Thursday, June 28, 2012

How Much CAN You Write?

Recently, Dean Wesley Smith did some math to say that it's possible to make a US $40k income per year just from short fiction if you work at it for an average of an hour a day for 6 years.

You might've also seen some of the, ah, less than credulous responses to it.

I don't care if you think it's possible or impossible to follow his advice. Do. Not. Care. (But let's leave the hyperbolic comparisons to scams and pyramid schemes in private where they belong, okies? Thank you.)

Dean's specific pace suggestions might not work for you. Fine. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. He touches on something that's important for everyone, whether you're a writer, a student, or just happen to write e-mails as part of your job:

Know your average writing speed.

average writing speed
the average number of final words you can produce in an hour, including the time for researching, drafting, editing, revision, etc.

Why is it important to know this? So you can set goals that are realistic for you.

Let's back up a moment to what made me think about this: I'm a freelancer, as you might remember me mentioning before. Well, how do freelance writers set their rates?

Freelance writers set their rates based on how long a project will take them.

I long ago discovered that I can easily produce a basic 300-word informational article in an hour—meaning I research, write, and edit in that hour. Therefore, if I find myself on track to spend more than an hour trying to produce 300 words, I immediately know something's wrong.

That "something wrong" could range from me being hungry to the client nagging me every five minutes. (There's a reason I refuse to take clients who demand the right to contact me at all hours: They ignore the detail that they don't own my schedule. People who contact a freelance editor and expect them to be able to begin work immediately have the same problem, but that's another topic.)

It's come to my attention recently that, though I know how long it takes me to produce client work (where I'm told what to write), I don't know how long it takes me to write my own fiction, like short stories, novelettes, novels.

That means, as a businesswoman, I don't know how long it takes me to produce my products (my original stories). Can we spell "dumb"?

But this also applies to college students. Why? You need that number for time management.

How would I know what course load I could handle if I didn't have any idea how long homework would take me? I didn't. So whenever I started a semester, I'd look at the syllabus, pay attention to how long homework took me, and use those estimates to plan out my schedule.)

One key factor that'll help you—whether you're an author, writer, freelancer, student, whatever—is to figure out your average writing speed. That rate includes all researching, copyediting, proofreading, prep time—even rewriting, if you're into that.

(Note: Researching ≠ writing ≠ rewriting ≠ content editing ≠ line/copy editing ≠ proofreading—all are different skills.)

But you'll also want to know your average drafting speed (getting the words on the page), average editing speed, etc.

To figure out these averages, you'll need a chart or spreadsheet that keeps track of the following 5 things for each sitting:

  1. date
  2. start time
  3. end time
  4. task (research, write, edit, prep work, cover design, querying, etc.—and make sure to keep names consistent. Don't call the same editing pass "line editing" on one day and "copyediting" on another.)
  5. total words in story at end or number of words written in that sitting

When your task changes, make a new entry in your chart.

From those numbers, you can figure out the following data:

  • total time spent on each sitting: (start time, subtracted from end time)
  • total time spent on the entire story: (all times, added together)
  • total time spent on each task: (all the times for a specific task, added together)
  • average number of words drafted per hour: (total number of words written, divided by the number of hours spend drafting)
  • average number of words edited per hour: (total number of words edited, divided by the number of hours spent editing)
  • average writing speed: (total number of words written, divided by total number of hours spent on the story)

If you wanted, you could also eye how time of day and sitting length affected your drafting speed. (Personally, I seem to do better in the morning, but my current sample size is too small to say that for sure. That might just be the narrator I've been on.)

It's best to keep track of multiple stories, of multiple lengths, with multiple types of narrators, etc.

In other words, keep track of everything you write.

Because your average writing speed will change, based on factors you don't expect. It might also change as you gain practice and grow as a writer. If you keep track, you'll be able to adapt to those changes.

So. Once you know your average writing speed—and remember what that is?

average writing speed
the average number of final words you can produce in an hour, including the time for drafting, editing, revision, etc.

So. Once you figure that out, you can do math to figure out what you can handle.

(If you're a non-"writer", you can stop reading now and apply the above to your required writing to help with time management. I'm moving into how to use that average writing speed to figure out writing goals.)

