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Tag: productivity

August Wrap-Up, September Goals

Well, this is going to be an August Wrap-Up/September Check-In, but I know, I know, I’ve been pretty much MIA all summer. For good reasons and dumb ones. Let’s start with the great, and talk about my favorite topic, process, along the way!

Last week I went on an amazing, restorative retreat in Canada with five other YA authors. We were all working on wildly different projects at wildly different stages of the process, and each had colossally different approaches to the work, but it was such a positive and encouraging and relaxing environment, and I feel like I learned a ton both about how I work best and how I relate to other writers (and can be a better author friend).

“You are the embodiment of work hard, play hard,” Ryan Graudin said to me, which I took as a compliment of the highest order. I arrived a few days later than the others, and E. K. Johnston joked that everyone’s productivity went up 500% when I showed up, but hey—I love what I do, and what I do is ruthlessly crack the writing whip and Slytherin it up. I instituted a new evening activity, “Drinking & Drafting,” which is as advertised: enjoying a glass of wine, beer, or entire bottles of honey whiskey and Fireball (as the case was, when there’s six of you) while doing thirty-minute writing/revising sprints. In between, we can chat and laugh at ourselves and rage at our stupid stupid words, but when the timer starts again, it’s back to work.

(Note: Twitter Drink&Draft nights might become a thing. Be forewarned.)

I learned about incorporating feedback and tweaking character motivation from Roshani Chokshi. About the usefulness of persistence and the “slow and steady” writing process from Ryan. E. K. Johnston reminded me of the joys (and terrors) of producing under pressure. Leah Bobet basically gave a master class on worldbuilding and reconceptualizing the mundane and the mythic. And Emma Higginbotham just straight up kicked word count ass.

In large part thanks to the retreat, August turned out to be my highest word-count month ever, more than any NaNo months. (It was so high, in fact, that I’m actually too embarrassed to post the monthly total because I still can’t get past the stigma that people think high word count = crap writer.) This sounds awesome, I know, but when I look back on the summer I’ve had, I’m even more pleased with it.

Truth is, this summer sucked for me on the creative frontier. In March and April, I went through a wild and wonderful drafting spree, cranking out a 90,000-word YA fantasy novel in six weeks thanks to that giddy mix of a solid outline and ambition and determination. So in May, I was coming down from that exhilarating high. I also faced some big and incredibly stressful shake-ups at work (yeah . . . the new job I took because I wanted more stability . . .) and, stupid as it sounds, was feeling pretty frustrated and conflicted about a piece of media I’d been eagerly awaiting for over two years. All this plus my usual summer depression plus a longer stretch of not being medicated when I really ought to be pretty much killed my creative drive all the way through July. I did finally drag myself to the doctor to get medicated (on a permanent basis, finally) and also—surprise!—got an ADHD diagnosis. Which, in retrospect, is just hilariously sad that it took 32 years for someone to notice, most of all me.

Writing through depression sucks. Often, there is no writing through depression. There is thinking about writing, and feeling even worse because you aren’t writing; or trying to write, and hating every last word. I spent most of those months outlining stories and getting angry the moment I actually tried to write them because everything sounded dead and dull and gray. Reading was similarly painful. Either I felt hopelessly incapable of ever making another book of my own, or found absolutely nothing of value in what I tried reading, even if it should have been hitting every single one of my happy story buttons. It just seemed like a chore.

Two things got me through the worst patch of it.

First were obligations. To Coldwitch, to The Hanging Garden, to friends. I could drag myself to a coffee shop with a friend, laptop in hand, if only so I could yell at said friend to get her writing done. Naturally I had to at least make an effort to do some of my own, even if I was days behind and felt like every scene starred two pieces of cardboard slowly getting soggy in the rain.

Second, I opened up a blank Word doc and braindumped all my frustration with said disappointing-confusing media and didn’t care how much it resembled soggy cardboard, because it was entirely for me. No publishers or readers to impress because it wasn’t for them and would never be for them. It was my catharsis alone—all 53,000 words of it—and, conveniently enough, it centered on a character systematically working through their own depression and self-doubt. Maybe it was a waste of words, maybe not, but it allowed me to keep writing through depression with zero expectations and pressure—something I hadn’t done in a very, very long time.

And despite all that: I’m going into September with a ridiculously high word count for the year to date, one that has me feeling really good about where I’m going to end the year. And here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish:


September Goals

Writing cool scary new project in new medium that I can’t talk about even though it’s going to take up all my brainpower! Good times.

