Saturday, April 12, 2014

Writing Fast While Maintaining (Some Of) Your Sanity (Or 'For the Love of Brackets and Grandmas Who Won't Shoplift)

I started writing at speed during NaNoWriMo 2008, and pretty much haven't stopped. My output is roughly 80,000 words a month, give or take 10-20K depending on what else is going on in my life. As such, I get a lot of questions about it, mostly "How?"

So, I decided to write up a post with some tips for writing faster. There's also some general commentary on not driving yourself crazy (and stalling out) with your story because in a lot of situations, the key to writing fast is knocking over some mental obstacles in your writing technique. i.e., spending less time banging your head against the keyboard and more time tapping your fingers on it.

First, I want to preface this by saying that writing fast does not equate to writing better. I can't write slow because I get frustrated and impatient. Other writers are solid and consistent at a few hundred words a day, and that's a comfortable pace for them. Please don't take anything in this post as a criticism against those writers. This is simply to answer the questions of people who want to understand and possibly adopt some of my techniques.

And as with everything, your mileage may vary. These techniques will not work for everyone, and that's perfectly okay. Please also bear in mind that I'm a full-time writer with no kids and very few obligations outside the home. Things like kids and day jobs obviously have an impact on how much time and headspace you have available to write. Hopefully some of these techniques can help you get as much written as possible during the time you have available.

With that out of the way, ONWARD!

How do I write fast? Basically, I...

Write out of sequence. There will be a post specifically about this soon, and I've blogged about it before (here, here, and here), so I won't go into lengthy detail here. Point being, I flit around from chapter to chapter and write bits and pieces, and when a scene really crystallizes, I'll fill in the gaps, sew all the little pieces together, and have a nice cohesive chapter.  More on that soon.

Obsess about word counts. This is how NaNoWriMo really helped me: With daily semi-tangible goals. By the time I was finished with NaNo in 2008, I had fallen into a rhythm of aiming for specific word counts every day. Before long, I had a spreadsheet that calculated how much I'd written that day and how much I had left to meet my goal.

That's not to say word counts are the end all, be all of writing. It goes without saying that quality trumps quantity. BUT... when I'm trudging along and hit one of those "I could call it a day" moments, and I see on my spreadsheet that I'm almost to the next 1,000 or 500 milestone, it's enough motivation to keep me writing until I hit that milestone. And more often than not, whatever I've written to hit that milestone is enough to give me a second (or third, or fourth) wind, which gets me almost to the next milestone, and so forth. It can mean the difference between a 900 word day and a 5,000 word day.

Related to that...

Set goals and keep them. I set daily, weekly, and monthly word count goals. And yes, there's a spreadsheet involved. How do you determine how much you should write every day?  Figure out what's easy for you, figure out what's doable with extreme effort, and find a goalpost in between. For example, I can write 1,000 words pretty easily. If I really push hard, I can write 10,000, but that's not a sustainable daily pace for me. So my daily goal is 5,000. It's a comfortable enough pace that I can sustain it, but also requires enough work that I have to push for it.

Word Wars. If you're competitive and have a writing buddy who's game, do some speed challenges. See if you can both hit 500 words in half an hour. Aim for 1,000 words in an hour. First one to 2,000 words gets a $0.99 song gifted to them on iTunes. Whatever floats your boat, but if a little friendly competition gets your fingers moving on the keyboard, do it.

Multiple Works-in-Progress. This is definitely an area where your mileage will vary. I used to be strict about writing one book at a time, but after some deadlines coincided, I ended up writing two at a time. I don't recommend more than that, but I've found two at a time is a good pace. Reason being, if I'm stalling on one, I can work on the other. If I can't get words out on either book, that's a pretty reliable sign that I'm burned out and have probably forgotten (again) to take a day off for like two solid weeks.  If one book is flying and the other is stalling, then at least something is getting written, and once I finish working on that one for the day, I can devote some time to figuring out what's wrong with the other one.  And then there's the best case scenario: Two books that are absolutely flying. I love it when that happens, and can usually knock out 7-8,000 words a day without much trouble and make headway on both books. Win.

