You know the cognitive fallacy about how people who drive slower than you are morons and people who drive faster than you are maniacs? Writers have a tendency to treat other writers’ productivity much the same way. People who write too slow aren’t taking the craft seriously or approaching it like a business, we cry. People who write too fast (whatever “too” means) are probably hacks. And deep down, we all fear being unserious hacks.
For this reason–the critical voice inside my head, the one that I’m convinced is only echoing what real people think–I’ve long resisted publicizing my word count data. But I was discussing the major changes I made in 2015 that have helped me improve my drafting speed on Twitter the other day, and I figure nothing proves my point better than yummy data.
So here are my yearly word counts: (eek! deep breaths.)
2013 (the first year I started tracking): 207,368
While I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t double my word count, I’m extremely pleased with the results–a 1.8x increase.
I deliberately made several changes to how I approach projects in 2015, and I strongly believe those changes account for the bulk of that improvement. I’ll address those changes below. But first, I will acknowledge a few other factors that probably contributed that are far more subjective. I’ll try to extract the useful bits from those to motivate myself in the future so I can learn from them without having to replicate those conditions.
1. Extremely Tight Deadlines.
In late 2014/early 2015, I had a fourth book contracted with Roaring Brook/Macmillan, but had not yet gotten my editor to sign off on a particular project for that book. According to the contract we’d signed back in 2013, that book was due by May of 2015. We didn’t settle on a project until February of 2015. When I got my editor’s blessing to write that book, I had nothing more than a paragraph pitch for it and less than one page of atmospheric text I’d jotted down late one night when the main character’s voice came to me during a shower brainstorming session. So I had no choice but to take the book from “idea” to “finished manuscript” as quickly as possible, or face the possibility that the project could be delayed to a 2017 release. This time pressure plus the techniques I then used (which I’ll discuss in a minute) allowed me to outline this book in 3 weeks, write it in 5, and revise it in 2. While I don’t relish the thought of working on such a short deadline all the time, I did find the “almost but not quite impossible” time constraint motivating.
2. Make It or Break It Time.
I experienced quite a bit of turmoil in my day job in the second half of 2015, and gave serious consideration to the possibility that writing may have to serve as my primary source of income. I had no choice but to aggressively pursue every writing opportunity I came across. At times, the day-job stress motivated me to write more, but at other times, I was too overwhelmed to consider writing. I gained a newfound respect for full-time writers (and the amount of time they must spend chasing down payments owed!) For my own sanity, I think a stable paycheck relieves a lot of this stress, but a small sense of “this is my career, this is what I have to do” motivated me to push myself when otherwise I might have blown off writing or been satisfied with a smaller daily output.
Now let’s talk about what techniques I deliberately employed to improve my word count.
The surest way to find out what project you really want to work on is to commit to working on a different one.
— Lindsay SITH (@LindsaySmithDC) January 8, 2016
1. Diversity of Projects.
In 2015, I wrote short stories, I wrote episodes for a multi-author serialized tale, I wrote novels, I wrote treatments/proposals, I wrote fanfiction, I wrote freelance projects with the gleeful abandon of someone with no emotional attachment and therefore no internal critic. If I got stuck, bored, or irritated with one project, I had plenty of other ones I could switch to instead.
Not everyone is wired this way, and I get that. But “structured procrastination” (the semi-official term for avoiding one task by completing another task) really works for me. While working on Task A, Task B becomes the embodiment of all that is holy and perfect and joyful in my rebellious mind, and it resolves itself–it untangles itself–it comes up with all kinds of newer, cooler ways to tackle its characters and settings and arcs. Once I either finish work on Task A or hit a wall with it and succumb to Task B’s siren song, I’m refreshed and ready to dive into it anew.
Case in point: I spent all of March and April outlining, drafting, and revising the first version of A Darkly Beating Heart (the contracted book I mentioned above). I’m not used to crashing hard on a single project this way without tinkering on anything else. While I had the tight deadline to meet keeping me on track with ADBH, however, when my work was done for the day, my mind started splashing around in the dregs of an old, old manuscript that I’ve long wanted to revisit. I turned in ADBH, took two weeks off to celebrate my birthday/celebrate meeting my deadline/not do anything/go on the Fierce Reads tour, and then immediately cranked out a 35K partial rewrite of said old manuscript, drunk on all the new ideas I’d formulated while working on ADBH.
If this approach resonates with you, by all means, give it a shot! But there is something to be said for hunkering down and finishing a single project, your muse and their fickle desires be damned. Either way, learn from my tears: WRITE THAT SHIT DOWN. Those dumb shower thoughts and those ah-ha! moments in the middle of the night for Project B (or A, or C, or X)–WRITE IT DOWN. You will NOT remember it. You want to have those ideas available to you when the time comes to use them.
