- Home > Archive: October, 2012
Okay, I won’t make you wait for the rest. These are the last three of “Kevin’s Eleven” tips to increase your writing productivity. I hope you’ve found some of them useful, so you can charge ahead and get your novel done in November. Start revving your creative engines!
Productivity Tip #9: Think Outside the Keyboard
After the previous tip, now that you’ve set up the perfect established writing spot, keep in mind that this is not the only way you can write. Your word processor isn’t the only tool you have.
This technique is one of the most obvious and effective, though least-often attempted, means of increasing writing productivity. Think outside the keyboard. If you can learn different ways to write, with different tools—like a talented musician learning to play several instruments—you can take advantage of nearly any situation in which you find yourself…and get pages done, no matter where you are.
I have a desktop computer in my office, where I do most of my editing. I am just as comfortable working on my laptop whenever I’m away from home—in restaurants, at hotels, on airplanes. But it doesn’t stop there.
Remember the old pad and pencil? For those times you find yourself alone in a coffee shop, or riding the bus, or sitting at a picnic table outdoors, you can jot down notes, outline a story, write a rough draft. By hand.
My wife and I once plotted and outlined an entire Star Wars “Junior Jedi Knights” trilogy using crayons on the butcher-paper tablecloth in an Italian restaurant. Before leaving, we tore off the wide chunk of the paper, folded it, and took it with us as our “notes.”
For myself, I prefer to do my initial writing with a hand-held recorder. I love to go out hiking on beautiful trails, take inspiration from the scenery around me—and get away from all the interruptions at home. Writing by tape recorder allows me to be productive during an already enjoyable outdoor activity. Sometimes I just talk myself through plot snags, letting my imagination roam as I develop imaginary biographies for characters or histories for my fictional worlds. Most of the time, though, I dictate finished prose. My record (so far) has been composing 45 pages (once they were transcribed) of finished prose in a single, very long, hike.
At work in my “office”
Speaking finished prose out loud into a voice recorder may be difficult until you get used to the idea. Some writers have tried and couldn’t quite get the hang of it; several told me they felt self-conscious walking along and talking to themselves—just pretend it’s a Bluetooth set or a cell phone. Nobody else knows the difference. Face it, nobody learns to type 200 words a minute the first time they touch a keyboard either; it seems unnatural, the keys are in a very strange order, but you get used to it and then pick up speed. Same with dictation.
At first, I used the recorder just to capture ideas when I went out for a walk. Before I learned to bring the recorder along, I would come up with snatches of brilliant prose, but by the time I hurried back to my keyboard, I’d forgotten it. With practice, though, I now write finished text off the top of my head (which I still polish).
Just today, I headed out for a week-long writing trip in the Utah desert, an eight-hour drive from my home near Colorado Springs. Since it was mostly interstate driving, with the cruise control on, I could get a lot of thinking done…and a lot of dictating. On the drive, I dictated 4 chapters in my new “Seven Suns” novel, THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS—probably about 6000 words. Now that I’m here in my hotel room, I’ll upload the files to the typing service, while I get to work editing previously transcribed chapters (see, I follow my own Tips).
The view outside of my hotel room at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The drawback with a recorder is that someone has to transcribe your words, but if you don’t want to do it yourself, typing services are available to do this for a reasonable fee, even voice-recognition software (although a batch of science fiction terms makes the learning curve rather steep). Because of my prolific writing output, I keep my typist busy almost full-time just with transcribing duties. I use an Olympus DS7000 digital voice recorder, with the attendant software to download my audio files and email them to the typist.
For a full description of dictation as a writing technique, see my earlier blog, “Dictating, Writing, Hiking.”
Other people have developed their own unique alternatives to sitting-at-the-typewriter writing. Find some for yourself, see what your natural method for storytelling is.
Productivity Tip #10: Get Inspired!
Every creative writing teacher repeats the classic axiom, “Write about what you know.” Therefore, it stands to reason that the more you know, the more things you’ll be able to write about.
Every experience, class, interesting acquaintance, or place you visit goes into your pantry of “ingredients” for new material. Part of your job as a writer is to collect these ingredients so that you can use them—by learning new subjects, doing new things, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’ll be surprised at how many doors will open for a writer doing research.
Strictly to broaden my knowledge-base of experiences over the years, I’ve taken a hot-air balloon ride, gone white-water rafting and mountain climbing, traveled to various cities and countries, been a guest backstage at rock concerts, attended a world-class symphony, and taken extensive tours of high-tech scientific research installations, visited a giant aircraft carrier, been on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange, taken cruises, gone zip-lining, and toured behind the scenes at FBI Headquarters.
