How is the novel going? Tracking words, hours, and books, oh my!

As with any long project, people tend to ask how my novel is going. I usually tell them “it’s going,” or “it’s going well,” or “I’m having fun.” Of course, there’s a lot of other information I could share — like how it’s giving me the incentive to explore topics I’m interested in, to say no to some activities, and to deepen certain relationships. But, quantitative information being a habitual kind of shorthand in our society, it seems like what people often want is some kind of quantifiable indicator. In fact, they often ask for a time-related one: “Do you have a timeline for finishing?” or “how soon do you think you’ll be done?” Though I’m practicing slowing down, and not trying to rush my novel about time speeding up, I am not immune to wanting an answer to this kind of question myself!

At the retreat in July I talked to my writing coach Miriam about whether I should set a timeline for finishing my first draft. I was feeling jealous of one of my writing friends who is at the revising stage, and can feel like she’s accomplished something when she gets a chapter revised. And, since she knows how many chapters she has, she has some way to assess how much farther she has to go. I was also feeling like without a “deadline” or specific goal in sight, it was hard to motivate myself to forgo other activities.

Miriam is a Buddhist and talks about “not too loose, not too tight.” She agreed it was good to have a way to celebrate progress and motivate effort (not too loose), but said that I was still somewhere in the vast middle of my first draft and that it might create too much “tightness” to set an arbitrary timeline. I sensed she was right; as I discussed in my earlier post “the puzzle of writing,” it is hard with a creative project to know what the bounds of it are. Miriam suggested I could track words, or hours spent, to have a sense of progress.

I had been using a nice app called “Ink On” to track hours and words for a while, earlier on in the project, but I gave it up around the time I stopped wearing a watch and turned off the clock on my computer. I didn’t want to go back to an overly “tight” way of tracking. After I came home from the retreat, I mulled it around a little and came up with this method of tracking my progress. It’s a growing spiral of yarn, with purple yarn depicting time (1/4 inch per half-hour) and green yarn depicting words (1/4 inch per 100 words). I used my approximate word count at the time, 96,000, to set up the green yarn, and made the purple yarn the same length, since I hadn’t been tracking hours steadily.


That was two months ago, and I’ve added 16,000 words since then. This is a dubious measure of actual progress, since I’m well over the 90K words which Miriam says should be my target for a first novel. (A Google search suggests that the average length of a novel is 70,000 to 120,000 words). I know I will likely need to cut a bunch as I revise, especially because I still have quite a few scenes and “connective tissue” to write (and a few plot questions still to work out) before my first draft is even done. But for now, tracking my words and my time in this non-linear, tactile, and visually appealing way is a nice way to support my motivation with a sense of progress.

I also adopted a low-tech wall calendar to track my daily time. This finally gives me a use for the Amnesty International wall calendar our friend Frank gives us every year! I just enter a number on the little box for the day. Then once every week or two, I add it up and calculate the length of yarn to add. I count time blogging if it’s on a subject related to time, or writing — but I don’t count words I write that don’t go in the novel. The hours numbers are usually just estimates, and include time doing relevant reading and research as well as writing.

Speaking of reading, at Miriam’s retreat I saw in one of her many books-about-writing that if you’re going to write a book, you should read 100 books that are related to it. Books by writers you admire, books in the genre you’re writing, books on subjects related to your topic, etc. My first reaction was that this seemed like good but completely impossible advice. Now, I realize that I may already be well on my way to achieving it.

Thankfully, my reclaimed habit of reading that I wrote about last fall has continued. I haven’t been tracking it super carefully, but reviewing my Kindle, Audible, and physical bookshelves, here is an attempt to reconstruct the list of the books I’ve read or re-read all or substantial parts of so far, motivated by this project (including the assignments from Natalie Goldberg for her writing workshop last year). The list does not include articles, which arguably should count, or related movies, TV episodes, or educational videos, which probably shouldn’t. Plus I’ve read a few books for other reasons that I really can’t make a case for including here, though you never know when something is going to turn out to be relevant!

