Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cheetah I

Last November, just after NaNoWriMo started, I did a Way of the Cheetah post where I talked about ten things I've done that helped me break the 10K-per-day barrier.

Before we dive into this, I'm not the world's fastest writer, nor am I the most prolific, nor do I write in the largest number of genres. There are plenty of authors out there who can write circles around me, and have a backlist that makes mine look pathetic, and who are going places with their work where I will never venture. It's the same for every writer. There is always someone better, just as there is always someone taller, prettier/more handsome, in better shape, thinner, richer, more popular, etc. Accept that and you're close to being perfect.

I'm not perfect, so when I feel jealous, I fall back on my envy eraser: The only writer I have to compete with is me. This works pretty well (although sometimes I need an M&M booster.)

Now let's get into writing speed, and how to improve yours to increase your productivity. There is a myth popularized by the literati that fast writers write nothing but shit, and should be regarded as writing sluts who only do it for money. If you buy into this mindset, you should probably skip the rest of this post.

This may also sound pretty basic and stupid on the screen, but it really works, and I'm proof of that.

Everyone has a speed at which they feel they can write comfortably. It may be writing a page in a week, a day, an hour, or ten minutes -- we'll call it your personal speed zone. Your zone probably fluctuates according to your mood, your work environment, your energy level and your current health situation. If any of these are in flux, so is your zone, but if you've established a set time and place to write, and you're in good physical and emotional shape, then you've already got a fairly stable zone.

If you're writing steadily while you're in the zone, and doing nothing else but writing, then you're probably at a good speed for you. The more books you write, the more confident you'll become, and that confidence will help you build your pace a bit more. On the other hand, if you're not writing steadily, then you haven't found your zone yet. There are other things getting between you and the page, and you need to get rid of them.

I found this out by accident. When I started writing novels every year back in '84, I produced about ten pages a week, or a book a year, which I think is about average for most writers (I used a typewriter; I didn't get my own computer until 1991.) I wasn't happy with what I was getting on the page, though, and it always took a lot of effort. Sometimes I avoided writing because I wasn't up to wrestling the words onto paper or the emotional drain involved. I also had a full time job, and a family to care for, so my writing time was limited to non-existent. When I could write, I think I did all the same things most writers do: I worried, I backtracked, I fought the words and I procrastinated at the keyboard. I was inefficient and I wasted my writing time.

Then something happened to change all that. I quit my job, and I had put aside enough money to have a six-week vacation before starting the next job. On a whim, I decided to try living the life of a full-time writer for six weeks and see what it would be like. I rented a computer (I couldn't afford to buy one) and I set up my spare bedroom as an office. It took me a couple of days to teach myself how to use the word processor, and then I quickly outlined and started a brand-new book.

I worked eight hours every day, and because I knew I didn't have time to mess around, I didn't play. I went in, sat down, cleared my mind of everything but the story, and wrote. I didn't think about if I was writing badly. I didn't wonder if I was writing as well as other writers whose books I'd read. I didn't re-read what I'd written, or go back and change it each day. While I was writing, I didn't think of anything but getting the words down. Always in the back of my mind was the image of a clock ticking, and I wanted to get as much done as I could before I had to return the rental computer.

This was important to me, because I'd invested my vacation money into this project when I could have been sunning myself on a beach in California. Hating the idea of it all being a waste -- money was really tight in those days -- was what made me use the time wisely. Four weeks later I typed the last sentence of the last chapter, and had a brand-new, 100K novel that was the best thing I'd written to date. A novel that should have taken me a year to write.

That one six-week experiment changed everything for me. I went back to work my day job, but I never forgot the lessons I'd learned during my first shot at being a full-time writer. No more procrastinating, idling at the keyboard, or fighting the words. I doubled my productivity, and then I tripled it. I didn't try to write a book in four weeks, but I got more out of my writing time than ever, and I found I could write a book in eight months. Then I wrote one in six months.

A few years later, when I became a stay-at-home-mom caring for three kids, two of whom were in diapers at the same time, I learned to pre-plan and concentrate even more so I could write productively during school hours, nap times and the few minutes I had to myself at night. I was already writing two books a year, and with the kids' training me to be even more focused, I bumped it up to three.

Focus is everything. The more I wrote, the faster I became. This year I've already written seven novels, and I'll have two, maybe three more written before Dec. 31st (I want one ten book year before I slow down.)

The next time you can devote a day or a weekend to writing, try what I did. It sounds so simple -- go in, sit down, and just write -- but you may surprise yourself at how much more you can produce. Keep doing this, and you will get faster. You'll produce more, and I believe that the more you write, the better a writer you become.

