I also love writing. Consequentially, I really wanted to find a way to better track my writing progress. I wanted more than the “X words out of XX,XXX” tickers that you see on message boards or the chapter-level or novel-level targets that Scrivener gave you. I wanted to map my work daily, showing exactly how much work I was doing and what kind of work it was. I wanted data that I could slice, dice, and display in different formats.

I might be a little nuts.

So I kept a record of everything I wrote all year. When I first started tracking my work, I recorded everything I did in a very simple Excel file. But last week, something happened. Something magical. Something wonderful.

I discovered pivot tables. And now I’m going to show you what I used them for.

(It gets more exciting in a moment, I promise.)

Step #1: Record Every Time You Do Anything Related to Writing

This is the only step that took any work. I logged an entry in Excel every time I did anything related to writing–so, basically, any time I wrote, edited, or outlined something.

I tracked everything. I didn’t just track words I wrote for stories. I tracked words I wrote for query letters, synopses, and outlines. Basically, if I was being productive and it was related to a story, I recorded it.

Here’s what my tracker looks like:

Screenshot showing what stories I worked on by day.
(January was a horrible month for me, but whatever. You can see what I’m tracking.)

It’s pretty simple. I track:

  • The Date: When I worked on anything writing-related.
  • The title of what I worked on.
  • The type of product. This can be a novel, short story, outline, query, or synopsis.
  • The total word count. This is automatically generated from the next two fields–“New Word Count” and “Original Word Count.” If I started a chapter or story from scratch and wrote 2,000 words, that “2,000” would go in the “New Word Count” and 0 would go in the “Original Word Count.” If I later picked up that piece and added 1,000 words, I’d have “3,000” (the new final word count) in “New Word Count” and 2,000 in the “Original”… Which would allow me to track how many words I added or removed that day.
  • The type of work. I use four categories here: writing, editing, outlining, and administrative (which I use for queries and synopses.)
  • The total words worked. This is a quirky and possibly not useful field. I hate it when I do a really good job editing, remove 10,000 words from a novel… And this file shows my monthly word count as -10,000 words. That’s what shows up in the “total” field. And, as you can tell from February 5, sometimes that looks nasty. So I made this silly field, the “total words worked” field. It’s a duplicate of the “total” field, except everything is a positive number.


Step #2: Use that PivotTable Magic!

Everything else is done automatically. Using the data you’re tracking in step #1, you can ask Excel to create a whole slew of beautiful tables. Like this one!

Screenshot showing everything I worked on by month in 2015.

(Yes, these are my real numbers. Yes, I had an incredibly bad start to the year, including an abysmal April. It got better, though!)

This beautiful table shows exactly how many words I wrote each month, broken up by what I worked on. The only real quirk is that I didn’t track how many words I wrote during my outlining period between April and June, so my actual total is a lot higher than the zeroes you see there.

All I had to do was:

  1. Create a new tab in Excel.
  2. Go to Insert > PivotTable
  3. Put “Date” in the Row Labels.
  4. Put “Work Type” and “Story Type” (in that order) in the “Column Labels.”
  5. Put “Total” in the “Values” section.
  6. Click the little arrow next to “Total,” select “Value Field Settings,” and set “Summarize value field by” to “Sum.”
  7. By default, it displayed all this data broken up by individual days. To get the month-by-month view, right click any day, select “Group,” then make sure it’s grouped by “Months.”

That’s it! Now it shows all the words I wrote this year, organized by the type of work I did and the type of product I created.

I have a different tab that shows this same data broken down by week. It’s glorious!

Step #3: Experiment with Different Data Sets!

There are all kinds of ways to display data! How about month-by-month breakdown of what projects you worked on? That’s another fun one!

Screenshot showing what products I worked on every month vs. the number of words I produced.

Isn’t that awesome?!

So data is awesome. Awesome. I could graph this stuff. I could look at it a zillion different ways. I’m addicted to numbers.

But I also find these numbers soothing. It shows me that I’m getting work done. It helps me see, in a very easy-to-read format, just how productive I’ve been this year.

Also, it looks really cool. What more could you want?


I’ve been querying my YA fantasy novel since September 2014, and oh man, it’s been a journey. I’m not quite done, so I can’t talk about stats yet, but I can definitely talk about the random things I’ve learned.

Lesson #1: I hate competitions.

I really, really, really hate competitions.

I’ve participated in PitMad, Pitch Wars, WriteOnCon, and Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent. They’re great resources, but I don’t know if I like them.

And really: It’s me, not them. Contests consume me. I find myself hovering over the computer at all hours of the day, stalking the most successful entries and trying, desperately, to figure out what they’re doing right and I’m doing wrong. I get super competitive, I stay up late, I obsess until I have to force myself away from the computer, and then… well, I crash. Because that’s not sustainable. I almost always came away feeling miserable and spent.