Okay, so that's all well and good for output, but what about the actual writing? Because obviously, quality is important here. 

Don't sweat the little details (or, How I learned to love [brackets]). This is a technique I picked up from author Aislinn Kerry, and it's worked wonders for me. Let's say your character is a wine connoisseur, and is selecting a bottle to go with a particular meal, but you don't know quite so  much about wine, so you're not sure what he'd select.  You're on a roll, though. Do you stop and open up wikipedia or google it? Do you crowdsource on Twitter or Facebook? You could. I've done it.  But what if you have to wait for an answer? What if your expert-in-waiting is offline? Like when I need my husband to answer a military question, or I've e-mailed Aleks, who inconveniently lives on the other side of the world?  Do you stop completely until you know what kind of wine the character would select? 

Bottom line, do you really want to lose your momentum over a relatively minor detail? I don't. In this situation, I write, "He grabbed a bottle of [wine] off the rack," and move on. 

Or what if my character is driving a distinctive sports car, brought to him by the unimportant-to-the-story-but-named valet at the party?  "[valet] brought the bright red [model] around to the front."  My recent military romance is full of "[rank] [name] turned to [name2]..." and "she boarded the [C130?] cargo jet..." because the story was just flying, and I didn't want to stop to figure out names, which cargo jets flew out of Okinawa, what rank this or that person would be, etc.

Then, when there's some downtime -- after I've finished the scene, made the day's goal, finished the entire book, or what have you -- I do a search for "[", and correct them all. It does sound a little time-consuming, but it's really not. Razor Wire had over 50 sets of brackets, and it took me about ten minutes to resolve all of them. I would much rather do the googling/crowdsourcing/etc after the book is finished than stall out while writing it.

Please note this is not limited to single words. As an example, I was recently working on a chapter of Dark Soul, and came to a scene where the characters were pulling up to a house that's described in detail in one of the original books. I was on a roll and didn't feel like looking up the details, so I just wrote: "They pulled up to the house. [more details here]" Later, I added a paragraph or so of details, but the point is, I didn't have to stop writing the scene to fill those in.

When you sit down to write, have a plan. This does not mean you have to outline. Aleks and I don't outline when we co-write, but we usually know what's going to happen in the next 2-3 scenes. Half the time, we're wrong, and somebody throws a giant curve ball that neither of us saw coming, and that's okay! The point is that when we sit down to write, we have at least an idea of where we're going with the next scene. It's kind of like deciding to go out for a drive. It's a lot more fun to jump in the car and go than it is to sit in the driveway debating whether to go right or left. You don't have to have a destination in mind, but it helps to at least have a direction. Just get in the car, get on the freeway, and haul ass, and if something looks interesting along the way, stop and check it out. 

By the same token...

...don't plan things to death. In my fledgling writer days, I wrote a horrible epic fantasy novel three times over the course of about ten years. Each actual draft took about 4-6 months, depending on what else I had going on in my life. So why the hell did it take ten years? Well, a lot of that had to do with getting derailed and sidetracked with other things like jobs and school, but there were some very long periods in there where I planned. And planned. And planned. I outlined. Re-outlined. Built the world. Outlined again. Burned the world to the ground and started over. Filled out countless character interviews/forms/dossiers/bios. For every hour I spent writing that bad boy, I probably spent at least five planning it.  (And it still sucked. Go figure.)

Point being, at some point, you have to put down the blueprint and start building the damned house. You can measure and re-measure every angle and beam, but you'll still have nothing but an empty lot until you actually start pouring some concrete and building the frame. 

Be flexible. I'm an outliner, but I outline pretty vaguely. I know what the characters' motivations are, what they're going to do and why, and when things will happen. But invariably, those things change. Constantly. The rigid outliner in me -- you know, the one who's never forgotten high school English -- still wants to break out in hives at the idea of deviating from the outline that's been written in blood, carved in stone, and notarized twelve times over. But the side of me who's always rebelled against my high school English teachers and doesn't like to be told what to do has no qualms about adjusting an outline to fit the story.

