New on Desk #62 — Scriptorium Life

I’ve been mainly writing Muster this week, almost feels like work. Good times, I don’t feel nearly as existentially evaporating as usual. The Monday session of Coup got skipped, too, so I can’t even say that the week would have been particularly over-worked.

The art of burst writing

An author in the zone, fully conversant with their material, can push out at most say 20 thousand words in one sitting, as the equivalent of a forced march; afterwards you need a break day to recover. An inured writer doing stream of consciousness aided by drugs could perhaps hit 100k words in one go. I believe the feat to be strictly speaking possible, although the quality would no doubt be questionable, and you’d still need the perfect storm of circumstances to achieve it. Notably, I read recently that Jack Kerouac’s famous three-weeks writing period for On the Road (~150k words?) was apparently to some degree a marketing gimmick, with the drafting having started years previously.

An inured author can write 5k words in one sitting routinely, provided they are conversant with their material. You can do that five days a week indefinitely as long as it’s strictly “no thinking required”. This newsletter usually hits 2k—5k every week, for comparison’s sake, and it’s supposed to be something of a casual break day hobby-slash-lifestyle thing rather than a big-to-do heroic endeavour. Most weeks it actually is just that; although I rarely write something else the same day, I don’t feel particularly drained by the newsletter writing either; it works well as a rest day affair, probably coupled with some sports or chores or a social thing. I usually put this down, 1k word chunks in between casual web chats with friends over whatever.

What these benchmarks elude is the rest period techniques and maintaining a light flow state throughout, like a Tour de France cyclist who stops for the mandated sleep periods in between the full days of cycling; that 20k word day-worker probably has short snack breaks that do not break concentration, and the mythical 100k words written “in one go” probably involve sleeping in between at some point. It’s still a one-sitting writing performance in the same sense that the Tour de France is a singular race. This is different from actual multi-session writing where you leave the manuscript and then return to it with fresh eyes.

This kind of “burst writing”, for lack of better term, is highly useful for many purposes. You don’t absolutely have to be good at doing it to write, but there are many writing tasks that you can accomplish with furious drive, and you will do it faster and better than somebody who has to break that same task down into multiple sessions. To give some context to what these word counts mean, some examples of what you can write in burst:
This newsletter, as mentioned: 5k words — clearly within burst reach.
Short story: 5k, perhaps 10k words — burst is the ideal technique here; prep well, realize in one go.
Newspaper article: <1k words — definitely burst it, anything else is bad prep work.
Short rpg text: 10k words — very feasible.
Novel: 50k words —not realistic to burst, wrong writing technique for that.

Writing a long manuscript

I hope it’s clear from the above that, as with “how far can you march in a day?”, the question isn’t really fully realized by staring at a single number. Sure, you can theoretically hit X words per day, but can you do that tomorrow as well? Where is your research and composition work in that schedule? Can you maintain concentration? How about the physique? Depending on the writing task it may be entirely reasonable to write to exhaustion in one go and then rest up afterwards; most writers would consider it an excellent working pace if you wrote 10k words of good draft in a single day once a week, and then spent the rest of the week recuperating, researching and, well, living. That might be ideal for somebody doing demanding short form writing like short stories as a regular thing.

Bursting is an ill fit for long manuscript writing, though. You can try it (and heck if I haven’t), but technical difficulties crop up when you dash-finish 10% of the text, then prepare and relaunch to write the next 10%, and then keep trying to re-orient and successfully burst even further. The main issue is that burst writing by definition relies on a deep flow state that exhausts the author and only works when you can keep the entire text arc in your head at once. So when you’re bursting a text that is longer than you can realistically finish in one sitting, you tend to end up with long breaks between active writing periods, and the overhead of preparing for a new burst becomes very inefficient. A practical sign is that there are multiple days during which you do not touch the manuscript at all. It’s easy for the manuscript to be left unfinished.