Drafting big gay adult high fantasy shedding the armor of toxic masculinity novel! (currently: 14K; goal by end of month: 50K)

Promoting A Darkly Beating Heart, my angry little revenge fantasy book that defies conventional promotion tactics.


September Stretch Goals

Set up a Patreon (as Dahlia is hounding me to do, and I have lots of ideas for it! Just need the confidence and time)

Start revisions/rewrites on stray carewolves YA high fantasy novel

Outline adult high fantasy girl gang smashing colonialism novel for NaNoWriMo


At the top of my September TBR:


What are your goals for September? What’s at the top of your TBR pile?

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Further Thoughts on Outlining

I’m completely overwhelmed by everyone’s response to my post about how I improved my writing speed. Thank you so much! It’s very gratifying to hear that it resonated with so many of you, and I’d love to hear more about your results. I also got some great questions, and quite a lot of “But what do I do if I HATE outlining?” so I’d love to address some of the common ones.


I hate outlining because it robs me of the joy of discovery [or other reasons]. Am I a lost cause?

Of course not! Different things work for different people. I know there are writers who can really get into the “zone” on a story, and crank out an entire novel–without an outline–in extremely short periods of time. I do think that on the whole, however, un-outlined stories are slower to draft because of the cognitive load problem I mentioned in the original post. So if you really, truly hate the idea of outlining because you think it will ruin the joy of discovery, then try finding some other aspect of your writing that you can offload in advance. Give yourself a starting point and ending point for a scene, and sketch in some sensory or thematic details. Then you’re doing less of the “setting the stage” work in your head while you write while still feeling the joy of discovering what your characters will do next. Or you can do a lot more character work beforehand–worksheets with information about how they speak, their dark secrets, their feelings toward other characters, etc–that you can refer to as you go rather than having to make each up on the spot.


No matter what I try, I can’t seem to push past XX words a day. Any tips?

Usually, when I’m having a hard time meeting a word count goal, it’s because I either a) haven’t done the work to know what the thing I’m writing is actually about, or b) have run my creative well dry and am not keeping it suitably refilled. I can usually tell if it’s the former because I just get blocked and stare aimlessly around with no idea what should happen next; I can tell it’s the latter because every sentence I write sounds the same and my characters are just empty mannequins who shrug their shoulders and frown a lot while having lengthy stretches of dialogue that goes nowhere.

If your problem is A, try this: pull out a piece of paper. At the very bottom, write the next major thing that you know you need to have happen. Then use the remaining space to chart a course toward that thing from where you are right now (or possibly even a little bit before).

If your problem is B: take a deep breath. Step away. If you have time to spare, give yourself some time away to read, watch an inspiring TV show, take a brainstorming walk, or otherwise do something that isn’t beating your head against the keyboard. When you’re ready, put yourself back into your story, but focus on those sensory details you’re missing. Reconnect with the worldbuilding and setting, whether it’s a middle school cafeteria (sticky tabletops, green linoleum, noseprints on the windows? go nuts) or a fantasy high cathedral (thin shafts of light streaming into the darkness, dust motes on the air, your character’s heavy mantel making them sweat and slicking their hair to their neck). For me, the challenge in keeping my writing feeling fresh is in inviting others’ words and worlds and phrases and thoughts into my head, and that means not neglecting my fiction reading, either. Fresh exposure to new storylines and language helps my brain slowly digest and remix things into something hopefully new, and keeps my sentence-writing muscle all limbered up.


I just can’t write every day.

Neither can I. So I don’t. My creative energy is really awesome Monday through Wednesday, sucks dirt on Thursdays, and is a total mixed bag through the weekend. And when I finish a big project, I always take a week or two off (schedule permitting). So I write when I can. Just don’t use it as an excuse. There’s a big difference between “I cannot write right now” and “I really could write right now and really should write right now but I’m going to let inertia carry me on to scroll through Tumblr for a few more hours until I fall asleep.” If you’re procrastinating, and you know you’re procrastinating, look at the reasons as to why. Procrastination usually comes from fear, a lack of confidence about one’s ability to proceed, and/or a lack of understanding as to how to proceed. With outlining, you are breaking the steps down into manageable chunks so you can at least tackle the last of these. The other two, we’ll address at a later time.


Have you tried changing up your writing process? How is it going?




How I Nearly Doubled My Yearly Word Count in 2015 and My Plans for 2016

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

2014: 272,226

2015: 485,226

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.


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.

2. Outlining.

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.


“‘And Alexander wept, for he had no more worlds left to conquer.’ The benefits of a classical education.”

3. Striving.

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.


Looking Ahead

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!