The thing about writing a book is — pardon the obviousness — you have to write a whole lot of words.
Now, plenty of bloggers do lots of writing, over a period of six months or a year they might easily reach the 80-100,000 word sum of a typical book. There are two big differences for the author of a book: First, you’ve got to write according to a plan, so that the little bricks of words you are piling up form something coherent and shapely, whereas bloggers win a free pass to be discursive each time they hit “post.” Second, bloggers’ work is fueled by a daily reward of feedback and reaction to their posts, whether it’s an onslaught of comments or just a small jump on the site-traffic meter. Authors don’t get that. That is why, so often, we devise systems of our own — tracking systems to help keep ourselves on plan, to know whether we’re ahead or behind, and personal reward mechanisms, to provide incentives across arduous weeks and months.
My tracking system is simple: a small spreadsheet with word-count quotas and tallies. I don’t really need to do this, but the ritual of recording each day’s verbal production keeps me moving. The reward mechanism is even simpler.
I have a taste for red licorice. I grew up loving an odd Danish confection called Broadway Licorice Rolls — you got four little rolls of tape-like shapes in a plastic foil wrapping from the candy-store counter. Far as I can tell, they no longer exist. (A brand called Delfa Rolls was distributed online until recently, but is now marked discontinued.) The closest substitute I have found is Haribo red licorice wheels. I buy them in bulk and dump a big bag in a candy jar in my office. When I’m writing a book, each day after I’ve drafted my target amount of prose — usually 1000 words, sometimes more if I’m behind — I mark the occasion with one or two of these fragrant corn-syrup-solid bonbons.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; or rather, I know there are two groups of you out there. One group is snorting with derision at this crude methodology — self-doping with sugar! All I can say to them is, you do whatever it takes to get the job done. The other bunch is thinking, “How do you avoid stuffing your face every time you hit a rough spot?” All I can say to them is, that would feel like cheating at solitaire. Maybe I scored when they passed out the genes for delayed gratification.
On yesterday’s Fresh Air the science writer Jonah Lehrer was describing a bit of brain research that he discusses in his new book How We Decide. Test subjects divided into two groups were asked to memorize numbers. One group was assigned two digit numbers, the other seven digit figures. Then the members of each group were offered a choice between some sort of gooey, fatty dessert and an austere fruit salad. Of course the seven-digit crew opted much more heavily for the junk food than the double-digit gang.
This result, according to Lehrer, displayed how easily the prefrontal cortex can be overtaxed. The task of remembering the longer numbers had impaired the subjects’ long-term decision-making capacity — the part of their brains that would say, “Don’t eat that crud, it’s bad for you.”
Maybe so. Lehrer has read the study and I haven’t. I only know that as I heard him describe the experiment, and before he offered his interpretation, I sat there and thought: of course the seven-digit people went for the sugar. They’d been asked to do something hard! Now they were rewarding themselves.
- 3 March, 2009 @ 10:34 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- 3 March, 2009 @ 9:20 by Scott Rosenberg