Don’t Break the Chain

It’s T-minus 6 days until I turn 30.

Age is but a number and all that, but 30 comes with an annoying alarm sound, because my goal has always been to get a book deal before I reached the big three-oh. This isn’t because seven days from now, should an editor come knocking on my door, I’ll say, “Thanks, but you’re grand. [Meaning no in Irish-speak.] I’m 30 and a day now so the moment’s gone.” I presume I’d be just as excited getting a book deal at sixty as I would be today. It was just a goal, a self-imposed deadline intended to motivate, and one that I thought gave me plenty of time.

But there’s only six days left, and I don’t have a book deal. I’ve done all the other big things on the Before I’m 30 List—live in the U.S., see a Space Shuttle launch, see the Grand Canyon—but I’m still waiting for some Fairy God-Publishing Type to descend with a sheaf of contracts in one hand and a pen in the other.

But there’s a very good reason why I’m still waiting.

(At least one; I may also not be good enough. But let’s not dwell on that happy thought and just assume, for the purposes of this blog post and my continued mental health, that I am.)

I don’t have a book deal because I don’t deserve one.

I don’t deserve it because I don’t do the work.

I don’t know what it looks like from the outside, but I’m not very productive when it comes to writing. I wrote Mousetrapped over the summer of 2008, and Results Not Typical between September of that year and May 2009, including re-drafting and editing. I wrote the first edition of Self-Printed in a month in April 2010—I swear, my fingerprints were starting to disappear after that session!—and although I probably shouldn’t admit this publicly, after procrastinating for weeks on Backpacked, I ended up writing the whole thing in just a fortnight. (A fortnight in which there was only sleep, coffee and Backpacked, I might add.) I don’t like to talk about the work I do that’s intended for submission to agents and editors on here, but suffice to say that although there has been plenty of partials and chapter outlines and synopses and sample chapters and extravagant and superfluous visual plotting devices consisting of expensive and unnecessary stationery in complicated color schemes, I haven’t finished writing a whole novel since Results. Therefore, I have only ever written one novel, start to finish, and I ended up self-publishing that.

Therefore, I don’t deserve to get published.

(And anyway, what would they publish? My to-do list?)

But it’s okay. It’s okay because I’ve realized this—that I don’t do the work—and I’m all geared up to do something about it. And that something is my summer project, Not Breaking the Chain.

(I’m just back from a trip, and there’s another one planned for October. That makes a nice stretch of time in between: July, August and September. I know that’s not “summer” but just go with it, okay?)

Shortly after my realization, I came across three things on the internet that I really needed to see. The first was this post about training your brain to write on demand. The second was this dangerously useful post about how one author went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000. And the third was a post about Jerry Seinfeld.

Yes, Jerry Seinfeld.

Maybe I was the only person with an internet connection who hadn’t read it about yet (the date on the post is 2007), but according to Seinfeld the secret to his success was productivity, and the secret to his productivity was a method he called “don’t break the chain.”

Essentially, it’s this: get a large wall planner, the kind that has a box for every day, and hang it somewhere prominent. Arm yourself with a thick red marker. For every day you complete your writing task—another chapter, another page, a thousand words—put a ‘X’ in the box for that day. Do it a few days in a row and you’ll have a nice chain of red ‘X’s. Now, your only goal is don’t break the chain. As you can imagine once you have a week’s unbroken chain, you’ll want to keep it going and because you’ll probably see the planner several times a day, any break will be staring at you accusingly forever more. (Or at least until the end of the year.) You can read the full post here.

Just before I went to LA I visited The Writers’ Store website to get their address (I wanted to stop by when in LA but never got around to it) and lo and behold, weren’t they giving away a free download of a “Don’t Break the Chain” wall planner

I’m totally taking it a sign.

I love a good motivation idea, and I adore ones that involve the purchasing of stationery products. So starting next week, I’m going to try to not break the chain. I’m going to combine it with what I learned from James Chartrand’s post about training your brain to click into writing mode with a regular routine, and Rachel Aaron’s lesson that trying to simultaneously make stuff up and write it down is not good for your word count. I’m going to give it approximately 90 days—until the end of September—and see what I manage to achieve in this time. I’d like to manage 1,000 words a day, every day. If I did that—IF—I’d have a completed first draft  by the end of it.