A more realistic approach to writing longer texts involves a top-down structural verbalization of the subject matter and a writing style that does not seek to prep and finish the writing in one go. The basic writing unit of a “sitting” still kinda sorta exists in the sense that you do focus on the writing when it’s time to write, but the individual sittings are short — under 1k words — and interleaved with research and structural drafting. A writing day may well involve two or even three short sittings instead of the characteristic single-burst.

The daily output of a manuscript drafting pace like this is more like 1k words, which makes it seem pretty pitiable compared to the high numbers you can achieve while bursting, but it’s not inefficient so much as simply a different thing:

Drafting pace includes background research, which the burst numbers I gave above do not. Most writing, unless you happen to be writing in an area of active expertise (as I arguably am now), requires you to learn and think at some point in the process. Burst writing just seems quick because you start the clock after the prep work.

Drafting pace is sustainable, which is not true for bursting. Even a modest 5k words a day burst, what I characterized as relatively sustainable earlier, isn’t something realistic to maintain over more than say four or five days in a row. You’re going to need rest days for mental and physical well-being. Drafting pace can, and has been, maintained by professional authors for months and even years with only incidental break days.

Incidentally, I just checked my numbers against the all-knowing Internet in case I’m fully shit in my personal rabbit hole. Stephen King apparently wrote (writes?) 2k words a day as his drafting routine. As should be obvious, I’d be happy with half of that, and so should other mortals be. I think that people reporting numbers higher than that are talking about something higher on the “burst continuum”, and probably not about sustainable pace you should expect to integrate into a healthy lifestyle in the long term.

It’s probably obvious how this is relevant to my circumstances this week

I haven’t been doing much writing in drafting pace over the last decade, on account of second novel syndrome and being a worthless pest animal and all that. So starting to write Muster has been pretty interesting as a change of pace. I’ve certainly written all kinds of things over the recent years, it’s just all been burst technique small scale stuff.

My top-of-my-hat estimate for Muster‘s length is that it’s roughly 20k words, about the length of a novella. Highly technical writing, the opposite of stream of consciousness. It’s not inconceivable that I’ll get inspired and finish some parts or other in the grip of inspiration, but it wouldn’t be responsible of me to pretend that I’ll actually finish the thing that way. It’s too long and too technical for it, and therefore drafting pace it has to be.

I’ve been drafting for three weeks now, at an intensity I would characterize as half-time; I’m putting roughly as much time into the writing as would a serious night writer (day-time worker writing on the side) with no other hobbies. Call it three work-days of writing in a 7-day week. I would characterize my pace as being rusty, but also that the start of the manuscript involves overhead elements that’ll probably shed away as we go along; I would expect my pace to roughly double long-term, as we get deeper into the manuscript and I stop redrafting every paragraph three times in search of the best expression.

The first two weeks were a bit rough in terms of adapting to the idea of drafting and actually focusing on doing it. I had some “fun” distractions as well (like the random day I spent running a stone-milling machine instead of writing), but mostly I’d mark that down as focus inefficiency. The third week has, however, been pretty good: I’m starting to feel like I’m working in a sustainable and patient way that eats up topic and shits out manuscript. I’ve had three fair sittings, with associated prep work, over three days, and I might do a fourth after writing this newsletter (probably dedicated to something other than Muster, like a Coup Workbook Partial).

Speaking of raw word-count as a measure of the drafting process, the first three weeks seem like this:
1st week: 800 words
2nd week: 1600 words, +800
3rd week: 3800 words, +1800

If we combine my schedule with the above musings about what a reasonably normal drafting pace should be, we can conclude that long-term I should be writing an average of 3k words of Muster a week, assuming I mostly stick to that instead of writing something else. (If I hypothetically stopped running the Coup campaign and just generally tried to do a 5-day work week in writing, that number would be 5k.) This week was already relatively productive in that I can feel myself working, but there’s a concrete goal: get my prep work in order and get cleaner, more distraction-free sittings out of it. I think it’s attainable, and being increasingly more productive makes me happier, so there’s some positive reinforcement in play here.

