Saturday, September 15, 2007

Charting progress

Very often at book events, we're asked, "Do you outline?" It sounds a little like the old commercial, "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure."

It's sort of personal, but here's my answer: I don't color my hair, and I don't outline, but I do chart. I use a spreadsheet to chart my progress as I'm writing a novel.

For the second novel of my new miniatures series, I started on April 1, and I needed 80,000 words by August 1. The graphic shows a piece of the whole chart that represents my progress toward that goal. The first column is the date; the second column is the word goal for that day; the third column is my actual word count on that day; the fourth column tells me the percent of the novel that's done.

The blue line on the accompanying graph represents steady growth; i.e., 656 words a day every day. Those can be "good" words that will survive at the end, or a scene dump that needs a lot of editing. Some days I write more than I need, some days less. Every night I type in the number of words in the third column and compare it to the total (second column) I need to stay on track. I can also see what per cent of the total I have.

Excel software (in the hands of my tech support husband) does these calculations for you. Excel is part of the popular Microsoft Office Suite, so it's waiting there for anyone to take advantage of.

The pink line on the graph climbs every night according to the number I put in the third column. It's a great thrill to see the pink line climb at a greater slope than the blue line.

Unlike our wonderful and talented Monica, even after a dozen novels, I can't tell where I am in the story without some measurement. I can roll along for a while, but at the end of the day, I love knowing I'm 62.1% of the way there, as I was on 6/11/07!

This is a visual way of looking at my story. Maybe I'll see that I've written one third of the book and nothing has happened. Oh, oh. Time to check on plot points.

I always thought this love of numbers and graphs stemmed from my training in math and science. But apparently, it's more universal and useful. I was explaining my spreadsheet to one of my stepdaughters who has an MBA. She nodded with approval and gave me one of her marketing/sales mantras:

If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

My husband/Excel guru has offered to post the details of how to set up a schedule like this for you, for a book or any project you'd like to manage better. Let us know if you're interested.


Deb Baker said...

I do basically the same thing. I have a weekly goal and I chart my progress but I do it by hand. I'm going to add the percentages. That's a nice touch.

Monica Ferris said...

Wow, I am impressed! I can't do anything remotely like that, as I am innumerate and getting more so all the time. I like the idea of a graph, but if I start to fall seriously behind, I think I'd be even more depressed to see it drawn in red and blue lines. The best I can do is estimate how many weeks I have to finish the doggone book, and how many chapters I estimate it will be and see how much I have to write a week to get it done. But I'm often wrong.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

What a kind offer. I did something like this when I wrote my first non-fiction work. This is super!