I can hear all you pantsers groaning already, I know. I once was one of you. I held about 5-8 major plot points in my head and then let myself loose. (See above note about not writing things down . . . I know the pain of forgetting that Cool Plot Twist I’d spent the whole book building toward.)
Then I started having to revise the books I’d written that way. And revise them again and again. Then my poor unsuspecting editor liked those books, and asked me to revise them again. Eventually, I reached the point where it took me eight times as long to revise a book as it took to write it–largely because I hadn’t sat down to write it with a clear, deliberate plan in mind, and was constantly having to hunt down loose plot threads to weave back into place, snip out, or redo entirely.
In 2015, I was already getting more comfortable with outlining simply because a) I write stupidly complicated books (and knew I wasn’t going to stop doing that) and b) I was working on a massive multi-author project that left me with no choice but to plan everything out in advance. I’d read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love and enjoyed some success from sketching out a scene before I wrote it. With A Darkly Beating Heart, I decided to finally try applying this on a novel-length scale.
First, I wrote out those 5-8 major beats I knew I wanted to include. Then I connected the dots between them, while drawing some brief character sketches alongside the outline so I could find fun character weaknesses to exploit for plot points and profit. This gave me about 30 bullet points to work with. I tweaked those for a while, wrote out some thematic elements I wanted to tackle, integrated those more fully into the bullet points, and broke the book into rough thirds.
Then I took that outline and converted it into chapter-by-chapter detailed beats, with 8-10 beats per chapter. And then . . . I wrote.
Here’s the thing. My brain–and yours, and everyone else’s–can only process so much data at once. And when I wasn’t outlining my book, I was simultaneously trying to figure out the “what” of what happened in my scene–the actual beats of action that occurred–at the same time that I was sorting out the “how”–the pretty bits of prose and dialogue and theme and conflict that those beats revealed. By outlining, I offloaded the “what” to a sheet of paper. I didn’t have to hold it in my brain any longer. It was already figured out and conveniently stored for me in a notebook that I could glance at while I typed. That freed up my brainpower to dedicate itself fully to all the fussy details of metaphors and atmosphere and dialogue lines and theme and angst (always angst). I still got improvise and be creative while following my outline. If anything, I had more creativity than before, because I wasn’t bogged down by dealing with the structural aspect of my book, too.
And guess what? My editor said it was the cleanest draft she’d ever seen from me. By a lot.
If outlining is abhorrent and painful to your soul, then I get it. There is absolutely a great value in carefully nurturing and growing a manuscript, pruning and weeding as you go (or at least making notes as to what to prune and weed and replant later). But for speed, I found outlining to be the single most powerful change I made.
If you want another take on outlining aside from Rachel Aaron’s, I also highly recommend Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing. It’s useful for story structure, yes, but I found a great deal of value into her approach to twining character motivations and flaws with story architecture, and frankly, I’m a little mad I didn’t use some of these techniques in my already-published books. Again, these are all elements that, by doing the “what” work ahead of time, they freed up my brainpower to make better “how”s as I wrote.
This ties in to my experience above of feeling a sense of “make it or break it.” But no matter what stage you’re in with your writing career, I think it’s helpful to always stay hungry. Keep your eyes on that new market, that next book deal, that added stage of success. For me, this means continuing to diversify my writing by trying new media, genres, and categories while continuing to sell stories in the ones I’ve already sold in. For you, maybe that means landing an agent, or seeing your next book debut on the bestsellers list.
We all know those authors who have permanent spots on the NYT list, multi-season award-winning TV shows based on their series, and a manuscript that’s several years overdue . . . Yeah. They’re probably not feeling the pressure, no matter how many angry fans tweet at them. Feel it. Embrace it. Find the right amount of pressure you need in order to keep you productive without being totally overwhelmed, and keep that pressure on. Enlist an accountabilibuddy to keep you on track, and for you to nag and send creepy intimidating photos to when they’re slacking, too.
In 2016, I’m going to focus on refining these techniques–better outlines, more useful outlines, more cool projects for my brain to willingly crunch–and look toward a higher level of satisfaction with my results. For me, this means finishing projects and exploring new areas (genres/media/categories). I’m not going to focus on word count as much (though I still want to at least match my 2015 results) but I am going to look at finishing a number of side-projects that have never really gotten their day in the sun. However, unless I keep refining the above techniques, I have no doubt I’ll see a slide in my word count, so keeping that high is still important to me.
What does 2016 look like for you? Do you have a project just begging to finally, finally reach THE END? A new idea far outside your wheelhouse that you nonetheless want to explore? Are you looking to change up your writing approach to see better results? Tell me in the comments and I’ll work it into the next post!