Accountability in Writing

…by which I really mean accountability in goal-setting. I suppose it’s possible to talk about other ways in which an artist can be accountable (to his audience, to his family, to his ideals), and that actually sounds like a pretty interesting topic, but it’s not the one I want to talk about right now.

I’m talking about accountability as a writing tactic–as a way of making yourself accountable for a certain amount of work. I’ve been struggling with my current manuscript of late, not because it isn’t awesome (it’s actually quite awesome), but because other things keep popping up, and I get out of the habit, and I have to force myself back into it. Yes, dear reader, even full-time authors need to psyche themselves up sometimes and force themselves to work. In my case, I was forcing myself to work on what I was supposed to be working on, instead of just screwing around with other stuff that was also important, though far less pressing. I needed to tweak some stuff on Pain of Glass; I needed to read the current screenplay for I Am Not a Serial Killer; I needed to plot out another story for another book I won’t have time to write until next year anyway. And that’s the just the writing stuff–there was plenty of annoying little business things and maintenance bits I had to take care of as well. Obviously I didn’t actually need to do any of that stuff right now, I was just allowing it to take over my day. So I did what I always do when I realize I’m wasting time: I figured out why.

Turns out that I was intimidated by my own book: it’s huge, and I’m barely halfway through it, and I’m at the part where it really starts to get nuts, and I simply didn’t want to put in the mental effort of getting back into my story and remembering where all the characters were and figuring out clever/funny/horrifying things for them to do and say. This is a symptom of my style of drafting, which is to say that I have a list of scenes that are supposed to happen, but no real concept of how to make them happen. Let me give you a sample of the outline notes for the chapter I wrote yesterday, with all the important spoilers removed:

“We go the office of an FBI agent, in a meeting with a member of the FDA, sifting through a huge pile of crime reports related to the BLAH (a man accidentally BLAH; etc.). They talk about their legal recourses, intent on bringing them down but not sure how to do it. The FDA guy wants to BLAH, but they want more than that. They need a hook. Someone tells them to BLAH, and they see a BLAH. They decide to BLAH.”

Please be assured that even with all the BLAHs added back in, this outline is not especially meaty, especially considering that a) both the FBI guy and the FDA guy are new characters we’ve never met before, b) this isn’t really a story, just a decision. It’s an important decision, and one I think needs to be portrayed “on-screen,” so to speak, but it’s just a couple of strangers sitting in a room talking. I simply didn’t know where to start, so I was avoiding it.

Well. Knowing why something happens is incredibly valuable, because it allows you to figure out how to change it. In this case I had two options: change my outline, or follow it. Following it wasn’t working, so I figured I’d change it, but as I started looking at who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing I realized that changing this outline would be just as much work as writing the story would be, so I went back to plan A: force myself to write it. Not every author can do this, as they rely very heavily on outlines and don’t like to free-write, but on the other hand those authors have better outlines than I do and don’t typically find themselves in this kind of predicament.

This is where we finally get to the accountability thing: there are several great strategies for goal-setting, and two of the most effective are rewards and accountability. The first is simple: when you set a goal, go ahead and attach a reward to it. A lot of people think this is cheating, since presumably the goal itself should be enough of a reward, right? Why should you have to bribe yourself to do something you want to do anyway? Because Hulk stomp puny human, that’s why. We are weak and miserable creatures sometimes, especially when it comes to big hard things that scare and intimidate us. I told myself that if I did enough writing I’d get a toy, because I like toys and that’s a good motivator for me, and then to police myself I posted it on Twitter. I made myself accountable by sharing my goal with the world.

This is a strategy that shouldn’t work, but it totally does. If you decide you’re going to do something and never tell anyone about it, it’s almost like you never actually decided it–and it’s extremely easy to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually matter, because it was never official anyway, and I don’t have to explain myself to you because you don’t even know I had a goal in the first place. Telling people makes it official–even if you tell someone who has no authority, in a completely casual capacity, we still feel like the goal has been made real. You’ve stated, out loud or in writing, that you are going to do something, and you are now accountable to everyone who heard or read it. They know what you’re doing, and they’ll know if you fail or succeed.

Through the magic of reward and accountability, I showed up at work every morning this week bound and determined to hit my goal: 2000 words, every day. The first day I couldn’t get my laptop to work, so the next day I wrote 3000 words to try to make up for it–such is the power of my goal-setting strategies. I don’t even know who most of you are, and yet I still didn’t want you to think I was a lazy slacker who says he’ll do something and then never does. I wrote like a madman yesterday, and again today, totally making up for my lost Monday and spilling slightly over the goal as I did it. And as I wrote, my weird outline problems played themselves out on the page: I wrote two or three pages of conversation, realized the motivations were all wrong, figured out what the motivations should actually be, and started over. I wrote six or seven new pages, feeling halfway confident but knowing they were missing something, and as I reached a certain phase of the dialogue I realized that the chapter really wanted to be staged as a reveal, with two characters hiding something from a third. I went back, changed the viewpoint from one person to another, added in a ton of new dialogue, seeded a few hints, and boom–the chapter worked. My weird problem chapter not only made the point it was trying to make, it did it in an interesting way and helped send the book in the right new direction I needed it to go. All because I forced myself to do it, and took the steps to make sure it actually happened. Today’s chapter came even more easily, and I even had time afterward to write this blog post about it (lucky you!).

I am totally getting a toy.

8 Responses to “Accountability in Writing”

  1. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Stuff like this is part of why a) I’m starting a real writing blog, and b) I’m going to start giving myself real deadlines again. I’ve let my experiment dawdle and barely touched it in a week, and that’s with only setting 1-1.5k word goals due to day job.

    External guilt is a powerful tool. Why else would so many people get up and go to crappy day jobs? The motivator of not pissing off their boss so they can get paid and keep going :).

  2. Oddly enough, this was precisely what I did this morning. I blogged about the writing goals I had set at the beginning of the month, and let “the world” know what goals I’m keeping up with, and which ones I need to catch up on. I’ve found it really helpful in the past.

  3. Goals. Blarg.

    Time to write.

  4. Totally needed this right now.

  5. I would imagine it’s very difficult to have to turn out 3,000 words or 2,000 words a day..but then?…better than working oil rigs, or working at McDonalds..ha

  6. Matthew Watkins says:

    great blog post. This is probably one of the most important things to learn as a new writer.

    For me, I’ve struggled on my book, and I am at the 50 percent mark. I was having a hard time finding motivation. So, I sent out what I had to a couple of my alpha readers, and explained that I needed to know whether what I had was good enough to continue.

    They answered with a resounding yes, and told me that they were upset that I hadn’t gotten far enough, and that I had left them at such a crucial plot moment. Now, they are hounding me for more. It feels great. So, my problem was that I was doubting my ability, and I don’t anymore. But I figured it out because I decided to send it to someone so that I would be accountable.

  7. Hannah says:

    Wow. Totally relevant to my life roght now. It’s been a week; it’s time to write.

  8. Rose says:

    Great post. I’ve been struggling with one of my stories as of late as well, so I can definitely identify with some of what you mentioned. For me, it’s life issues in addition to having to re-examine my story for what it is. I love it, it’s awesome, but I’m trying to improve it as much as I can from some initial flaws (my writing group’s been very helpful in the process) and I’m going through the second draft of it right now. It’s difficult, but I find that it’s a process. My sister’s actually a great person to help me psyche myself up, so I lean on her when the going gets tough. She’s my best friend and we’ve been each other’s support for years. Oddly enough we’ll both be 26 years old tomorrow (which is crazy).

    I think your post makes me want to get back to my draft, which I think I’ll do tonight. So thanks :)

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