So, for as long as I’ve put serious effort into writing, I’ve been tracking everything I begin and everything I finish. I mostly only celebrate what I finish, but today is going to be different. However, to do that, you have to understand when and how a story becomes — or doesn’t become — complete.
Since I started this tracking all the way back in 2004, I’ve developed basically a 3-stage writing process.
Stage 1 is the idea dump. I have a running document of ideas that I just gush out when they arrive, no censoring or editing. They’re numbered, and as time passes I either develop them into stories or decide the idea wasn’t worth saving and move it off the page. At present, that document is 27 pages long with 47 entries on it. (I probably need to thin it out again, honestly.) Stage 1 is where ideas get recorded so they’re not forgotten, and far more make it to reality than get discarded overall.
Stage 2 is the baby steps. I open a blank doc and start the story in some way. Maybe I only write a couple of lines of actual story and spend the rest of the page elaborating on my original idea with notes and outline info. Maybe I write the scene that came to me in full color and sound and try to work out what story goes around it. Either way, Stage 2 is my middle ground. Some stories, especially shorter works or stories that don’t need much in-depth outlining, get finished in Stage 2. I go from a doc of notes and bits to a whole completed work all in the same file.
But more and more frequently, as I get more serious, more focused, and as my outlining (and plotting) gets more complex, I advance to Stage 3. That’s where The Spreadsheet comes in.
Stage 3 is where I create a spreadsheet with a minimum of 3 tabs on it. Tab 1 is where I track my daily writing. Any day I work on the project, I record how many words it has at the end and compare to where it started. And I do nerdy things like check my average wordcounts, my min and max, etc. Tab 2 is my chapters tab where I put my outline, but broken up by chapter. I note all the beats and scenes I know are coming and update as I go with the ones I didn’t find until I got there. And I track how many words are in each chapter, what the chapter title is, etc.
From there, The Spreadsheet expands as fits the need of the project. For my Urban Fantasy, for example, I had a tab of all my characters and their info, a tab of “big notes” which was 2/3rds worldbuilding reminders for myself and 1/3rd links to useful resources, a tab showing the parallel plots with crossovers called out, and a tab tracking feedback from my beta readers. (I also have a whooooole spreadsheet for the query process, but that’s a different thing altogether.)
The Spreadsheet is my way of organizing my thoughts but also keeping myself accountable. If I’m not averaging at least 1,000 words every time I sit down to write, it helps me work harder. If I’m sensing a problem in the pacing, playing with my chapters in an outline list helps me spot where I need to adjust. And, frankly, most things I write are heavily dependent on information from elsewhere — maps, bits of history or science, reference pictures — and it’s easier for me to have it all in one place.
Stage 3 is where I have clearly declared that I’m taking a story seriously. I can’t say I’ve never gotten all the way to that level of planning and abandoned a work, but it’s rare. Stage 1 is a paper airplane, just a dream taking flight. Stage 2 is a hanglider — you can get around that way, but you can’t go far and you can’t weather a storm. Stage 3 is a proper airplane that will carry you across an ocean or above a hurricane.
Anyway. I told you all that so I could tell you this.
Since 2004, this process has worked wonders for me. I’ve spent close to 20 years tracking all my works from the shortest of short stories to the longest of novels. I’ve tracked when I’ve done character backgrounds or worldbuilding in TTRPGs as well as creative writing that will never see the light of day even on the internet. And I’ve also tracked when I advanced every project out of Stage 1. Maybe it’s 90% notes and only 10% story, or maybe it got to Stage 3 and has a spreadsheet before I put it aside for good, but I’ve tracked them all.
Last night, as I was organizing my spreadsheet for my YA that is fully in Stage 3, I got curious about those abandoned works.
Guess what I found?
Here is my writing tracker as it stands right now. This is completed works only, original, fic, TTRPG. But these are stories that are done only, no notes or outlines included:
Then I added up the wordcount for everything that has ever been started but discarded. I wasn’t careful with recording those — if the doc is 90% notes and 10% story, I still took the full wordcount of the doc rather than figuring out which bits were me talking to myself and which were narrative. Which means this figure is inflated.
Do you want to know the wordcount of stories I’ve begun in any way since 2004 but never finished?
52 individual works for a total of 329,901 words
Which means, in essence, of the 3,890,763 total words I’ve written since 2004, only a maximum of 8.5% has gone unfinished.
(And a lot of it doesn’t count. There’s fully 40,000 words of those discarded works which were folded into the Urban Fantasy story nearly wholesale. A lot of notes are counted in that 329,901, too, which I would never count in my finished works. So it’s inflated no matter how you look at it.)
Put another way…apparently once I advance a story from Stage 1 to Stage 2, I finish it 91.5% of the time if you go by wordcount. Going by count of works instead, it’s still a success rate of 78.5%. Either way, the vast majority of the time, if I begin, I finish.
Maybe it’s because I’m selective with my projects, with what I even consider putting any effort into. Maybe it’s because my process helps me stay focused and disciplined. Maybe it’s just because I’m damn stubborn about my writing.
But still. It’s a badass stat and I’m proud of it as a writer. I’m proud that I have come so far and can complete so much. I’m proud that every single work I have ever written is better than what came before it, even now. I’m proud of getting this far and I’m excited to get farther.
Sometimes when I’m struggling to be creative, it helps me to do a little analytical magic on my own accomplishments. It gives me a little scorecard, and that gives me a boost. And while I may still be learning, I think I’m a pretty good student getting pretty good grades here.
Time to go make progress on that YA that I’ve begun and get it to the finish line too. I’ve got a pattern to uphold here!