyboard.

I love writing. I tend to view vacations and time off as an opportunity to write, to really immerse myself in what I’m working on and make a bunch of progress. If I’m travelling, I’m making time to write (often by the pool). If I’m out camping, I bring my laptop or a printed draft and I’m making time to write. Even on my honeymoon (Madrid and Barcelona) in 2014, I made time to write. I don’t obsessively work, and I make sure to take time for the reasons I’m actually there (being with my friends or loved ones, soaking up sun, seeing new things and having new experiences). But a vacation isn’t a vacation from writing.

That brings me back to this Christmas. It’s KRH’s first. Bravely, we decided to host, with our 3-month old, who was also nursing his first cold. My wife and I were similarly ill, but we figured we could make it work. We bought a turkey and prepared to have all the grandparents over (all our immediate local family). As it turned out, preparing took most of my writing time in the run-up to Christmas, but I figured I’d find time later.

That is, until we ended up in the Children’s Hospital on Christmas Eve because KRH was wheezing. Wheezing, as it turns out, is one of those immediate warning signs for infants that sends you straight for medical attention. It was a scary evening, because when we got there the triage nurse judged him pale and mottled and got us seen right away. After some suction and nebulization, his breathing improved and his vitals remained strong, so they sent us home. Christmas morning, his wheezing got worse and we ended up back at the hospital for another round of suctioning and observation. The end diagnosis was a viral infection, so there wasn’t even much we could do except keep a close eye on him and wait for him to improve.

He has and is now back to being a cheerful baby (in fact he was even when he was wheezing) but mom and I are still sick and mostly exhausted after a bunch of late and worrying nights. We did manage to make the best of Christmas day and still have dinner with the grandparents.

It may shock you to learn this blog post is the first thing I’ve written in a little while! It is not a shock for me. I knew that I was going to have to take things a bit easier this Christmas. It’s been a long few months since KRH was born and there’s value in sleep, relaxation and time with family and friends. Working hard at writing is how I’ll achieve my goals, but I have a whole life to live in pursuit of more than writing excellence.

So for the rest of the year, my goal is recuperation. On January 1st I hit the ground running.

Progress and KRH

In the nearly five years I’ve spent writing seriously, I’ve managed to produce two complete novels, a series of novelettes, some short stories that won honourable mention in contests, and several other drafts ranging from wretched, squirming NaNoWriMo-level early drafts to decently enjoyable reads awaiting various levels of polishing. That’s compared to what I produced in about 15 years of writing before that: a pair of complete (I thought, actually only 3rd draft) novels, a scattering of other first drafts and a ton of fanfiction.

I write about this because one thing I’ve found integral in the last five years is tracking. It’s been so important for me to measure my productivity so I can figure out what I’m doing well and not, so I can make improvements.

At first, I started tracking butt-in-chair hours. That was, and still is, an excellent exercise for me. Some days can’t control my productivity level for a variety of reasons (my son is an excellent example!) but I can control how long I sit in the chair writing. It was only after I started tracking my time spent writing that I learned to build the habit of writing regularly, for example. It probably won’t come as a surprise, but I’ve spent more time writing in the last five years than I did in the twelve years prior. I learned, for example, that it takes me about 600-700 hours of writing to produce a novel (I don’t count time spent braining through a novel, of course, which is probably much more).

More recently, I started tracking productivity on a daily basis, be it pages edited or words written. This is where KRH comes in. It may shock you to learn that with a 10-week old in the house and me working full time, the total number of hours available to write have, for the moment dropped dramatically. So too has my ability to concentrate on what I’m doing, mostly because I’m now needed more often than I used to be around the house. It used to be I could do the week’s cooking, prep and cleaning a few times a week, and devote much of my other time to writing. Good luck with trying to change diapers, dress KRH or walk him down for sleep (or drive him around until he falls asleep, as has been necessary sometimes).

I’ve been using Jamie Raintree’s Writing and Revision Tracker over the last year. It was a useful tool in tracking both words written and pages edited, especially when I completed significant edits to the two novels I thought were complete when I started this year (some requested, some merely me realising the novel wasn’t as done as I thought). Simply keeping track of these things makes me more productive.

Now, because of KRH, measuring my productivity is going to be more important than ever. Going forward, I’m going to be measuring progress on my current project, and displaying it with this handy little bar below. You can expect it to advance to 100% and jump back down to 0% several times, because I’ll use it to track my progress for each draft rather than the entire project. I’m not yet certain how many drafts this novel will take. My current draft is a quick read-through to fix timeline errors, names and other things that changed in the course of the draft, and add new scenes. It should be pretty quick and I still hope to finish it this year, probably mostly around Christmas. I’ll make weekly updates as I go and report on anything I’ve learned as I do.

