How I Used Excel to Reach a Word Count

Somewhere near the end of 2018, I came to understand that my debut novel was, at 62,000 words, still very much a work in progress. I also found out about the Slice Literary Conference that would take place in Brooklyn in August, and I set my sights on getting ready for it. “Getting ready” meant adding almost 8,000 words to the manuscript.

I was determined to be methodical and leave nothing to chance. I cleared off my desk and set to work on creating an Excel file to track my word count. I made columns for the date, for how many days I’d been working, the number of new words I wrote on a given date, the total number of words I now needed to reach my goal, the average daily word count I needed to get in, and the average words per day I was getting in. In other words, the complexities of the chart and the time it took to set it up with formulas that calculated everything with just the insertion of the “Days in” and “Word Count for the day,” began to take on shades of an avoidance technique. But it was worth it. On January 23rd, the first charted day, the numbers were clear – I had 216 days to accomplish the goal of 7,840 words. If I averaged just 36 words a day, I’d have it.

The Excel file proved to be a good companion for the task of showing up to the page. It was both carrot and stick: it was fun to put in the word counts, especially on good days, and there was no way to get around that word count – the numbers didn’t lie, fudge, or make excuses. And it’s good to have that record. Sure, I see the low ebb days sitting there, but if I didn’t have the Excel record to look back on, would I have remembered that on April 20th I added 2757 words to the manuscript? That was a good day.

The number game shifted when I began serious rounds of editing. Sometimes I deleted more words than I added – the total word count was as likely on any given day to go down as go up. And on many, many days I didn’t work on the manuscript at all. Instead, I turned my attention to other projects and wrote thousands of words that didn’t move the manuscript’s word-count needle one tiny bit. When I began a long-planned online course in flash fiction, I veered far off course. Not content with that detour, I headed down a side road and worked on a disaster novel I’d been poking away at, and I wrote the first twenty-two pages of a ghost story.

I kept to my newly acquired Excel habit, though, and added a place in the file for these other long works. That was helpful – even as I worked away, and, by the way, really enjoyed myself – at the end of the day I opened the Excel file to record the word count and was reminded of what I said I wanted to do.

Looking back now, I see from the record of those eight months that fully two-thirds of my work on novel-length projects had nothing, on the surface, to do with my goal for the Slice Conference. I showed up to the page most days, but it was the wrong page. But, oddly, even to me, I wasn’t worried at all. I admit it was a form of small torture to set aside the longer works to create short pieces for that online class. But I didn’t chide myself for that choice or for working on the disaster novel or the ghost story. I knew I needed to take a break from the manuscript so I could see it with fresh eyes. I trusted that delving into the other works would land me in a space from which I’d be ready to approach the manuscript, and that the discipline of steady work would help me come back to it in good writerly form.

The trust was well placed. The Excel file did its work, and I did mine: I passed my conference word- count target on August 4th.

Letting Go of that 2nd Website

For a couple of years I’ve maintained two websites. One offered my ideas about how best to prepare for the NYS Teacher Certification Exams (NYSTCE), with links to my own and the state’s free materials. The other (this one), I used for the rest of my writing life.

Today I’m retiring the site devoted to test prep. I’ve always had some overlap between the two sites – my free Introductory pdf has been available here, for instance – and I’ll keep up my NYSTCE page on this site. (If you have ideas about what else you’d like to see on this page, let me know. )

Why the shift now? The most obvious reason is that the rent is coming due, so it’s a good time to call it quits on the second site. The other is that I’m preparing for the SLICE Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn and that “the rest of my writing life” is the much stronger call.

So, back to those query letters and first five pages, and back to my reading (which is, after all, at least half the ‘work’ of the craft of writing).

Are Literary Agents Horrible Beasts?

The 6 novels that made the cut (+ 1 fun book)

Not too long ago, Literary Hub gave space in their online newsletter to a link to an article that was such a rant against literary agents that I kept thinking it must be a farce. I’m not going to offer a link to the article here, or even go back to check on the article again for little details to add: there’s no need to offer click applause to its little spew of nasty. It isn’t alone out there, of course. Soon after, I read another, shorter, less-crazed rant, but a blanket anti-agent rant just the same.  

The articles got my attention because I’m spending a lot of time thinking about agents while I try to figure out which person among them might “love” my manuscript. Without looking back, I can say from memory that one of the charges against agents made by the writer showcased by LitHub was that agents use the language of romance and relationships to talk about books.

Of all the accusations, in a minefield of accusations, this was, to my reader’s mind, the most absurd. Romance is, after all, the language of readers, isn’t it? And agents are, by inclination and profession, readers, aren’t they? “I love this book,” is a reader’s go-to expression when recommending a book; “It just didn’t come together for me,” is, after all, the readers’ version of “I’m just not that into him/her/them.”