I’m telling you this because I only ever seem to achieve things when other people are aware that I’m doing them. (And, let’s be honest, because I’ll get a few blog posts out of it.) I’ll keep you abreast of my progress. But for now I’m wondering…

Who’s with me?

44 thoughts on “Don’t Break the Chain

  1. barbarahenderson says:

    Great motivational ideas – thanks! And all the very best of luck. From what I’ve read of your work and your determination, I’m sure you will do it!

  2. ninagrandiose says:

    I must tell you…I mean write you…how in awe I am of you! You have truly accomplished so much by age 30. At 30, all I could think about was…well…having fun and at my rather mature point, I still have problems with fun and its distractions. Be patient with yourself and if you continue on this path, you will inevitably arrive at your destination. You inspire me and I admire your ability to reveal the pain of the writer. Thanks for all your helpful posts.

  3. michaelrwilson says:

    NO. I am NOT with you, Catherine. Because I am neck deep in revising, correcting, formatting and publishing my first novel through Smashwords, Amazon and B&N. Because YOU convinced me to take the leap with your Month of May Themed Blog Posts on Getting Published…

    So now I don’t sleep at night. Or eat properly. My wife has to chivy me out of the house from time to time or I will just stare at my screen and slip slowly into madness!

    And I have never been so excited about anything in my life!

    Good luck with the Chain! And thanks for all of May’s posts. I learned loads (and gave you kudos! )

  4. laurenwaters says:

    I’m with you, Catherine! I pledge a meager 500 words a day since that will be a miracle since I have a 6-year old not in camp (bad idea) and a 9-month old who has the nerve to start walking now. Good luck to you and have a happy birthday!

  5. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) says:

    I have tried (and failed!) not to break the chain. But I think maybe part of my failure was in not defining a specific word count for my daily chain. 1,000 words a day is totally do-able (for NaNoWriMo, you have to write 1,667 a day… easy!), and crossing off the day when you’re done? Simple!

    Actually there is a whole site where you can even track your progress with a little widget to keep you honest, which I simultaneously love and loathe, since it exposes you when you try to cheat.

    So yes, I’m with you! I have two novels I am stuck on, so I will pick one and stick with it for at least 90 days to see how it goes. Everyone’s got to have a summer project, I think. Let’s do this thing!

  6. darlenecraviotto says:

    Look, I’ve been a professional writer (with deadlines) for years, and I’ve never worried about how many words I’m writing a day. My concentration is on the work, and each day I sit down and work. Some of the time is spent plotting out where I’m going, outlining, developing characters, and knowing what the story is that I want to tell. On those days when I’m doing that crucial kind of work I don’t tally up a lot of words. But on other days (when I am following my blueprint of the story) I can write all day and you have to tear me away from my work. “Not breaking the chain” means that you need to work on your story every day. No excuses. No playing hookey. When you’re a writer, you simply write. Some days go better than others, but you write until eventually you finish your story. No gimmicks needed. Be kind to yourself – you are a good writer, and the stories will come. Just find yourself a seat somewhere, close your door to distractions, and write. Every day. Seven days a week, if you can. But if you can only manage five, that’s okay too. Take the two days off knowing that after those two days off the daily task begins again.

  7. moloneyking says:

    I always look forward to your new blog posts and tis one is no exception. If anyone can do it, you can.

    Best of luck and I may even make my own ‘don’t break the chain’ planner.

    Beir Bua (bring victory)

  8. Elliot says:

    I’ve never heard of the chain before but I figure it is a good idea assuming you have time to dedicate to the task.

    I used writing a daily blog to get me into the mentality of writing again. It did the trick. Now I’ve reduced the blogs posts down to around 3 or 4 a week to use the time on other projects.