Frustration (part 2)

I feel as though this could be an ongoing topic!

When last I talked frustration, it was because KRH was in a frustrating phase. Lots of tears and not a lot of sleep, which is a combination that wasn’t much fun for anyone. Furthermore, he wanted to be held all the time, by which I mean, literally every second of every day. He also wanted to be nursing for about 90% of that time, even though he wasn’t really eating, just sucking. My wife slept in the easy chair a few times, just so he could stay attached to her.

Since then, we’ve had a bit more success. We’re learning to burp him harder and longer to help with gas. We’ve changed her diet to try and cut out some of the foods that might bother him. And we’ve learned new techniques to help get him to sleep, namely switching between walking and bouncing him before putting him down.

All this, though, requires both time and energy, and my wife and I had a 4 am conversation one morning, the result of which was that she needed more help. So, at least for a while, some things changed. Less time for me at the library and the gym. Naturally I don’t enjoy those things, but if she needs the help then I’ll be there. We’re still trying to make time for me to do the self care things I need.

I was able, last week, to finally finish my NaNoWriMo draft. It took about 6 weeks and came in at 81500 words. That’s not bad for 6 weeks. I’m about to engage in a first read through and fix to tidy up some details that changed in the telling, and also to add a few missing scenes. Some of the work on it was done one-handed while holding KRH. Turns out my typing speed while holding a baby isn’t that good, but I felt really good about the effort of holding a sleeping child and writing. It was a reminder that, although the two goals of a successful writing career and parenting a young child can feel mutually exclusive, they’re not totally so.

Still, over the next while I expect to be somewhat disappointed with myself about the amount of time I have with my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard. There’s not really a good way around that; I have expectations of myself, both for writing and for parenting, and the parenting will have to come first, especially for now. Still, I can and will find the time to keep working, even if it won’t be at the pace I want. And really, a lot of parenting will come down to managing my expectations about a lot of things, and treating myself with more empathy. I think that might be a good skill to learn anyway.

 

NaNoWriMo: A retrospective

Here we are, a week after NaNoWriMo 2016 wrapped up. I’m pleased to announce I finished and won. But it did come down to the wire. I’m going to dig into that a bit. Below is the handy graph of my wordcount from this year.

2016-nano

So a couple of things jump out at my from this year’s graph. First, there were big periods where I didn’t write much. That’s not super unusual for me. This year, I lost days around November 8th, and had numerous days where I either didn’t write or only wrote a few hundred words.

Let’s compare this year to last year. That’s an interesting comparison, because last year I had to have my appendix removed right before the month began, and when November kicked off I’d gone back to work early, was struggling, and still managed to write the most words ever for a NaNo.

2015-nano

So a couple of things stand out for me. First, much like this year, in 2015 I had a big chunk of time where I couldn’t manage any words. I also had a fair number of days where I didn’t write or only wrote a little. In fact, like in 2016, I never really pulled ahead. Now, in 2015, I crossed 50k on the 23rd, mostly on the strength of a weekend where I wrote about 10k. To finish off the month, I had another weekend, where I wrote about 14k. If you remove those surges, the two graphs are pretty much similar.

I think this is important for me to understand just how the two months compared. I went to a similar number of events both years, roughly twice a week. However, in 2015, I was able to get more words out of them. Also, I was able to devote big chunks of time on weekends. This year, I found myself generally unable to do that, mostly because of the need to change diapers or feed my wife or any of the other small but innumerable tasks KRH requires. Really, I think that (plus being tired) are the only differences between 2015 and 2016. Also worth noting is that in 2015 it took me almost 55 hours to reach the 74k words I did. This year it took 30 to get to 50k. Pace wise, that’s pretty darn close. Now, this year’s manuscript is simply worse, but I feel like having an infant gives me a pass this time around.

I draw a few things from this. One, if I can make it through the first 8 weeks of KRH’s life and keep writing at the same pace as before, that’s a positive sign (Though I plan to get more efficient). Two, if I don’t spend as much time writing as I did before KRH, I have to learn to be satisfied with that, at least in the short run. That’s not something I’m good at, but it might be necessary to keep my sanity. I’m going to experiment with James Clear’s advice on consistent goal setting, especially when it comes to setting an upper limit on my goals (sustainable). And we’ll see how that goes. I’ll report back on it come the new year.