Lessons from the word trenches

Previously, on The Pastry Box, our intrepid hero was preparing for National Novel Writing Month, a grueling slog through 50,000 words of the novel she started when she was 13 and which, despite a half dozen rewrites, she had never finished. Let’s join today’s episode, already in progress:

So, it’s done.

Well, it’s as done as it’s getting until January. I put it aside (as recommended by smart people) and as much as I really really want to be editing it right now, it will wait.

Meanwhile, not-writing my book has given me a chance to think about writing my book. Specifically, about how, for the first time in nine years of NaNoWriMo history, I was not only on schedule with the books, but ahead of schedule. I was ahead of schedule despite working the entire month, despite a trip out of state for a pinball tournament, and despite hosting Thanksgiving. Obviously, this was a new state of affairs for me, one that, if I could harness its magic, could increase my design and development productivity as well.

The secret was a little thing called NaNoWordSprints, run by the Municipal Liaisons on the @NaNoWordSprints twitter account. Here’s how it worked:

  1. You decided you wanted to write.
  2. You checked the sprint account, where one of the sprint leaders would at quasi-regular intervals announce the beginning of a sprint, often with a word count goal and/or a prompt to give you an idea for the story (if you were running low).

    Alrighty! Let’s get started. We’re going for 20 minutes. Optional Prompt: Birthday cake Dare: Poison WCG: 450 GO!

    — NaNoWordSprints (@NaNoWordSprints) November 30, 2014

  3. When the sprint started, you wrote like crazy, concentrating on nothing but writing. When the sprint ended, you congratulated yourself, took a breath, backed up your novel, went to the bathroom, etc.

That was it. Sprints ran, well, all day every day, with the occasional few-hours break when no one was available to host. In other words, if you couldn’t fit in a few ten-minute sprints in your day, it was your own fault.

When I started sprinting, I quickly found that concentrating on writing was the hardest part. The longer the sprint, the easier it was to get distracted by other things: research, social media, random butterflies out the window, whatever. The short sprints were easy. I was there to write, I wrote. It wasn’t always my best work, but it wasn’t my worst, either. It was enough to get the job done. And the more often I sprinted, the better I got at longer and longer sprints, until I was occasionally blowing straight through the sprint limits and write for up to an hour at a time with no breaks and no distractions.

It turns out, surprise surprise, that concentrating, like everything else we do, is a skill that requires practice. @NaNoWordSprints gave me anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours of practice a day. By the end of the month (which I was blissfully on vacation) I was averaging 5,000 words a day.

NaNoWriMo’s sprints are very similar to another time management method called the Pomodoro Technique. This method employs a kitchen timer to measure the length of the sprints. You set the length, and the goal, and the amount of time between sprints, or pomodori, as they’re called. If you don’t have a kitchen timer but you do have a smartphone, you can download a pomordo application.

The key is not the application or the timer. The key is building the skill of blocking out distractions so that no matter how small the window we have to work, we can get meaningful work done.

We often complain about not having the time to do our jobs or get work done, and it’s very true that design and development work, like writing, is best done when we have a big chunk of time to concentrate on a big chunk of work. At the same time, we don’t always get a big chunk of time. If you’re like me, you get a few breaks between meetings a day, and most days you’re happy if you can keep up with your email. So when a break comes, you’ve got to be able to dive in and just concentrate on what you’re doing. The Pomodoro Technique, or sprinting, or timeboxing, or whatever similar methodology you pick, teaches concentration, which in turn, results in websites. And websites are the ultimate goal.

Or site maps. Or presentations. Or code.

Or novels. Tasty tasty completed novels.