Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Writing Experiment

It all started with this article by Rachel Aaron: "How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to Writing 10,000."

Or, I guess for me at least, it started with the rewrite for SHADES OF EARTH that I recently finished. To finish the rewrite on time, I had to commit to 6,000 words a day, every day, until it was due at the end of May. And in order to do the rewrite, I had to *gasp* outline.

But it wasn't really and outline--I had already completed a draft, after all--and it wasn't really a rewrite, because I was able to keep some scenes I'd already written, so while there was new material, it wasn't all new material, and while it required an outline, it was an outline based on the draft I already had.

So, when Holly Black started asking on Twitter if anyone had tried Aaron's method of increasing word count, I was eager to jump on board and try my hand at it, too.

I'm working on a new book currently. I won't tell you what it is except to point you to this clue. But the point is, it's a completely new, from-scratch idea that I'm building from the ground up. Not a sequel (so the characters are not yet established), not a rewrite (so the story's not already established).

The point of Aaron's article can be summed up like this: plan what you're going to write first, then you can write it easier. This is definitely true for me. When I was teaching, I had a 40 minute drive (each way) to get to work. I spent that time thinking about my stories--so when I sat down to write when I got home, I already knew what I was going to write. It wasn't much detail, but it was there.

Since I quit teaching, I realized that I spend a lot more time on my butt, staring at the screen, and not actually, you know, writing. I've been a bit disappointed in myself that now that writing is my full time job, I'm not writing that much more than I had when working.

I still don't truly believe in outlines--not very detailed ones at least--but I'm going to show you what I've done this past week that left me with a complete proposal and the start of a new book. In all fairness, I have been working on the proposal for awhile now, so that part wasn't new--but the actual text in the story is!


This story is going to be a fantasy, so I had to think a lot about world-building and how the magic system worked. This is the stuff I mostly did a while ago, while I was brainstorming. I have a big art pad, where I've doodled a map of the world I'm building, listed out characters and how they relate to each other, and created the rules of the magic system.


If in the first step I was to gather together all of the ingredients to the story, this is the step where I started mixing them together to create a tasty, tasty story. This is also the point where the random brainstorming had to start fitting into the shape of a story.

Now, here's the key thing for me. I hate outlines. But as Rachel points out in her article, it's not so much about a single outline, but about knowing what you want to write beforehand.

For me, another important issue was knowing where in the novel I wanted things to happen. I have a pretty complicated plot with a lot of characters, so I new I wanted Character R, for example, introduced before the first third of the novel was over, and I knew I wanted Clue A in the first quarter of the book, then at least a few chapters spaced out before I introduced Clue B.

This is the sort of stuff I usually thought about after I finished writing, and then it usually came about as Oops! Of course I need to put this here before this, now I have to go back and change it and cut this and move that and then drink a lot of vodka because holy shizz, this is going to take a lot of work.

So, to do this, I turned to Scrivener.

I used the corkboard feature, something I've never really bothered with before. I basically made a different notecard for each key part of the story that I knew needed to happen. It was very basic--two different cards were about introducing two different characters that are not at the first chapter of the book, there was no more than one sentence description of some key events. I ended up with about 15 index cards.

Once I had that, I worked on re-arranging everything, so that the character were introduced a few chapters apart. I looked at the clues I had, and spaced them out, adding in new cards for red herrings. I noticed that the main character had a bunch of high moments--I kicked her down and added a low moment (and vice versa). This brought my card count up to over 30.


Now I had 30-ish index cards with a brief note of what needed to go into each chapter. From there, I needed to just...write.

What I've been doing--and what's worked very well so far--is that I'll write the chapter I'm working on, then scan ahead a few index cards to see what needs to be done next. This will job my memory--it's sort of like scouting ahead on a road map before starting the car. Then I go through and add more details to the next card after the chapter I just finished. This means when I start on the next chapter the next day, I have a pretty specific idea of what needs to happen.


I've only been using this method a few days. But in those few days, here's what I have:

  • A complete proposal. I went from notes and brainstorming to a complete idea of what I want the book to be, in terms of tone, action, everything.
  • A limited outline. I don't like working with highly detailed outlines. I have no more than a sentence for about 30 chapters, and the full knowledge that I'll probably deviate from this.
  • A road map of where to go. While I don't plan on rigidly sticking to my outline, I do have an idea that within a certain percentage of the book, certain things need to happen. I'm more aware of the direction I need to take the story to be able to hit the highlights.
  • Specifics for a few chapters ahead. This helps me to sit down and immediately start writing, as opposed to sitting down and staring at the computer screen.
  • 10k words. True--I had about half of that already in a rough form. But now I've got a polish 10k that has a lot of the layers and details that I'll often not get to until the final draft.
Will I be able to keep up the pace? I don't know. I'd like to shoot for a steady 3-4k words per day, about double what I typically do (2k/day). But mostly, what I want to cut out is the idle time where I just sit and stare at the screen, or goof off and go online, or make excuses. 

What about you? Do you have any methods you use to write more efficiently?

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Juliana Haygert said...

"and then drink a lot of vodka because holy shizz, this is going to take a lot of work." << HAHAHA I laughed so hard!

