My Metric System

One under-reported way that 2016 sucked is that I didn’t write as much as I could have.

A thing I’ve been doing to try to improve my writing productivity – which is a thing I surely feel the need to improve – is to track various metrics. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, with gradual refinements over time.

Now that 2016 is done and dusted, I’ve taken a look back at the data I’ve collected to see what sense I can make of it and whether I can learn anything useful for the coming year’s writing.


(If you’re worried this is going to be a tedious exercise in statistical analysis, the good news is that it took me two attempts to pass a basic Stats course at university, and that was nearly twenty years ago. These days all I can remember from my studies is what a histogram looks like and how to work “standard deviation” jokes into everyday conversations)

Word Count

Starting with the obvious one – I track my words written every day, against each project and type of writing (short story, novel, blogging, newsletter).

The way I set my metrics spreadsheet up last year means I can’t easily segregate the writing types, because I am an idiot. [1] However I do have the gross word count, and it’s nothing spectacular: I wrote 83,300 words of “stuff that counts”.

That’s a shade under 7000 words per month, of which less than half was new fiction. It’s better than nothing but I’m not exactly setting a blistering literary pace.

My best months were June, October and November. All three months aligned with specific writing projects with deadlines. Two included lengthy rewrites of existing stories working with other people, one involved a short story for a competition with a cutoff date, and November included my blog-a-day project.

My shocking conclusion: I deliver more consistently when there’s a deadline involved. So I should probably organise more deadlines for myself.

Writing time

I track this two ways – the time of day when the writing session takes place, and how long each stint lasts. Looking over my data for 2016, I’ve confirmed a thing I already knew – the vast majority of my writing happens between 8:30 pm and 11:30 pm. Which is to say, after the kids have gone to bed.

I also note that most of those stints last less than 90 minutes. Again, not a surprise, because by nine at night I start to get a bit sleepy. It’s hard to write sparkling dialogue when my face keeps hitting the keyboard every two minutes.

Action plan: While my optimal writing time appears to be in the morning, for various family reasons I can’t do much at the moment to rearrange my schedule. What I am trying at the moment is to have a side project – a short story I’ve codenamed Chrysanthemum [2] – which I’m writing longhand in my journal in my spare moments. A bit here, a page there – it all adds up, keeps my writing brain ticking over and eventually I’ll have a finished story to show for it, clawed from the cracks of my so-called spare time.

As for everything else, I’ll just keep plugging away at night and on weekends.

Administrative vs Creative tasks

I have an extra classification to help me keep fiction writing separate from administrative things like website management, blogging and newsletters. The entire purpose of tracking this was to remind myself on a regular basis that the fiction has to come first.

I could easily spend all my time fiddling with spreadsheets, tinkering with website themes and churning out pithy screeds about some stupid thing or another. But I’m more interested in being a fiction writer than an internet crank, so having a stark metric that shows when I’ve not spent enough time on new words is a useful kick up the pants.

The ratio of admin to productive work was 40:60 in 2016. My feeling is that the ratio should be closer to 25:75, so that’s what I will try for in 2017.

New Targets

In 2017 I aim to up my game. For a start, I want to write at least 100,000 words, of which 75% is new fiction. That means I have to average 9000 words a month, or about 2300 words a week. (Don’t try to follow my maths, I’m doing a *heap* of rounding).

I want to write more short stories – I only finished two in 2016 and I am pretty sure I can do better than that. I’ve already finished one in 2017, so I’m on target.

I want to write more novels. I’m working on edits for A Flash of Black Wings right now. I aim to have it polished and to have first drafts of its two sequels complete by year’s end. Assuming I don’t get sidetracked, and I stick to my outline, that ought to be possible.

Oh, and a note of crass capitalism: I earned around $260 in 2016 from four short story sales. While I’m not unhappy about that, I would like to beat that number in 2017, and every year thereafter. With the price of liquor and limes being what they are, that sort of money is not going to keep me in gin and tonics for long.

