Tuesday, January 28

Finish Faster: On Beyond Word Count

By Guest Author Emily Wenstrom, @EmilyWenstrom

Part of the How They Do It Series


Please help me welcome Emily Wenstrom to the blog today to chat with us about becoming more efficient writers. She shares four tips to help make the most of your writing process.

Lit addict, movie geek, writer. Emily is a public relations professional who blogs about creativity in art and work at Creative Juicer and runs the short story zine wordhaus. In her alleged free time, she writes fantasy fiction.

GIVEAWAY: One lucky commenter will win a free copy of the wordhaus short story collection Best of 2013! Leave a comment below to enter sharing your own tip to help writers finish their manuscript faster or another thought. Deadline: Sunday, February 2. Winner announced Monday. (GIVEAWAY CLOSED)

Take it away Emily...

Writing a novel takes a long time--sometimes, a really long time.

Personally, I find this to be a problem. I’m impatient. I like to see results. Ask me to watch paint dry, and I’ll go find a hair dryer to help it along. It’s just my nature.

So as I’ve written my first full-length novel, I’ve kept my eyes open for tips from blogs and other experts about how to get to “The End” faster. But I’ve noticed something: Most advice about completing a novel faster focuses on boosting a daily or weekly word count.

Boosting your word count can help, but there's other aspects to the process where a writer can become more efficient too. Through trial and error as I’ve written my manuscript over the last three years, I’ve learned some great tricks to get to a publishable final draft faster.

Here are four key ways I’ve expedited my process that I will never write without again:


Flesh out your characters and world.


Your characters are the best place to start when planning your novel—after all, they drive the plot. You also need to know the world your story takes place in. Without these important elements, you’re flying blind, feeling your way through your first draft.

I caused myself a great deal of grief and rewriting by not knowing my characters’ backstories or my world’s rules before my first draft. Save yourself: Sort out these key elements the best you can before you start.

Map out your plot.


I know all you pantsers out there are scoffing, but I strongly recommend giving your plot the same consideration as your characters before you start drafting. Consider it a map to ensure you reach your destination. (One of the best things about maps? Even when you make detours, you still know where you’re going.)

I did an outline for my novel once I realized how much my first draft was missing, and it’s the single most important thing I did to improve my manuscript’s progress.

Write for quality from the first draft.


I know. Everyone says to just race through that first draft and leave your inner critic out of is. I stand by this advice, but with a caveat. As you get more comfortable with your story and your writing in general, you start to learn the difference between struggling through something and just not writing your best.

There’s no need to get your inner critic involved, but DO listen to those hunches. In my experience, when I ignore them and just allow myself to half-ass in the name of word count or first draft openness, I simply create a mess for myself to fix later. And fixing can take even longer than starting from scratch.

Edit first, then revise.


For those of you out there who don’t live inside my head, let me clarify: by “edit” I mean review your work with a critical eye and identify problem areas. By “revise” I mean the actual fixing of those problems.

It’s tempting, and may even seem logical, to lump these two steps together. But logic schmogic. The reality is these two actions use different parts of the brain. Editing is critical and detail-oriented. But revisions are much more related to the creative process you use when you write. I’ve found that by separating these actions out, I am able to get into a better flow for each.

Don’t get me wrong, word count goals can be great motivation and help you keep your manuscript moving forward. But don’t fall into the trap of letting that motivation become pressure, or sacrifice quality elements to meet word count. You could be creating a mess you’ll have to clean up later.

By adding a few more writing tricks to your toolbox, you can expedite all aspects of the process from fleshing out the full idea to your editing process, and get to a complete and quality novel faster.

28 comments:

  1. One more tip:

    If you're a pantser, do a fast editing cut before you do revision. With pantsers, sometimes unnecessary stuff creeps in, and this is an easy way to get rid of it. I took Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel, which is really for outliners, and her process had the cuts at the end of it. It nearly drove me mad because I had so much of this junk in the story that should have simply been cut. Its continuing presence became a distraction in revising, and in many cases, got in the way. Plus, it's easy to try to keep what you don't need or try to fix it, and yet, it still comes out anyway.

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    1. Thanks Linda, great suggestion. I've learned I'm not much of a pantser myself so that's a great perspective.

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  2. Love this post. I'm just digging my current WIP out of the mess I made trying to write to a daily word count, with no plot laid out. Never again...

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    1. I know the feeling, Leslie -- these lessons were learned painfully through trial and error. In fact I stopped myself halfway through my current WIP to create an outline because I suddenly realized how much time I'd wasted trying to improvise as I wrote! Good luck with your WIP, if I can untangle my way out of the knots, so can you!

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  3. one word: scrivener I think it's the best writing/organization software! I have so many saved word files from my first novel.

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    1. I've heard Scrivener's a miracle for writers--haven't tried it yet, but I think I'm going to have to!

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    2. i have scrivener for windows, and it is a great tool. The only thing it lacks is a mind-map feature, but i don't use those anyway. Well worth the purchase price in my experience...

