Today’s Then and Now grows out of a question from last week, where someone wanted to know how I write quickly. My current writing strategy grows out of my old writing habits, so it’s perfect for a Then and Now.
When I started writing for professional publication, I worked a full-time job that required a minimum of 60 hours a week in an office and often expected 80 hours a week or more. I usually worked through weekends, at least all of one day and half of another, and I often left the office for a class or cultural event, only to return at 10:00 at night, for another few hours of fun. In some months, I *billed* up to 3000 hours of time (and that time didn’t include things like meal breaks, mandatory non-client activities, etc.) So, yeah, I had a lot of demands on my time.
During those years, I wrote five novels, three of which were ultimately published (The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, The Glasswrights’ Progress, and Season of Sacrifice). The unpublished novels were a romance and a mystery; neither is good enough to publish today.
I met my writing goals by being efficient with my time. I started by creating an outline for my novel. (I know, I know, outlines versus organic writing is a matter of religious debate. I’m an outliner. But if you’re not, then you can skip this step.) My “outlines” weren’t really. They were approximately one page long for every 100,000 words of text — a full novel would be a one-page outline. I wanted to have a vague idea of where my characters came from and where they were going. Then, I jumped, and started writing.
I wrote for an hour each morning before I started my work-day. At first, that hour was completed at the office, because I didn’t own a personal computer; I wrote and saved my work on floppy disks (which weren’t floppy, but…) Later, after I bought my first computer, I wrote at home. In either case, I knew I had precisely one hour to write. I didn’t spend time on warm-up exercises or on experiments outside of the novel I was working on. I didn’t answer the phone during that hour. I didn’t permit any distractions. (Admittedly, the distractions were substantially fewer; there was no Internet and little email to speak of.)
I also indulged in Writing Marathons, taking one week of vacation and writing for nine straight days (the week, including both weekends.) For Marathon, I’d stock up on easy-to-prepare or no-preparation-needed food, tea, and soft drinks, and I’d write. I’d shower when I began to disgust myself, and I’d walk around the block when my body started aching from sitting too long, but otherwise, I, um, wrote.
For regular writing or for Marathon, I’d finish each writing session by preparing for the next one. I’d leave myself short notes in my working file, about what came next — just the barest hint of an outline of the scene to follow.
I did virtually no editing while I was writing. Editing was a separate function, which I undertook after I’d completed a manuscript. Even then, I did very little editing, correcting grammar and typos before saying, “Done!”
At an intermediate stage in my career, I invested a lot more energy into editing. I would edit each chapter after I finished drafting it, reading through three or four or five times, until it had the polished feel I’d come to recognize as “done”. My production rate slowed substantially, as I was spending about four fifths of my time editing, and only one fifth writing new words.
I invest more heavily in my outlining. I now create a one-paragraph (approximately 150-word) outline for every chapter (between 2500 and 5000 words of text, depending on the type of novel, with romances being on the shorter end and fantasy on the longer end.) I structure my outline using strategies from screenwriting, to emphasize the middle of the plot (where I’m weakest as a writer.)
As a full-time writer, I spend Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday writing. I begin my writing day around 10:00, after taking care of email and other Internet-pressing matters), and I end around 6:00, taking around an hour for lunch. On writing days, I try to avoid all promotional and marketing activities; I steer clear of social media, and I try to limit Internet breaks.)
In short, I write.
I keep my outline open, and I type words that flesh out the story defined in the outline. I try not to be overly critical of what I’ve written. (Years of experience have taught me that my writing is *much* better in reality than I think it is as I’m producing it. I just have to have faith in that experience.) I read back over paragraphs in the natural process of writing, and I tweak occasional words or phrases, but I focus exclusively on writing, not on editing. I save all editing for when I have completed the manuscript. If I make a major change or realize I need to add a scene or discover that my character is doing X instead of Y, I leave myself a note in BOLD ALL CAPS at the top of the relevant file. But I don’t go back. I write.
At the end of each day, when I’m pulled away from whatever I’m writing, I leave myself the same sort of notes I used to do, back in my one-hour crammed-in writing sessions. More often than not, I dash down lines of dialog, without any attribution, or I write a few directional notes in abbreviations that mean something only to me. Also, at the end of each day, I build a to-do list for the next day, including all the major tasks I intend to accomplish. (Even though that to-do list involves a lot of non-writing things, I include it here, because it’s one of my major tools — I *love* crossing things off my to-do list, and I’m likely to do tasks I hate, if I can cross them off when I’m done.)
I no longer do Writing Marathons, but I do occasionally go on writing retreats. Those retreats last from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, and I follow the same basic strategy as I do for my writing days. (Outline, write, repeat.)
On a normal work day, I draft around 5000 words. On a writing retreat day, I usually double that. (The hours are a bit longer, plus there’s an air of healthy competition. Also, I’ve left my family behind when I’m on retreat, and I feel that I have to be extra productive, to warrant that separation.)
So, for a short category romance novel? I can draft it in 10 working days. (That’s a month, with my current schedule.)
Then, I need to revise. I’ve found that my work is ***much*** better when I write without interruption for editing. I often need to correct homonyms (my fast-writing brain can’t distinguish between here and hear, and I wreak havoc with they’re, there, and their…) I usually need to tweak word echoes (using the same word in nearby sentences), and I always have to eliminate my crutch words (that, just, and though.) But the major reworkings for tone and flow almost never happen, if I’ve been fast-writing. (Slow writing is another story — if I’ve been interrupted or had outside obligations or whatever, I can have a much heavier editorial burden.)
My biggest challenge for fast-writing is discipline. I find it nearly impossible to start writing each morning — there are email accounts to check, and articles to read, and a million other distractions. Once I start writing, I long to stop — I have errands to run, chores to complete, food that calls from the kitchen. Every time I do stop, I lose a minimum of 15 minutes; it’s very hard for me to start writing again.
I try to increase my discipline by limiting the distractions. I make my lunch in the morning, before I start writing, so I can’t get distracted by a thousand food options. I close my email (or try to — this is a hard one for me). I completely forbid myself from playing some games (Tetris, Weboggle — I’m looking at you!) because I know I can’t stop. I treat myself like the addict I am, eliminating my triggers.
My second biggest challenge is incorporating exercise into my routine. I *try* to take a number of 10-minute walking breaks during the day. I’m not nearly as good at this as I’d like to be — I constantly feel that I’ll lose too much time if I take that break. Nevertheless, a short walk almost always gives me the inspiration I need to untangle a writing knot (motivation, plot points, etc.) It’s just hard for me to remember that while I work.
So: How do I write fast? I outline (still relatively minimally, compared to many). I set aside dedicated time to write. I limit distractions while I’m writing. I write. And I save editing (my greatly preferred writer function!) until after the writing is done.
Questions? Debates? Techniques that work best for you for writing fast?