4thewords

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.

4tw FTW

I’m currently kicking the ass of an evil marionette brought to life by a wicked witch. In typical RPG fashion, I already beat the shit out of the witch. Actually, the witch was a “global event,” so all the MMORPG players contributed to beat the boss monster. But now that I’ve finished this level, I’m bumping around to finish some side quests and level up. If I can beat this marionette two more times, I get some tickets that I can use to buy sparkly items for my character. Fun times.

Based on my current count, I will have killed the fucker by the end of this sentence.

Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.

Of course, now I’m no longer fighting Ceratonia. I wouldn’t have wanted to waste that last sentence. I’m now fighting Wiwaz, an even “stronger” marionette. And the first salvo in our battle were the sentences “Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.”

Dammit. I should have written “you are dead,” not “you’re dead.” Because the way to defeat these particular Dark Lord spawns is to write words.

I found a new writing website just in time for NaNoWriMo this year. I also won NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Causation or correlation? I’m leaning toward the former.

4thewords.com is an RPG-style website. But each of the monsters require a certain number of words written in a certain amount of time to be defeated. Some of them are easy, 300 words in forty minutes. Others, like the Wiwaz I’m fighting right now, max out at the NaNo-inspired 1,667 words in 24 hours.

So maybe I should’ve told Ceratonia that he should dine heartily on a plethora of his own fecal matter. Oh, and die.

After a few fights, you can get better weapons and armor, so in my current battle, I actually have about 26 hours and only have to write about 1400 words. Easy as pie. A very, cherry, strawberry, boysenberry, and a zillion other kinds of berry pie. Shall I describe the scrumptious crust?

I can’t say enough about how this website has transformed my approach to NaNoWriMo, and to writing in general. That 300 word monster? He’s the first one you fight. I always knew I could write 300 words if I was ready to go at the start. The forty minutes was a little daunting, but I made sure I was free of distraction and got it done.

The next monster I encountered required 500 words in two hours. Not surprisingly, the 300 words I had written against the first guy didn’t really get the scene I was planning down on paper. Of course not. Three hundred words barely gives you enough room to describe a bowel movement, much less how a wooden puppet is going to dine upon it.

And yet, in the first forty-three years of my writing life, there have been many days that I couldn’t even get 300 words on a piece of paper. And then I’d go a week without writing 300 words. Then a month. Then when I’d finally sit down and write 300 words, I’d get pissed that I had finally found time to write and I didn’t even get to that point of the scene that had been playing around in my mind for two months. Then it’s rinse and repeat, and a year later, I’d be a thousand words farther into the same damned chapter I was in a year ago and pissed as hell that I couldn’t get anywhere with this particular project.

But now? If I don’t finish my train of thought with one monster, I’ll just gauge whether I want to take on the next one now or tomorrow. Depending on what part of the dungeon you’re in, you can usually choose who to fight next. If I feel like writing 800 words over the next three hours, I can. Or if I want to take a more leisurely approach, I can got 1000 or 1200 over an 8- or 10-hour span. As a result, I’ve actually become pretty good at knowing how many words I need to get through a certain scene.

Now, in contrast with those days of struggling to writing 300 words down, I know I can do 500 words almost as an afterthought.

You get bonuses for maintaining a writing streak. You need to write 444 words to get credit, and no weapons or armor make that number easier to reach. That’s one reason I’m still writing into December. You put fake digital badges on the line, and I become obsessive. I lost twenty pounds the first month after I got a Fitbit, and was at fifty after a year.

And obviously, the website doesn’t distinguish between writing a book or a blog entry. I actually wrote a few things I needed for work on 4thewords. Cheating? Maybe, but the work shit had to be done and that’s the type of thing that would normally derail me from writing, whether it’s NaNoWriMo or any of the other eleven months of the year. And finishing that boring work report is a hell of a lot more fun if I’m shoving a metaphorical sword up a puppet’s apocryphal ass.

It should be noted the website doesn’t actually show the deaths of the monsters and any references to scatalogical functions are entirely my own. 4thewords.com disavows any and all unsightly references being made in their honor.

One other way that 4TW (as the cool kids are calling it) helps my particular brand of writing is that it counts all words, not just the final product. If I rewrite a sentence three times, I get credit for each of the words in each rewrite. One would think that would hurt NaNoWriMo. “Hooray, I’ve written two thousand words! Oh shit, it only counts as five hundred.”