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  4. Emily, I totally agree with you. I like to get as many plot issues worked out before I even start. Another great thing to try? Index cards. I swear by them. Old school, I know! But writing scenes on cards, and then referring to them during my writing time, keeps me on task.

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    1. That's an interesting idea, Julie, I'll have to give it a try!

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    2. YES! Long live old school!

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  5. Funny thing is no one who is trying to finish their first novel can grasp how right you are. Human nature is a... I knew my first draft was going to not be the best. I had no idea how awful it was until I learned. It never would have been finished had I known what was coming so my major lessons are as follows.
    One, fall in love with the process. I have restored three cars and two houses with that philosophy.
    Two, keep your ego out of the room while you work. It will stop you with fear, intimidation and lie to you about how good you can become. Kick the bastard out.
    Three, get your environment right, mine has to be stale and drab so my ADD stays focused on all that empty white in front of me.
    Thank you so much for your article.

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    1. Harry, these are great points. Thanks for the extra tips--great ones for anyone starting their first novel.

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  6. Thank you. So much. So many sources talk about first drafts, or how to draft your novel, but talking about editing and rewriting is a bit more rare. You hit the nail on the head on why editing can be so frustrating. Two parts of the brain in conflict with one other. It makes total sense. I'm just finishing edits on my novel, and this helps me a ton.

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    1. Good luck with the rest of your edits!

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  7. Thanks for this list, Emily. I especially appreciate the idea of writing for quality from the start; I find it distracting to write something just so I can push on. Glad to see I'm not the only one.

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    1. I'm the same way -- when I know I've written something just to get past it, my brain just wants to go back and fix it.

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  8. In terms of creating a good working environment, I find I have to shut down email and the internet to be productive. Ditto the telephone. When I give myself a quiet, distraction-free space, I get more work done, and better work done.

    Thanks for the great tips!

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  9. I am new to writing so am busy soaking up as much advice as I can. someday I will be in a position to offer some in return :)

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  10. Succinct and so wise. I recently finished my first novel, written with a story vision in mind, but with almost no advance plotting or character sketching.

    I began revising before I'd finished the first draft because I had so much plot re-engineering to do. I have no regrets with this plunge-ahead method-I needed to get this story out of my system. I needed to write and keep writing every day to create the habit and not lose the momentum and to clear the morass from my heart. But I will not do it that way again.

    I began a second novel a couple of weeks ago and started the process with deep character sketches of my central cast. I wasn't even certain of the story until these characters began to breathe beneath my pen (and that's key for me--to brainstorm characters and plot longhand, to feel the synergy between my brain, heart and hand).

    After these character sketches, I assembled a 2-page plot outline, highlighting the major points/events/arc. Then I began writing (another solid vote for Scrivener. I am a Scrivener disciple! ;) ). I will expand the outline as my scenes grow and I get a better feeling for the story as it unfolds-I'm still a pantser at heart--but I find with a roadmap, I am writing a cleaner, more focused narrative while still allowing room for surprises-characters and directions I hadn't planned on.

    Thank you for the great post!

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  11. I'm a daydreaming pantser: I can't outline or I'll lose all motivation to write, but if I carry major plot points in my head, the rest of the story stumbles into place.

    I like first draft (clunky writing with improbabilities and too much dialog), second draft (clean up the writing, write the info dumps into invisibility), and...however many drafts after that, to edit and to revise.

    Also, my writing group is my lifeline.

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  12. Great tips, also a daydreaming pantser with most of my stories still in my head, it's all there, just haven't gotten round to the writing... Hope these tips can give me some momentum to getting it down :)

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  13. Great post! Here are a few thoughts that immediately came to mind:

    1. Mapping out your plot is very important. With apologies and all due respect to Steven King, proponent of the "organic" writing process, if you don't know where you're going you stand a very good chance of meandering (yes Jimmy Buffet I'm talking about you), which can cost you a reader. Not that an outline is all-restrictive. There's nothing better than when your story strays from the outline and starts to take off in a different direction, at which time you're hanging on by your fingernails.

    2. When it come to editing, I follow this golden rule: Write on your computer - edit on the printout. I wrote my MG novel, The Case of Secrets, on the computer, editing like a madman over and over again (hundreds of times and that's no joke). When I handed off the printed version to my wife, she gave it back to me covered with post-it flags marking my mistakes (the notebook looked like a shaggy dog). The lesson I learned is that there's a stronger "connect" with the story when you read/edit from the printed version.

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    1. Al I agree with you entirely. First time authors need to finish that pile of paper asap and then find out how crappy it is later. That will begin the process of rewiring the brain to see ahead like you suggest. I have five novels ready for fleshing out having mapped every chapter but I would never have gotten my first novel finished, bad as it was, if i spent any time worrying about it.

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  14. I loved this post and the comments. I've been playing with the "fast draft" process - sometimes it works well, other days...

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  15. Nice post. I have tried writing with and without an outline. Writing with an outline, even if it is a little vague, definitely works better for me.

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