Saturday, October 18, 2014

Three Ps to Productive Writing

In the last few years, I’ve managed to churn out over 400,000 words across four novels. I’ve had a few people ask me how I did it. After all, it’s easy to get lost ten or twenty or even a hundred pages into a book and never finish. I used to be no different. Self-analysis has never been my strong suit, but I thought I would try to explore what I’ve been doing successfully in the hopes that it might help others. I’m by no means an expert writer. I’m currently unpublished. But I have gotten quantity figured out, and quantity is where all writers start. It’s only later that you take that rough first draft and refine your words into something more perfect. I divided my advice into three Ps because Ps get degrees. 


One of the first steps is to figure out what roadblocks are getting in your way, mentally and physically. For me, I was frequently plagued with self-doubt. I had a hard time with the fact that when I wrote something down, it tended to look and feel a little differently on the page than it had in my mind. Eventually, I realized I had to make peace with the fact that there would always be a little give and take between the two. I had to find a compromise between what I imagined and what I could actually accomplish. This was huge. I think the moment I realized I was crippling myself by trying to get it ‘perfect’ was one of my biggest breakthroughs. My writing wasn’t even bad half the time, it just wasn’t what I’d envisioned. 

One problem I hear about from fellow writers, and I have struggled with myself, is turning off that pesky internal editor. When you’re writing something, you want it to be flawless glory. The drive for perfection is a necessary part of the process, but if you can’t make it ten words without doubting yourself and rewriting every other sentence, you need to find a way to switch off the internal editor. Freewriting can be a big help with this. Write and refuse to let yourself stop until you’ve produced a hefty bit of writing, then go back and edit later.

Don’t be afraid to write scenes out of order. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Don’t be afraid to be long-winded or to be brief. In general… don’t be afraid! Your first draft is where you can be messy and make mistakes, as long as you fix them all in the editing phase. 

Overcoming physical blocks is important too. You need to find an environment where you are comfortable and able to produce a lot of writing. Experiment if you need to. I have found that sometimes I like to write at a computer, and sometimes I need ink and paper to get a thought out. I always have an ongoing manuscript on my computer, but sometimes I’ll write a random section on paper and then type it up. This has gotten me through hundreds of difficult passages. I don’t know why. Maybe handwriting and typing use slightly different parts of the brain. My notebooks are a bizarre selection of random pieces of prose, but it works for me. Do whatever it takes. I believe some writers have little quirks like these that help. Find yours! 


Writing also takes a different kind of determination. Writing takes hard work. I write nearly every day, whether I want to or not. I don’t take a day off unless I’m truly exhausted. Five minutes of writing is better than nothing. If you aren’t feeling it, you don’t necessarily have to write for a long time, but you also don’t want to let the day go by with nothing produced at all. This is where taking care of your physical roadblocks will help. You need to figure out what gets you writing and do it. Sometimes when I get restless I pace around and write on my iPad. I specifically bought an iPad so I could write and walk at the same time. 

Many make the mistake of thinking writing is easy. I know I used to. It’s not. I’ve been through fire academy, studied medicine, run races and played plenty of sports. I consider writing harder than all of the above. This “tip" may seem a little circular… I’m basically saying that to write a lot you have to write a lot. But I want to highlight the fact that you aren’t going to produce a novel by accident. You can’t just write when you “feel it”. Jack London once said “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Christmas elves aren’t going to type your book up while you sleep. It’s all on you. A serious, onerous task to be sure, but a rewarding one. There is nothing like holding a finished book in your hands, nothing at all. 

If you have a hard time getting in the right frame of mind, one thing that helps me is, I edit whatever I wrote the day before. Sometimes all I do is skim the last few paragraphs and make minor revisions. I know some writers will tell you not to edit anything, ever, no matter what. I think this is super stupid. If you see a mistake, fix it. If you think of a better turn of phrase, change it before you forget. If you can't get in the frame of mind to write, edit. The trick is to learn how to turn off the editor once you start to flow. 


You have to know where you’re going in order to get there, right? Having a game plan has proven invaluable to me. Writing a book is a little bit like a journey to the sea. Now, you can head out East and eventually reach your destination. Set out from your house in the right direction and you’ll get to the ocean. But if you want to get to a certain island at a certain time, you take a map. Writing a book is the same. Write with no plan and you will eventually get somewhere, but there is no guarantee it will be the exact place you wanted, or anywhere of use.

For this purpose I recommend an outline. Plot out the whole story and make some decisions. They don’t have to be final decisions. You can change things along the way just like you might your route on a trip. You don’t even have to wind up at the same end point you started with if you don’t want to. The important thing is intentionality. This may sound creatively stifling, and you’re welcome to disagree, but I think a plan is necessary for success. The only books I’ve ever failed to finish are the ones I never bothered to write an outline for. I once made it about a hundred pages into a story before I realized I had no idea what I was doing anymore. I had an end point in mind that I really wanted, but I was too lost to ever hope to get there. It was heartbreaking. Even if you don’t physically write an outline, do yourself a favor and do some serious mental planning before you write. I doubt you’ll regret it.

There you have it. Persist, perspire, and plan. I hope my thoughts on the subject are helpful. If you don’t like them, or you totally disagree, leave a comment. Tell me what has worked for you, or what hasn’t worked. There’s no one way to success, this is just what’s worked for me. Some of you may scoff at such paltry performance as 100,000 (ish) words a year. Many writers probably outperform me without breaking a sweat. If you’re among that number, feel free to share your secrets with us. Unless one of them involves not having a regular day job, in which case shut up.