As indie writers we have a freedom that those novelists under contract to publishing houses do not.
We do not have deadlines to meet. No publishers are breathing down our necks, we can take as long as we like to write a novel. So, in our case, it becomes pretty important to impose self-discipline. If we don’t, we’ll never get that sequel out – you know, the one your new fans are baying for. The one you need to get out asap - if you want to start reaping the benefits of the first one, that is. If you don’t want to be forgotten by the time you’ve finished it.
The indie world is pretty cut-throat and it moves fast. If you don’t get that sequel done – or the first part of a new series, or even just the next stand alone, there are loads of new authors out there just waiting to pounce and grab all your readers – maybe to be forgotten in their turn.
It’s a world of instant gratification. You know it, you can feel it. In your heart, you are aware that book 2, or 3 or whichever it is, needs to be done and it needs to be done now – before you drop out of sight.
Okay, that’s a pretty bleak scenario – but it is, at times at least, how we all feel.
But the word count – oh the dreaded word count! You want to get the book finished in let’s say three months, you want to keep ahead of the game, right? But you are busy, you have a day job, kids, housework, marketing, social networking and let’s face it, you need some “me time” too. You only have a few hours a day left to write, and you’re pulling maybe 1-2K a day, in that time. And the sequel feels like it’s just crawling along.
When I first wrote Djinnx’d (or as I called it then – untitled book about a Djinn) I wrote it at night, for hours on end, and it took me about 2 weeks to get the main draft done. Of course, it was rubbish, it needed fleshing out here and cutting back there. In the end I added maybe 30K to that first draft, so really it took me several months.
But, having done all that, having got to know my characters and my world, it seemed inevitable that the next one would be easier. I didn’t even think about word count in those days. Publishing was not on my agenda anyway. It’s different now. But, anyway, how wrong I was. It didn’t go any faster the second, or even the third time. And by now, I was publishing my work and feeling the pressure.
It has taken me a while to learn, but having decided that I needed to sharpen up and set myself some deadlines to work to, this is what I came up with.
Before I go on I think it is worth mentioning:
There are many fine and successful writers out there who equate writing quickly with being a hack. I firmly disagree. The methods outlined below remove the dross, the time spent tooling around lost in your daily writing, instead of time spent making plot decisions or word choices. This is not a choice between meditating on art or churning out novels for gross commercialism. It’s about not wasting your time for whatever sort of novels you want to write..
Drastically increasing your words per day is actually pretty easy, all it takes is a shift in perspective and the ability to be honest with yourself (which is the hardest part). There are three core requirements: Knowledge, Time, and Enthusiasm. Any one of these can noticeably boost your daily output, but all three together can turn you into a word machine. I never start writing these days unless I can hit all three.
Knowledge (or Know What You're Writing Before You Write It)
The first big boost to my daily word count happened almost by accident. It used to be I would just pop open the laptop and start writing. Now, I wasn't a total make-it-up-as-you-go writer. I had a general plot outline, but my scene notes were things like "Denny and Tamar start quest" or "The scene with the old mad man" Not very useful, but I knew generally what direction I was writing in, and I liked to let the characters decide how the scene would go. (I still do this, but in a different way) Unfortunately, this meant I wasted a lot of time rewriting and backtracking when the scene veered off course.
As soon as I realized this, in the middle of a difficult scene that just would not come together, I stopped, closed my laptop and got out my pad of paper. Then, instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn't describe anything, I didn't do transitions. I wasn't writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came. It took me about five minutes and three pages of notebook paper to untangle a seemingly unfixable scene. Better still, after I'd worked everything out in shorthand I was able to dive back into the scene and finish it in record time. The words flew onto the screen, and at the end of that session I'd written 3000 words rather than 2000, most of them in that last hour.
If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you're writing before you write it. I'm not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. Writing this stuff out in words you actually want other people to read, especially if you're making everything up as you go along, takes FOREVER. It's horribly inefficient and when you get yourself in a dead end, you end up trashing hundreds, sometimes thousands of words to get out. But jotting it down on a pad? Takes no time at all. If the scene you're sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That's it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was beautiful. I now do this whenever I have an idea for a story arc or scene, even if it’s at 3 a.m.
Every writing session after this realization, I dedicated five minutes (sometimes more, never less) and wrote out a quick description of what I was going to write. Sometimes it wasn't even a paragraph, just a list of this happens then this then this. This simple change, these five simple minutes, boosted my word count enormously. I went from writing 2k a day to writing 5k a day within a week without increasing my 5 hour writing block. Some days I even finished early.
Of course, there are still times when I “write myself into a corner” but these are fewer than they used to be, and it in is these circumstances that this method really comes into its own.
Of the three core requirements, I consider knowledge to be the most important. This step alone more than doubled my word count. If you only want to try one change at a time, this is the one I recommend the most.