For example, I have a short story that I finished drafting the other night. It still needs the "read through for errors" pass, then the first reader pass, then the next proofread or two—but I've already done the initial cleanup. Including prep time, etc., I've spent about 7.4 hours on 7k words. It's looking as though I'll have the final story completed—and ready to self-publish or send to markets—within 10 hours of work time, so that'll put me at an average of about 750 words per hour, for final product.

Formula for figuring out how many words you could write in a year:

    average words per hour
X # hours you'll work on it per day
X # days you'll work on it per week
X # weeks you'll work on it per year
= # words you could write in a year

Note that all of those have "you'll" in there, not "you can".

Your personality will determine if you adjust that final member to make it high or low. I've tried aiming high and flunked. Now that I'm aiming lower, I've started hitting some of my "high" goals. (The subconscious is a weird and sometimes scary thing.)

Let's run a few examples (all fictional but developed from paces I've seen actual folks give):

  1. Writer Amy Apple, who drafts 600 words in an hour, spends 2 more hours rewriting them, then spends 2 hours editing those words, and averages another hour on the proofreading, prepping, formatting, etc. of those words. Total time invested per 600 words: 6 hrs. Amy's average words per hour: 100.
  2. Writer Bern Banana, who drafts 2000 words in an hour, then spends an hour each revising, editing, proofreading, and prepping/formatting those words. Total time invested per 2000 words: 5 hrs. Bern's average words per hour: 500.
  3. Writer Cecil Celery, who drafts 900 words in an hour, with an average of 2 hours spent on other writing tasks for every hour spent writing. Total time invested per 900 words: 3 hrs. Cecil's average words per hour: 300.
  4. Writer Sara Strawberry, who drafts 2000 words in an hour and spends an average of an hour on the cleanup and other writing tasks for every hour spent writing. Total time invested per 2000 words: 2 hrs. Sara's average words per hour: 1k.
  5. Writer Tara Taro, who drafts 1000 words in an hour and spends an average of 20 minutes on other writing tasks for each hour spent writing. Total time invested per 1000 words: 1 hr, 20 min. Tara's average words per hour: 750.

I'm not saying any of these paces are bad or wrong or anything like that in themselves. They're examples. I might think that some of the paces are unwise, or I might suspect that some paces suggest you don't have all that many stories under your belt, but that's supposition, not fact.

Let's assume each of the writers work full-time. They can therefore only pull an average of an hour a weekday from their work schedules (1 hour a day, 5 days a week), though they'll sometimes have to pull that from their (off the clock!) lunch break. Let's assume they won't be able to write at all during their 2 weeks' vacation time, so that's 50 weeks a year. (Total time spent on their writing: 250 hours per year.)

How many ready-to-go words could each of our example writers produce in a year?

  1. Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 25k words per year
  2. Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 125k words per year
  3. Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 75k words per year
  4. Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 250 hours per year = 250k words per year
  5. Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 187.5k words per year

What does this tell us?

This tells us how many words those writers could conceivably finalize in a year in the current time available to them. The writer could then use that knowledge to set writing goals that are realistic to them.

For example, does Amy Apple want to make her writing goal to be 5 finished short stories? A finished novella? A quarter of a novel?

What about Bern Banana? Does he want to write 2 short-ish novels, 4 novellas, 25 short stories, a combo?

But though Sara Strawberry might reasonably plan to write 50 short stories in a year in her "hour per weekday", that would not be reasonable for the likes of Amy Apple, Bern Banana, or Cecil Celery. Not yet, at least, though they might learn to do that.

Now, let's change gears and assume all of the example writers write "full-time". Let's assume they each spend 2 hours per day marketing, 1 on e-mail, 1 on their favorite writing forum. That leaves 4 hours a day to work on their writing.

Let's assume, again, that the writer will only work on weekdays (5 days a week), with 2 weeks off a year (so they work 50 weeks a year). Total time spent producing final draft words: 1k hours per year.

  1. Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 100k words per year
  2. Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 500k words per year
  3. Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 300k words per year
  4. Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 1k hours per year = 1 mil words per year
  5. Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 750k words per year

But let's say our writers have health problems that leave them bedridden for an average of 1 week of every month. That means they can only work for 40 weeks out of the year. Let's also assume that their health only permits them to work an average of 10 hours per week. Total time spent producing final words: 400 hours per year.

