I was taking a break from writing the other day, and I happened to run into my neighbors who were out walking their dog Fergus.
“How’s the writing going?” “What page are you on?” they asked.
I said I’d written about thirty-four pages since the last time we spoke. I was quick to add, “But page count isn’t very meaningful. It’s not like I’m reading a book and am on page 34.” Most people read from beginning to end, but almost no one writes that way. Even a seat-of-the-pants writer still pens a rough draft, a second draft, etc. to produce a finished piece.
I told my neighbors that, for me, writing was more like watching a .gif downloading.
For those of us old enough to remember the early days of the Internet, bandwidth was limited and it used to take forever to download an image. But the.gif compression algorithm did something extremely clever. Instead of plotting one pixel at a time, which would have been boring, it gave you the whole image all at once, but in very coarse resolution. then, is the download continued, the image sharpened into something crisp and well-defined.
Downloading a.gif (portrait of Richard III)
The early, highly pixelated image is like an outline or a general idea of where the story is going. The recognizable but blurry image in the middle is like a rough draft, and the high resolution image on the left is like a finished piece of writing.
But a few minutes after we’d parted company, I realized I should have said that writing is like a game of Tetris.
In Tetris, brightly colored squares fall from the top of the screen to the bottom. Colored squares descend from the top of the screen and fall toward the bottom, from any random point on the upper margin.
If a story is linear and stretches across the screen from left to right, with the beginning on the left and the end on the right, then in this model, scenes that are little more than ideas are the colored squares near the top of the screen, and finished scenes fall near the bottom.
As a writer, I tend to bop around a lot. I write the scenes or vignettes I’m in the mood to write. At any given moment, I have a collection of scenes in varying degrees of completion. The Midpoint might be a few bullets, the Inciting Incident a paragraph of synopsis, and the Climax something that’s been three times and painstakingly polished.
How close a scene is to finished has nothing to do with its place in the story. So “What page are you on?” or even “What’s your word count?” ( Rough draft words? Fluently polished words? Developmentally edited words? ) isn’t something I can answer with confidence.
Screenshot of Tetris game
Maybe “How many hours have you put into it?” would be easier to answer. I don’t necessarily know, but it’s a metric I understand.