Almost-accurate depiction of 2016 revenues

1: First productivity note to self: stop using stupid formatting that has to be stripped out before the data can be sorted.
2: Second productivity note to self: stop using really hard-to-type words for your secret project codenames.
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2017 Induction Briefing

The arbitrary timestamp marking another turn around the sun is upon us 2016 has been ejected through the rear exit – you know, the one leading to the darkened basement, via rickety stairs with no banisters, where a pack of hungry wolves with rusty chainsaws is waiting.

Come in, 2017, come in. Make yourself comfortable while we go over the rules. As you know, 2016 made a few mistakes. Frankly, it made some disappointing choices and set a very poor example. I think we’d all prefer not to keep heading in that direction.

Is this what can we expect from 2017?

First of all, ease up on the celebrity deaths. A scattered few here and there are necessary reminders of our inevitable mortality and a bearable rehearsal for personal grief, not to mention a catalyst for shared nostalgia. But 2016 got quite carried away with its power over life and death, didn’t it? Between you and me I think it started to crack up towards the end there.

So yes, cut back on the pop star murders, if you wouldn’t mind. We’ve got bigger issues to deal with and we don’t need the distractions.

I’m sure you noticed things taking a distinct step to the right last year. What’s that? A goose-step to the right? Yes, very droll.

Still, it’s not really a laughing matter is it? Just in our little corner of pop culture there were the snarling puppies, the games journalism ethicists, the comics misanthropists – all came crawling into the sunlight spitting venom and malice, bold as you like. Vicious, spiteful little men – virtually always men – with their lovingly-maintained guns sighted on anyone of “those people” who dared to breach the walls of their sanctified estates.

Worse still, they were just the dress rehearsal for the main event, weren’t they? The advanced scouts ahead of the main invasion. And what a year was 2016 for the bug-eyed authoritarians, the frothing bigots and the shifty chancers who could hardly believe their luck at the opportunities served to them on a silver platter by fearful masses who begged for protection. Do you think they count their blessings, to have been delivered into times of such craven ignorance and incurious antipathy? I think not; rather I suspect they consider it their due, if not the fruits of their labours.

I see I’ve upset you. I’m afraid you may have to get used to it, 2017. I think we’re all expecting things to get worse under your watch. The global climate, the economy, the hardening of hearts against the unfortunate. The war drums have been lowered from their hooks and the percussionists are warming up with ominous rolls of snare and tom tom.

I would be elated to be proven wrong in my assumptions, but with the best will in the world I don’t see things turning around in a hurry. Things may very well get worse before they get better, I’d bet my life on it. Well, we’ll all be betting our lives on it, won’t we?

But see here, 2017, there’s no need to look glum.

Yes, there are certainly challenges ahead. Many undeserving innocents will be torn down, chewed up and cast aside, while monsters, thieves and despots will flourish. The weather and the extremists will become ever more extreme, ever more frequently. There will be anger and cruelty and inequities galore.

So be it. We will endure what cannot be avoided, and oppose that which must not be allowed.

What I want from you, 2017, is a focus on change for the good. I want to see you coming up with opportunities. Opportunities for peace, for unity and for understanding. I want to see prosperity, not disadvantage. I want songs of hope, not despair. I want to hear new voices with new ideas, ones that don’t depend on cutting services, or blaming the victims, or marginalising the vulnerable, or granting boons to those too wealthy to even notice.

Or if you think the classics are due for a comeback, perhaps a focus on health, education and the provision of life’s essentials might be a promising avenue for development. Do you have a flair for the dramatic? I could suggest a sudden reversal in the decline of Arctic pack ice or the Great Barrier Reef? Surely at least a new Beyonce album is not out of the question?

Well, I leave the details in your hands.

Most tranquil

We’re all very happy to have you on board, 2017. I don’t mind telling you I have high hopes. A few souls around the traps have whispered that it would be enough just to get through you in one piece. That it would constitute a win condition not to end all life in a ball of thermonuclear fire or watch one civilisation after another collapse in economic and climatic catastrophe.

I sympathise of course, but I think we can aim a little higher than that.

It’s all up to you, 2017. Give us something positive to work with and I have every confidence we’ll pull back from the brink. Lay down the beat and the rest of the band will follow.