  1. Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 40k words per year
  2. Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 200k words per year
  3. Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 120k words per year
  4. Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 400 hours per year = 400k words per year
  5. Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 300k words per year

Again, these are all final words. (See earlier in the post where I gave how to figure out your "average words per hour" in the way I'm using the term.)

Now, keep track of the next several things you write, including research, editing time, etc. Figure out your average words per hour.

From there, figure out how many hours you can invest in your writing in a year. (Note: If life sends you a curveball, recalculate. Don't make yourself sick(er) by panicking and trying to hit your original goal.)

Once you have an estimate for how many words you can write in a year—slightly low, slightly high? You should know your own personality well enough to know which is better for you—plan what you'll write: short stories? Novels? Novellas? A mix?

Guess how long they'll be, on average, to estimate how many you'll produce.

If you really want to, you can use those production estimates to guess how much you'd earn from self-publishing them—and that's a good idea to do, if you plan on self-publishing—but you always have to remember that such estimated earnings are guesses, and to guess low. (Personally, I have income goals and production goals, and the production goals are intentionally high to the point that if I'm not hitting the income goals by the time I hit the associated production goals, I'm doing something wrong—but I also might not hit those income goals until I hit those production goals.)

Businesses can change rapidly. If we don't know the variable we do control—what we produce in a year, how much we are reasonably capable of writing—then how can we make informed decisions about the other variables?

Do you know your average writing speed (for producing final words)? Do you know your average drafting speed (for getting words down)? What do you think of using that average to figure out your writing goals? What are your writing goals?


Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Goes into a House Style Sheet or Style Guide

You've probably heard of making a story or character "bible": a document (or folder) that contains all your information about your story, from character appearances and ages to backstory details.

(Tip: If you don't have a story "bible", it's a good idea to make one as soon as possible after starting a book. I'm still figuring out the best way to make one for me, so I have a few different types on my computer, just for Aleyi: a "bible" Scrivener project, a Numbers spreadsheet, and a Tiddly Wiki file. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, so I'll probably continue using all three for different aspects of the story.)

But that's a side topic, right now. Most writers know about making story bibles, though I suspect few of us actually make strong ones.

What about making style sheets? (And I don't mean cascading ones. House style sheets ≠ CSS.)

A publisher's "house style" ensures consistency across its titles. If you self-publish—or if you want to get your story as clean as it can be for submission—you want to have your own personal "house style" set so your stories can be internally consistent, in grammar and formatting.

The style sheet (AKA "style guide") addresses such details as…

  • Which grammar and spelling styles you use (US? UK? Australian? Canadian?)
  • Which grammar handbook do you use? (US default: Chicago Manual of Style, except in specific fields)
  • On what points do you disagree with your handbook, if any? (Create a "writer's punctuation style" list for what disagrees.)
  • Which dictionary do you use? (Common US default: Merriam-Webster, though American Heritage is also popular.)
  • On what points do you disagree with your dictionary, if any? (Compound nouns in particular differ among sources—create a "preferred spellings" list for what disagrees.)
  • Who are your cast? (List them, with brief explanations when necessary; for example, only one person in Destiny's Kiss calls her "Kiss"; others call her "Des" or "Kissy".)
  • What special words are in your text, and what do they mean? (For example, in my Aleyi stories, elfin is an adjective that specifically refers to people.)
  • What foreign words are in your story, what is their language of origin, and what do they mean?
  • What naming conventions are to be followed, if any, and for whom?
  • Is there anything else stylistic or grammatical that should be caught in line editing, copyediting, or proofreading?

Some helpful things to include:

  • What do you use to indicate scene breaks? (What character, if any, with how many returns?)
  • What's your formatting at the beginning of each chapter? (What font, what font size, and how much white space above it?)
  • What's your body text font and font size?
  • Do you have any other formatting details in the story, and if so, what are they?

That list of things to include looks monstrous, doesn't it? but formatting this sheet actually isn't all that hard. You can do it one of two main ways:

  1. In lists
  2. In tables

The main difference is, do you prefer working in a word processor or in a spreadsheet? Personally, I'll use either one. I prefer making them with Numbers, but those don't convert well. If it's a document I'll be sending to others more often than I'll be using it myself, I'll write it up in RTF format.

The trick to formatting a style sheet is to use lots of lists and lots of white space.

So if you make a stylesheet in a word processor, use a lot of bulleted lists, with a bold header indicating what the list is of.

