How to Finish Writing Your Novel: The Power of Scoreboards

I get asked “how I do it?” when people find out I write novels. And these aren’t just random people asking, people who can’t imagine writing six hundred or nine hundred page books because they hated writing essays in high school or college, these are writers who ask. I hang out on a number of writer forums and social media groups, and there are many really amazing, creative talents out there who want to write a novel, but they can’t seem to do it. These are the kinds of folks who try NaNoWriMo every so often, but never make it through—or they do make it through, but the novel isn’t done at the end, so, it sort of languishes and dies on their hard drive. It’s frustrating, and discouraging. But I think it’s because most people skip an essential tool: the scoreboard.

Writing a novel is like playing a game against yourself. You have your “dream self” and your lazy and/or distracted self. And, like any other big-time game, in the end there is a winner and a loser. The way that winner and loser are determined is by the score. Not by intent, not by desire, not even by talent. By score.

300 pages as opposed to 60 pages is a score.

Scores are tracked on scoreboards. All the sports do it. And they make them big. They’re huge, hoisted way up high so everyone can see them, up on poles in the end zone or on huge monitors hanging above center court/field/ice. There is no possible way to miss them. But why? Why is the score such a big-ass deal that it gets such massive display treatment?

Because the score matters.

The score is, in a way, everything. It is the indicator of victory. Without the score, what are you doing? Without the score, football is just a bunch of big brutes mashing into each other. You got a guy lining up under the guy at center, reaching into his crotch and touching his butt with his chin? Then they throw balls around. WTF is that? Without the score, it’s all meaningless. Score matters.

Quite often, score is a measure of two things: progress and time. The side that has the most progress at the end of the time wins. That matters.

So, when you are writing a novel, you are in that kind of game. Most writers, especially those who have taken a stab at NaNoWriMo, or who just spend any time reading about writing from the big time writers who write about this stuff, know the basics of setting up this game. But if you don’t, here’s a quick refresh.

How to Set a Basic Novel Word Count Goal

  1. Set a novel length you wan’t to hit (60,000 words is a nice short novel, and a good place to start).
  2. Set a REALISTIC daily word count (1,000 words per day is extremely doable, especially for the first novel and/or for someone with a full time job. For comparison to that, I use 1850 for my minimum, but usually hit around 3,000 per day, and sometimes get as many as 9,000).
  3. Set a date that you would like to be done (this is your total word count total divided by the daily word count goal plus a few days off. Example:  60,000/1000 = 60 days, and then add in some days off per week. 60 days is two months, so if you give yourself 1 day off a week, roughly 8 days. All said and done, you have a total goal of writing 60,000 words at 1000 words a day, with 1 day off a week, and being done 68 days from the day you start. So, if you start on October 1st, you will be done on December 7th).

So, that’s the part most writers already know, or have at least seen somewhere but never thought too much about. But what doesn’t happen from there, and what I believe is a huge, huge mistake and cause of failure, is that people set up their game with those goals, and then they don’t have a scoreboard to track it.

How can you possibly know in a real and immediate way, with the flick of your eyes, whether or not you are winning the game if there is no scoreboard? Humans are visual creatures. Our eyes are huge parts of how we process what is important. Our eyes are forward looking, predatory. We evolved that way. Cows and horses and deer, prey animals, look off to the sides. Wolves, hawks and… us, our eyes look forward. What we see matters in a deep and visceral way, intellectual and emotional. Scoreboards play into this in a very useful way.

So, all that set up out of the way, here’s all you have to do to build a simple and effective scoreboard. I’m going to show you a super basic scoreboard type. I suggest you do it just as it is here before trying to make them more complicated or more simple. Make the tool work for you first, one time, before you go redesigning it. We’ll call this the “Race with Time Scoreboard.”

Race with Time Scoreboard:
This scoreboard pits you against time. Think of this scoreboard as a race. Every day, every week, will have two lanes. You will be running in one track, time will be running in the other one. Whoever gets to the finish line first wins.

