A look back at my productivity in 2020 and a new plan for the new year

Last year around this time, I had just discontinued my project of over a decade, scrapped years of writing, and was trying to reset my compass again in strange waters. So, I knew before things even got weird out in the world that I was in for a rough 2020. And where the pandemic brought other people’s plans to a halt, it forced me in close with mine. After all, what’s there to do with a year indoors but write?

Since 2020 represented such an intense period of uncertainty, discovery, and growing pains, I want to start off 2021 by looking back at the goals I set myself one year ago. Where did things go right? Where did I fall short? And where do I want to make adjustments going into year two of this already ridiculous decade?

These were my intended projects for 2020:

  • The trilogy follows four spies, each doing a different job for the matriarchal government of an ancient city-state. Lemurs are involved. It’s weird. Details later.
     
  • The duology is a retooling of an f/f Mulan retelling I first attempted years ago. Fortunately, the thing that didn’t work about Attempt 1 was not the plot but the historical setting (which gets messy as soon as you start pulling from Mulan myths of different eras). So far, transplanting the same plot beats into a high fantasy setting has gone much better.

So, how did these go? Well, I’m glad I had the foresight not to estimate a release schedule because both these concepts took months of trial-and-error runs before I figured out exactly what I wanted to do with them. As of right now, I have book 1 of both projects straight on their tracks and moving forward.

Sazuma preliminary book cover

“The trilogy,” now titled SAZUMA, is releasing one chapter at a time on Patreon and not much has changed from that very loose premise I wrote last year. There are still lemurs and it’s still weird. Of all my ongoing projects, this one is the most intimidating to write, since it represents my first foray into both mystery and political intrigue, but I’m having fun so far. We’re currently two chapters in.

“The duology,” now titled GUNPOWDER MAGNOLIA, I’ve also serialized on Patreon. This one has departed dramatically from my original concept, doesn’t very much resemble any version of Mulan, and may not end up as a duology. We’re currently just one chapter in, but there’s a new one coming out this month!

In last year’s post, I also wrote: “Of these two concepts, the one that writes faster may turn into a new newsletter serial while I take my time with the slower-going one.”

Well, instead of doing that, I started a third totally separate newsletter serial called Seven Forsaken. Set in the same universe as Sazuma and Gunpowder Magnolia, this slow-burn sci-fi/fantasy follows a priest-turned-mercenary… who also turns into a snake. Ironically, of my new projects, this latecomer is the farthest along at seven chapters (all free through the newsletter) with an eighth chapter coming later this month.

In addition to my potential writing projects for 2020, I also set myself some mental health and productivity goals, so we’re going to check how those went.

Goal 1 for 2020 was the following:

  • Track my word count. Measuring productivity by word count has gone poorly for me in the past, resulting in scenes that go too long instead of getting finished faster, but that was a long time ago. I like to think I’ve become a smarter writer since my last NaNoWriMo and gamifying any task makes it more fun for me, so I think it’s worth a try. I’m going to make a spreadsheet!

I embarked on 2020 with a daily word-count goal of 3,000, which I reduced to 2,000 after two weeks revealed that the 3k resulted in zero quality control—and I do like to maintain a little quality control, even in a first draft. I managed to maintain the 2k per day word count for a few months before complications in my personal life knocked me off track and I never went back to plugging daily numbers into the spreadsheet.

So, I guess I’d give myself a D (60%? 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads?) for this goal. That said, I think that I kept the quantity first writing approach for about as long as I should have. It gave me a chance to go broad and deep with my new ideas straight out of the gate so that when it came time to step back and assess what was working and not, I had a lot of material on which to base my decisions. Thanks to that early 2-3k a day, I was able to figure out quickly which ideas I wanted to pursue and which weren’t working so well.

As I worried in 2019, bloat and mess become serious issues when I write too much too fast a la NaNoWriMo. I’ve been known to write 400k of a story without producing a single, linear, readable chapter. That’s why this year (now that I know which stories I want to pursue) I’m setting my goals in finished chapters instead of word count.

Gunpowder Magnolia preliminary cover

Each month, I’ll publish one chapter of Seven Forsaken for the newsletter (as I have been for the past several months), one chapter of Sazuma or Gunpowder Magnolia for the Patreon, plus a third chapter, if I can swing it, in addition to the other chapters and short stories I have in the works.