Let me give a peek at two examples (for my own stories, so no client confidences broken):

Text Style Sheet Snapshot:

Table Style Sheet

They're both pretty readable, huh? The spreadsheet version makes it easier to reorganize within individual lists, while it's often easier to rearrange the lists themselves (their order and placement) on the word processing version.

However, though you want things to be simple, you also need to be clear about what your style sheet refers to, so you must begin it properly. Here's a peek at what the start for my Chronicles of Marsdenfel stylesheet looks like:

Notice that the beginning clearly says what world it refers to, what language the story's written in, with the default grammar handbook and dictionary—and notice on that top right. Language morphs over time, so the era of your story can make a difference.

For example, I have plans for stories set during the Crystal Wars. There's one I've worked on a little—because some of those characters in it appear in A Fistful of Earth—but I already know that felves were called something else, then, as were faeries. Jargon differed. (It gets a bit awkward when those centuries-old people talk in A Fistful of Earth, because they're the only ones who understand some of the things they say.)

You don't have to make a style sheet, of course, but I recommend it. It'll make editing and proofreading a lot easier, whether you do it yourself or hire someone.

Do you make style sheets for your work? Do you plan to? Which method do or will you use, word processing or spreadsheet?


Thursday, June 14, 2012

5 Methods for "Little Picture" Editing

As I said last week (and at other times), a problem with self-editing is that you as author know what you intended to say, which means you have to trick yourself into forgetting that so you see what's actually on the page.

(Note: This works for school essays, too.)

Writers have different writing techniques and learning styles, too, so one writer's best method might be another's worst. You'll have to practice and test yourself, to figure out the best methods for tricking yourself—and, when you encounter stories that you wrote differently than usual, you'll have to keep practicing and testing to figure out the best route for usual.

For example, someone who writes a quick rough draft to spew words out on the page won't remember what's there as well as someone who edits while they write. That makes it easier for the former type to trick themselves—but the latter type's more likely to know how to edit.

Because writing and editing are two different skills.

And revision/rewriting (whichever you want to call fixing what you've written) is yet another one.

(And remember: it's always far easier to edit others' work than to edit your own.)

So, last week we went over some methods to trick yourself for "big picture" (macro) editing. How do you trick yourself for "little picture" (micro) editing.

5 Methods for "Little Picture" (Micro) Editing:

  • Wait before re-reading.
  • Wait between writing and editing, preferably writing something else in the meantime.

    When used properly, this method helps everyone. (Though it helps folks who write quickly more than it does those who write slowly.) Time gives you distance to see what's actually on the page—which makes it helpful for both catching problems and for taking a deep breath when you're panicking and convinced your book is the worst thing ever.

    (Oh, and that "Ah! This is terrible! How can I inflict this on the public!" feeling is normal—it's even a good sign…)

    But you can also cripple yourself with this method, constantly waiting "just a little longer." So put a cap on how long you'll wait before tackling an edit. My personal cap's a month, though I'm an edit-as-I-go type of writer.

    (Note: If writing is your business, you'll want to figure out writing methods that let you only need to wait for a day or week. Clients generally won't give you an extra year on a deadline.)

    (And it's best to work on something else while you wait, to help you forget.)

  • Change the format.
  • If it's handwritten, start by typing it; if it's typed, start by changing the font (if not font size or margins) between every pass.

    Why? It'll move things around, so you have to focus on what you're reading. You won't subconsciously remember the last word on the third page as on; instead, it might show up in the middle of the fourth page and therefore reveal itself as an of.

    Now, when you get down to the final pass, it's best to work on a printed page. A printed page will make it easier to find errors, but it'll take more time to fix those errors. You can print it yourself or set up a POD version on CreateSpace and use that for the final proof.

  • Check your writing against checklists.
  • Everyone has "pet" words and techniques and problems, things they're prone to in their writing.

    So as you learn what your weak points are, take notes. And make checklists.

    Maybe you often confuse lay and lie. Maybe you like sentence fragments too much. Maybe you often find yourself using said or –ly words.

  • Make use of Find & Replace.
  • Every Word Processor these days has a Find & Replace function—take advantage of it!

    Say there's a word that you find yourself spelling differently while you edit. Make a note of it, then search for it at the end.