Feeling less adventurous? Then do other things to get inspired. Read extensively, research esoteric topics, take a class about a subject you know nothing about. Watch documentaries at random. Go to a museum—especially an oddball one. Sign up for a ballroom dancing group, attend the meeting of a model-rocketry club, go outside at night and learn the constellations.
In your daily life, open your eyes and observe what is around you. Every experience is filled with details to absorb and use at some later time. Watch people. See what they do, observe how they act, listen to how they talk, try to understand who they are and make up biographies for them.
In short, exercise your creative muscles. Go outside your comfort zone. Stock up your mental pantry with ingredients so that you’ll have a lot to cook with. You never know what might spark a story idea or an interesting character, and being inspired will add to the energy you can put into your writing.
Productivity Tip #11: Know When to STOP
Science fiction master Robert Heinlein proposed a set of rules for writers. His first two are “You must write” and “You must finish what you write.” Endless polishing and editing and revising and polishing again and then rewriting and then editing does not make a story perfect—it just makes a story endless.
Remember what I posted a few days ago: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be finished.
I’ve known writers who have a love affair with a particular story. They set out with a promising draft, then they begin polishing . . . and polishing . . . and the story vanishes into a black hole of neverending revisions. When I first started publishing novels, I ran a monthly writers’ workshop with a group of fellow novelists and short-story writers. One member brought in a new story—a pretty good one—and we critiqued it, suggested some improvements, and he took it home. At the next month’s meeting, he brought in a revised version for critique, and we again made our comments. And again for the next three months. Ironically, after a certain point, there was no noticeable improvement. The story was stuck in an infinite loop. As far as I know, he never sent it anywhere.
Don’t misunderstand: You can’t turn in a sloppy manuscript, and each submission should be as good as you can make it, but there comes a point of diminishing returns in editing your prose. Are you becoming obsessive about rewriting and polishing? Are you making cosmetic changes and circular edits that no longer improve the story? Is it possible you’re simply looking for excuses to put off finishing it? It’s done! Send the manuscript to an editor and move on to the next story.
If you spend all your writing time fiddling with one story, you’ll never move on to the next one, and the next. On with it, already!
I hope you have enjoyed this series of eleven tips to increase your writing productivity. Some of them many not work for you—they don’t all work for me, all the time—but they are techniques to help you think outside the box. Try something different and see if you find it effective. The one absolute piece of writing advice is that authors are all different, and there’s no right way to do it.
Are you fired up yet to write your novel in a month? Need some more suggestions to get the words down and the story told? Try these two.
Productivity Tip #7—KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING & EDITING
Write during the writing stage.
Edit during the editing stage.
Even though both activities involve a writer sitting at the keyboard staring at the screen, Writing and Editing are two very different processes. Each one requires a separate set of skills and talents; each uses a different part of your brain—the creative part and the analytical part. Learn to recognize the difference, and teach yourself to focus on only one process at a time.
Writing is the creative part of the process. When you’re writing—creating—let yourself be caught up in your story. (See Tip #4.) Get swept away by the characters, the situation, the events taking place as the plot unfolds. Don’t worry about the commas. Write the story first. Tell what happens, where it happens, and who it happens to, without getting hung up on fiddling with the previous paragraph, polishing one bit of dialogue, rearranging the sentences, researching subtle rules of usage, looking up historical dates, or finding the proper punctuation. No need to get every spelling or grammar guideline correct at this stage. You’ll have ample opportunity later.
Once the creative part is done, when your draft is written and the story told, then activate the more analytical part of your brain. Change hats and become an Editor instead of a Writer. Now is your opportunity to look at the sentence structure, cull out the redundant phrases, correct the grammar, add the appropriate punctuation if you didn’t get it right the first time, run your spell check. As I’ll describe in Tip #9, I have two totally separate methods for writing and editing. I do my initial drafts by dictation while I hike (thus, it’s not possible for me to worry about, or even see, cosmetic nuances of grammar or punctuation), and after I dictate the first draft, I do my editing on the computer.
You can always go back and make changes—always. If you allow self-doubt (or the lack of the “perfect” word or phrase) to keep you from moving on to the next sentence, then you’ll never finish that paragraph—which means you’ll never finish that chapter, which means you’ll never finish that novel.
Too many times I’ve seen writers derail their creative process by stopping the action to tweak a word or a sentence. If you write a few paragraphs, then go back and polish them, you destroy all the forward momentum you had. It’s like shifting gears again and again, forward, reverse, forward, reverse, and you could burn out your mental transmission.