These are wonderful resources. But they’re also crazy-stupid stressful. I’ll probably participate in more in the future, but I’ve got to be super careful. I have a lot more success in quieter, more private, less competitive situations… Like, you know, just querying agents directly.

Lesson #2: Fantasizing about success is poison.

When I first started querying, I got super into it. Every time I sent a query I spent hours pouring through the agents’ backlists and dreaming about what would happen if they liked my novel. That giddiness kept me going even when I didn’t feel up to querying.

But every time my emotions went up, they had to come down.

This also might just be me: If I get excited about something, there are only two options left for me. I either maintain that excitement (because all my dreams came true!) or I’m disappointed. And the more excited I am, the more disappointed I have to be.

And if it’s already hard to query, you can darn well bet it isn’t easier for me to depress myself first.

This was especially true whenever I got a full manuscript request. It was tempting to keep myself up at night going, “OMGGGG, I’m one step away from an offer! Most people don’t get this far!” Nope, that sucks, too.

Enthusiasm is poison to me. The best I can manage is a business-like professionalism. “Ah, a full request. Great. Let’s see how it pans out.” That’s a level of emotional involvement I can keep up forever.

Lesson #3: I probably was a little too cautious about querying.

For several months, I queried 10 agents at a time and waited for (almost) all of them to respond before I tried again. I was following some commonly heard advice: Send 10 queries, see how it goes, and then use your response rate to measure whether you’re doing OK or not. So I did that. Forever.

The problem was, this made me read too much into my response rate. I got two full requests in my first 14 queries. That’s really good, right? Then I got nothing for the next 34! That’s nearly 40 queries without even a personalized rejection! That’s awful, right? That’s “There’s something super wrong with your query” levels of bad, right?

Or, er, is it?

Really, numbers don’t mean anything. Queries are random. Some people like stuff, some people don’t. You can’t literally crunch your numbers, calculate a “success rate” and determine the numerical strength of your novel.

I had gotten some requests, so my novel had potential. Eventually I just sucked it up and blew through the rest of my agent list. But by the time I had done so, I had taken already slow process and drawn it out to almost a year.

Lesson #4: Don’t let the querying process keep you away from writing.

It’s really tempting to get deeply, deeply involved in the querying process–to spend hours and hours pouring over your query and triple-quadruple-quintuple checking your first few chapters and getting feedback, feedback, and more feedback! There are contests! (See above.) There’s #MSWL!

And QueryTracker! QueryTracker has stats! You could spend hours pouring over each and every agent you’ve queried, trying to guess where they are in their inbox. Oooooh, they’ve rejected all the queries ahead of mine! Maybe I’ll get an answer soon! Oh, this one’s rejected queries before and after mine! Am I in the “maybe” pile?

And… yeah, that’s just another form of getting my hopes up, isn’t it?

So yeah. If lesson #1 is to be zen about querying, lesson #2 is to query and forget about it. I remind myself to check in 3-4 months if I get a manuscript request, but that’s it. Queries go in the memory drawer, where I don’t have to think about them unless the agent responds one way or another. I have to go back to writing, focus on a new project, and let life go on. Otherwise I will literally lose hours of writing time.

Lesson #5: Querying is how you learn about querying. Do it sooner rather than later.

I waited until I had the best story I had ever written to query. I had kinda-sorta queried agents before, but… not really. I tried once. With one novel. I sent it to 10 agents, shelved it, and never tried again. I wasn’t really trying, because I knew the book wasn’t that good and I wanted to write a better one.

And while that’s not bad–good on me for recognizing that I had a lot to learn!–I also missed out on a chance to learn about querying.

Query letters, synopses, how to find agents, how agents work, what to do when you get a request… These are all things you learn by querying agents. And it’s stressful. And emotional. And often upsetting.

It also gets easier with time.

It’s like all sorts of things: You start out clumsy and confused, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, and it’s stressful. But by the time I had sent out all my queries, I felt good. I was a pro at this. I knew what to do, what worked, and what didn’t. I hadn’t sold a book, but I had a pretty darn good run.

And I should have queried sooner. Because then I could have learned this all sooner, gotten it out of my system, and had a way easier time with this one.

OK, so before I get into this article, I wanted to do a teeny-tiny little disclaimer. I do have a novel that I’ve been trying to find a home for, so posting something titled “In Praise of the Unpublished Drawer Novel” probably sounds like a cry for help. It’s not! I’ll have more to say about that novel in a few months, but no. No one needs to grab me and shake me and tell me No, it’s not worth it! Don’t give in! I’m still truckin’.

So, with that out of the way, I quite liked this article, and not just because their trunked novel sounds amazing:

In Praise of the Unpublished Drawer Novel ‹ Literary Hub

In the age of self-publication, it’s tempting to publish everything. Because you can! (Almost) no story is off-limits! If you can’t sell something, you can still get your word-baby out there and into readers’ hands!