(I’d personally prefer you to steer away from anything too martial, if you wouldn’t mind.)

All right, off you go, then. You’re officially on the clock. Whatever happens now is up to you.

Best of luck, 2017.

Oh, and happy New Year.


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The Year in Review – 2016

We’ll ignore the obvious cheap jabs at this wretched year, because this is supposed to be a recap of my writing year. Though let me state for the record I have not forgiven 2016 for Bowie, Rickman or Prince. [1]

I hope this gratuitous animal photo will hold off the darkness, if only for the briefest of moments

It’s not been a bad year, all things considered.

I had three short stories published in various venues:

I came second in a writing competition, with ‘The Nature of Monkey’ (which you can read right here).

And I had a couple of stories accepted for anthologies, though they won’t come out until next year at the earliest. Come to think of it, next year might make me look rather more prolific than I really am, since I am expecting a couple of old sales to finally show up in print early in 2017.

I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped. I only finished two new stories to completion – one of them was ‘The Nature of Monkey’ and the other was a complete rewrite of an old story. I had couple of stories in my ‘To Finish’ pile all year, but haven’t got around to the final polish. Maybe after the Weekend of Festive Feasting.

In ongoing projects, I’ve written five pieces of Orphans’ Moon, the serial adventure I’m sending to readers on my email list. There’s a lot more to go on that one.

And I’ve hand-written several thousand words of a fantasy adventure codenamed Chrysanthemum in my notebook; that one is my project for when I have a few free minutes here and there, so it has progressed at a pace of 250 words or so at a time for most of this year.

And of course I have been editing my novel A Flash of Black Wings on and off all year, but it, too, is nowhere near ready.

Listing it all out makes it look like I’ve had a busy time of it, but I confess I’m a tad disappointed. I had hoped to be very focused on finishing things and getting them out into the world. Instead I’ve floundered and become distracted and wandering off-script more times than I can count.

I shouldn’t complain too much. Both of the pieces I finished were unplanned distractions. Without them I might have had nothing new to show for the year.

As I mentioned in my post about taking stock, I’ve started making plans for 2017. Reflecting on my output for the year, my disappointment about the low number of new short stories will definitely plan into my goals for next year.

I’m already thinking about ways to balance my novel projects with shorter pieces; part of that will be trying to work out a budget. This year I have been tracking word counts vs how many hours I’ve worked. As a result I have a pretty good idea of how fast I work in various forms – writing fiction vs writing blog posts vs editing. Those metrics will form a good basis for estimating how long it will take me to complete new work.

Then, because I am wracked with bloody-minded contrariness, I will try to beat my own estimates. Nothing is more satisfying than setting a challenging target and then crushing it. Basically, if I can be said to have a work ethic at all, it can be summed up by this Simpsons quote:

Principle Skinner: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.
Bart: What kind of game?
Principle Skinner: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.
Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.
Principle Skinner: Yes, well… Get started.

Yes. Well. Time to get started.

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[1] Or Lemmy. Or Leonard Cohen, or Victoria Wood, or Jon English, or Darwyn Cooke, or Steve Dillon, or Jerry Doyle or… Oh hell, this has been a rain of excrement, hasn’t it?[2]
[2] At least it looks like Carrie Fisher will pull through... No, I spoke too soon. Damn this year.


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Taking stock

I don’t do resolutions for the New Year. The closest I come, my traditional end-of-year commitment to “get in shape”, is a pretty, pretty lie dressed as a resolution.

Instead, with a few free days around this time of year, I usually grab the opportunity to stop, breathe, and take stock. I usually have more things going on than I remember at any given moment. It’s not always easy to keep track of how many pots you have on the boil if you spend all your time peeling potatoes, ordering ingredients and putting out grease fires.

(Sorry, that metaphor got away from me. I might be hungrier than I thought. Or an arsonist).

Impossible to keep track of everything on the boil

Over the course of a year, things come up that can draw me off course, whether it’s an exciting anthology, a potential collaboration or an irresistible contest. Along with such examples of worthwhile side projects, I am prone to *cough* distractions.