Save the criticism for the second draft. That way you’ll actually finish writing and have something to polish. As far as I know, no one has ever published a “perfect,” but only half-completed, novel.
This summer I narrated my first audiobook for audible.com!
Productivity Tip #8—CREATE THE BEST WRITING ENVIRONMENT FOR YOURSELF
So, you’ve developed a writing routine, set up an office or at least a place where you use your laptop. It’s the way you’re accustomed to writing. But habit doesn’t necessarily make your setup the best. Have you ever stepped back with an objective eye to consider whether it works for you?
Is your “office” (whether it’s a spare bedroom, a corner of the kitchen table, or an old desk in the hall) conducive to productivity? Don’t just accept your environment as it is. Consider other possible rooms, desks, tables in the house. Try to create a “haven” for yourself, a place you can call a writing office, so that when you’re working there, you—and everyone else—regard it as your real workplace.
Look at where you have your computer or laptop set up. Is it on a TV tray in the middle of the living room with chaos and clutter all around? Probably not the best spot. A corner of the kitchen table with any old chair pulled up? A place where it’s easy for friends and family to chat with you? Is the television on and distracting you?
Now, look at your writing surface and your chair. See that they’re adjusted at the proper height: your bent arms should form a loose “L” to reach the keyboard. Most regular chairs are much too low for a typical table surface. If you hunch over or have to reach up for the keyboard or mouse, you could end up with sore arms, wrists, shoulders, and that can lead to serious repetitive-stress injuries such as pinched nerves, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, or cubital tunnel syndrome, to name a few. (I know from experience—my wife has had four arm surgeries to correct damage caused by an improper office setup from when she worked a full-time office job.) Sit on a pillow if you have to, or install a keyboard shelf.
Next, consider your personal habits and schedules. These will be different for each writer. Some people write best at home in familiar surroundings, while others find the home environment filled with distractions and numerous little household tasks. Some find themselves stimulated to write in a coffee shop with constant comings and goings and background chatter, while others prefer to get away from distractions by renting a separate room to be used specifically as an outside office. I happen to be most productive when writing or editing with loud music playing; my wife works best in total silence (which means we have our offices on opposite ends of the house).
(A side note: I use a set of noise-cancelling headphones while I travel. They are remarkably effective at shutting out the background hubbub of airports, train stations, and coffee shops—which lets me concentrate completely, even amidst the chaos.)
What time of day is your peak imagination and energy? I’m a morning person, and I get the most work done first thing in the day with fresh coffee running through my bloodstream. Rebecca is a lot slower to get moving and doesn’t do much creative work until later in the day, but then she stays up well beyond the time when my sleepy brain is shutting down. If you’re a night person, try to arrange your writing time for late at night; if you’re a morning person, get up a little earlier to do your creative work.
Just because you’re used to writing in a certain place at a certain time, doesn’t mean that’s the only way you can be productive. As an experiment, try writing under different circumstances, at various times, and in a variety of places, then determine the best environment for you. Which collection of variables allows you to produce the most pages? You may be surprised. Then, once you’ve figured out how and where you can be most productive, arrange your schedule and your office environment to accommodate that.
This blog series is part of a lecture I’ll be presenting at the Superstars Writing Seminar in May 14–16 in Colorado Springs, a three-day intensive workshop focused on business and careers in writing. Other instructors include David Farland, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, and Brandon Sanderson, as well as guest speakers Jim Minz (editor at Baen Books), Mark Leslie Lefebvre (Kobo), and Joan Johnston (bestselling romance author).
Prices increase November 1. www.superstarswriting.com
Writing Productivity Tip #5: Use Every Minute
If you think you need large blocks of time to accomplish any writing, then you’re kidding yourself. One sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time.
Sure, we’d all love extended, uninterrupted hours to do nothing but sit and think, to write page after page while immersed in the story and characters without a distraction in the world … but that’s a luxury most of us don’t have. In the real world, the majority of writers—even successful, published writers—still have full-time jobs and need to fit in their writing around other duties. Writers have families, obligations, even—surprise!—personal lives.
I didn’t actually quit my day job until I’d published eleven bestsellers. It was a 40+ hour per week position with heavy responsibilities, involving frequent travel, as well as constant pressures and distractions. Even so, by taking full advantage of snippets of time in the evenings and on weekends, and a spare lunch hour or two, I managed to write two or three novels per year.
If you have only a few minutes here and there, then learn how to do something productive in those brief bursts. You can plot a short story in the shower, develop a character background while waiting in the dentist’s office, map out a scene before drifting off to sleep at night. Make progress—however small—on your novel during the five or ten minutes of dimness in the theater before the movie starts, while cooking dinner, or while doing tedious household tasks. While riding the bus or vanpool, you can write down notes, scribble outlines, even mark up a printout of an earlier chapter.