  9. Sumiko Saulson says:

    I’m with you on the 90 day thing. I’m working on a sequel to “Solitude”, 25 pages in so only erm 300 to go. Incidentally, 30 seems quite young to me. I’m 44. I think I’m supposed to lie and say I’m 29 😉

  10. elizabethraine says:

    I’ve been meaning to do something like this when I get home this summer from teaching abroad. I read another blogger talking about this a little while back and thought it sounded like a great idea. I’m with you; sort of like a NaNoWriMo, but all the time. Sounds good.

  11. babyfacedpreacher says:

    I’m with you. Had just read the 2K to 10k blog immediately before this, so am taking it as a sign.
    And I’m completely with you on any plan that requires pretty and motivational stationary.
    Off to spend the last of my paycheck on motivational materials…no pay for the next 4 months…so here’s to having a novel written before my maternity leave ends.
    30 is just a number, I’m just a year in but definitely think as decades go it’s better than the 20’s, and anyway you are only the age that you feel in your head! (17 for me)!

  12. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel says:

    NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words a day and you end up with 50K in 30 days. You can do that. I’ve purchased a couple or three of your books, which means you are published, but I do know what you mean. I’m trying to be positive! 🙂 Good motivational vibes sent your way.The book I have coming out soon was a 2010 Nano novel if that tells you how long that’s taken. Life getting in the way sucks sometimes. Your 3rd decade is going to be great.

  13. Shannon Young says:

    I like the chain idea. I’m definitely a goals oriented person, so this would work for me. I’m trying to hit 40,000 words on my work in progress before I leave for my summer holiday in mid-July. I’m at 27k, so I should be able to do it if I can go without breaking the chain for two weeks. Looking forward to hearing how it goes for you!

  14. Liza Perrat says:

    Great post, as always, Catherine! Ha, I had the same aspirations… a trad publishing deal before I hit 40! Then I got to 50 and realized it probably was not going to happen. I didn’t want to find myself at 80, commiserating to myself in the nursing home, so I indie-published!

  15. Frankie Valente says:

    What a strange co-incidence. Last night I wrote the first chapter of another novel. It has been brewing for a while in my head and therefore it didn’t take that much time to write the first draft. While I was switching off the laptop I thought, “now if only I did this every single day for three months, then I might have time to get it edited etc in time for Christmas.”

    Note to self – buy a wall planner!

  16. av walters says:

    Well, maybe I’m just not feeling the pressure. I’m fifty-three, so I’m learning to plug along at it and avoid arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines. I’m also just finishing a big editing push to get my second book out this week, so your schedule’s not in sync. But I am interested to see how this write on demand thing goes. Sounds a lot like NaNoWriMo, which I’ve done several times and is a great get off your butt 30 days to creativity countdown. Keep us informed.

  17. Karin Cox says:

    I can totally understand, Catherine. I’m hopeless at finishing novels because life (and edits, and excuses) just get in the way, but I’m turning 37 this year and thinking, “Hang on? Where did my youth go? Why haven’t I published my magnum opus yet?” And the only way to do it, is to write. My best excuse is that I need blocks of time to write. But that’s not working for me because I also need blocks of time to work and to look after my baby. So, I’m thinking I’ll set myself a task of just 200 words a day—and not break the chain. Slow but steady wins the race. Good luck to you!

  18. jumpingfromcliffs says:

    I’m right behind you. I hadn’t heard of Don’t Break The Chain before either (despite being an internet junkie) but it’s an excellent concept. A bit like stopping smoking. I hope it works out for you and will watch with interest. However… I still don’t get how you can say you don’t put in the work. After three-and-a-half years, having only just completed a first draft of Novel Number One (OK, around a full-time job and other excuses, but anyway…), your work-rate appears pretty impressive to me!

  19. foodsforyourlife says:

    I’m already in. And I’m rooting for you, Catherine! Go for it. Your idea sounds like you’ll give yourself a gentle kick in the back pocket you need.

    I’ve been writing like a banshee since April. Kicking it up a few notches with daily targets works. Jerry’s big red X’ calendar sounds grand. I use Google’s calendar and e-jimmy rig it. But paper is so much better.