(To pick one completely hypothetical example, it would be a very terrible idea for me to try to produce a newsletter every six weeks or so with a complete instalment of a serialised YA adventure in every issue. Ahem.)

Some of what I’ve committed to is useful – a couple of new short stories have come from diving down opportunistic rabbit holes this year. One of my aims is to hone my short story writing skill, so those go in the “Success” column.

On the other hand, some projects are taking much longer than I anticipated. Others have gone nowhere. Still others haven’t left the starting line yet; those ones just sit there, idly speculating whether I might like to think about them constantly instead of doing something useful.

Taking stock means making some hard decisions about where I want to spend my limited time. The obvious first step is to cull some things completely. If I haven’t committed to them by now, then they might not be worth any more of my attention.

Next: prioritise the jobs that survived the cull. I have a couple of stories I’ve been meaning to finish all year – they might only take a few days of concerted work to complete. Do I promote them in the schedule? Bite the bullet and knock them over quickly? Or do I put the novel edits first and save the stories for a post-editing refresh?

Finally, I’ll start thinking about a new schedule. I work better when I have a firm deadline: even if 60% of the work gets done the night before the deadline, that’s 60% more than I’d probably do otherwise. [1] I also seem to have written at a pretty consistent – if slow – rate this year, so I can reasonably estimate how long something will take me [2] to complete.

And at the end? I’ll have a shiny new work plan in place by the first of January.

Right on time for me to ignore it, just like the other resolutions.

Signs of a disorderly mind

[1] I can’t put my hand on my heart and promise you I did the maths. Please issue corrections in the comments. Show your working.

[2] …by making the initial estimate and then adding about 20% more time. Again, I’m not wedded to the maths on this.



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My eyes are going.


Oh, not in any immediately alarming sense. I’m not talking diseases or growths or rapid degenerative conditions.

They’re just getting on a bit, and the strain is starting to tell. Reading is getting to be hard work, especially at night or after hours in front of a screen – which describes virtually all of my reading. The words aren’t blurry, not yet. It’s just not as easy as it used to be to take in whole paragraphs of text in a few sweeping blinks.

In searching out a simple explanation for some mild health issues, I took an eye test this week. Sure enough, I need prescription reading glasses. A mild prescription, to be sure, but for the first time ever, I can’t boast about having 20/20 vision.

(Actually, I’m not familiar enough with the grading system to be sure about that – it’s about being able to see what you’re supposed to see at 20 feet or 6-ish meters. Well, I can still do that, so perhaps I can still claim 20/20. But I need glasses, so it feels like a bit of a cheat to keep insisting I’m as sharp as I ever was).

The only weird thing about this is that it didn’t happen years ago. I’ve lived for decades with the expectation that being a glasses-wearer was in my imminent future. Every time I’ve passed a sight test with flying colours, it’s been a shock. “What? But I never stop reading. Surely by now I’ve worn them out?”

I’m dreading this new phase, surely a more definitive a sign of the transition middle age than the greying at my temples that started when I was about thirty.

I’m not scared for the usual reasons of vanity or encroaching mortality though. What bothers me is how much time I’m going to spend hunting for lost glasses or grieving for broken ones.

I have an almost comical record of destruction when it comes to sunglasses: I misplace them all the time. I’ve dropped them off my face and stepped on them on more than one occasion. I once destroyed a pair with a precision cricket ball throw from sixty metres, scoring a direct hit on the stump I’d put them behind for safety and cutting the glasses neatly in half when said stump dropped on them like falling timber.

(You should have seen it. It was like a ludicrously improbable death scene from one of the Final Destination movies, only for a pair of cheap servo sunnies).

I’m picking out frames next week sometime. It’s kind of a watershed moment, this enforced personal style update. Square-ish? Oval-ish? That nigh-invisible frameless type? My wife gets the casting vote because unlike me she has to look at them, but she’s been busy this week. The extent of my thinking so far is to wave a vague hand and hope that I don’t take the absolute first suggestion the optometry staff makes.

But there’s a plus side to this. I really need to get an author photo taken soon, and glasses will, by my absolutely scientifical calculonometry, make me look at least 30 or 40 per cent more bookish and distinguished. Score!

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