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On Making My Writing Time Matter

100_2469 nnmnm

Once upon a time, I wrote two to three thousand (sometimes four thousand!) words a day, in four to five hours, routinely. I thought nothing of it. I wanted to write. Stories poured through my thoughts. And my time was severely limited by caring for my infant son, managing the family business, and teaching the occasional class. So when I had a sitter for the afternoon, or an evening free of responsibilities, I wrote like mad.

Somewhere along the way, those thousands of daily words began to sound immense. Part of it was the paralysis of acquired knowledge—that second guessing of every phrase because you're thinking of what the story ought to look like after it's been edited and polished rather than thinking of just writing the damned story. Part of it was the internalization of the "appropriate" writing schedule as slow and measured. And part of it was the increasingly complicated life and schedule before me. A thousand words a day? Damn, that became a stretch.

Here is the contradiction I face today: I don't have time to write slowly—not only because my writing time is slim and often broken, but because I can't build the career I want on one book every twelve to eighteen months. But unless I quit all other work, including parenting and homeschooling, I couldn't see how to make that happen. I just couldn't get any umph in my productivity.

Then I read this post by Rachel Aaron on how she went from struggling with word count to producing anywhere from 2K to 10K words a day. Then I read it again. Then I set it aside and forgot about it because BUSY.

Halfway through revisions for Sand of Bone, after I'd had days of writing time that produced damn near nothing, I sat staring out the window and longing for those days of fingers flying over the keyboard, when life had been simpler and...

Wait a minute: life hadn't been simpler at all. Different, yes, but still demanding of my time. So what was the difference, and what impact had that made on my writing?

It took a couple cups of coffee, but once I stopped looking at how I was different as a writer and instead looked at what was different about my obligations, it made sense. Before, many of my daily tasks involved work that was physical. Rocking a child to sleep or sealing and stamping tons of envelopes, cleaning the bathroom or sorting papers requires very little concentration, leaving the mind free to work on other things. So I plotted during those working hours, came up with character dialog, imagined settings and a cast of thousands. By the time I sat down to write, there was no staring at a blank page while I figured out what I was going to write. I already knew. I'd danged near memorized paragraphs from my imagination. The words tumbled out with excitement.

These days, I have few obligations that permit my mind to wander. I can't teach an all-day seminar on classroom management while considering how a group of warriors are going to react to a change in leadership. I can't run a karate class while figuring out the connection between an historical event and what a character sees in her dreams. I can't oversee my son's high school education while at the same time "rehearsing" the dialog I want to insert into a scene. And I cannot, nor do I want to, quit doing those things.

So I'm screwed, right?

That's when I remembered the methods Rachel Aaron shared:

Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

What she then shared as her solution was essentially what I'd been doing in those productive years, only I'd been doing it in my head as preparation for my constrained writing time rather than on paper. Once I smacked down my knee-jerk objection ("I can't take even more time away from getting words down!" "Why not? You're not being all that productive anyway!"), I set to work making detailed sketches of what I wanted to accomplish that day. The remaining revisions and new writings for Sand of Bone wrapped up rather quickly. Success!

Now I'm facing a complete rewrite/reimaging/slash and burn of what was once two very long novels into a single volume to follow Sand of Bone. (See picture above.) Since Side 1 of Aaron's diagram seemed to be my personal key to increasing my productivity, I opted to look at how best to personalize her advice to my own method. So in addition to jotting down those points she suggests, I'm adding two elements I've discovered are my own stumbling blocks. First, I'll come up with the chapter's opening line. It might be the first thing I scribble down, or it might be the last. But that alone will eliminate Blank Page Syndrome.

Second, I'll use the word "because" when writing down character actions and decisions, and answer that "because." My poor skill at communicating character motivations is, I think, a very real and potentially fatal flaw in my drafts. I get so caught up in What Happens that I forget the readers aren't privy to the characters' Whys. Using "because" forces me to consider it, put it in the forefront of my mind, so I'm not then second-guessing (and thus slowing) myself during the writing process.

I refuse to take eons to finish Breath of Stone, but I'm not setting a firm date until I see how this new method works over the next few weeks. But I'll whisper to you, my darlings, that I'd like Stone to be drafted and ready for betas by the end of June. Frankly, I'd like it done my Wiscon, but know revisions for Sand will interrupt things mightily.