Simple math tells us that 3k words of Muster a week would have Muster finish in two months, so sometime in the spring. Perfectly acceptable pace, that, so things are looking good. I of course dream of the magical world in which I initiate some well-considered bursts and get much higher weekly word-counts, but we’ll have to see how things develop.

Monday: Coup de Main on hiatus

As sometimes happens, everybody felt like taking a break on Monday. I’m happy and proud to report that the regular players had the courtesy to contact the group and the emotional security to simply admit that they (we) didn’t feel like playing then. (For some it was actual overlapping priority tasks, while others just weren’t feeling up to it.) I don’t expect casual players to notify us, but the regulars whose characters are in active strategic (and particularly tactical) positions should let us know if they can’t make it. For instance, in this case even if we had some players left after the cancellations, we wouldn’t have continued with the on-going astral adventure with key personnel missing. As it was, it was like me and Heikki left after the flurry of cancellations, so we decided to call it off. I hope to play some one-on-one with Heikki at some point, but there’s no hurry.

The campaign’s been ticking like clockwork (I think this is the second Monday skip over the last ~30 sessions) so I don’t mind a break week now and then. I’m a big proponent of regular weekly sessions, though, and I don’t think that a multi-week break is good for a continuous campaign process like this. Luckily another black swan skip is unlikely in a row.

Session #32 is rescheduled for tomorrow, Monday 8.3., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like. The on-going situation is pretty bizarre, though, so if you want traditional dungeon crawling maybe wait a week.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #11

Last week our face-to-face Coup campaign fork featured some classic dungeon crawling that climaxed in the death of captain Bootsie, the very tip of our metaphorical spear in the ongoing attempt to bootstrap the party into fame and riches. Still shaken from the experience, the players decided to go for a revenge expedition and hammer the goblins while they were still weak from the mutually disastrous raid last week.

Sipi was proactive about developing a rather hilarious scenario premise: captain Bootsie was a local celebrity among the Eyedrian commoners, so with his death and grand funeral there was plenty of grief and drunken anger going around. Sipi’s new character (an awful stats throw-away fighter dude) decided to tap into this commoner grief on the night of the funeral and outright gathered an angry mob to punish “the goblins, or cultists, or goblin cultists, or anybody weaker than us really”. The muster proved fruitful and more than a score of angry men left town in the middle the night, drunk as skunks, armed with torches and pitchforks, luckily going in roughly the right direction.

Obviously the crowd started thinning wonderfully fast the next day, with the passing of the drunkenness, as the mob figured out that the ostensible guilty party in captain Bootsie’s death was over 30 miles away in the fringes of the wilderness. The party’s trip out to the actual dungeon was spent managing the thinning mob such that at the end the player characters had five angry, blusterous henchmen of the “Basic Sunndian” party (I don’t know if this is now the name of the adventuring party or their political party) with them, ready to go into the dungeon to seek revenge on those nasty goblins for defending their turf.

(That “Basic Sunndian” bit is high-class comedy in Finnish. You see, the name of the right-populist party in Finnish politics is “Basic Finns”, and it just so happens that both of those names contract into “PerSu” in Finnish.)

So anyway, we were going into the same dungeon a second time, except this time instead of having 10 elite soldiers for backup, the party had 5 post-drunken post-truther angry commoners. They also had the bad luck of meeting the goblins in the first room of the dungeon. However, this is all mere dust in the gears of the RNG machine, because when the dice want you to win, you win. The party lost one of the Basic Sunndians (“Haans! Haans!”, his friends honk nasally, sounding so much like geese that the party starts fearing fairy enchantment), but otherwise swept the goblins handily and even recovered one of the Sriracha Mameluke cuirasses that had fallen into the hands of the goblins in the last session.