And what do you do with all that worrying, angsting, procrastinating and so forth? Save it, because you're going to use it when you edit what you wrote.


  1. I was astonished at how quickly I finished a book when I set the goal to finish a chapter a night. (A chapter in this case was 3500 words.) It took exactly 30 days, and this in spite of a dayjob and a semi-vigorous social life. (I do admit that I am childless and single, but I also own a house -- itself something of a big baby when it comes to cleaning and gardening.)

    Edits are where I'm fouling up currently; I'm still trying to find the sweetspot there. Next iteration of book-writing, I intend to spend an extra week or two on the outline so that the arrow finds its target with more surety.

    It's a learning process, but I wouldn't have learned any of it if I hadn't quit making excuses, knuckled down, and just done it.

  2. now to see if I can follow all that advice next month.


  3. My first book took me 5 years, on and off (although I wrote the 'last' 70% in 3 months)
    My second took around 18 months, and my third took 8. Each was (in my opinion) more polished and readable than the last.
    It does get easier the more you write. Personally, I like to list a bunch of scene descriptions then write the one I can imagine straight away. I'm always adding new ideas to this list, which means I always have plenty of choice when it comes to locking myself away to write two thousand words.
    I just signed up for Nano, intending to write at least half the fourth Hal book during November. Editing on the third doesn't need to happen until after Xmas, so my schedule is clear. Now to see whether I can write 1666 words a day for 30 days... Make that one scene a day, and it should be easy.

  4. Anonymous4:44 AM

    I discovered something similar wirting for 1 hour at lunch. That said, there's a whole lot of in-the-head planning that happens outside that window. I've no idea how that would pan out writing full time.

  5. Anonymous6:21 AM

    Last year I did Nanowrimo for the first time but struggled with my word count, only getting to 15k as of Day 22. Then came Thanksgiving and its four-day weekend. I didn't want to fail. So I wrote as quickly as I could, as much as I could, over and over again. I wrote 35k in 8 days, about 4.4k/day. Never got up to 10k/day, but I got close.

    The year since has been great for my writing, and I've submitted more and better stories than ever. Yet I haven't recaptured anything like that burst of productivity. I'm hoping that this year's Nanowrimo will remind me, and I'll try not to forget.

  6. Anonymous7:51 AM

    Your advice definitely works: that's how I managed to get over 60K written for NaNo last year. For most of the year, I'd been struggling to write (I'd finish a chapter, then go back the next time and pull it apart, get discouraged, and trash it), and I feared NaNo would be a failure.

    What worked was turning my internal editor off (actually, locking her in a closet and gagging her is more truthful), and just writing. No editing allowed until I was finished. Now, mid-month, I did let myself go back and do a very brief edit, but I had to add more than I took out - that was a very firm rule. It worked.

    My internal editor can have fun when it's finished, but until I type the final word, it's only write. It works. *-* And this year I'm hoping to make the 100K markf or NaNo. Means some juggling of my schedule, but I'm determined to do this. And I know I can if I just sit and write.

  7. Almond M&Ms.

    "I know I can if I just sit and write." So true.

  8. This is superb advice, PBW. Thanks for the reminder. It's akin to the Book-in-a-Week style of writingwritingwriting and not going back to self-edit. I know when I use this approach it shuts down the internal editor/critic that causes me to stress over every word.

    I need to clear a big block of time and go for it! I strongly suspect it will clear out the block I'm struggling with at the moment.

  9. I read something similar by Ray Bradbury -- when he started out, he couldn't even afford a typewriter, so he used to rent the ones at the library. They ran on coins, like at an arcade. Drop a dime in, and then type furiously for ten minutes -- or however long it was.

  10. A very interesting post. I'd love to hear how you personally come up with story ideas and develop them. If you get around to posting on it....

  11. Solid advice. As much as I've produced, I've produced using methods similar to this. I've been plagued by self-doubt lately, so I will take this and revisit how I'm working.

    I'm with Debra. I find the whole process of writing fascinating, and I'd like to hear how you generate ideas.

  12. And here I've been whining about having to attempt 50k words for the NaNoWriMo (or whatever it's called) next month.

    Sigh. No more whining. I'll use your advice and give it my best shot. (Steph, you did NOT hear that.) *g*

  13. Anonymous12:21 PM

    What a refreshing and enlightening post. I love what you said about your kids training you to become more focused. I found out in June that I'm expecting my first child in February. In July my book finally got picked up by HarperCollins in a three-book contract. Yikes. I've been spending so much time angsting about time and how I'm going to do these two things well -- being a mother, and writing on demand -- that it sometimes paralyzes me.

