Metrics always look like a wonderful thing. You know, like tracking how many words you wrote every day for writers, or for our day jobs, number of tasks processed, or possibly, how many emails processed. The numbers say “We did something. Here’s proof.”
But sometimes it puts our focus on the wrong thing.
This was another one of my lessons learned from 2020, though I think I had to be hit with it many times before I got it.
My first exposure to metrics missing the target came from the Army. I worked in the training office, and we had to produce a presentation called the “Quarterly Training Brief.” One of the key metrics showed that all our soldiers had readiness paperwork completed so we could deploy at a moment’s notice. This included making sure all our vaccinations were current, our emergency notification paperwork had been reviewed and updated, that we had dog tags.
Every quarter, we asked the Orderly Room folks (that’s the admins who handle most of the HR paperwork) to update the numbers. Anything below 90% meant that when the company commander briefed it, she would get eaten by the group commander.
So the Orderly Room always adjusted the numbers. They would say, “Okay, it’s easy for Private Smith to review his contact information, so we’ll take that one off.” And, “The platoon sergeant is going to send Private Jones for his shots when he returns off leave, so we’ll take that one off.”
The metrics would then look better. Often though, none of what the Orderly Room shaved off would ever get done.
So for this one briefing, the Orderly Room couldn’t do the metrics. Our commander was changing command and they were swamped.
The training sergeant asked the platoon sergeants for their metrics. They came in on scraps of paper torn out of pocket notebooks, half-scribbled. We tallied everything together, put the numbers on the slide, and calculated the percentage. The training sergeant didn’t shave anything off.
It was 80%.
The training sergeant told the commander to look at that slide specifically, but she was days away from change of command and didn’t bother. She went into the meeting and got eaten by the group commander.
At this point, you might be wondering why this matters. Well, it was a big deal. When Desert Shield kicked off and whole units deployed, the Army discovered that some couldn’t deploy because they looked good on paper but not in real life.
Sometimes focusing on the numbers makes us focus on the wrong things.
I think about this because I had my own experience of focusing on the wrong things. As writers, we think about word count goals, but we can lose track of finishing projects because we still making word count goals.
It’s a false victory, where you accomplish your task but do all the wrong things for the overall bigger picture. The success of the metrics sometimes keeps you from taking a necessary step back to figure out if you’re doing the right thing, or if you’re not solving the problem.
I needed to take that step back. I did it this year, because I’d gone to Superstars and listened to Jim Butcher. He made me think and I started looking around and discovered—really, stumbled into–an answer to a long-standing problem I’d had in my writing.
I’ve always had a problem with novels running too short. I’d shoot for 60K and land in 20K. Overall length was my metric. Instead of asking more questions about why, I kept aiming at the metric and trying to fix it without understanding what I was fixing.
The most common recommendation from other writers was “Add more subplots,” so I drew the wrong conclusion that I must not be able to do subplots well.
It didn’t help. Other writers suggested outlining would help. I’ve never been an outliner, but I tried it for a while. People will tell you that you’re not doing it right or to try a different kind of outline, not that outlines might not work for you. I had to find that out on my own and burned a book in the process.
Then structure became the big trending thing that everyone flocked to. We got lectured by writers like Story Fix and James Scott Bell that structure would solve all our problems. It always seemed to come with the admonishment that the only way to get structure was to outline, so I managed to stay away from that merry-go-round until a pantser-style class on structure popped up. I’m glad I took it because I did need to learn what I did. And yet, it didn’t solve the problem of length.
Then I heard and tags and traits from Jim Butcher, who learned from Deborah Chester, who learned from Jack Bickham (all kinds of books are available on the topic from Chester and Bickham). And I ran across the following statement:
Keep your plot simple. Make your characters complex.
Poleaxed me. Everything I’d been trying was to make the plot more complex because I kept looking at the wrong metrics. In my head, word count always equaled more plot, more subplots. Because of that, I’d chased after writing courses on plot, structure, subplots, themes.
And in my head, I always said the same thing, “I’m good at characterization. I can let that go so I can learn this other thing because this other thing will solve the problem.”
So early in the year, when I wasn’t able to write because of the chaos of COVID-19, I spent time on characterization workshops to fill in the gaps.
My current novel, called Book 1 as a working title, weighs in at 40K. I had reached the climax and a character showed up as important. All through the writing, I kept wondering about this character (the main character’s father). Was he divorced and living elsewhere? Should he be in the story? That was my back brain nagging at me to make the characters complex.
So I walked back to the middle of the book, stumbled around a bit while I figured out what I needed to do. I finally discovered there was a place to add scenes with the character, and it’s been like, “Wow. This was supposed to be here.”
Now I can feel the characters coming to life with the additions, becoming more complex. And it’s nothing that can be measured by word count or metrics.