Today is the start of writing for Stone. I've finished the plot overview, then expanded the overview into sixty or so Magic Index Cards. In a few minutes, I'll pull the first card and set to work handwriting the larger details, the first line, and the because. While Stone will be an imperfect test of the process, it'll be enough to go on.

Does this writing method match yours? Is it totally different? Have you found something that works well for you?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 16th, 2014 08:22 pm (UTC)
What an excellent, useful post; thanks! Passing it on to My Daughter the Fantasy Writer - she's still in that phase of life when she's 'writing' all the time, even when she doesn't actually have a keyboard under her fingers, but it may not always be so.

My writing and music have both been bogged down since my parents died; the only thing I've written since 2007 is one snarky song that I don't even like. My big fantasy opus, the Morn Sigil Saga, is probably dead of too many viewpoints and too long a time-line; plus all the stuff that was original when I started it in 1998 is tropes now. I have a zillion notes and bits and bobs that may or may not fit in my 'real' book, that I may or may not ever succeed in actually writing.

The problem is that I've got a true story to tell, only I'm afraid to write it - even under a pen name, even disguised as fiction - and it sits there glaring balefully at me, demanding to be written before I write anything else. So maybe I never will write anything else, or maybe I will write it and then burn it, or maybe I will write it, publish it, and never admit to being the author, or maybe I will get to a place where I don't have to write it after all, and can write something less.fraught. I hate fraught.
Mar. 20th, 2014 12:10 pm (UTC)
Fraught is difficult, yes.

I have a story like the one you describe. I write a few sentences on it now and then with the understanding no one will ever, ever read it. I does help (rather, it does help me, but YMMV) to just tink away at it.
Mar. 21st, 2014 03:34 pm (UTC)
My first observation may not be true for you: I have a pace of writing too fast. The faster I write, the flatter my writing becomes until it's all conversation and thought in an empty room - I have, on occasion, produced 3-4K of draft in a day, but they did not lead anywhere at all. My writing is best if I slow down, look around, savour the surroundings, and describe them, and if I take the time to come up with _good_ words.

My second point is related. The things I come up with when plotnoodling (while driving, walking, taking showers etc) tend to be emotions and snippets of dialogue; I _can_ transcribe them fast (see above), or I can turn them into good prose, which slows me right down again, but provides much better grounding and a much better reading experience.

And my third point is that any amount of plot I create intentionally is decidedly inferior to the way the characters interact when I get out of the way and just transcribe things; this may definitely not be true for you, but means that 'advance planning' makes my stories much, much worse, and having bad words - however many - is useless to me.

I thought the most important point of Rachel Aaron's post was 'find what is slowing you down and fix THAT above all else'. For her, it was plot creation. For me, it's writing good prose.
Mar. 23rd, 2014 12:03 am (UTC)
I thought the most important point of Rachel Aaron's post was 'find what is slowing you down and fix THAT above all else'.

I agree!

I think we're both addressing the same issue -- getting out of the story's way -- yet have different ways in which we get in the way. I get lost when I slow down, much as I might get lost while hiking if I watched only my own feet. It's when I write faster that I can see the whole map at once, when I can transport from path to path without losing my sense of direction.

I find it fascinating, how different writers find their best process, and I thank you for sharing yours. We can always, always learn from each other!
Mar. 25th, 2014 12:23 pm (UTC)
I get lost when I slow down, much as I might get lost while hiking if I watched only my own feet. It's when I write faster that I can see the whole map at once, when I can transport from path to path without losing my sense of direction.

For me, this is 'not writing enough' or 'not writing often enough' - if I leave days and weeks without thinking about the project, the map of the whole can get frayed and faded. But since I don't know where the story is going, I only get to see parts of the map anyway. But in writing fast, in getting sweeped up in the characters' immediate concerns, I often loose track of things, too, and 'character needs to deal with looming problem x' gets lost in 'character deals with a thousand paper cuts'.

But yes, process is utterly fascinating, not in the least because people saying 'no, for me x is true' helps me to understand why others might make recommendations that seem utterly counterproductive to me. And I'm a process geek anyway ;-)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


Blair MacGregor

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