Step One – Calendar and Colors

Get a calendar of whatever size you like. Personally, I like a year-at-a-glance calendar like the one you see here (this is my 2012 calendar underway). I get these at Staples every year and they are cheap. Plus, they are made for dry erase pens, which is also cool. However, any calendar works. I used to use Boris Vallejo calendars, but a Raiders cheerleader calendar or a horses calendar or hot firemen…whatever you are into is okay as well.

Get some bright colored markers, highlighters or dry erase pens. Get colors you like. Or, get one color you hate for the timeline, and another you love for progress. Success is not without an emotional component, so have fun with it.

Step Two – Mark the goal

Now you have your calendar, mark the date for completion. This is the goal, the finish line, the end of the game—it’s where effort and time collide. If you don’t have a finish line, you have no way of knowing if you are winning or losing, and progress for the sake of progress is hard to sustain. Who wants to just keep working every day with no ending, no goal, no objective… just work? Um, no one. Not having a finish line is why so many people fail at finishing their books (and, frankly, other big goals be it college, weight loss, or whatever—this strategy goes way beyond just novels).

Step Three – Draw a horizontal dividing line

Split the days/weeks into two parts, two “lanes” or “tracks” if you will, one for time and one for your progress. You can do this neat and fancy, or you can do it quick and simple, whatever your taste (as you can see, I tend to go for quick and simple). As days progress, you will fill these in. This is the race track where the green timeline in lane 1 (top) will race me and my progress in lane 2 (bottom).

Step Four – Mark in daily word count goals

If the goal is 1000k words per day, for each day, write in what your total should be if you are on track. So, on the day you plan to start, you write 1000 or 1k in that square, then on the second day you write in 2k, etc. through the month (or months). You can write it in light with pencil, or do like I do, which is write it in with the color that will be using to fill in that “lane” when I reach that point. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just get the numbers down. Doing so makes it easier to mark scores every day without having to do math based on weekly totals and days off, etc. When you reach a certain word count, whatever day that is on (ahead of time or behind), that is the day you will fill in the square (your lane of it) with that value. Simple.

Step Five – Fill it in every day

One thing about Time, it never misses a day. So, every single day, you will have the green line advancing one calendar square, whether you wrote anything or not. That means, to beat time on my chart here (August’s shown here) I had to do my goal every day and, when possible, a bit more. If I fell behind, if I skipped a day, the green line started to get ahead of me. If I looked up at my scoreboard and saw that I was a day or two (or three!!!) behind, I HATED IT, so I’d crank it up a notch, stay up late, get up earlier, whatever, and get back on track.

When you look at your scoreboard, you know exactly how many days and words off (on or ahead) you are, and, not just that, but how that relates to your goal. It doesn’t feel good to be losing, and seeing yourself behind kind of works like a smack on the knuckles from Sister Mary Merciless and her yard stick to get you going again. On the flip side, seeing you are winning is great. It’s fun to win, and winning makes you FEEL GOOD.

Instead of having to wait until you are done with a whole manuscript to get a boost of pride (or settling for the fake reward trap of letting someone tell you how good your first chapters are because you stop writing and go for feedback instead of writing through to the finish line), you can feel good every single day when you color your square in and stay on target for your goal. It’s a smaller reward, but you get one every day if you stay on it. Coloring in a pink square ahead of a green one is the writer’s version of a touch down or a slam dunk. And it’s not just a metaphor. I promise, these are real endorphin rushes that do wonderful things for your sense of personal joy and even for your health (not to mention your dreams about writing).

Step Six – Win

Work every day. Take your days off if you must, but never more than your scheduled number. A 1,000 words a day is just not a lot to ask of yourself, if you really want to write. This blog entry is 1282 words long right now in the first draft version (probably longer by the time you get to see it), and it’s taken me just under forty minutes. Yes, I write a lot, yes, I type fast, and yes, this is not the sort of prose one expects to have in a novel (thank god, lol). However, the point should not be lost on you. If I can crank out 1282 words in under an hour, surely you can devote an hour or two to achieving your novel goal by getting your 1,000 words a day every day for sixty days with only one day off a week, or less.

Don’t fall behind. Write every day. Don’t get caught in the trap of: “Well, I’ll skip today, but make it up tomorrow.” That’s Pro Crastination talking. He plays for the other team.

