When I’m writing stories, I’m always thinking about how I can turn up the heat for the protagonists. The stakes have to rise slowly but steadily over the course of the story. Thing start off relatively easy, in line with their capabilities, and get harder until they reach a seemingly impossible task in the finale. That’s exactly what this challenge has been for me.
7 Day Setting Design Review
Days 1 and 2 were easily within my limits. On average I write about 3,500 words per day. From there it got progressively more difficult. If this were a story that I was plotting, the antagonist would show themselves around Day 4, which is also when some disaster would strike and threaten to end the whole challenge. That, of course, is when I took a day off to deal with other things. Day 7, of course, was the grand finale of this story, and I not only met the goal but exceeded it. Now we’re in the epilogue, where we see how things turned out for the protagonists once the plot has resolved itself and the dust has settled.
Flexible time blocking works for me, I discovered, as long as it’s not tied to a specific time of the day. Committing to spend a hour performing a certain set of tasks, or a certain number of hours writing, is something I can do. Swearing that I’m going to do a specific thing from noon until 3 is problematic for a number of reasons, all of which have to do with flexibility.
Writing in word sprints is perfect for me. It’s easier to block out distractions for a fixed amount of time, and then use those distractions as the carrot. Focus on this, and in the end I can do that. It’s also a lot easier to tell my wife to leave my alone for hour-long blocks, informing her when I’m available again, than to make myself unavailable for a whole morning or afternoon. It’s definitely one of the biggest challenges of being a married couple who both work from home.
Working from an outline has always worked for me, because I know what needs to be written. Coupling that to the word sprints and the time blocking will eventually allow me to do more precise project planning. I need more data on my productivity using these techniques, but I think I’ll be able to pin down how many hours a given project will take to complete with a greater degree of accuracy. I can also schedule my time more effectively, especially when I have multiple projects going at once.
Along with the outline, front-loading the research is integral to this process. There’s no time to look things up when you’re in the final days of the challenge and pretty much doing nothing other than writing. There were a few things that I just plowed ahead with, and made notes to fact-check and correct it in the editing or during the second draft. I need to remember that this is a puke draft, after all. I can have to missing information or some guesswork in this iteration and fix it later.
Keeping this journal of the process might have been the best new tool of all, though. Taking time throughout the day, as well as at the end of the day, to reflect on what worked and what didn’t kept me focused. It’s reinforced the learnings that I had. Journaling is something I will keep doing going forward, because it reminds me to develop the good habits and ditch the bad ones. It is not wasted word count, or time that I could be spending doing something else.
Would I do this challenge again? Not as described here, no. I feel like Daffy Duck at the end of Show Biz Bugs — it’s a great trick, but I can only do it once. I learned things, and found practices that I can adapt to my own routines, but to do this on a regular basis would be nuts. I got a lot done, but I feel burned out. While there are benefits to immersion, like getting into a happy flow state, I’m frankly sick of looking at this project. The final days of this challenge made it not fun.
Where the learning was for me came in figuring out how to approach the challenge. All of the benefits I list above have absolutely nothing to do with writing the first draft of a setting in a week. They’re outgrowth of figuring out ways to make a stupidly intense writing schedule work. Which, really, is why I think I wanted to try this. I knew that it wasn’t going to be worth much to me on its own. I also knew that the intense time pressure was going to force me to be more creative with my time management.
The next step for me is to try a modified version of the challenge using the A/B schedule. Six intense days of writing, followed by a cheat day, and then a week with normal goals and a more flexible schedule. I will continue to journal that, and share the learning I pick up along the way.
You can read the rest of the entries in this series at this link.
Dean Wesley Smith’s book Writing a Novel in Seven Days: A Hands-On Example is available from Amazon in Kindle format and paperback editions. My book Setting Design for Writers and Roleplayers is available from DriveThruRPG in PDF, ebook, and Kindle formats.