My dad is a runner. For as long as I can remember (the bulk of my life), he competed in local 10ks and every single work day would go out to the track and run during lunch–then have a pack of Nabs and a Sprite. He’s a consistent kind of guy. He also subscribed to Runners World, and I remember picking it up from time to time when I flirted with running myself (this is not a habit that ever stuck–my knees don’t allow it and I pretty much despise it). I remember reading an article once about running a Test Mile. The idea in the article was that some days you’re just not feeling it. But you don’t always know when those days are. You might just have a rough start and then hit your stride. Or you really might just be having an off day. The article proposed that every day, no matter what, you should run a test mile. By the end of that mile, you’re going to know whether it’s a meh day or if you just needed to warm up first. Either way, the idea is that you run that test mile to keep your body conditioned and in shape. It’s probably a sign that I am not and have never been a runner that running a mile always felt like I was killing myself.
But the principle of the test mile can be applied to writing. I mentioned somewhere in here recently that Pot asked me why I continued to write every day, even if what I was producing was effectively crap (my words, not hers) that didn’t advance the plot. She felt that my time would be better spent in thought, figuring out those details missing from my plot rather than writing just to write. So I took that time off, worked out some of those details and issues with my plot. I didn’t write. And I did figure out quite a lot. Then when I sat back down to write some two weeks later, I froze. As I’ve been slowly easing back into it this week, remembering that hey, I actually do still remember how to do this, it’s been a very salient reminder of why I try to write every single day. Those words are my test mile–or test pages, I suppose. It’s the writing I do to keep myself in mental shape, to keep it forefront in my mind that I do actually know what I’m doing. Even if those words don’t advance the plot, they keep me in the game, so to speak.
But, as Pot does have a good point (she always does) it seems like I should make some kind of compromise. Historically, my daily goal is 1k a day. That’s dropped back this summer for a variety of reasons, and there have been more than the average number of crap days where I spent HOURS trying to eek out those words just to make my goal. So I think I need to change the rules a bit. I’ll keep my daily goal (not sure what that is going to be yet–my semester hasn’t started and I’m teaching three sections this fall on top of my 40 hour a week job), but I’m going to set a secondary goal–the test mile/pages. The bare minimum, I’m going to write this much every day, no matter what, just to keep myself in the game. If it’s pulling teeth the whole time, I’ll stop then and switch over to plotting out. I’ll give myself a break without just not writing, which always dulls whatever edge I’ve got. I feel like, overall, I will waste less time using this method, even if I have some crap days, than I will if I don’t write at all those days and then take days or weeks to get back in the groove because I stopped.
So what’s a reasonable writing test mile? That’s going to vary from person to person. For someone who is able to spend hours a day writing, their average output might be 3k a day. A test mile for them could be 1k. In my case, as my writing time is severely limited, at most I usually can only produce 1k a day (possibly more when I’m really in the Zone, but that’s rare). This fall, as my responsibilities as a teacher pick up, I may only be able to squeeze in 750. It seems like a good rule of thumb might be to have a test mile of 1/3rd your goal. So if I stick to 750 words, 250 would be my test mile. 1k, 333 (ish). These are generally managable, no matter how badly the work is going.
How about you? If you did a test mile, how many words would yours be?