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Remember to Punch In: Writing “On-the-Clock”

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

I originally planned to make today’s post a review of the film version of The Land That Time Forgot. But I decided that 1) I didn’t want to pack in too much Burroughs back-to-back, and my upcoming plans would start changing my Black Gate blogging into an “All-Burroughs, All-the-Time” radio station; 2) You probably don’t want yet another post from me that requires approximately three hours to read; and 3) …well, look, I just got too busy this week and ran out of time to craft the proper tribute to that movie.

And I ran out of time because I’ve gotten productive with my revision work these last two weeks. I’ve started to write “on the clock” and “punch in” whenever I start. The technique has worked so well for me that I’ve decided I can make a blog post out of it. And have it come in under a thousand words.

I’m currently in the middle of the first re-write of the novel that I completed in November as part of National Novel Writing Month. Whenever I write first drafts, I quantify my progress through word-count. I set word-count goals and try to adhere to them. I’ve worked this way long before NaNoWriMo and its “1667 words a day” standard. I aim for 2,000 words a day, and drive myself to it no matter how long I might have to sit to get it done.

But with editing, I’ve always found trouble pacing myself. On the one hand, editing a book removes the initial creation stress, the fear of the blank page. I can take my time to mull over details, fiddle with bits and pieces, break things and then try to put them back together. The raw material already exists. On the other hand, editing can turn into a slog when I get lost in it, flying all over the book spilling blue and red ink over the pages and wondering if I’m actually getting anywhere. (I use both red and blue ink for corrections. Red ink means a specific change, such as a typo correction, excising words and sentences, or changing words. Blue ink indicates story changes, character ideas, and other corrections that require more creative thinking. With this technique, a glance at a page will tell me what sort of work I have to do on it.) The daunting, open-ended task of revising makes it too easy for me to back-off and spend less and less time re-writing. I start to slack off from a process that seems it will never end, and if I don’t force myself back, the manuscript will end up in that hidden dusty drawer next to my high school diploma and never get revised.

But what I’ve done for this novel revision is quantify my progress using an old-fashioned device: a stopwatch. Actually, it’s a stopwatch I downloaded onto my Mac OS X, so it’s a high-tech version of an old-fashioned device, like my NEO. Each time I start to revise, I turn on the stopwatch, and then hide it on the desktop so I can’t see it. A chime rings at every thirty-minutes of work. If I take a phone call, go for a walk, have a sandwich, or waste time playing old DOOM levels, I halt the timer. Once I get back to work, I start it up again. I now revise toward a time goal that the stopwatch keeps track of for me. Following the guidelines of National Novel Editing Month, I aim to get fifty hours of revising done. NaNoEdMo actually starts next month, but I wanted to get to work sooner on this draft—which means I’ve suicidally picked February, the shortest month of the year, to do this. But having a specific goal, with a specific number attached, has improved my productivity greatly.

I mapped out the month on a chart, noting how many hours I should have logged for each day, and placed this Magna Carta under the plastic cover of my desk. For February, I need to average one hour and forty-seven minutes a day to achieve the fifty hours by the end of the 28th. Right now I’m lagging about an hour and a half behind, but that only means I’ll dedicate myself even more in the days to come. At the end of each day, I write down the hours logged in a notebook, and then add them to my total. I reset the stopwatch for the next day, and feel good that I didn’t just sit on the couch all day eating popcorn and watching my DVDs of Have Gun—Will Travel. (If I get my time in early, I’ll reward myself with a little Paladin, of course. Rewards work excellently with stopwatch-writing.)

So far, the tactic has done marvels for this revision. I’ve never moved ahead so steadily on a second draft. I don’t think that I’m moving faster through the material—I never quite know how extensively I’ll need to make changes—but I know that I’m constantly driving ahead. It feels great to watch the progress and the hours rack up. All I needed to achieve it this is a stopwatch showing how much time I’ve put in. Placing myself “on the clock” has made me a lot more honest about getting down into the dirt to dig through the mess of adverbs that need to get cut and those new scenes that need writing. And making sure my secondary characters’ hair stays the same color. I always mess that up in the first draft.

3 Comments »

  1. This is an interesting theory and reminds me of how much more writing and blogging I do at work because I’m on the clock, kind of.

    I’ve heard writers who write outside of their homes get more done because the process and waking up and ‘going to writing’ puts them in a good mindset.

    Comment by bsolah - February 17, 2009 7:35 pm

  2. I always enjoy reading your ERB posts, but I like these writing-craft ones, too. I think that knowing the stopwatch is running would make me antsy, but you never know till you try something. And anything that helps with focus is help I can use…

    Comment by James Enge - February 18, 2009 1:49 am

  3. […] a tremendous help since I started using it about two years ago, has been a time log. I’ve written previously about how I did revising “on the clock” for National Novel Editing Month (a March event—edit […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Time Element - October 19, 2010 1:10 am


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