Monday, December 08, 2014

Small Changes in Your Writing Process Can Lead to Big Results

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every writer writes at a different pace, but I think the one thing most of us have in common is that we wish we could write more effectively per writing session. Whether you write 1000 words a month or 100,000, anything that can improve your process is a good thing to try.

As long as it doesn't take too much time or effort, right? -grin-

And that's the trouble. There's a lot of great advice out there on raising your word count, but some of it takes a lot of work or requires major changes in how we write. Most of us probably like our process and we aren't always eager to spend a lot of effort to change it, even if we know it'll help us write more effectively. Sure, we want to raise our word count, but not if we have to jump through hoops to do it.

This year, I did an experiment during NaNo (National Novel Writing Month).

The goal:
To tweak a few small elements in my writing process and see what happened. I wasn't going to drastically change the way I wrote, just try one or two things a little differently and take a step toward that larger "write a novel in a month" dream.

The result: I nearly doubled my hourly word count and achieved 63,000 words in 24 writing days. The best part? It wasn't just "more words" but a solid first draft and better writing at a faster pace.

If you're looking for a boost in productivity without major changes in how you write, try one or two (or all) of these tips:

1. Do a little more of something you already do.

You know what works for you, so why not give that aspect of your process a kick and see what happens? Look for elements you might benefit from if you did a little more of them.

I've always outlined, but this time I did a much more detailed outline of the entire book (especially the ending). In the past, I frequently covered the general gist of a scene, but the details I figured out as I wrote, and sometimes that left me staring at the screen when I hit an unexpected snag. To fix that, I made more specific notes, and even added down and dirty conversations instead of simply saying "they talk about X", such as:
Bob goes to the lab to find the zombie serum and runs into Sally, who's there to destroy it. They spat. What are you doing? Nothing. Go back to bed. Is that the serum? She's annoyed. This doesn't concern you, just drop it. No way. Give me that. It's not what you think. They fight, Sally shoves him and whacks him against the wall. He goes down. Freaks out a little. Did she just attack him? What the hell? He runs off and plots how to get the serum away from her.
A small change, but I found this "conversation summary" helped a lot, because when I wrote the scene I knew what my characters were going to say and I didn't lose momentum while writing the scene. I didn't always stick to what I'd jotted down in my outline, but it got me started and then the muse could take over if she wanted to. It also let me get some of those ugly "first word throat clearing" stuff down where it wouldn't hurt anybody. Even better, often someone would "say" something in these summaries that gave me great plot ideas for later.

2. Try something you never thought would actually work for you.

Ask any writer how they write and you're bound to hear a few things that you'd never try or feel certain would never work for you. But how do you know that for sure if you've never tried it? For all you know, that thing you're sure isn't for you is exactly what you need to double your word count per writing session.

For me, this was writing in a coffee shop. I need quiet to write, and the thought of going to a public place was just crazy, even though I know writers who swear by it. I knew there was no way this was going to work for me.

Until I tried it.

Surprise, surprise, being away from home eliminated all my typical distractions and I could focus even better, because there was nothing else to do but write.

I discovered this little gem when I learned there was a local NaNo group who met at Starbucks twice a week. I started going to the Sunday morning write-ins. Since I get up early and Starbucks opens at 5am, I went at 6am and got a slew of work done before the gang showed up around 9. By then I was in the writing zone, so it was easy to keep working.

When I saw how effective this was, I duplicated it at home by setting up a writing space in a guest room away from my email, cats, and husband. Just me, my laptop and a desk. So now, when I sit down to work, I know what I'm going to write, I have no distractions, and the words come pretty fast.

3. Look for outside help to push you.

Unless you're an author on deadline, there's usually nothing beyond personal discipline holding you to hitting whatever writing goal you set for yourself. You might feel bad if you don't get those two chapters written in a week, but it's not pushing you to hit that target. Try finding someone or some way to make you accountable for achieving your goals. If missing deadlines is stressful for you, maybe make a game out of it so it's more fun.

In my local NaNo group there were two writers who were rather prolific, and I had fun trying to keep up with them. I never thought I'd catch up, but lo and behold I did, and then I passed them. Having someone to "compete" with really helped me stay at the keyboard to hit my target for the day when I normally would have stopped working. Sometimes it was only an extra 300 words to finish a chapter, but an extra 300 words a day is 2000 words a week, and that adds up. On days when I needed 1000 words or more, that extra push made a big difference.

I think this is why a lot of writers have positive NaNo experiences. You have a set goal, other people who share that same goal, and the fun atmosphere is encouraging. Try finding a writing buddy or two and help each other stay focused and productive. Even sitting in on the Twitter #amwriting groups and the word sprints can give you that accountability or external goal to help push yourself.