    Also make a note to double-check capitalization and punctuation of things you have trouble with. For example, in "Say hi to Mom" and "Say hi to my mom"

  • Read aloud.
  • This is another one that helps everyone; either you read it aloud (mumbling to yourself) or you let your computer or Kindle or something read it to you. This'll help you hear problem areas.

    It's also a bit harder to misread that on as of when a computerized voice says it.

    Hint #1: Anything that's a tongue-twister to day is confusing to read.

    Hint #2: Get out of breath? Your line's too long and it'll lose readers.

Enjoy those 5 methods to help you micro-edit!

(You might've noticed that I didn't mention using a beta reader for this stage. There's a reason for it, and let me tell you: If you don't already know my reason, you aren't an exception to my avoidance of mentioning it. ^_^)

What methods do you use? Any here sound like something you'd like to try?


Thursday, June 7, 2012

5 Methods for "Big Picture" Editing

One of the banes of self-editing is that you, the author, know what you intended to say, and therefore you have to trick yourself to see what's actually on the page. Every writer's different, so figuring out the best methods for tricking yourself takes practice.)

(And that's in addition to knowing how to edit and being able to edit your own writing, not just others'—because it's always far easier to edit others' work than to edit your own.)

But how on earth can you trick yourself into seeing what's actually on the page rather than what you think is there?

5 Methods for "Big Picture" (Macro) Editing:

  • Outline your writing arcs.
  • For a novel, that's character arcs, your relationship arcs, your plot arcs, etc. For non-fiction, that might be your themes throughout the piece.

    An "outline" can be anything that charts it out. That might be conventional outline like you used to hand to your teacher, a bullet list like this one, a stack of 3x5 notecards (with one point per card), a mind map (AKA "snowflake"), the keywords in Scrivener… Whatever works best for you to see and verify that your arcs fit how they should.

    Each arc must get a new outline, and it's often best to color-code them. Also, each point on the outline needs to indicate where that item is found in the story. (Personally, I like using the keywords in Scrivener for checking my characters, to make sure nobody vanishes for most of the book—like Lallie did in an earlier draft of A Fistful of Fire.)

  • Wait before re-reading.
  • The wait might be a day, a week, a month, a year—whatever works best for you. (But if writing is your business, you'll want to figure out writing methods that let you only need to wait for a day or week. Clients generally won't give you an extra year deadline.)

    The wait will help you forget what you intended to write, so you see what's actually there.

    This works really well when you write quickly, so the writing gets ditched from your short-term memory, rather than getting etched in your long-term memory. (The problem comes if your rough draft is so rough that you can't understand what you intended to say.)

  • Check your writing beats against a formula (like Save the Cat).
  • Plotting naturally follows particular event or emotional arcs, and even non-fiction has its flow.

    There are exceptions and variations, so figuring out where your particular piece of writing fits—or even what formula to use for it—can take work. And then you have to get the mental distance from your work to be able to identify those major events that fit the formula.

    If you go this route, spreadsheets with automatic calculations are your friend for tracking down where those events should be—and if you're an avid reader, you've probably internalized plot structure and have hit it more-or-less instinctually.

  • Color code everything.
  • Assign colors to different aspects of the story. If characters are blue, maybe main characters (and their description) are dark blue, and minor characters are light blue.

    You could also (or as well) do it also for marking dialogue/description/action.

    This doesn't have to be printed out (and is probably better if you don't). MS Word (and other word processing documents, Scrivener included) have highlighter functions. Another benefit to doing it on computer is that you can change the text color, rather than just the highlighter color. Be sure to make a key for what each color means.

  • Use a beta reader.
  • When you can use one (and there's no contract or anything like that blocking you), a beta reader can offer a great second set of eyes.

    However, you'll want to start by making sure you find the best beta reader for what you need checked. This may mean using more than one—and different projects might need different types of beta readers. (See my post on how to find beta readers.)

    Also, bear in mind that you don't want to take advantage of or abuse folks as beta readers. If you try to get folks to volunteer too much of their time or if you're too pushy, you'll drive your beta readers away and not have any for the next time you need them. Show your appreciation for your beta reader by attempting to match the reader up with a story they'll like.

So there we go: a brief run-down of 5 methods to help you macro-edit.

Do you have any other methods to share? What's your favorite—or which do you think you'd like to try?


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