Too often I’ve heard the lame excuse, “I don’t have enough time to do a serious amount of writing, so I’ll just [insert procrastinating activity] instead.” Science fiction writer Roger Zelazny used to advise authors to “write two sentences.” Not such an insurmountable obstacle. You may really only have time to write two sentences; in other instances, though, those two sentences will lead to two more, and then two paragraphs; ten minutes later you’ll have a page done. A free ten minutes is ten minutes you could be writing. Two sentences will take you two sentences closer to finishing the manuscript.
If you find yourself in a place where you really can’t jot down notes (in the gym, waiting in line at the grocery store, etc.) use every little snatch of time to ponder what you’re going to write the next time you get a few minutes at your keyboard. Do your mulling ahead of time, so that when you have a few spare moments to sit with your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keys, you can jump right in and get down to actual writing (instead of pondering what you mean to say).
When you have a bit of time to write—a day off, part of an afternoon, an hour, even ten minutes—use it to WRITE! Get as much written as you can. This takes a lot of discipline, and it’s easy to get distracted, but set your priorities. Do you want to be a writer, or would you rather complain about not having enough time to write?
Writing Productivity Tip #6: Set Goals for Yourself—and Stick to Them
I’m a goal-oriented person. Give me a target, or a list, and I’ll set out to accomplish the task, milestone by milestone. When I moved to Colorado, I got a book listing all 54 mountain peaks in the state higher than 14,000 ft, along with hiking or climbing routes to each summit. I immediately made up my mind to climb all of them—and I did.
Approaching summit of La Plata Peak, 14,336 ft
Similarly, if you set yourself a writing objective, you have a target to shoot for, and a greater chance of achieving it. Make up your mind to set aside one hour per day of dedicated writing, or produce four pages a day, or complete a new story each month.
A caution: Know yourself well enough to set realistic targets, rather than ridiculous ones. If you repeatedly fail to meet your goals, day after day, you’ll get discouraged. Once you learn how to meet your goal of 1000 words per day, for example, then up the stakes to 1500 words a day. Push yourself.
If you find yourself making too many excuses to yourself, try a more clear-cut goal to keep yourself accountable. A regular writer’s group may provide you with incentive, if you need to finish a story before the next meeting. Or you can form or join a support/competition group of your own. Groups can set goals for their members (e.g., each member must submit a piece of writing at each meeting for the other group members to critique).
Rather than viewing this as undue pressure, you can see the friendly competition as mutual support among your fellow writers. The members of a highly successful group in Oregon regularly engage in competitions among themselves. In “the Race,” they compete with one another, keeping track of who has the most submissions in the mail at any one time. The reward is a dramatically increased writing output, as a group. The penalty? The loser buys the others dinner. But no one is the loser, really, because even the person with the lowest output is more productive than he or she would have been without the inspiration of those fellow writers.
Each November is National Novel Writing Month, where entrants challenge themselves to complete a novel manuscript in 30 days. In last year’s NanoWriMo, participants produced 2.8 billion words in a single month. (Not as part of NaNoWriMo, but because if my deadlines, I wrote the first draft of each of the three books in my new Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series in less than a month, and all three will be published in the space of a year.)
Try entering writing contests, such as those listed in Writers Digest or Writers Market. All of these contests have deadlines which force you to complete your entry by a certain date. In the science fiction and fantasy field, one particularly successful contest is the Writers of the Future; it’s been around for more than an quarter century, and my wife and I are both judges, along with many of the most respected writers in the genre. We highly recommend it.
There are plenty of contests you can track down on the web, and the prospect of winning, as well as a set deadline for entries, may give you the nudge you need. (Beware: Avoid contests that claim all publication rights to submissions. You shouldn’t have to give up your story, no matter how good the contest sounds.)
This blog series is part of a lecture I give at each Superstars Writing Seminar on how to increase writing productivity. Next Superstars will be held May 14–16 in Colorado Springs with international bestselling authors as instructors—Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Eric Flint, Rebecca Moesta, and Brandon Sanderson, with guest speakers Jim Minz (editor, Baen, Tor, Del Rey), Mark Leslie Lefebvre (e-publishing expert, chief of author relations at Kobo), and bestselling romance author Joan Johnston.
Write a novel in a month? Okay…then what do you do with the other two weeks after you’ve finished by the 15th?