4. If the writing is working, don't stop for things that don't matter to the story.

It's easy to keep writing when the writing is flowing, so don't do anything to break that momentum. If you run into a detail you don't know, or you aren't sure how to describe something, but that detail will make no difference whatsoever to the plot, try making a note and moving on.

For example, in my current NaNo WIP I had quite a few minor characters called (Name) and I went back and named them after the first draft was done. I did the same thing with buildings, too, such as St. (Church) and (Hospital) for places to be named later. When I hit a scene that needed more research I made a note like (describe Catholic funeral mass) and kept on writing. In places where I knew I wanted more emotion, but I wasn't "feeling it" right then, I wrote as much as I could and ended the section with (emo) to remind myself to go back and flesh out that emotional moment.

None of the things I skipped affected the plot or story, so I didn't let them bog me down, where normally I'd stop and lose a morning figuring some of those details out. Having writing days later where I knew the goal was to fill in those holes was much more effective overall.

Nothing I did in this experiment was major, but the small changes resulted in big results. They were easy to do, I feel good about how they've improved my process, and they even made my writing sessions more fun, because I'm writing not staring at the screen struggling with every sentence.

What changes to your process have worked for you? Is there anything you might tweak just to give it a try?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I also use the ‘note it and fix it later’ technique, and I’m glad to see I’m not alone! Generally I use a caret mark “^” to highlight them, making them easier to find later. I do find that the level of detail you put into outlning, when I’ve tried it, makes me lose interst in the scene… I’ve already figured it out, so there’s no suspense. But I’m a pantser at heart, so there’s that. :)

    1. Argh! Can’t edit for misplaced and missing characters: outlining; interest!

    2. Hehe, no worries I speak fluent typo. I hear a lot of pantsers say that about outlining, and I wish I had some better insights to share along those lines, but my pantsing forays have not ended well, lol. Maybe just picturing the scene before you write it? That might have the same negative effect though.

  2. Interesting that the expanded outline helped.

    i've always found that working in public spaces (i don't drink coffee so for me it was always a bar) really helps me cut out distractions and focus on my work. did it all through college and i got my assignments and writing done much better than when i'm at home and dealing with family and dogs...

    1. I was surprised by that, but it was just white noise at the coffee shop, vs a cat who wants my attention, or a phone ringing or anything else that's "personal". The hubby asked if I should write in the coffee shop every day, but I think I'd go broke (grin). I should not have that much access to Orange Valencias.

  3. Four great tips, Janice! I'm definitely going to try the "conversation summary". Thanks!

    1. Hope it's as helpful to you as it was for me. :)

  4. I've never done the coffee shop thing! I did write in the library with my beta buddies, which was fun. We giggled for a while and then got to work.

    1. I highly recommend it. I never would have thought it would work but it was very productive. A library sounds like fun, to, though I might be distracted by the books. :)

  5. I know this reply is a bit off topic, so I apologize, but I just wanted to make a comment. I'm a published writer. I've written several books, but for some reason over the past couple of years I've struggled to come up with an idea that I can finish. The usual advice is - it's just self doubt. Keep going. So not helpful because whenever I tried, the doubts would just get louder and that's all I could hear. Anyway a few days ago I found an article, sorry not on this site, (I have a point, I promise) and it talked about things that help carry a plot. It's not enough to try to write about a young girl who wants to recover her mom's stolen necklace, it's the reason WHY the young girl wants the necklace. And then I found this site and all the info about plot, premise, idea, story, and I'm finally seeing where I've been going wrong. I know this stuff. I've known this stuff for years. I know about internal and external conflict and so on, but just having someone else explain in a different way their function in writing, it's really helps.
    So hopefully I can stop banging my head against the wall, and actually get some writing done. :)

    1. I hope so, because I've been there and know how frustrating your situation is.

      I think what happens to some of us, is that we get focused on the publishing side and forget why we write in the first place. It becomes about getting the right book to the right publisher and the markets and hitting the lists and all the business stuff, and writing stories that get us excited to write falls away.

      What helped me when I hit this same wall, was to chuck everything that I felt I "had" to write and write something that I wanted to write. Not for my agent, or my editor, but a story for *me*. I did what I wanted to do and let the muse take over. It helped a lot, and it was the easiest book I'd even written. It re-energized my writing and I was exited to write again.

      Maybe something like that could help you as well :)

    2. Thanks Janice. It's so easy to get caught up in the 'rules' of writing, that it can be paralyzing. My first book I knew nothing, and I mean nothing about writing. I just went for it. Complete garbage aside it actually was pretty easy to write. So I get what you mean. Just go for it. Remembering that writing is for the fun of writing, and not just about getting published.