    Grab your dream and wrestle it into submission. Dreams are nebulous; plans are concrete. Repeated action will have publishers knocking. The e-Book market and saturation of e-reader users will be improve notably by 2014 (I sit in on a lot of NYC publisher webinars on They are predicting up to 50% of sales will be e-books by then. Whatever you do, don’t auto sign over rights to new content to any publisher. Make them scrap and fight – and pay you well – to get it.

    Your red X’s will push yourself past YOUR comfort zone to where you are writing because that is what you do – it is not who you think you are. Every author – fiction or non-fiction – Best sellers like Jack Canfield, Tim Ferris et al have angst about their writing. They simply found out what they were meant to write about and kept at it.

    I’ll look forward to reading about your and others’ progress.

      • foodsforyourlife says:

        You literally made me LOL! I’m happy that you enjoy my comments. 🙂 I do happen to write motivational non-fiction. But I came to it after literally slogging out a few million words as a corporate writer. I much prefer writing my own stuff, as I now know most do.

        You are in an amazing place and point in your life with lots of uptick. What an opportunity these 90 days will be! I gave up my dream to compose film music when I turned 30. I’d been training for 10 years and felt I had to walk away. The film music equivalent of a ‘publisher’ didn’t turn up, and I was devastated. My composition teacher at the time, who was Duke Ellington’s former arranger, was also really upset when I gave up. In truth, I didn’t think my music was ‘good enough.’ I found out several years later that my teacher said I was his most gifted student ever. But he’d never told me that and I had to find that out from his best friend before he died.

        Let the next 20 years of your life be about what you did write, rather than what you didn’t. I have lived in the “I didn’t” place and shadows, and it is MUCH better trying, trying, trying some more and then achieving rather than giving up or going sideways.

        I’d heard that to become a ‘genius,’ requires 10,000 hours — concert pianist, pro dancer, and author. Put in 10,000 hours and folks get the chops to do brilliant things. Tim Ferris found a way to get past that 10,000 hours. Probably only took him 400! Smart bugger (he wrote the 4-hour Workweek). So all is not cast in stone. Look at your work until now as a sort of admission fee. I’ll bet your books now take shape far more easily, have good form, movement of story line, and you connect with your readers and the way they want to read (that’s why you have readers). You know how to fix ‘things’ and will keep drafting until you figure it out. By writing, you simply claim your space as an author.

        I truly admire you for being able to weave good stories and develop characters. It is a creative art that I don’t know and likely won’t master. Here’s to your telling your stories and enjoying every darn moment. I’m so looking forward to how your 90 days goes. I think it will be the first of MANY such wonderful and productive periods for you.


  20. katyhelena says:

    This is such a great idea! Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the links and resources you share with all of us, too. Thank you! And good luck with your goals! We look forward to hearing your progress, because I’m sure you will do great.

  21. Sharon says:

    Have started putting it all into practice – the click-whir routine and Rachel Aaron’s triangle – and it’s making my eyes cross, but in a good way, as if my brain were shifting around a bit.

    Happy last days of being 29 years old! And have a great birthday.

  22. jcladyluv says:

    I am with you Catherine. Your post was awesome and it came right on time. A friend of mine sent me the post in my email because she knows how much I have been struggling with my productivity as far as my writing is concerned. I just started my Master’s program and I am having a huge issue with trying to learn how to manage my time so that I can get my school work done and get some writing done as well. So far the school work is winning (as I suppose it should be) but my writing is suffering so badly. Your post has given me such motivation and momentum to get going again. Thank you again for your courage to put your struggles out there for the world to see.

  23. Steve Vernon says:

    I definitely need to forge myself a chain. Of course, if it’s forged does it count? Isn’t forgery supposed to be against the law or something. Isn’t forgery a little bit too much like plajer… plaguer… playjerry – (insert Spellcheque here – oh shit, did I just mispell Spellchek??) – faking, damn it!!! I am a faking forger of mispellt chain letters.

    How about I just play through to the next link…

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