And that makes me… nervous. I remember how desperately I wanted to be published when I was younger, and oh my goodness gracious, I am so lucky that self-publishing wasn’t a thing then. Because I know I would have been tempted, and I know it would have been a disaster.

Let’s be honest: not all books deserve to be published. My first novels taught me an immense amount about what I wanted to write, what I was good at, and what I needed to work on. I thought my first series was decent when I wrote it, but I never seriously tried to sell it. And looking back on it now, I’m glad–the whole darn thing is clumsy, overwritten, confusing, and nowhere near the level of skill I’m at now.

And that’s okay. It takes a lot of strength to know when something should be shelved in an era where nothing really has to be. But sometimes, keeping “our ugly, unfit child locked in the basement” is the absolute best thing we can do.

For years, I had an extremely rigid writing schedule: I wrote 2 times a week for about 3 hours at a time. I’d usually do two days writing and one day editing, and I’d write somewhere around 4-5,000 words a week. It worked, it was wonderful, and I kept it going for 7 whole years.

And then I moved.

My whole schedule changed. My work schedule was different. My husband’s schedule was different. We were in a different time zone, I couldn’t talk to my friends or family at the same times I used to, I couldn’t sign on games at the same time and expect anyone else to be on, and I definitely didn’t have 3 solid hours, twice a week, to write.

So after whining and dragging my heels and trying desperately to make my 3-hour-super-runs work, I gave in. I decided to write one hour a day, every day. (Well, okay: Every weekday. I still keep my weekends beautifully open.)

I expected to hate it. But honestly? It’s great.

Here’s why. And before you start, a disclaimer: All of these are obvious. There’s a reason that you see Stephen King recommending “1,000 words a day” and not “a 3 hour super-rush where you write a 4,000-word chapter in a sitting.”

1. It’s easier to find a free hour than a three-hour block of time.

“Writing every day” felt like a huge, onerous task simply because I was used to “writing” = “an entire evening of work.” But an hour is easy. An hour is nothing. Pretty much everyone has an hour of free time somewhere in their day.

2. It’s not a big deal if I miss a day.

Life happens. Sometimes you have to go somewhere, do something, or work late. When that happened on one of my old 3-hour writing days, it was tragic–I had either reschedule my entire week, plan to write my full 5,000 quota in a day, or accept that I’d have a really pitiful week.

Missing one hour? Totally doesn’t matter. I can make that up easily.

3. It’s OK to stop if I’m not feeling it.

Some days suck. Some days I’ll just stare at the screen, hate every word I write, and discover that nothing is coming out of my brain at all. On a 3-hour day, I had to force myself to write stupid words on stupid paper and hate each stupid, stupid word, because otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done all week.

But if I’m having an awful day now? I can write 200 words, throw up my arms, and come back to it tomorrow. I can make that up later, too.

(That said, it’s good to push through writer’s block. But having to do it under the threat of an entire wasted week leads to a whole lot of unnecessary stress.)

4. It encourages me to keep writing instead of stopping after a chapter.

When I wrote a couple times a week, I usually had a concrete goal: Write until I hit the end of a chapter. That’s when my multi-hour writing spree could end.

But when you’re writing every day, you can’t really say “I’ll hit the end of this chapter and stop.” So you just… keep going. And going.

And, surprisingly, I’m actually writing more. I don’t have a “stopping point” if I have to write every day. And because of that, I’ve had exceptional weeks where I’ve cranked out 8,000 words. That isn’t normal for me, and it probably isn’t sustainable, but it never would have happened on my “write a chapter a week” schedule.

Basically: It’s just an easier schedule to maintain.

Obviously, you should schedule your writing time around your schedule, and any schedule works as long as you’re making meaningful progress.

But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I thought “writing every day” would be super hardcore, but this is actually easier. I thought “write 1,000 words a day” was just a way to strongarm new, aspiring writers into writing on a schedule–on any schedule–but no, it’s just good advice.

Oh, shoot! Has it really been three weeks since I last posted? I’m awful at this blogging thing.

But never fear! I have yet another writing resource that you might have seen already, because it came out weeks ago. But here you go: an interesting guest piece from Writer Beware:

Writer Beware®: The Blog: Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Yes, that is a toooootal clickbait title. But the message is good, believe me.

The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.

Cover of the 'Trees of Britain and Europe' novel showing different plants in Europe.

Hotlinked from Amazon.com

I still love field guides. A few weeks ago I wrote about how much I loved my new field guide about the Pacific Northwest. But, alas, I write faux-Victorian nonsense, and even straight-up fantasy-with-Victorian-flair sounds weird among the dense, old forests of the American northwest.

So I got two books off of Amazon: A Photographic Field Guide: Trees of Britain and Europe (linked from the image) and its sister-volume, Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. They aren’t incredibly awesome, since they have only one image per plant, and those images are very small. But really? I got both of them, plus shipping and handling, for under $10. You can’t argue with that.

They open with overviews of the geographical and climate types in Europe. This is all you need for some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding.

It’s really straightforward!