In the spirit of productivity, I’m going to reactivate an old habit of mine: blog posts that talk about my current projects, both professional and personal. More
- A minimalist front page with books sortable by genre or series name.
- A blog with beautiful typography.
- Overall, a cleaner and simpler look.
I’ve been wanting to redo this site for a while now. Partly because I enjoy tweaking things, but also for a strategic reason: I plan to write in multiple genres. Once I figured that out, I knew I needed a site flexible enough to accommodate a wider variety of stories. I’m also interested in trying my hand at short stories, with some of them posted directly on my blog. So I have lots of plans is what I’m saying. 😊 More
You can sign up for free on the website, track your word count there, attend a local meetup with other writers, get help from other writers on the message boards, and earn a digital badge if you write 50,000 words between Nov 1st and Nov 30th.
Writing 50,000 words sounds intimidating, but I’ll argue that nano is still a blast even if you don’t hit that lofty goal. Pushing yourself is a goal of NaNoWriMo and when you’re hauling ass to meet a difficult deadline, it helps you focus more on the story and less on your insecurities. Who cares if your first draft is good? Get it down, get it out, and you can clean it up later.
If you write every day in November, fifty-thousand words comes out to 1,667 words per day. And if you take all the weekends and Thanksgiving day off? That leaves you with 2,381 words to write per day.
It’s pedal to the metal, baby.
Prepping for NaNoWriMo
My project for this year is to write a complete first draft of my second Emerald City Spies book. Because this is my fifth novel, and I’ve got more experience under my belt, my goals are rather high, and my process is more clearly defined than it was when I first did NaNoWriMo in 2005.
If you are doing nano for the first time, I encourage you to have fun with it, and to avoid making your expectations so high that you stress yourself out. Just write, enjoy, and see where it takes you. But for those of you who want to hear about my prep, here goes:
First, a little math.
Based upon past experience, I expect this suspense novel to be approximately 75,000 words long, with about 30 chapters.
I don’t plan to work on weekends, or on Thanksgiving/Thanksgiving eve, which leaves me with 20 writing days in the month.
If I divide my 75,000 words by 20 days, that leaves me with 3,750 words per day needed to complete the first draft by the end of November.
That number’s doable for me as a full-time writer, so I’ll run with it.
Next, a little plotting.
All writers are different, but I like to know what I’m writing before I write it. Even though the story will bend and change as I write it, I prefer to begin with a roadmap and a certain level of understanding about my characters.
Here’s what I’m working on now:
- Making a list of major characters and writing a few paragraphs about their backgrounds and motivations.
- Using a story structure template (like one of these) to sketch out the backbone of the story. A story has a certain flow, and I want to have a sense for what the major events and turning points are.
- Building a bullet-point outline of the entire book. Nothing fancy, just “this happens” then “that happens.” Probably two sentences per chapter.
- Mapping out how each main character will change between the start and end of the story. What will they know that they didn’t know before? How will they grow? What relationships have formed or dissolved?
I’ll do most of this work by hand on a legal pad because for mysterious reasons it’s easier to do brainstorming work with a pencil and paper than on a keyboard. I won’t transfer any of this information into my computer until I’ve got the basics sorted out.
Some writers hate plotting; they’d rather put two characters on a page and let the story unfold organically. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I waste months spinning my wheels when I go that route. That’s why I organize my ideas before I write a story.
This year, I’m starting NaNoWriMo with a question: Can I really complete a 75,000 word manuscript in one month? While I haven’t done so before (my max has been 50,000 words in a month), my plan feels solid. Now it’s time for the important part, hitting “publish” on this blog post so I can get to work on that outline.
When it comes to achieving something big, the process is pretty simple:
- Decide what you want to accomplish.
- Make a plan.
- Set aside the time.
So here’s to trying! If you’re participating in nano this year, you can add yourself to my buddy list here.
Let’s talk about goals, shall we? My biggest goal for 2018 is to release three novels. And while I’m not yet sure that I’ll make it, setting that goal has lit a fire under me. Big goals are helpful in that way. Once you remove the question of is that possible? your brain switches to a better question: How do I make that happen?
I’ve heard that fast writers are bad writers. And while some are, I wouldn’t say it’s the norm. I’ve observed prolific writers, and I’ve read some of their novels. They publish often and tell well-crafted stories. I admire them! Here’s what I’ve learned from my research thus far:
Fast writers know how many words they need to write each day.
Fast writers schedule their writing time and stick to it.