    And now you say they don't necessarily have to compete with one another. How ... novel.

    I'm going to redouble my efforts to control my own mind. I can do this. I _am_ doing it.

    So thank you, sincerely, for the post.


  14. PBW - I'd love to know if you work on multiple books at once, and how you handle that / figure tha into your daily word count.

    (Oh, and nice try, Larissa. It's out there now. In print. NaNo, here we come!)

  15. Geez, you're hitting close to home today. My first post of the day focused on writing space; I'm saving the "time" issues for another day.

    I have got to become more disciplined - especially in the back-tracking area. The old English teacher in me wants to correct and correct and edit and edit until all the voice is gone. Herewith, I resolve to not go back and re-read or edit until a piece is finished. I will type as fast as I can get the thoughts onto the screen. Thanks for the advice and for sharing your experience.

  16. The most I've ever written in a month was 62K and I still can't believe I did it. (It wasn't in one of those books in a month things.) I'm curious, did you have your books outlined before you began?

  17. Besides the accomplishment of getting the beast done, I'd just like the title of Writing Slut.

    It has a ring to it, ya know?

  18. Lol, and here I call 250 words a good day. :-)

    But I have tried to get rid of the IE - including failing Nano miserably twice - and just can't. Probably, fast is not my way, and since I don't plan for a More Than One Book Every Other Year "career" and don't think about making my living that way, I can stick to my 250 words. Maybe Nano (yes, I'm crazy enough to have signed up again) will up this to 500. ;-)

  19. So coherence and cohesiveness are not needed to write a novel?

    Shit, now here I've been doing it all wrong.

  20. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Yeah, PBW. Definitely, yeah.

    I know for my self that the faster I write, the less I think about what I'm doing, the tighter and cleaner I write. It's when the writing's slow and I'm not sure of myself that I have the most editing, revision... everything.

  21. Anonymous7:47 PM

    redchurch wrote: I'm not sure it's so good if you're interested in creating a transmedia intellectual property though. Or creating characters and scripts for multiple mediums.

    I'm talking strictly novels here, because that's 99% of what I write. I doubt a novelist's approach would work for a screenwriter or someone targeting another form of media.

    ... for a visual medium, coherence and cohesiveness are a little more important than the relatively free form of the novel. I'd consider plotting more important for scripts than it is for novel-writing.

    I've only written one complete screenplay, and flirted with
    two others, and they are very different types of writing. Both require their own disciplines, and I don't think they can be compared.

    And I'm not sure why quantity is such a big deal? Is 10K words a day better than 2K words a day? Is faster indeed better?

    Increased productivity via writing faster has some benefits that give a working writer more of a competitive edge in today's market. The more books you produce, the more shots you have at publication, the more real estate you take up in stores, and the more stories you can deliver to your readership, etc.

    That said, there is nothing wrong with writing 2K a day, or 10K a day, or 200 words a day. No method is one-size-fits-all, and which is "better" is up to the individual writer, and his or her needs.

  22. I've done both the write without looking back and edit as you go. I finished NaNo 2003 at 52K. But, as with outlining, I end up somewhere in between the extremes of writing straight through to the end and polishing it to perfection before moving on.

    The problem I have with writing without looking back is that I leave out stuff the first time through. I have to go back and layer in the necessary setting, emotions, bits of business, whatever I left out while getting the essence of the scene on the page. If I don't do that, I end up with the 30K stall and toss the mss in the drawer, never to see the light of day again. OTOH, I don't polish it to perfection. My goal is to have a scene that does what I need it to do in order for the rest of the book to work. That's all. The polishing can wait until the edit. :)


  23. I believe for me, as I get more experienced with just how a novel is assembled, I'll write better first drafts. I can do 2k per day comfortably (and, given my schedule this year, I'll need to increase that to 2.2k per day for NaNo). I still require a lot of revision, but that isn't because I can't learn to do it more effectively the first time through. I just haven't yet.

    Sheila, does that sound feasible? Or am I in left field?

  24. Great points in here, and the older post. Reminds me... I should buy a new chair. :)

  25. Anonymous9:46 PM

    Jean wrote: Sheila, does that sound feasible? Or am I in left field?

    I think you're right on the money. The more books you write, the more subconscious structure becomes -- and while stories vary, all novels have the same basic structure. As in you build enough houses, you can't get lost in them. Over time the novel becomes familiar territory.

    Editing is like cleaning the house; after you've done that enough times you start finding more efficient ways to do a good, thorough job.

    Remember too that if you set a wordcount quota and it proves to be too much, you can knock it down to something more manageable for a while, until you feel more confident.


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