But that doesn’t happen. For one thing, I don’t rewrite as often as I think I do. If I write 1000 words, the actual amount is usually in the low 900s. Sure, a particularly bad batch might only net me 850, but guess what? That 850 might not have been written in the classic NaNoWriMo. They tell you to turn off your inner editor, but I’m sorry, sometimes I know that what I just wrote makes no sense, and I like being rewarded for looking at it a second time. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agonize over every morsel. This isn’t editing.

But the NaNo mantra is ever onward. Each precious word is your child, and you’re not just going to go back and erase your child. If you EVER erase a baby, you will NEVER get to 50,000 babies!

But the way that plays out in my writing style is this: I’m not sure how to word the next sentence in the best way, so I don’t write it. I stare at the screen. I go grab a drink. I play a round of Candy Crush. Or a round of golf. Or I re-shingle the roof. Anything to avoid putting a sentence down that might need to be erased.

4TW works the opposite. When I get to that sentence, I’ll just write it. And as soon as it’s on the page, I can look at it, think it through, and go change those three words to three better words and, voila, I’m six words closer to defecating on a witch. (Not in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind of way.)

As such, I am amending a statement I made a couple of NaNo’s ago. It’s my most-read blog post, presumably because most of the participants of NaNo are trying to avoid “doing the NaNo,” so they google things to read about NaNo. I will insert a link later, but for the purpose of words on paper, right now, I will just describe the inserting of links later.

My original statement was that one thousand words a day was, under normal circumstances, an upper limit for me. 4thewords showed me that I can blow past that. Even if I’m not sure what I am going to write, I can at least bumble around enough to get words on paper. They might not be good words, but they’re there. Before 4TW, when the goal was just an amorphous 1667 words in a day, or even worse, “write something today,” a thousand words seemed some sort of natural upper limit before I needed an overnight to replenish my idea bank. Now I’m like, 800 words over 10 hours? Shit, I can go see Thor in between and still have hours to spare.

Most of the time, when I have a specific plan for then next 1,000 words, it’ll actually take me closer to 3,000 words to get through it. And the vague idea I have for what will come after that probably covers another five to ten thousand. It used to frustrate me that I’d write and get no closer to the next scene. Now I embrace it. Words on paper are the goal for today, not finishing the scene.

Of course, one thing I’ve noticed about both 4TW and NaNo are that they make you a bad writer. Usually the fewer words you write, the better. But, as I joked earlier, it’s easy enough to turn a five-word sentence into ten words. That doesn’t make it better and often makes it worse. It tends toward the passive voice. NaNo only does it implicitly. In fact, they explicitly say 50,000 words is an entire novel. Not any novel I’ve ever seen, other than “Slaughterhouse Five.” So it goes. So at least in theory, NaNo’s 50,000 words should not be wasting any space. Yeah, right.

The NaNo people say that you’ll probably add 10,000 words in the rewriting/editing phase, making it closer to “Lord of the Flies” territory. Um, no. Am I the only one that actually takes words out when I’m editing? The first time I attempted a 1,500-word flash fiction, it was close to 4,000 before I took the butcher’s knife to it. The book I worked on through November is at 70,000 words. (When I say I won NaNo, I actually cheated a little. There were already 20,000 words written. But I still did the 50,000 in a month, so screw you, it counts.) The book isn’t done yet. Based on where I am in the story, it’ll easily make it past 110,000 words. Then I’ll edit 25,000 of them out.

4TW actually exacerbates that problem by making the “add some frivolous words” a bit more explicit. If I’m nearing the end of a scene and still have 150 words to defeat this particular monster, I’m not going to spend the time making a new file, am I? Hell, no. So let me just make a wordier description. I’ll have my main character scratch his chin and think about the predicament he’s in, think through his potential choices and the logical ramifications of taking each of those choices. Ten words left? Fine, he scratches his ass, too.

That doesn’t make good story telling, but that works wonders for both NaNo and 4TW. Hence the reason I’m going to have to chop at least 10,000 words off of my novel once it’s finished.

The good news is that, for the first time since I wrote those first 20,000 words in 2014, I feel like “once my novel is finished” might actually happen. And I have 4TW to thank for that feeling. If you’re interested, look me up – my character’s name is Wombat. I also have a referral code. If you want me to let them know I recruited you, leave me a comment.

For now, I’ve got 800 words left to write in my current battle, and it might be worthwhile to put some of those in the actual novel. To quote the Blues Brothers, it’s 800 words to defeat Tamarix, I’ve got a full blog post, a half a book, it’s dark, and I’m wearing sunglasses.

Hit it!