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.  

Journey to Quebec City

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Moon Rising Over St. Lawrence River from the Boardwalk

When I was living across the river from Kingston, Ontario, I enjoyed taking the ferry over to Canada for a day trip of shopping and good eating. Later, when I moved further east, Ottawa became a destination, and then Montreal. Over the years, Quebec City remained “too far” away. But this week I’ve overcome “too far” and am being rewarded with the beauty of the city and the friendly welcome of its people. We arrived before dark, but just, and had the pleasure of watching the moon rise over the St. Lawrence River.

Picture This: Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 Infographic

Writers, editors, publishers, book buyers – there is so much work to do.

sarahpark.com

In 2016, we published the infographicDiversity in Children’s Books 2015.” It went viral and was discussed on Twitter, in Facebook groups, published in books and journals, and presented at countless conferences.

Today we present to you an updated infographic, “Diversity in Children’s Books 2018.

DiversityInChildrensBooks2018_f_8.5x11Link to JPG & PDF files: Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 – Dropbox Folder
Full citation: Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/

Released for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license). You are free to use this infographic in any…

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On Teaching Writing

I always feel a tiny bit of “why’d I ever say I’d do this?” when I first start a class. Like many writers, I’m more comfortable with a book than with a room full of people.  But it is always worthwhile if the room full of people are writers. And despite the disclaimers of “I’m not a writer,” I hear as a class starts, by the end of the first session, we are all writers. As a writer who is also a teacher, it doesn’t get any better.

The SOAR writing class I taught this spring confirmed for me, again, my faith in two conditions that will help writing break out in a group: time to write and time to share that writing and get audience response. Long ago a colleague taught me, “If you want something from your students, teach it to them.” Following his wisdom, whenever I teach writing, I teach how to respond to a piece of writing in a way that encourages the writer to keep writing and entirely avoids false praise.

Getting a response from a reader is such an important element of the process of crafting a well written piece that I am very specific in how students can respond to each other. I limit feedback to these two observations: “I noticed . . “.   and, “I wonder . . . ”  Just that, and it works.  There’s no room for false praise because the only praise that fits with those two sentence starters is the praise that the writing got my attention in some way, and it got me thinking and wondering.

Another ‘rule’ I impose on my students is that as we’re learning this approach to feedback, the writer doesn’t get to respond verbally. Why do I do that? Because I want the writer to listen to the feedback and process it – mentally and in their writing. I don’t want them to ‘answer’ the feedback, but to use it to consider its value to them and to think about whether to return to the piece and implement something that the feedback made them want to explore.

No doubt I’ll teach other writing classes. For the moment I’m happy to refocus my creative self on my own writing, and I’m back to devoting more time to working on my novel, Lucky.

“Secrets of Good Writing”

‘We are two classes into our three session SOAR class, “Secrets of Good Writing.” Below is a list of the books I’ve mentioned so far along with the reasons I mentioned them. You’ll see that I’ve got a big section on writing morning pages under the Artist’s Way listing: that one strategy moved my own craft forward in unexpected ways, and I highly recommend it.

As a writing coach, I often advise “just write.” This advise is pretty ubiquitous – everyone from Nanci Atwell to Stephen King offers it in one form or another. Basically, if you don’t know what to write, write that: “I don’t know what to write.” (Something will come to you, grab it and write it down.) As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, keep your hand moving across the page. Goldberg has 5 more rules to this kind of writing, but I find that students do well starting with just that one – keep writing. That said, Writing Down the Bones is a classic for a reason, and I love introducing people to it – for people across the age spectrum, this book can serve as a revelation on how to break away from the “shoulds” about writing that can hamper actually getting words on the page.

Here are the books I mentioned, and why I mentioned them:

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Doerr’s first book, published when she was 74. It is beautifully written and a very encouraging example of what people can do in their older years.

Solitude: A Return to the Self  by Anthony Storr.  Published in 1988, this book helped strengthen the persistent myth that writers (and other artists) are loners. I like to point out that Storr thanks eight people for helping him with the book – must be he didn’t spend all his time alone.

Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown  (author of Rubyfruit Jungle) One of the key (and unusual) messages Brown has about writing is that writing is a physical activity, and our craft of writing benefits from our paying attention to our body’s needs.  In fact, her first chapter is titled: “The Beginning of All Literature: Your Body.” So, roll those shoulders, take a good belly breathe, and get to work. Getting tired? Try a short walk and a glass of water. And, if you’d like to get a good scolding about the evils of sugar and/or enthusiastic coaching on the benefits of studying Latin, this is the book for you!

The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Friedman is a kind but firm guide to what it takes to make money at writing. Even if you don’t care two hoots for making money, she is so articulate on the page that reading her words is a pleasure. Here is a line from her book that I particularly like to share, “One of the great secrets to building the writing life you want is to pursue a vision that is truly yours, rather than someone else’s expectation . . . “

Check out her website – especially her blogs and her book recommendations. Here’s a link to her recommendations. I’ve ordered two of them – some of these books are probably available through libraries.   https://www.janefriedman.com/best-books-on-writing/

3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley  I haven’t read this book, in fact I just found out about it on Jane Friedman’s website.  At least my writer who wakes up at 3:00 a.m. knows she’s got company when those great ideas come to her during the night.  

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – I learned about the idea of writing a set amount every day from this book. The book offers daily things to do to empower the creative self. I made it about half way through the book: I’m not sure if anyone actually makes it all the way through. I stopped because I felt I could set out on my own and didn’t need the book anymore. (Not needing the book anymore is, I think, a recommendation for the book – all our teachers should be so effective that we don’t need them anymore!)

Cameron calls her version of daily writing, “Morning pages.” The key element of the method is writing daily for a set number of pages — longhand (she suggests, and I have used, 3 pages). Doing this moved my writing forward more than any other thing I have done over the half century I’ve been putting words to page. It also helped me stop paying attention to things that didn’t deserve my time: if I got super annoyed with someone, I’d just think – I’ll write about it tomorrow. But when tomorrow came, whatever it was just wasn’t that interesting anymore.

If you want to give morning pages a try:

Just write – write about anything, just keep going. .

Doing these pages in the morning will get your day started one way, but if you find you’d rather do them another time – go ahead, look for and do whatever works for you. I do find that writing them out longhand generates a different level of engagement with the words, and I recommend trying that method – even if you usually much prefer to type. Here are some arguments against longhand and my answer for them:

a) It will slow me down.

That’s actually okay: your brain will learn to not race ahead of your ability to get the words down.  

b) My handwriting starts out bad and gets worse over the course of the three pages.

That’s okay. Why? Because you never need to go back and reread these pages. I get my student’s point about not wanting more journals to pile up – if that describes you, too, you can try this: write the pages and shred them, or crumple them for fire starters, or put them with newspapers to use for mulch in the garden. The words serve your purpose when they land on the page. You don’t need to keep them. You are working to develop the connection between your brain and your getting words on the page.

c) It will take too long.

Fair enough. Divide the time you do have between handwritten and type written.  For example, you could try writing 1 page out longhand and then setting that aside and continuing on with the computer. Besides saving you time, this experiment might help you determine if there really is a difference for you between writing long hand and typing.

d) I really don’t like the idea.

This is the best reason of all to not do. (That’s not a typo – just don’t bother with it. It really is your work on your craft, and you are the best judge of what will work for you.)

All rules, hints, and other advice aside, a writer is someone who writes. It really is as simple as that.