More tips that you can use to increase your writing productivity when the pressure of NaNoWriMo gets to you. Note that these come from my own experiences as well as other authors I’ve talked to, so some might even be contractory. Every writer has different habits, and these won’t all work for everyone…but you never know until you try.
Writing Productivity Tip #3—WORK ON DIFFERENT PROJECTS AT THE SAME TIM
This one works best for people with ADD, or low boredom thresholds! (And it doesn’t work for everybody.)
Each writing project has many phases: research, plotting, writing the first draft, doing the rough edit, polishing the final edit, copyediting, proofreading, and the marketing and business. Since some of these tasks are more onerous than others, I keep several different projects on the creative burner at all times at different stages. Personally, I love the creative explosion of plotting the story from scratch and writing the first draft, but the first major edit or the last proofread both seem like a lot of drudgery to me.
However, if I have several novels or stories at different stages of completion, I can switch from one process to another, while charging along at full-steam. The variety also makes the tedious parts more palatable. I can research a new novel for an hour, then write a draft chapter of a different story, then proofread galleys of another novel, answer questions in an interview for yet another novel, then maybe go back to tweak an outline, or do some more research.
Okay, I admit I’m a restless Type-A person. Hopscotching among projects is like a guy with a TV remote bouncing from channel to channel. But this method keeps me fully productive at all times. If I chose only one book, devoted my entire creative time to a lockstep start-to-finish march of taking the kernel of an idea through research, writing, editing, and proofreading, I would feel claustrophobic and stifled.
Since October 1, I’ve proofread the galleys of Hellhole Awakening (my 170,000-word novel with Brian Herbert); wrote, edited, and delivered a 6000-word short story for a Lovecraft tribute anthology, wrote the first 90,000 words in The Dark Between the Stars (first in a new trilogy set in my Seven Suns universe), took a 3-day trip to Toronto for a speaking gig and book signing at RushCon, and a 3-day trip to Fargo, ND, where I was guest of honor at ValleyCon. And I did a 20-mile hike along the Colorado Trail. All of these things get juggled into the daily writing schedule, and I switch from one, to the next, to the next, always keeping the brain moving.
When I grow weary of one type of work (say, proofreading) I can switch to another (outlining, or first-draft writing). I find that after working on the same project for a while, it begins to lose its freshness and becomes more tedious. And when I’m not enjoying myself, the process of writing becomes a chore instead of a joy. I try not to let that happen, because I love writing.
So far, I haven’t gotten any of my stories mixed up.
Writing Productivity Tip #4—DARE TO BE BAD (AT FIRST)…THEN FIX IT
This tip comes from prolific and bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith, and the more I’ve pondered it, I’ve come to believe it’s one of the most important pieces of advice any struggling writer can hear.
Repeat after me: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be finished.
It’s easier to FIX existing prose than it is to write perfect prose in the first place. The crucial step is to get it down on paper!
Your draft words or descriptions might be redundant. So what? They can be fixed later. You might make grammatical mistakes. So what? Promise yourself you’ll fix them later—after you’ve got the story written.
A few years ago, I wrote my award-winning, #1 bestselling X-Files novel Ground Zero in six weeks, start-to-finish: 300 published pages, 90,000 words. The publisher had already scheduled it for a breakneck production pace, and everyone was counting on me to deliver the manuscript. I could not be late. I absolutely positively had to turn in an acceptable novel on time. The only way I could do this was just to tell my story, get it down on the page, and trust my writing skills.
I managed to write 25–30 pages a day on that book, seven days a week, until the draft was finished. Although this isn’t an exercise I recommend for most writers, the sheer, intense concentration did increase my writing speed and, I believe, my writing quality as well. By writing straight through, one scene after another after another without wandering back to earlier chapters to tweak the prose, I built up a “story momentum” that propelled the book along at a breakneck pace.
As soon as the first draft was done, I had allocated as much time as possible to polish the words, editing the manuscript again and again until the last second. (Keep reading—I’ll devote an entire upcoming tip to this subject.) Surprisingly, when I went back to the initial pages, fully intending to spend weeks on major editing and rewriting, I found that the constant, intense practice had taught me to produce crisp, fast-paced writing as compelling as if I’d spent hours agonizing over each page. Giving yourself permission to be “bad, then fix it” frees your mind just to create. For the first draft, don’t worry about how good it is or how you can revise it. Just do the writing.
You may also be interested in our next Superstars Writing Seminar in Colorado Springs, CO (May 14-16), an intensive three-day seminar for serious aspiring and established writers. Real nuts-and-bolts information on establishing and maintaining a career as a professional writer, taught by international bestselling writers. More information at www.superstarswriting.com.