Taking Stock

I used to fret over my penchant for organization and analysis, thinking good writers were so right-brained they could hardly hold their heads up. Thanks to the “dancer test,” I breathed a big sigh of relief: by this measure, I couldn’t be more right-brained. (Though retaking it to set up this link, I turned up balanced, seeing both right and left movement.) The so-called test may have little validity, but it helped me debunk the right-brained myth and embrace the brain I was born with.

Organization, analysis, and evaluation are terrific writer skills, as long as you don’t turn them loose prematurely or in the wrong places. They’re especially helpful when you’re trying to get a handle on the big picture: the trajectory of your writing career.

Why worry about trajectory? Why not just write? Mostly, that’s what I do. But unless you’re writing wholly and completely for pleasure, with not the tiniest concern about whether you’ll be published or get paid, it doesn’t make sense to keep stumbling around without ever taking stock of your efforts.

Having embraced spreadsheets to organize data for a couple of freelance gigs, I decided to use one to sort through the unpublished projects I’d collected over the past ten years or so. Like most writers, I have a pretty good handle on what I’ve published: 2 YA novels, 3 picture books (plus one forthcoming), 1 middle grade (2010), 1 nonfiction for adults, and 2 travel guides. What I needed to probe was the stuff in my own personal slush pile.

I set up a spreadsheet with these headings: title, length, partial/full, genre, characters, premise, voice, comments, and assessment. I created a ranking system, one through five, with one being “no hope” and five being “ready to submit,” and three columns for numerical rankings: character, premise, and overall assessment. Then I mined my Word docs. Only partial or full manuscripts made the cut. I copy/pasted snippets from my drafts into the voice column, and I tagged a few of the more prominent voices in the character column.

The process took about four hours, start to finish. I sorted and resaved the spreadsheet several ways: alpha order by title, alpha order by genre, numerical order by assessment, and alpha order by action. I totaled my words: a whopping 546,964 words of unpublished manuscripts in ten years, compared to roughly (I haven’t done a spreadsheet for this) 200,000 words of published manuscript over the same time frame. That was a surprise: I’d have estimated the ratio of unpublished to published to be much wider. But my figures don’t include journals and multiple drafts.

More importantly, the tables give me a snapshot of what I want to return to and why. I found three picture book manuscripts that have potential as magazine sales (if I can get past the fact that I still haven’t been paid for my last magazine effort, published some ten months back). I found four manuscripts I’d like to use in my own self-directed workshops, playing around with various aspects of story without feeling pressure to produce a finished product. And I found five that made my short list for attention next year.

Of course, I don’t plan to just mine my old stuff. I love diving into new stories, fresh and full of possibilities. But sometimes it’s good to take stock.

2 thoughts on “Taking Stock”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow, that is an approach I'd never considered! Interesting indeed.

    I'm more likely to run with my head down, afraid to look back at how many unpublished things I've written, what the overall trends have been. Your clear-eyed analysis has given me something to think about today.

  2. That sounds like a good idea. It makes you take a look at everything all at once. You might even see connections between WIPs that you never noticed.

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