Think about it: football teams don’t ever say, “You know what, we’re going to skip the next set of downs, and just punt on first down this time. We’ll make it up next series.” Pro golfers don’t choose to skip hole six just because they don’t feel like it and just go for an eagle on hole seven instead. Nobody living “the dream” does that. Don’t skip days. Make your word-count goal reasonable, fill out your scoreboard EVERY DAY, and enjoy how it feels to finish a novel. (This approach can actually be used for ANY big goal, be it weight loss, rebuilding an old car, making a quilt, growing a sales territory… you name it.)

So there you have it. Feel free to email me if you have any questions, need advice figuring out a scoreboard for revisions, editing or marketing—or even if you just want a terse, probably sarcastic kick in the pants from a guy who doesn’t take whiny excuses for not getting meaningful shit done.

13 thoughts on “How to Finish Writing Your Novel: The Power of Scoreboards”

  1. I am going to take it that by the tone of this message that you have finished Rift in the Races! *dances around the room* Well done!!! (Three exclamation marks; now you know this is exciting)

    And this particular post really hit home because, believe it or not, this is the exact problem that I help solve day in and day out for my job: how to make finishing projects easier and better to track. I work for a company called Atlassian and we make a products that do this for large Software Development teams. What you call Scoreboards we call Wallboards (http://www.atlassian.com/wallboards/) and what you call “setting a target number of words per time” we call “Running a Sprint” (https://confluence.atlassian.com/display/GH/Sprint) I mention this so that you can see that there are basically direct 1-1 parallels between the Software Development “Agile” Methodology and what you are suggesting here for writers. In-fact, I think you have re-invented the core of “Agile” software development for yourself but in terms of writing. The reason that I bring this all up is that (if you have any spare time in what I imagine is a busy schedule) then you should look up Agile software development and get the overview of what these people do in an attempt to “get shit done fast” (Example Google Search Result: http://www.servicedesignblog.com/read/article/agile-service-design-a-way-to-talk-less-and-get-shit-done/).

    P.S. I am not attempting to be a Shill for the company I work for since I am being open about it and I am not suggesting that you buy products but rather look over a new methodology and adopt anything that looks cool.
    P.P.S. Awesome post btw, I completely agree with everything in it.
    P.P.P.S. Camping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camping_%28gaming%29) this site for a Rift in the Races release date.

    1. @ Robert: I can totally see how making software would be a pretty direct parallel to writing novels. I think in the end, it all comes down to that old “How to eat an elephant” idea. And my little calendar, or your company’s software (or the Franklin-Covey stuff I went through a couple of times with different companies I’ve worked for), are all getting at the same thing: have a goal; write it down; set a time; track it; hold people accountable.

      And no worries, I don’t think you’re a company shill. You recognize something valuable, even life-changing, and you talk about it. I’m the same way. I read that article you linked, and it sounds very much like the Franklin-Covey stuff. The “Stand Ups” we had were called “huddles” and the approach was similar in many ways. I think systems like that are so valuable IF (capital IF there) people embrace them. One of the things I have seen (sadly) is companies who try to skip parts that are uncomfortable to them, that seem lame, or that relinquish control from managers who can’t handle that. Then they can’t figure out why it doesn’t work and they blame the program for being no good. I guess you can always count on humans to screw stuff up, eh?

      And yes, I finished the last round of editing. My editor has Rift in the Races now. I’ll get it back in a month-ish, then go through her changes, then it will be a few rounds of proofreading, and hopefully November will still have some days in it when I put it up.

  2. Found you through K-Boards. Great post! It’s so true…scorekeeping is so important. When I get lazy with time logs, projects languish…but when I keep track of my word counts, things get happy. 🙂

    Anyway, I love this idea of visually racing with time on the calendar, and I’m gonna give it a go. Thanks for this!

    1. You’re welcome, Angela. I hope it proves as useful for you as it has for me. Thanks for coming by and having a look at the post too. 🙂

  3. John, this indeed brilliant – I may just go out and buy me a erasable calendar! I’ve suffered through agile development, but as it invariably happens in a team environment it rarely works in my experience because it doesn’t take into account the different levels of competence and motivation of the team members

    This approach is brilliant though – because writers work alone – I think it could work!

