The Test Mile

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?

4 thoughts on “The Test Mile

  1. I would think, maybe on plotting days you could do random creative writing that isn’t necessarily for the project you’re working on, but will keep your writing muscles loose.

  2. Not a bad idea for most people but see, I have a secret–I’m really a new project addict. Recovering. I have an enormous addiction to starting new stuff and falling in love with new characters and plots and losing my focus on my current WIP–it’s why I didn’t finish anything for so many years and why there are like 35 manuscripts in various stages of completion in the annals of my hard drive…

  3. I do know what you mean about taking time off and then sitting down and having blank screen fear, so it’s a good point.

    And the test mile is an interesting idea.

    When I sit down to write a scene (and you know that I work in scenes and not word-count), I generally know some stuff about it. I usually know something about why it’s there, who’s going to be in it, and what it is I’m trying to show, set up, or what have you. When I actually get into the writing of it, I well be surprised by what happens, the turns that it takes, the specifics of how the characters choose to get my point across or what else they bring to the story as they do that, but that’s all ok and actually good.

    But if I don’t know these things, it’s very hard for me to start just writing something in draft-mode. I get that blank page fear and I’m just stuck. So if I’m determined to face the blankness on the screen with the blankness in my head, I have to go into notes-mode. I write in a different tense and with an entirely different perspective. Sometimes I think of this as “writing in” to the scene because often that’s what will happen. Some time in the middle of my notes I’ll find that I’ve switched tenses, found a character perspective, and I’ll be writing a scene. Then I have to go back and make all the early stuff match the later stuff. Or if I never fell into draft-mode, I have a set of notes to read at the beginning of my next writing session to settle myself, get into character, and fall into it next time.

    I wouldn’t have thought of going to notes-mode as a test mile, but the idea of writing until things fall into place and you hit your stride does make sense to me. And I think that’s really the heart of what I meant by sit down and do some thinking instead of all this producing, because to me they are very different things. I think the word-count goals are great, especially if you have clarity on where you want to go and you’re good at getting there without going off on tangents, etc. But I think they also put a lot of pressure on you and sometimes it gets to the point where you’re no longer thinking and developing a story, you’re just getting words onto the page that are confusing you and the story rather than helping you along.

    So to answer the question, my test-mile would be more likely to be a timed exercise than a word count. The amount of time would be dependent on how much time I had to put into the writing generally at the time, but if I’m in notes mode for 30-40 minutes (and I mean really in it where I’m not trying to carry on conversations about something else at the same time, watch TV, or solve household crises) and nothing’s clicked for me yet, it’s a pretty good bet that I’m not going in the right direction and I need to reboot.


  4. For me, writing is cyclical. I’ve joked about the moon phase affecting me, but that’s not far from the truth. Hormone levels vary greatly, and there is some scientific evidence that our brains work differently throughout the monthly cycle. Some days we’ll perform higher at analytical tasks — others we’ll be more free-spirited creative.

    Even a book, or writing as a career, are cyclical. We can’t write new words every single day. We may have other writing tasks that are just important: querying, editing, researching, just to name a few. The trick is finding a balance that works for you.

    I do totally agree that writing — whether new words or not — needs to happen every day for me. I don’t always write new words in a story — but I’m either revising, brainstorming, plotting, etc. for something. I do work toward an average of 1K a day throughout the year, but in reality, that’s just not going to happen. e.g. I finished Road, well over 100K earlier this year, with averages well over 1K a day in May. That was a success. But if I look at June and July where I barely got any words a day, that might look bad. In reality, I was resting, refilling the well, and transitioning to other projects.

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