Books about time:

  1. World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
  2. Time in the Black Experience by Joseph K. Adjaye
  3. Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life by Marney K. Makridakis
  4. Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A Muller
  5. The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne
  6. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin
  7. Faster by James Gleick
  8. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
  9. Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick
  10. A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life by Robert N. Levine
  11. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil de Grasse Tyson
  12. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink
  13. Felt Time: The Science of How We Experience Time by Mark Wittman
  14. Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time by Dean Buonomano

Books about human activities or diseases that relate to our sense of time:

  1. Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults by Dr. Thomas Brown, PhD
  2. ADHD & Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Making it Through the Tough Years by Colleen Alexander-Roberts
  3. Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD by Penny Williams
  4. The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History by Fred H. Previc
  5. Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution by Joseph Jordania
  6. Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease by Jon Palfreman
  7. Dutch Island by Curt Weeden
  8. Ancestral Medicine by Daniel Foor
  9. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
    by Judith Shulevitz

Books about writing or assigned by a writing teacher to analyze:

  1. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
  2. LaRose by Louise Erdrich
  3. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne
  4. The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg
  5. Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation by Mirabai Starr
  6. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  7. The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control by Alice Mattison
  8. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  9. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
  10. Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. LeGuin

Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Speculative fiction books that have inspired me or been recommended as relevant:

  1. Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  2. And All Between by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  3. Until The Celebration by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
  5.  A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle
  6.  A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle
  7.  Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle
  8.  An Acceptable Time by Madeline L’Engle
  9. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  10. Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  11. Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell
  13. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
  14. Adulthood Rites  by Octavia E. Butler
  15. Imago by Octavia E. Butler
  16. Octavia’s Brood edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha
  17. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  18. First Meetings in Ender’s Universe by Orson Scott Card
  19. Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

Miscellaneous books that I’ve read since starting this project that are relevant in some way 

  1. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  2. Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity by Margaret J. Wheatley
  3. The Odyssey by Homer, translation by Emily Wilson
  4. Circe by Madeline Miller
  5. The Overstory by Richard Powers
  6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  7. The Delight of Being Ordinary by Roland Merullo

That’s 59, though I’m still reading 7 or 8 of these. Obviously, I have not followed through on my idea of writing “book reports” as blog entries — it felt “too tight,” and reminded me too much of the parts of school I didn’t like! But if you want to know my take on any of these books, feel free to ask me. I’ve got a lot of other books still on my still-to-read list, so I’m guessing I’ll pass the 100 mark by the time I’m done with this project! I wonder if that means I’m about 50% of the way through my novel?!

1 thought on “How is the novel going? Tracking words, hours, and books, oh my!”

  1. Love love love this as always! As someone who enjoys knitting and also aspires to write more, your measurement strategy delights me! I also very much appreciate not too loose, not too tight — words of wisdom there. Thank you for sharing this. Oh, and I also am happy to see your list of books. I am usually intrigued to learn what my friends are reading, as it tells me about them and also often yields wonderful tips for what I might like to read down the road. THANK YOU for committing to writing and for sharing all this.

    Oh, and one more thing I appreciate is pointing out the way questions are time-focused and quantitative. I believe people ask out of care and wanting to connect. At the same time, when I am involved in projects like that and hear such questions, my body often tenses up. Somehow in me they evoke a sense of how I “should” be further along than I am, or even that I “should” be able to answer such a question, rather than just allowing myself to live in “I don’t know.” Questions have such power to steer conversation and to stimulate very different responses. What if people asked questions like: What are you learning about yourself in the process of writing a novel? What has surprised you? How do you support yourself to take time for writing in the midst of a culture and life that could easily pull you in other directions? What do you enjoy about writing?

    Those are questions I have! 🙂

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