As far as relationships go, the relationship of writers to their own writing (or their not-writing) is a topic that many writers seem to never tire of exploring. And how many writers refer to their own manuscripts as their “baby”? Gag me with a spoon about the baby reference (babies and their caregivers deserve better), but I certainly do have a relationship with my manuscript and with the people that go running around in it, the flowers that bloom there, the fields that await the rain therein. In accusing agents of framing their dealings with manuscripts, and even with writers, as romantic ones, or at least ones of true relationship, the writer has dammed the lot of them only with behaving like readers, and, frankly, like writers. In hurling one insult after another to try to build the idea that agents are evil ‘others,’ the article writer has instead offered excellent evidence that literary agents belong firmly under the umbrella of ‘us.’

Yes, most work submitted to agents is rejected. But does that add up to the conclusion that most agents are all the bad things they are pretty often accused of being? (You fill in the blanks here . . . there’s no need for me to offer the sad words – if you’re still reading you know what I’m talking about).  The most serious accusation, of course, is that the agent – all agents, apparently – doesn’t/don’t see enough merit in a piece of work to commit themselves to working intensively on its behalf with no guarantee of a return. Thinking about this accusation led me to examine my own reading habits. I offer my findings as evidence in my argument that literary agents are not horrible beasts when they decline to offer representation.

In the past few weeks I set out to read nine novels that I handpicked as books I expected to enjoy. The six in the photo made the cut. (I topped off the pile with Austin Kleon’s little nonfiction volume because the book is so much fun.) Not in the picture are the ones I started and put down, and one that I started, loved, then skimmed through to avoid the violent parts: I made it to the last sentence, but I can’t claim to have read that book.

None of these books – the read and the unread – showed up randomly. Three of the older books in the ‘read’ pile came from the shelf of a friend who was moving and giving away big swaths of her collection of books. Based on her recommendations, what I knew of the book and/or the author, I was 90% sure they’d be good or great reads. They were.

The Lessing book is one I reread every ten years or so – it is the book that taught me that timing is everything. I picked it out of my mom’s home library when I was in my twenties and didn’t make it through the first chapter. ‘Bleak!’ I thought. I picked it up again years later and thought – ‘Soulmate!’ I’m still backfilling on Welty, a writer whose works I came to late but now always appreciate. (As a kid I tired of being asked if, based on my first name, I was related to Eudora Welty. The question seemed emblematic of the idiocy which adults could be capable of and led to a personal boycott of her books that lasted a couple of decades.)

The two newest books in the ‘read’ stack are both books I discovered in my research on literary agents. Reading them helped me get a sliver of a sense of the taste of that agent. And, while I initially read them to find out whether a book the agent liked enough to bet their time and energy on was one I liked, agent quest aside, I now have two new good books under my belt and two new writers whose other books I’ll be on the look out for.

What I noticed in reviewing my own reading habits is that, despite my active role in the selection process, my “acceptance” rate for the nine novels I picked was 66%. What would my rate be if nine unvetted novels just showed up at my door, with a “please read me, please!” sticky note stuck to the cover. It would plummet.

This musing about my own reading has helped me put the genuine circumstances and likelihood of acceptance/rejection into perspective. I still hope that on one of its ventures out to find an agent, my work will spark the interest of an agent who will understand the book and love it. But each time it doesn’t, I’ll keep my own acceptance rate in mind. After all, if my queries meet with silence or a boilerplate ‘no,’ what has happened is merely what was likely to happen. The only things in my power to make it less likely are to keep honing my craft by reading and writing, keep researching the industry and individual agents, and keep trying.  

Writing Prompt

Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story.  She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”

Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives?

Why write?

It’s been many months of adapting to changes, good and sad. One of the good changes is that we’ve landed in a new living space. We’re moved in and are settled enough that I can work into a new writing routine.

But all the shakeup of endings and beginnings has taken its toll – I come into moments where I find myself stranded – what, after all, is the point of all this writing? This morning, after considering this point for longer than might be healthy, I came to a heartening thought when I considered the writing vocation of my mother. She wrote novels while she raised her seven children, and she wrote poetry always. She didn’t ever try to publish her work: her family were her only readers. So, why did she do it? Why does anyone do it? Because, the answer came to me, story matters. I’ve had this declaration come to me before; it does motivate me, and I clearly need to ‘hear’ it more often. With that need for repetition in mind, I took a detour on my way to getting back to writing and made myself the gift of a reminder. Using one of my photos, I created a new background, “lock screen,” to greet me each time I open my computer. Maybe it will help inspire you, too. . .

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What does Spring look like?

When I signed up in January to take two online writing classes back-to-back, 10 weeks straight of weekly reading and writing deadlines, I thought, “This will take me right through Winter and into Spring!” The last due date was yesterday, and here’s this morning’s view of the path through the backfield. Blog_March 26 2018 Snowy walk

That black dog in the first photo is Gudgeon. He doesn’t much like the very cold temperatures, but this version of snow is a favorite. It has softened during the sunny days, then firmed up over night: he can walk on top of it and flop for a good back rub.

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Then he’s ready for a walk . . .

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