How does that help with writing at speed?  It prevents two things:
  1. Time and energy wasted trying to shoehorn a story into an outline it doesn't like.
  2. Time and energy wasted rejigging the outline down to the last detail because the story rebelled.
Common denominators: wasting time and energy.

If the story deviates from the outline, go with it. This is kind of like improv. If another actor throws a monkey wrench into the scene in front of a packed house, do you stop in the middle and ask him what the hell he's doing? Or do you take his cue and run with it?  Of course you run with it. For me, writing is kind of the same thing. And if a character throws me a curve ball, chances are, he knows what he's doing, so I let the scene go and see what happens.

I have one set-in-stone rule when it comes to writing, and it's one of the things that helps me write faster because I don't let myself stall out for the above reasons. That rule is:

If the characters and outline disagree, the characters win. Always.

Hasn't led me astray yet.

Now, a little bit of a tangent here about writing in general, which may or may not help you with writing speed, but feels relevant... 

One thing that always comes up on writing forums is the idea of characters hijacking the story. Some writers insist that it's true, that characters are basically living entities who can't be controlled, and the author is just along for the ride. Others think it's utter hogwash and THEY are in control of everything. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Imagine someone you know really, really well. You know their quirks, their history, their morals, their preferences, etc. Now imagine writing them into a story. Think of something that person absolutely would not do under any circumstances.  Let's say Grandma would never in a million years steal a wrench from the hardware store. Not a chance.  With that in mind, try writing a scene where she's stealing a wrench from the hardware store, feeling completely justified about it and not considering any alternatives. Doesn't work, does it? 

Characters are the same way. They are a collection of quirks, traits, and morals, and at least in  my experience, sometimes those quirks, traits, and morals become clearer as I'm writing the story (versus when I wrote the outline). Then I find them in a position where I'm asking them to do what the outline says, but I just can't get the words to come out. I thought I knew how this character would behave, but then I got to the scene and realized there's no way in hell I'm going to make Grandma steal that wrench. But she still needs the wrench, right? Instead of forcing her to do what the outlines said, it's time to rethink the scene according to Grandma's quirks, traits, and morals, and how she -- your 3-dimensional character -- would acquire the wrench.

What does that have to do with writing speed? Well, allowing some flexibility and giving your characters room to come to life means the story has some breathing room to flow and do its thing, while Rigid Outliner is banging on the Backspace key trying to figure out how to make Grandma steal the goddamned wrench already.

So...don't stall out. Let her find another way to get her hands on the wrench. She'll be truer to her character, will probably come up with a more interesting way to acquire it,'ll be writing instead of stalling. (See? Told you it was relevant.)

In closing, it really boils down to:

  1. Time management. Spend your writing time actually writing, rather than fighting with a flawed outline or over-planning.
  2. Balance. Have a plan, but don't write it in blood.
  3. Maintaining momentum. Don't stall out because you had to stop and look up a minor detail.
  4. Use the Force. Hey, if you've got it, you might as well.

So there you have it. A few of the weird techniques I've picked up over the years that help me write faster than I did in my early days.


  1. I almost always write from beginning to end, but last week I banged out a 21k-word story way more easily than usual, and I think part of that had to do with the fact that I wrote all the key bits as they came to me, with brackets wherever I didn't have stuff yet. (Usually those brackets said "[stuff]," because I'm original like that.) I just kept going back through, adding in missing parts, switching to a different section when I hit a wall, and then suddenly it was all done. It was a little like a missed orgasm, not writing the last bits last, but it was also like tooling through a marathon on an electric bike, so suffice it to say I'll be using that technique again.

  2. Another amazing, informative, helpful blog post! I especially like the [brackets] idea for moving the story along - funny thing, just now I had to search for the bracket symbols because I had never used them before! I'm sure they'll make their way into my work from now on. Thank you! Evelyn Arvey / Gail Bridges

  3. Brackets help save my sanity: they keep me from sacrificing momentum while allowing for future research.

  4. Brackets! What a great idea! You may have just helped save my sanity!

  5. A new[ish] way to use brackets! Thanks, I'll have to try this. :)