I know a lot of my readers are also writers, and so I wanted to post about my attempts to use Rachel Aaron’s 10k-A-Day System to finish the first draft of Dark Days, the 6th Black London novel.
First, I need to back up a little bit and set the stage: I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Primarily Inattentive) back in May. What that long string of large words means, in a nutshell, is that I’ve gone almost 28 years of life with untreated ADD (which, yes, is a real disorder and no, you don’t have to be diagnosed as a kid.) I’ve been on medication since then, and while on the one hand I can now focus on a manuscript for longer than ten minutes without getting a splitting headache and the compulsive need to go check the internet, I also realized my diagnosis came with a lot of fallout. The realization that I’d spent years thinking that, basically, I was just lazy and distracted and that I’ve been beating up on myself since probably my senior year of high school for being a screw-up when it was really this other thing was pretty jarring.
This isn’t to excuse or whine about my chronic lateness with manuscripts (though if any of my editors want to give me a retroactive pass, that’d be nice…). It’s all to explain how I ended up with only 30,000 words written of a manuscript that needed to be 70, and 10 days until a delivery date that had already been pushed three times.
At that point, I thought Hey, the worst that happens is I don’t write anything, and I’m already doing that.
I read Ms. Aaron’s blog post a couple of times, and figured out what would and wouldn’t work for me. She says to keep distractions to a minimum, including the internet and TV, which I chose not to cut off. Instead, I set a per-hour word goal that would let me write a large amount each day, and if I finished early, I got to mess around until the next hour ticked over.
What I found hugely helpful in her system was to write out detailed notes on what you plan to write each day. I’m a kind of hybrid plotter/pantser in my most natural state, in that I write rough outlines of beats, major plot points or scenes and generally know how the book starts and ends, but there are great gooey swaths of nebulousness in between. These frequently lead to moments where I feel like I’m trapped in the quicksand pit out of The Neverending Story, flailing around with nothing to show for it.
Yeah, like that.
I charted my progress, like Ms. Aaron suggests, using fields for starting/ending wordcount and words written. I also added fields for the time I started and ended, and notes on what I was doing (listening to music, watching TV) and how I was feeling that day to see if I could correlate between taking meds at different times and productivity. My goal was to beat my best day ever writing, which is 8,600 words. I figured getting to the actual 10k per day mark wouldn’t happen for me, and I was right.
Over about two weeks, here’s how it went:
Day 1: 4049 words. This was the day I made a bunch of notes on the rest of the book and not only figured out a gnarly plot issue in the last third but smoothed out a bunch of transitions in the middle. Felt pretty smug, which lasted approximately until:
Day 2: 4203 words. I remember this day being absolutely vile in a number of non-writing related ways. Even though I upped my count I didn’t feel like I accomplished anything.
Day 3: 4729 words. Even though these counts look like a lot, they’re still just bare minimum to meet my deadline. I went back to an old habit of mine: writing at night. I napped and then stayed up until about 3:30 am finishing these words. It was hard getting started but once I got going things flowed pretty well, and I even managed to write some while my roommate and I were hanging out after supper with our laptops.
Day 4: 6116 words. I’d started to notice that taking my meds and eating real food before I attempted to write helped a lot. Who knew that brains need nutrition to work right? I was super distracted today, according to my notes, but I still managed to knock out an impressive day by any standards.
Day 5: 3357 words. Annnd…crash. My notes indicate that I had a ton of time-sensitive Life Stuff going on today, and I remember that I had to do some chore that involved lifting a bunch of heavy objects and that by the time I could write, I was exhausted. By now I’m routinely staying up until 3 or 4 am and sleeping way, way in, a habit I thought I’d successfully broken. I have mixed feelings about what I’m having to do to keep up this schedule, but the deadline isn’t moving any more.
Day 6: 3084 words. I had to get up really early for an appointment, which turned out to be on a different day. Whomp-whomp. I’m so tired by now that even trying to write after I drag myself home sends me into a snarling panic. I decide rather than berate myself for being a useless word-slacker, I’m just going to try again later, when I’ve recovered.
