Hell Track Project Diary: Day One

I recently mentioned my interest in applying the six-week project sprint/two-week admin and recovery model to my projects in my newsletter, figuring it would be a good way of combating the fragmentation that comes from having multiple projects splitting my attention between writing and exegetical work for my thesis. Basically, by focusing a six-week project sprint focused on achieving one goal, and alternating those between theoretical and creative writing, I carve out clearly defined time periods where I know what to focus on and finish.

Today I started off the first of these, focused on a book that’s been kicking around my to-do list for a while:

Since I’m trailing a new approach, I’m going to keep a public diary here on the blog where I track the process and the challenges. This a) keeps me a little more honest about my processes than I’m inclined to be if there’s no public consequence for taking a day off, and b) gives me a record to refer back to at the end that’ll help evaluate whether this process is working or not.

The last time I tried this was five years ago amid the worst of the sleep apnea problems, and it was a project that didn’t end up in a good place, so I’m curious to see how it works this time around.

All going well, I’ll hit the end of this six week sprint with a 90,000 words novel draft that’s finished. With my usual work schedule, writing Monday-through-Friday and taking weekends off, that’s 30 writing days with a minimum of 3,000 words a day to get anywhere close to my goal.

SOME BACKGROUND DETAILS WORTH KNOWING

  1. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this book. I’ve written a couple of plans experimenting with different approaches, put some careful thought into which marketing niche and genre I’m aiming at, and started a handful of drafts where I taken things in the wrong direction and had to re-think where I was going.
  2. I tend to measure my work days in pomodoros (via the Pomodoro Technique), breaking things down into 30 minute blocks of time where I spend 25 minutes focused on a task and 5 minutes regrouping/resting. Usually I’ll devote between 2 or 3 hours to my current project and split the rest of the day between other tasks, but I’ll be upping my focus to about 4-6 hours a day for the next six weeks.
  3. About 80% of the time devoted to the project will be drafting or redrafting scenes. The rest will tend to be fleshing out planning for the following days work, or reviewing work to figure out scenes that need to happen in the next section of the book.
  4. I did some fairly detailed benchmarking and planning, especially given that there’s going to be some distractions that kick in about three weeks in as I deliver my PhD confirmation and gear up for the start of the teaching semester at Uni. The first major milestone is finishing the draft of the first act and the plans for the second, which should hit about the middle of next week.

MAJOR CHALLENGES IN THE COMING WEEK

  1. The biggest challenge to this week is getting used to the kind of focus this sprint needs. I’m used to spreading my attention between two or three major projects on any given day, rather than doing deep work on one, and there is a part of me that’s screaming at me that ignoring project X and Y will end in tears. 
  2. The second challenge is creative: the major reference points for Helltrack are a number of arena-of-death style films that were popular in the eighties, such as The Running Man or Death Race. Film is a highly visual medium, which means you can convey a lot of information and context very quickly, which is a huge advantage when depicting action sequences. Film also mediates the time in which things happen – almost everyone is watching at the same speed. Prose doesn’t have those advantages, which means depicting a nail-biting race sequence or jaw dropping action scene requires a very particular skillset that I’m picking up as I go.
  3. The third major challenge is procedural: I like to rewrite as I go, fixing my mistakes, which is something you can get away with as a short story writer but inevitably bogs you down and distracts you in a novel where you’re maintaining multiple plot threads means you’ll struggle to keep the whole thing in your head.
  4. A minor challenge, but meaningful: ignoring the double full stop in the blurb of the cover image I posted until the coming weekend, when I’ll have time to swap it out.

THE PLAN

I have about twenty-five scenes scheduled for the first act of the book, although “scene” is rather loosely defined as I’ll may end up rendering something as two-to-three shorter fragments instead of a single scene with a single POV. I tend to split first acts into two sequences – one building the characters up to the point where the book’s conflict truly begins, and another building up to the end of the act.

As a person who pantses books by default and plots out of necessity, my notes tend to be rough and in-motion for much of the process. If you look at the scene map for the first sequence, you’ll already see the points where I’ve added in unplanned-for scenes after a day’s writing (they’re the lighter colour).

In contrasts, there is little detail in the later sequences at all beyond a spine of five-to-six scenes that will get fleshed out as subplots reveal themselves here. I’ve already got notes that Juniper, for example, needs a handful of POV scenes after getting one in the second-to-last scene of the act.

In screenwriting terms, this would actually be two sequences (one focused on the run, one focused on the aftermath), but I’m using the term as a placeholder more than anything else.

PROGRESS NOTES

One of the things I’m looking at with this kind of tracking is figuring out what writing a novel draft actually looks like, so I can better plan future six weeks sprints and establish what kind of time I need to devote to the task. I knew 3,000 wor

ds a day would require spending more time writing than I normally devote to writing on daily basis, but I wasn’t sure how much more time it needed.

In that respect, I committed myself to doing three full pomodoro blocks today (about six hours) in an effort to hit 3,000 words. In that respect, I over-estimated slightly – despite a relatively slow start, I was sitting on four-thousand words by the time I’d done five hours I was well over my target number. I’m tracking each session using the spreadsheet that came with Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words an Hour ebook, and the individual sessions looked something like this:

Individual numbers jump around a bit as I delete notes or scraps of pre-writing that don’t quite fit the final version of the scene I wrote, but day one ended at 5,044 words over the day spread over ten different scenes (I had the eleventh already drafted, as it was a big part of nailing the voice and world-building).

One one hand, this is better than expected. On the other, the first day (and the first act) are always the fastest for me to write, since I’m largely getting to know the characters better and setting up the conflicts and arcs. Things tend to slow down drastically in the second half of the book, where you’re largely dealing with consequences rather than setting thigns up.

THINGS OF NOTE

  1. If I’d stuck with my old process, where creative work got a two-hour pomodoro before I moved on to other projects, this would have felt like a really bad writing day. Sticking with it for a longer stretch evened out the numbers nicely, to the point where I hit what I regard as my “average” of approximately 800 words an hour by the end.
  2. At least two scenes that I drafted today already require pretty significant redrafting to flesh them out, as decisions made in later scenes mean going back and changing what had already occurred.
  3. The character of Jinsen strayed way, way further off my notes than expected, although he’s now better suited to the role I had in mind for him in later acts (and future books). I’m also not 100% happy with the name, as it feels self-consciously “cyberpunk” at this stage.
  4. I am really bad at applying the question of “what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen” at the planning stage.
  5. I really need to set up an injury tracker for this book, even though there’s the possibility of magical healing.
  6. My focus really started to fragment towards the end of the day, and I struggled to stick to work for a full two-hour block. Hopefully, this will improve with practice. If not, it becomes something to incorporate into future daily plans.
  7. Despite this, I’m largely used to 5,000 word days leaving me feeling wrecked and drained because I’m not “actively choosing to ignore other projects” so much as “forcing myself to slog because something is due and still panicking about the other stuff that needs doing.” I’m in much better shape after this than normal, although I’m noticeably stiff after a full day on the couch.

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