Hope you can keep this pace up! And the story board on Pinterest is AMAZING! Super curious about it now ;)

Emily the Little Fish said...

BETH. :)

I have always been a plotter instead of a pantser (that's what my friends refer to it as). I love doing outlines and diving right into the story and the mechanics of it all. I also do NaNoWriMo, and your post finally causes me to go "Oh!" Because it now makes sense why I am able to write 110K in a month but then dawdle around on the off months. I'm mid-Camp NaNoWriMo right now, so I'm able to see it and really identify with it right now.

I love how you use Scrivener; lots of writers I know use it. I have never been able to get into it for planning, however. Typically I do my planning by hand, with one of those little notebooks you can get form Wal-Mart (I stock up right before school when they're ten cents), and then I do all of my base writing either on my iPhone or TextEdit on my computer, where I don't have to worry about formatting. That takes time and energy that I want to save for later. When I start editing, I move to OpenOffice and get to play with how the actual book looks at that time.

Typically for writing, I write down as many ideas as I can and what I want to do with it, then I write out a quick start-to-finish synopsis of the story (I call it a 'pend,' because the story is pending and waiting to be written). Then, I find a blank page and write 1-30 on each line. Looking at my pend, I divide the story up into thirty cutesy "chapter titles." Then I take thirty more pages in the notebook and write the chapter titles at the top, writing a bit more detail about what happens in each chapter. If there's something I don't want to forget, like a particular mental image or a feeling, I write it here. The chapters aren't always that static, so don't worry, I don't have thirty chapters in each book. :)

Also, internet is not your friend. I have learned this. Some people say you need to have it to do research. I say do the research before you write, or if you need it quickly, borrow someone's phone or something. In my old apartment back in Ohio, I refused to have wireless internet because I knew it would be a distraction. If I needed to look something up, I would have to physically go across the room to my laptop and look it up before heading back to my desktop (then my writing computer). Nowadays, I have a specific tea place I go to where they have internet codes you have to ask for. If I absolutely need something, I look it up on my iPhone.

I'd love to be able to write 10K in a day, but I just can't at this point -- I'm starting to get carpal tunnel in my hands, and I want to make sure I'm able to keep them as long as possible.

Oh, and P.S. -- you can totally do it. I believe in you. There are tons of people who believe in you. :)

Yesenia Vargas said...

Hi Beth,

I'm fairly new to your blog, and I just want to say that I love the design. It's so beautiful.

As far as outlining (or lack of it), my method is very similar to yours. I'm usually a plotter, but I'm trying to be more of a pantser this time. My own writing experiment. Except that I'm also adding scene notecards as they pop into my head. I feel like this hybrid method is working for me.

I also read Rachel Aaron's article and thought it was so helpful. Her triangle method is genius!

Cherie Reich said...

Although I am a plotter, I don't do detailed outlines either. I write a sentence or two to see where the story is going. It's quite helpful to get started writing. :)

Unknown said...

I'm a plotter, so I recognize all the tools you mentioned above. I don't use Scrivener though.

I tuck everything away in an Excel Workbook. I have worksheets for the outline (1 sentence for each scene along a standard story arch), plot & subplot line, characters, technology, government/society structure...

Eric said...

Thanks for going through this, Beth. I am mostly against plotting, but perhaps it's because I struggle with the same things you highlight here (i.e. internet distraction, etc). I have used Scrivener a little bit, but I probably need to use it more. In any event, there is a great deal of good information here for us pantsters to learn from. So thanks a bunch.

Eric said...

Thanks for going through this, Beth. I am mostly against plotting, but perhaps it's because I struggle with the same things you highlight here (i.e. internet distraction, etc). I have used Scrivener a little bit, but I probably need to use it more. In any event, there is a great deal of good information here for us pantsters to learn from. So thanks a bunch.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wow. That's amazing. I need to do something to increase my output because I work full time and have so little time to actually write.

I guess getting off the Internet would help. lol

Judith Leger said...

I think your blog has officially become one of my favs to read! Great ideas, workable ideas! Thanks for sharing!

Ayame said...

Hello, Beth.

I'm new to your blog and I absolutely love all your posts, especially the grammar advice because I'm a foreigner and sometimes writing in English is hard. I have an obsession with using commas and I'm trying to cure myself of it now. I still miss commas though. A lot.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I must admit I'm a hardocre pantser. I hate outlining and, actually, when I outline I feel guilty because I feel like it's taking away precious time I'd otherwise spend on writing. However, because I'm a pantser I get stuck often or I realize that I need to change the order of the chapters or introduce new characters, and this is extremely frustrating. Lately I've gotten used to writing little notes about what is supposed to happen in the following chapters. So far I've found it helpful, but I rarely stick to them.

Congrats for the lovely blog and good luck with your new book!

Aidyl Ewoh said...

Wow, looks like such a helpful post. I’m totally going to come back here later and read it in more depth!

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Unknown said...

I've been trying the 2-->10K method of spending a few minutes micro-plotting before I sit down and it's helped my productivity. Of course, I still have to get my butt in the chair and turn off the internet. :)