Day 7: 2920 words. This day got eaten by errands. Generally, after a week, I like that this system really makes you get in there and write, and I like the ease of knowing what comes next so I don’t have to break my rhythm. If I wasn’t approaching Fight Club-esque sleep deprivation, I’d probably actually be thrilled with my progress.
Day 8: 617 words. I woke up at 5:30 am with a bat flying around my room, so between me freaking out, the bat freaking out, me shooing it out a window and then staying up to make sure it didn’t find its way back in (they come in through the attic and sometimes make their way down our hollow walls into the living spaces) I was not a happy camper. I’m fairly sure I wrote for less than 30 minutes today before I said a mental “Fuck it” and went to bed.
Day 9: No writing. I can tell I’m close to burnout, which leads to a complete, paralyzing inability to write anything, never mind a book that’s due in like, three days. I decide a mental health day is probably needed, and since the Aaron system doesn’t tout that “write every day OR ELSE” bullshit, off I go.
Day 10: 8352 words. My note from the start of the day’s session says, “Definitely courting burnout. Calculated I wrote an average of 5,000 words a day for the last 9 days. Not sure if this is sustainable.” (Remember that, I’ll come back to it in a second.) By the end of the day, I’d finished the damn book. And not half-assed it, either–written a real ending, reached my mandated 70k wordcount, and turned the thing in to my editor.
I think Rachel Aaron has some great ideas about productivity, namely that the thing standing in your way is usually a lack of preparedness or a belief that writing is some sort of terrifying, insurmountable activity and to start is impossible. I think her system is great for two things: Starting, or just diving in and writing a manuscript or Finishing, racing along on some kind of Oh-Shit deadline that must be met.
Do I think it’s sustainable over an entire novel draft? For me, no. If I’d added another 10 days of this to write the half of the MS I’d already drafted, I would have gone insane. Writing that many words per day pushed me back into some bad, unhealthy habits I’d worked hard to break, but on the flip side it also did away with a lot of the guilt and shame narratives that I slip into when I feel like I’m failing at a complex task like writing a book. Obviously, I could write a lot in a day–I could look back at my progress and see that. So if I slipped up, there had to be other factors. Some I could mitigate (like distractions) and some I couldn’t, like bats flying into my room at 5 in the morning. I gained much more of a “crap happens, dust yourself off and try again tomorrow” attitude toward not making my wordcount.
Sadly, I don’t think the system is going to work for me as a regular thing. It would be awesome to knock out a book in 10 days, but I don’t think the tolls on my creative drive are worth it in the long run. I burnt myself out badly once before, to the point where looking back I probably should have checked myself in at the psych ward rather than spent a week locked in my office without showering, sobbing uncontrollably as I did the math over and over again and realized there was no way to turn the book in on time, even if it wasn’t good. (Which it wasn’t. Trying to write fiction in the middle of a breakdown doesn’t usually result in glowing prose.) So now, I’m very conscious of when I’m pushing myself too hard, and only do it for a short time, in emergencies.
What the system did help me with was being more prepared, to stave off block or going off-track with my plot. I also really like the idea of tracking my progress, both because I’m a little bit OCD and because it’s really nice to look back after your deadline insanity has worn off and think “You know? I kind of kicked ass at this project.”
I’d definitely recommend this system for writers who are just starting out and need a kick in the ass, and for pros who have gotten themselves into an OSDS (an Oh-Shit Deadline Situation.) It happens to all of us at one point or another, but this might help you deal with it more gracefully than I did (the first time. Seriously, stop and take a shower.)
Overall, I think the experiment definitely helped more than it hurt. It helped me finish a draft, it helped me realize that I am really crappy to myself when I think I’m failing, and it helped me get over that. It didn’t help me sleep more, but hey, I didn’t get into this book-writing biz to sleep. This was the first large-scale project I’d done since before my ADD diagnosis, and working with the Aaron system helped me feel a bit more like I was handling things and a bit less like I was having one long Annie Adderall moment.
Want some more info from other writers who’ve tried the system? Sure you do!
If anyone else tries this and posts about it, I’d be really interested in hearing how it goes for you.