    1. I hope it does help you, Lis. I know it works for me, and you sort of get better at using it the more you do it. At first it might feel like a gimmick, but if you really make yourself do it for at least a month, using it becomes habit, and… you can just get so much done. Good luck, and let me know how it goes. I’m genuinely curious to hear.

  4. Funny. Someone from HP just emailed this link to me. I happened to read it while watching the end of the Bears/Cowboy game. I think the environment was just right for this sort of solid advice. I’m in the process of putting a hit out on Pro Crastination. Of course, I don’t have a ton of cash, so someone will have to do it cheap, but I know I’ll find some takers!

    This is pretty awesome. I think I may even try it in October to get a head’s up on NaNoWriMo.

    1. Yeah, Pro Crastination is a douche.

      I hope it works for you as amazingly well as it does for me. Commit to to it and at least give the methods of really accomplished people like Steven Covey and Ben Franklin a chance to work for you. It might seem weird or silly at first, but, I mean, just look at those guys.

  5. Great post, John. A regular spreadsheet works for me. After a couple of years of bumming around and generally considering myself a failure I set one up in June with a goad of 1000 a day. I’ve just passed 175,000 total words since then, and each month I better the previous month. I keep it all on the spreadsheet, and there’s always a little goal to meet, either the daily count, the monthly count, the total count, the no. of pages (at 300w/page), or the count on the actual WIP I’m working on (I currently have four main ones in progress). I regularly hit 2k/day, sometimes more (yesterday was a fat 5k, breaking through the plot knot on TR2). I work full and part time so I’m pretty happy with that. Deadlines/targets just help some people better than others, but I definitely need those little targets to stop me getting lazy.

    1. Damn, dude, you bust out 5k while working full time and part time: you win the Monster of Prose award in my book. That’s hardcore. A lot of days I just burn out at 3k or so. I try to keep going but the writing gets flat and lazy and I can tell I’m tired and just making fodder for the Delete key. Not always though, I had a rare moment today as a matter of fact, but mostly 3k is reasonable. I work on marketing stuff, blogs, book reviews, website stuff, editing, outlines, graphics, research or watch/read writing classes (found a cool series out of University of Iowa I’m watching right now. It’s kind of an undergrad class on video, but he’s got some great pointers and its teaching from an angle none of my writing classes ever hit before, so, I like it.).

      Anyway, you are brute for production, and you’ve definitely been cranking out stuff as I recall seeing. I have one of your short works on my Kindle that I have yet to read, I forget the title, but seems like it has a blue cover with a lightning bolt on it. I think it’s still got seven other books in front of it before I read it though, lol (yes, I stick to my list pretty tightly lol). Looking forward to TR2 (saving a spot on the aforementioned list for it), I truly am, and I hope you let me know the second it comes out so I can be cool at the bar and brag, “Yeah, I was one of the first ones to read that!”

      1. Haha, the 5k was on a Sunday! However, here’s a little secret – teaching English in an Japanese high school is not particularly taxing, and some days I’m completely free of classes/prep to do. Sitting at the back of the teacher’s room means I can get a bit done on the laptop, although being at home in the silence of my living room is always where the best work comes. Some days, such as yesterday, I’m flat out – three classes at school plus 200 reports to mark, then three private classes after school, but I still managed to bang out 1k between 11.30 and midnight. Still, I hate those days I don’t any decent writing time.

        You’ve got Forks, I think. That’s a cool story (so says me…), its my attempt at black comedy. My upcoming novella series is in a similar vein (minus the bad language), lots of stupid jokes and bizarre situations. Fun to write!

        Sounds like you’re dedicated! I just don’t have time for all that other stuff as much. If I ever start to make a hundred bucks or so a month I’ll can the private classes though so at least I’ll have evenings free. That’s the first stage!

        Write … back to righting … (or something like that)

        1. Yeah, time is hard, but you sound like you have a decent job to accommodate your art though, for now. And my gut tells me Tube Riders 2 will rock, so, you may be surprised what you can afford after that.

          (Stupid jokes RULE, btw.)

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