I found it interesting how Sipi (as party leader at this point) was pretty strongly pushing at the idea that the party should turn back now that they’d shown the goblins what’s what. The other players were desirous of going deeper, though, so the party agreed to go pay they respects in the very place captain Bootsie had deceased fighting the goblin hordes — that would surely satisfy everybody’s need of revenge, and be sure to bing the minor vengeance quest the party was hunting.

Ultimately whether due to the goblins having grown weaker, or due to reasoned leadership, or plain luck, the party succeeded rather flawlessly in this second delve into the dungeon. They discovered a second cuirass, and ruined some kind of goblin shrine or ritual cult place or whatever it was that they’d built into the room Bootsie died in. What goblins were encountered were unwilling to contest the field against the angry and triumphant Basic Sunndians. “Revenge for Bootsie! Meetup at the marketplace, y’all! Suomi 1995 perkele!”

Competent after-handling of the expedition turned the objectively modest accomplishment (the party basically just visited the same place, to the same depth, as the last party did, retreading ground) into a fairly nice outcome for a 1st level party: the Sriracha Mamelukes paid something like 30 GP each for recovering their signature cuirasses, and the Prince gifted the commoner caste loyal subjects for their “excess of zeal” with pouches of like 20 GP each. The quest xp for avenging Bootsie (which they substantially did in honor culture terms, the players didn’t try to skimp on the vengeance) on top of that, and the party took in like 300 xp per head for an easy 4-hour excursion. Not bad!

The players are showing an interest in going adventuring with the “Beast Society”, their Chaotic Evil second party, so I’ll need to prep for that for next time, I guess.

State of the Productive Facilities

As discussed in the feature article, I’m feeling pretty happy and accomplished at the modest progress I’ve had this week in writing Muster. Small people deriving joy from petty things.

One of the topics that Muster brushes at is the historiography of D&D, which also happens to be one of my planned-for essay topics. I might take a bit of a foray later this month and write the essay. We’ll see.

Probably should write some Coup Workbook Partials, too. The players in Coup could make use of a new text on paladins and warlocks, for one. Just need to set aside some writing days for it.

3 thoughts on “New on Desk #62 — Scriptorium Life”

  1. It’s good to see you getting into the groove. Looking forward to that essay (and more Muster, of course).

  2. Did the successful raid into the dungeon (Coup in Sunndi #11) feel invigorating for the whole group? My experience suggests that after a major loss the players need at least a small victory to rekindle their motivation to keep on playing. I don’t know if these players felt that way, but if there were a second failure in a row, it probably would have been more difficult to keep on playing.

    1. The players were invigorated, certainly. I don’t know that I’d expect a further loss to kill all interest in continuing the campaign, but it might affect some individual players.

      In general the reaction players have to defeat is really individual, which makes sense as there are at least two major factors that differ from player to player:

      a) The player’s personal game position is not simple in the way it is in modern D&D, that’s just the entirely wrong way to analyze it. It is not the case that everybody has a single character, that character has no attachments aside from the party, and everybody’s on same level, and everybody is trying to achieve the same things. The situation is the opposite of that: individual players have different character stables, participating in different projects at different intensities, and therefore the wider context of a single loss is different for different players.

      b) Players have different ideological contexts for the events of the game, which means that they interpret and react differently. Some are all-in on my own brand of no-frills gamism and treat defeats as learning opportunities and interesting events in their own right; others are casual experiencers of events and get totally depressed when their “guy” doesn’t make it. The variety in how players interpret events is massive.

      Take those two factors together and the only thing I can say is that there are players who take defeats harder (but generally also play less deeply, so it’s not such a big deal for them), but also players who are actively invigorated by the creative destruction. Victories will still cause an overall rise in excitement because most ideological contexts appreciate it (either because “yes, we’re doing something correctly and making progress” or “it’s fun to imagine being a heroic success, everything’s well in the world”), but defeat reactions are much more varied.

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