Saturday, June 27, 2009

Preparation and Productivity

Every author wants to be more productive when they write. I have already talked about two things that will help increase productivity.

First, write every day. If you are not yet writing for a living it can be hard to make time to write, but it is worth the effort.

Second, set daily word count goals. Give yourself something to aim for at every writing session. It doesn't matter if it's 250 words or 2000, set a goal and strive to reach it.

And third, be prepared.

This means several things. As mentioned in the post on writing everyday when you sit down you should have the TV/cellphone/and-preferably-the-internet turned off, be in a space that is reasonably quiet and have whatever you need (laptop, notebook, glass of water) readily available.

I am not saying that if you get thirsty you can't get up and get something to drink. But it is (usually) better if you can anticipate such a need and be ready for it. It's a lot easier to stay in the flow of writing when all you have to do is reach over and grab the glass rather than get up, go into the kitchen, find glass, get water and return to your desk.

This also means you should have some idea what you're going to write. This does not mean knowing every single word you write before you write it. But you should have a task in hand for the day. Maybe it's tackling the next chapter of your novel. Or polishing that short story you banged out last week. Or brainstorming about your next project. Having a good idea of what you want to accomplish before you start will put you one step closer to achieving that goal.

There are many daily tasks that can be done while thinking about something else. If you are writing seriously I would suggest that “something else” be the current WIP. I frequently work through plotholes, figure out hidden facets of my characters while doing mundane chores like cleaning the bathroom or washing dishes. (Personal experience says that cooking dinner is not a good time to contemplate one's WIP. Unless one likes the biscuits a little more like charcoal and less like something appetizing.)

Lastly, this does not mean that if you don't know what you're going to write about that you should skip your prearranged writing session. I sit down plenty of days and try and reach that daily goal without knowing exactly what I'm going to write until I sit down to write it. But I find I get further when I have a good idea about where I want to go (even if there are detours along the way.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Daily Word Count

Setting a daily word count goal will help productivity.

There are two main factors to consider when deciding on an appropriate goal.

1. Does your project have a deadline?
2. How fast are you capable of writing/typing?

Deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, are a great motivator. They provide structure for your creative goals. If you want (or need) to produce 50k words in 30 days (the basic premise of Nano) an ideal daily word count would be 2k words. This gives you a little flex room for the days when you don't meet the goal or can't write at all. The basic idea can be applied to any length work inside any deadline. (Of course, 100k words in 10 days is probably unrealistic for the majority of us.)

Your overall typing speed plays a role in determining daily word count as well. I am capable of typing 60 WPM. When I'm writing, however, my speed is usually closer to 30 WPM. (Thinking about what I'm writing, analyzing word choice, etc slows down the overall speed.) Usually I can churn out 1500 words an hour in first drafts. With later drafts (requiring more thought/analysis) it is closer to 600 words an hour.

On a normal day I have around 2-3 hours available to write. My daily word count goal is 2k.

It is important to remember that not every writer is capable or inclined to write several thousand words every day. And some churn out work with enviable speed. It is not important what everyone else does. Find what works for you and stick with it until it stops working. (Then you find something else and do it.) It is also important to recognize that, even with goals, not every day will be productive. If you only get one sentence written pat yourself on the back and keep going. If you get 5k words pat yourself on the back and keep going. The important thing is to keep at it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing every day

If you want to write seriously you need to write every day.

This will require the following.

1) Setting aside time to use only for writing. Try to get a block of time rather than a few minutes here and there throughout the day.

2) Writing whether you feel inspired or not. If you think you're stuck on a current project then open a blank document and write something unrelated. The important thing is to get in the habit of writing for X amount of time every day.

3) Turning off or shutting out whatever might distract you. If it's the internet then disconnect your computer (or set up one with no internet connection). If it's the TV then shut it off or move it into a separate room. Same with cell-phones and video games. The time you set aside to write is for writing only. The rest can wait.

4) Being willing to sacrifice lazy habits. Setting aside time to write sometimes means getting up an hour earlier (or staying up an hour later). It may mean not spending as much time watching TV or surfing the web. Writing is more productive and (in the long run) more fulfilling than spending three hours watching TV shows you probably don't even like. Give up the non-productive in favor of the productive.

5) Sticking with it. Writing every day takes discipline. It may take a while to make it a permanent habit, but once you get in the habit you'll never have to complain about never having the time to write.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Big O (and by "O" I mean Outline)

The debate always rages whether it is better to outline or just wing it. Many authors complain that outlining stifles creativity and prevents the organic growth of their storytelling. Others (myself included) find that trying to keep track of a novel-length work without an outline leads to millions of subplots and no resolution to our Main Character's story.

The heart of the problem lies in a misconception about what an outline for a piece of fiction should look like. We've all learned the numbered/lettered/bullet-pointed outlines taught in high school. And for most of us trying to apply that framework to a novel idea seems awkward.

However, that doesn't mean an outline of your story is useless or impossible. We simply need to start thinking about a fiction outline differently than a non-fiction outline. Personally, I prefer to think of outlines as a road map. I highlight the route I think I should take, but make notes about possible detours and side-trips that may prove useful. Nothing is set in stone.

Writing an outline is a bit like writing a very rough draft of your novel, a pre-draft if you like. The outline shows you the most important points of your story, gives you some idea of its structure and helps you plot the growth of your characters. When you write the next draft you can always revise, adding material where it's needed and cutting out parts that are redundant or just plain don't work.

This “pre-draft” should help you organize your ideas into a cohesive whole so that when you begin the rough/first draft of your novel you can let the imagination run wild and not worry about forgetting some important point or that clever bit of dialogue that popped into your head whilst weeding the garden.

“All right,” you say. “I'll give it a shot. But how do I write an outline for a novel?”

Like pretty much everything else writing related, do what works for you. You might have to try a few (or a lot of) different things before you find the right method for you. And you may find that the “right” method will vary from project to project.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Index Cards
Every plot point gets a card. Cards are then laid out in order from beginning to end of story. This is especially useful if you have ideas for scenes but no clear notion of which should come first because the cards are easy to shuffle. Additional notes can be written on the card as well. For example:
John Receives a Letter From Nina ← plot point
He realizes he still loves her. This is what prompts him to take pack up his stuff and go find her.

Write a page or five summarizing the story from beginning to end. Include as many details as you feel are pertinent. You might try a paragraph per chapter. Or a single paragraph for the beginning, middle and end, respectively. This method is good if you prefer a more stream-of-consciousness approach to developing your story idea.

Make a list of the most important points in your plot. Add points as necessary to fill in gaps so that the beginning of the story flows into the middle which flows into the end. Subpoints may be added to clarify more complex actions. In general, one action (or beat) should be one point. This method allows you to see the bones of the story very quickly and if you already have a good idea about how the story will flow usually takes only a very short time to write out.

There are other methods to be explored (mind-mapping, napkins, spreadsheets) but, in my experience, they are mostly variations on these three. Each method has advantages and each will appeal to different writers in different ways. I usually go with the bullet-point approach, but I've used both the summary method and the index card method as well depending on the situation.

A little bit of experimentation and you should find a method that works for you.