Fast writers learn what works for them, and then they do it.
None of this stuff sounds sexy, I know. But a career in the arts seems to benefit from good old-fashioned skill development, time management, and discipline. That’s good news, as far as I’m concerned. I may not know much about being prolific, but I know how to squeeze productivity out of my schedule. Perhaps my business-skills will translate?
There’s still a part of me that fears my goal. After all, it took me six years to write my first book, three to write my second, and eighteen months to write my third. But there are signs I’m moving in the right direction.
For the first time ever, I finished the first draft of a novel in a month. Thirty days! Boom! I felt so proud. And I’ve been developing writing processes to minimize time spent flailing around. Techniques like editing via outline, fast-drafting scenes on paper, and using an Excel-based word tracker. Lately, when I’m in the zone, I can hit 5000 words a day written, or 8000 words edited. That’s a big leap from when I struggled to finish 1500 words in a day.
Finishing a 75,000-word novel has begun to look like a math problem. So many days written, so many days worked per week. Then the editing passes also take time. And so does the proofreading. Each step is different, but there’s a rhythm to writing days that makes a good pace possible. That’s why I sit down with a numerical goal each morning.
Write 5000 words of this draft.
Edit 7000 words of this manuscript.
And so on…
A Mindset Shift
In his book On Writing, Stephen King compared writing to laying bricks. He talked about writing as a blue-collar work ethic, and books as objects built by hand and toil. I understood the metaphor at the time, but it’s only recently that I’ve experienced that sense of forward momentum and accomplishment. As a hobbyist writer I stared at my bricks, and I shuffled them, but rarely did I sit down and say “Yup, today we need to finish the living room wall. Tomorrow we build the hallway. No time for dithering…”
I guess needed to shift my mindset? That took time, because the shift required several steps.
Decide to publish 3 books in a year.
Prove to myself it’s possible. (Others are doing it!)
Ask the “how” question. How do I become prolific?
Establish processes. (I copied the habits of other prolific writers, then tweaked them.)
Put my ass in the chair and zoom-zoom-zoom.
Repeat until books happen.
Three Books in a Year
We’ve released just one book so far in 2018. My corporate murder-mystery Death by Team Building went out at the end of March. And my next book will be ready for beta readers soon. By my calculations, I’m working at a one-novel-per-five-months pace, which is a big improvement over one book every eighteen months. It’s not quite where I want to be. But I’m getting faster, for sure.
What I’m learning is that writing faster can be easier than writing slowly. When you work smoothly and continuously, you’re less likely to lose the thread of your story. Your subconscious and conscious minds begin working together as a team, with the delightful-yet-eerie sensation of waking up every morning knowing what’s going to happen next in your story. Like the book-fairy has been whispering in your ear while you sleep.
Thanks, book fairy!
Writing fast is fun, in other words. And I’m on my way to making a living as an author! Speaking of which…
Back to work! Enough blogging for today. I’ve got plans, friends. Lots to do. Goals! Better get to it.
There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.
It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.
Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:
How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And how do I fit writing into my life?
I love these questions! And I expect I’ll be answering them for a long time. But I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.
Becoming a Better Writer
When you learn something complicated, there’s an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. This can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.
I’m working through that stage right now. When I write, I sometimes feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I put in maximum effort.
I’ve got some goals for my writing in 2018:
- I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
- I want to produce books more frequently. (My stretch-goal for 2018 is three novels, but two is probably achievable.)
- I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)
- I want to earn income from my work. (Yes, I have numbers, but I’m not posting them here.)
Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.
If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:
There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book. Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.
Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.
A Writer’s Development
Last year, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.
As you can see, there are four main elements.
Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.
I want to offer a big “Thank You” to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!
Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice. I encourage you to find what works for you, rather than adhering to arbitrary rules. As one example of this, I now do my “morning” pages in the evening before bed.
Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!
Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.
Writer, Teach Thyself
What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:
Fiercely guarding my writing time, even when it means turning down fun activities.
Honing my editorial skills, trying out a variety of editing software tools, and spending quality time with the Chicago Manual of Style.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work, but I have to ration my TV time carefully. Too much screen time means I’m not reading enough.)
Learning about story structure – and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.
How It’s Going So Far
These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.
My first surprise was this: most of this “work” occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.
Right away, my writing process changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.
Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…
New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.
Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.
So far, so good! My word count per hour slowed down for a while, as I worked on my consistency and quality, but it’s starting to rise again. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.