My chapters clock in at 4k-12k words each. This means that between the 2-3 chapters and other writing, we’re going to be looking at around 30k words a month instead of the 60k+ I was shooting for at the beginning of 2020. But I’ve found through years of struggling to clean up my fast-written messes that a reader-ready 30k is worth far more than an uncontrolled 60k.

Goal 2 from 2020:

  • Spend WAY less time on social media. Something I learned in 2019 is that on the days I’m in a good mood, social media either doesn’t affect me or gives me an energy boost. On the other hand, on the days I’m already down, the smallest online thing will put me straight through the floor into depression (sometimes even positive attention online gives me anxiety, it’s so dumb). On those precarious days, I need to make sure I stay offline and busy with other things. So, if I vanish from Twitter for a week, it’s not because I’m dead or I don’t care about your thing; I’m just writing and probably still accessible by email if you really need me.

I aced this one with extra credit by blocking social media sites on all my devices early in the year and then only unblocking them for critical announcements, like The Sword of Kaigen audiobook going live. A resounding A+, 5 out of 5 on Goodreads, would recommend to all my friends.

I’ll be keeping social media blocked for the rest of this year. At the end of 2019, I was fussed about what social media did to my mood but, having spent this time away, I actually think that the most devastating effect it had was on my focus. A social media feed, whether it makes me giddy, angry, sad, or just passingly entertained, always pulls me out of my writing headspace. If I let my brain shift gears to absorbing Twitter discourse, checking up on Facebook acquaintances, or falling down a Youtube rabbit hole, it can take hours to haul myself back to writing mode. Some days, I never make it back, and the day is a loss. I don’t want any days like that in 2021, so the social media is staying off.

I’ll look into very carefully getting back online and “rebranding” when I have new books to launch but until then, I’m out.

And the third goal from last year:

  • More royalties to charity. I did a thing during December where I donated a portion of my royalties to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). That December special ($1 per book sold) isn’t sustainable through a whole year, but I do want to continue donating 20 cents from each sale for the rest of 2020 (20 cents not just because it’s a cute ‘2020’ thing but because it’s easy for my dumb brain to track: 10 books = 1 mosquito net). I’m hoping this will make it easier for me to focus on writing and marketing when I’m gripped with otherwise impotent panic about the state of the world, which has sadly been a problem for me.

I guess I get an A on this one? It’s not grueling work to periodically check the number of books sold, multiply that by .20, and donate that to AMF. I would give myself an A+ but I meant to donate monthly and I ended up being way more sporadic about it, resulting in my finances being more confusing than they needed to be. Keeping tidier records for tax purposes is definitely on my list of things to improve in 2021 but that’s way too boring to blog about, so as far as charity…

I’m going to continue giving 20 cents per sale to fight malaria in 2021… plus 5 cents for birds. Let me explain.  

AMF is my go-to charity because malaria is a leading killer of children and pregnant women in the afflicted regions (which include many of the countries that inspired the world-building for Theonite and Altima) and can be reduced with the use of mosquito nets that are relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute. AMF has been identified by Givewell as underfunded, transparent, evidence-based, and likely to save the maximum number of lives per dollar. So, most of my charity money is going to keep going there.

However, given how much my cuddly little parrot (Sulu) has helped me through the back half of this bizarre year, I want to set aside an additional 5 cents per sale for parrot-related conservation projects. Right now, I’m looking at Rainforest Trust, which purchases threatened forest to protect endangered species and seems to have a good track record. I’m still researching.

So, between my three goals for 2020, I averaged a respectable B+ (that’s 85%, for my non-American friends). In 2021, I’ll be gunning for 100%.

My main takeaway from this 2020 retrospective is that I wasn’t too dumb there at the end of 2019. I had a realistic grasp of the kind of work I wanted to do as well as the experiments I needed to run to get myself going in the right direction. Most of my plans held up through the practical constraints and emotional upheavals of an otherwise awful year and, writing-wise, I think I’ve come out better than I went in. The old compass might have been awobble but it wasn’t broken.

Lest I come off too smug here, I want to say that I did drop the ball hard on some of my 2020 goals; I just haven’t blogged about them because they have little to do with writing. The main one was physical exercise and the most drastic changes from last year’s plan to this year’s have to do with that. Laughably, all my 2020 fitness goals involved getting back to karate and maybe supplementing with other martial arts I was excited to try for the first time. I’d looked up HEMA in my area, BJJ, MMA, altogether a lot of grabbing people and breathing on them, so… Going into 2021, I have a treadmill desk, a daily push-up quota, and lots of snow to shovel. That’s just going to have to do until the world is open for fun again.

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