Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Write Secrets

Writers all have writing tricks, habits and other methods we use to accomplish various things with with work. It's what helps us leave a distinct mark on the writing that, like voice can be imitated but not duplicated.

One of my tricks is physical: if I have a hard time visualizing or choreographing the physical action in a scene, I will (literally) do a walk-through of it in a space comparable to that of the novel setting. During my recent trip to Savannah, I strolled through town not only for my own pleasure, but also to time how long it would take my protag to go to work, walk the riverfront and evade capture in three different scenes (not as long as I had guessed in two cases.)

An unexpected benefit of this trick is that walk-throughs also help me with structure and pacing of a scene -- if I discover it's going to take a very long time to physically move through the choreography I have planned, I may shorten the action or split the scene up into two scenes.

Habits are more nebulous, force-of things that we're barely aware of. My guy says he knows when it's deadline week for me because I wear green almost every day. I don't deliberately do that, but I know I consider natural shades of green both inspirational and soothing, so it makes sense. When I start a new project, I try to watch the sunrise that morning before I begin working. On the night I finish a book, I always light candles and take a long, hot bubble bath. All of these habits probably started way back when I was having a problem with the work, solved it, and have since become rituals I don't even think about anymore.

Some of my writing methods have changed over time. I no longer try to make my chapter page counts as symmetrical as I did when I started out; I've stopped counting and obsessing and instead let the writing tell me when it's time to shift into a new chapter. I no longer make endless lists of keywords for title ideas but think it over and whittle it down to twenty of the strongest key-concept words and then work with those.

Over the course of a writers' life change is inevitable. I do miss something of the methods and habits that have fallen by the wayside over the years, but I've also discovered some new things that have helped me more: changing the lighting around my work space to eliminate screen reflections (less wear on the eyes), switching from hot tea to chilled water when I write in the late afternoon (keeps me from getting drowsy) and tracking any changes I make during my evening edit session (eliminated saving two, before-and-after copies of the daily work.

Writers, what are some of your favorite work tricks, habits and/or methods? What have you stopped or started doing since you began writing? Tell us in comments.


  1. My favorite tricks include either writing a blog post before I start working on my draft or reading a section in a book -- any book -- for similar effects. As for habits I've stopped/started since I began writing...hmmm. Let me think on that one.

  2. I don't have any hard and fast habits when I write because I have to do a lot of my writing on the go, so a rigid ritual would mean that a lot of my writing wouldn't get done, but if I have the choice, I have a little water fountain going when I write. At home, I have one of those little ones that you plug in, but I've found that a public space with a fountain works almost as well. I think it's something about the sound of water that helps keep the ideas flowing.

  3. Anonymous7:33 AM

    When I get hung up on a particular scene, I stop for a few minutes. Usually it happens in the afternoon...and I'm tired...so I take snack break, namely salsa. Salsa and anything. The heat wakes me up, I let my brain relax a few minutes and then try again. ;)

    If I'm really hung up then it's because I messed up somewhere, so I back track, sometimes all the way to the beginning to see where the problem is/was.

  4. I really miss those middle-of-the-night runs in the zone, just flying through story and staying up well past midnight. However, reality says that with three monsters and an Evil Day Job, I simply can't stay up half the night and be worth anything the next day. I've started writing "Dark & Early" at the butt crack of dawn instead, which gives me time to still pack lunches and start on time for work.

    I also started using a spreadsheet to keep track of my plotting. In the first year, I would have been repulsed and stayed as far away from such anal tendencies as possible. Now, I just can't keep these larger, intricate stories in my head without a little help.

  5. I keep my outline of my chapter right in the document, but in a different colored font (blue). Makes it super easy to refer to it while I'm writing. If I'm stuck on a part, I put a note in pink and keep going. then I can find those notes later and I don't miss any. Word comes with many colors of fonts, and you can change with a click. Why not use them?

  6. I haven't been at this very long, so my habits are not so ingrained. However, I wrote my first draft of novel #1 as a NaNo book, mostly while sitting cross-legged on my living room couch. I could write there, at Starbucks, at the library...anywhere but our home office. To be fair, my half of the home office was so buried in sewing stuff, that I couldn't have found enough table space for my laptop if I'd tried. Now, I love working in the office--a new (clean) desk is helping a lot.

    I still love Starbucks while I write, though. Skim Decaf Mocha with Whip (it's my blog name too... http://skimdecafmochawithwhip.blogspot.com). 95% of the time, thats what I order, and I prefer it while I'm writing.

  7. Anonymous11:46 AM

    I write first drafts of scenes in a wirebound notebook. It used to take me forever to transcribe what was in the notebook to a word-processed file because I'd start editing while transcribing, rather than just typing. Now I use voice recognition software for first draft transcription - I just read the scene aloud, and let the software do the work.

    I've also learned that I am a more productive and focused writer if I write away from home, where there are fewer distractions.

  8. I have to have a title before I can start a new project. Have to. And it has to be a plausible title for the story, not just a placeholder to get me moving.

  9. My habits aren't deeply ingrained, either, but I'm with Darlene--I need to have a title. I can't start typing the story until I have a title down. To combat this title-itis, I went through the "Adopt-A-Title" thread the NaNoWriMo forums and picked out my favorites for a backup when I'm stuck for a title idea. Also, I tend to spend hours on BehindTheName.com before I pick out a character name. That really hurts my wordcount during NaNo, but I haven't figured out a way to work around it yet.

  10. I'm obsessive about names too... and spend far too much time on behindthename.com. I've actually made a spreadsheet of names from there along with meaning and origin. I'm hoping that helps with time and word counts in November.

  11. I have to outline by hand. Most of the time it's a plain yellow legal pad I'd like those I'd used when I was outlining my debate points back in school.

    My son and husband picked out this green cowboy hat (to match my asus laptop...that color green is now Mommy's writing color LOL). So when my kiddo's done playing he goes and finds my hat and puts it on my head. So that's Mommy's writing time. He's a cutie.

  12. I have an espresso drink ritual when I hit a milestone (new sale, book done, edits done, etc.) I've also made a lot of changes to eliminate eye strain, since I found that was making me tired and slowing me down. Some people may think Courier New 12 is ugly, but my eyes thank me for using it! I find whenever I have to work in a squinchy font, it takes me longer.


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