Now that I'd had such a huge boost from one minor change, I started to wonder what else I could do to jack my numbers up even higher. But as I looked for other things I could tweak, I quickly realized that I knew embarrassingly little about how I actually wrote my novels. I'd kept no records of my progress, I couldn't even tell you how long it took me to write any of my previous three novels beyond broad guesstimations and vague memories of past word counts. It was like I started every book by throwing myself at the keyboard and praying for a novel to shoot out of my fingers. And keep in mind this is my business. Can you imagine a bakery or a freelance designer working this way? Never tracking hours or keeping a record of how long it took me to actually produce the thing I was selling? Yes, a pretty silly way to work.
If I was going to boost my output (or know how long it took me to actually write a blasted novel), I had to know what I was outputting in the first place. So, I started keeping records. Every day I had a writing session I would note the time I started, the time I stopped, how many words I wrote, and where I was writing on a spreadsheet. I did this for two months, and then I looked for patterns.
Several things were immediately clear. First, my productivity was at its highest when I was in a place other than my home. That is to say, a place without internet. The afternoons I wrote at the library with no wireless were twice as productive as the mornings when I wrote at home. I also saw that, while bum in chair time is the root of all writing, not all bum in chair time is equal. For example, those days where I only got one hour to write I never managed more than five hundred words in that hour. By contrast, those days I got five hours of solid writing I was clearing close to 1500 words an hour. The numbers were clear: the longer I wrote, the faster I wrote (and I believe the better I wrote, certainly the writing got easier the longer I went on). This corresponding rise of word count and writing hours only worked up to a point, though. There was a definite words per hour drop off around hour 7 when I was simply too brain fried to go on.
But these numbers are very personal, the point I'm trying to make is that by recording my progress every day I had the data I needed to start optimizing my daily writing. Once I had my data in hand, I rearranged my schedule to make sure my writing time was always in the afternoon (my most prolific time according to my sheet, which was a real discovery. I would have bet money I was better in the morning.) always somewhere with no internet, and always at least 4 hours long. Once I set my time, I guarded it viciously, and low and behold my words per day shot up again. This time to an average of 6k-7k per writing day, and all without adding any extra hours. All I had to do was discover what made good writing time for me and then make sure the good writing time was the time I fought hardest to get.
Even if you don't have the luxury of 4 uninterrupted hours at your prime time of day, I highly suggest measuring your writing in the times you do have to write. Even if you only have 1 free hour a day, trying that hour in the morning some days and the evening on others and tracking the results can make sure you aren't wasting your precious writing time on avoidable inefficiencies. Time really does matter.
I was flying high on my new discoveries. Over the course of two months I'd jacked my daily writing from 2k per day to 7k with just a few simple changes and was now actually running ahead of schedule for the first time in my writing career. But I wasn't done yet. I was absolutely determined I was going to break the 10k a day barrier.
I'd actually broken it before. Using Knowledge and Time, I'd already managed a few 10k+ days, including one where I wrote 12,000 words in 7 hours. To be fair, I had been writing outside of my usual writing window in addition to my normal writing on those days, so it wasn't a total words-per-hour efficiency jump. But that's the great thing about going this fast, the novel starts to eat you and you find yourself writing any time you can just for the pure joy of it. Even better, on the days where I broke 10k, I was also pulling fantastic words-per-hour numbers, 1600 - 2000 words per hour as opposed to my usual 1500. It was clear these days were special, but I didn't know how. I did know that I wanted those days to become the norm rather than the exception, so I went back to my records (which I now kept meticulously) to find out what made the 10k days different.
The answer was resoundingly obvious when I found it. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I'd been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn't that crazy about.
This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn't want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn't love it, no one would.
Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, ridiculously simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I'd look for all the little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene interesting. If I couldn't find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.
This discovery turned out to be a fantastic one for my writing. I trashed and rewrote several otherwise perfectly good scenes, and the effect on the novel was amazing. Plus, my daily word count numbers shot up again because I was always excited about my work. Double bonus!
I have also noticed that the beginnings of new novels take a while to get up and running. The first few chapters are the hardest and usually I start with a goal of 5000 words per day until I get going. Normally around chapter four or five. So if, you slow up again when you start a new project, don’t lose heart, it’ll come back.
Now I realise that 10K is the top end of the spectrum, but even if you just want to double your current word count or go from 1K to 5k per day – whatever your personal goal is, if you're looking to get more out of your writing time, I really hope you try these ideas. If you do, please let me know. Even if it doesn't work ( perhaps especially if it doesn't work) I'd love to hear about it. Also, if you find another efficiency hack for writing, let me know about that too! I'm always looking for a way to hit 15k a day :D.
Again, I really hope this helps you hit your goals. Good luck with your writing and remember, it’s like dieting, you’ll have bad days sometimes, days when it just doesn’t work no matter what. But as long as you get back on that keyboard the next day, you’ll be back on target in no time. Writing faster, better and enjoying it a whole lot more.
And don’t forget to take a day off occasionally. You deserve it. You’re a writing demon now, after all.
Love Nicola x
Next up – Editing for people who hate editing (like me) Watch this space.