On Making My Writing Time Matter

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Once upon a time, I wrote two to three thousand (sometimes four thousand!) words a day, in four to five hours, routinely. I thought nothing of it. I wanted to write. Stories poured through my thoughts. And my time was severely limited by caring for my infant son, managing the family business, and teaching the occasional class. So when I had a sitter for the afternoon, or an evening free of responsibilities, I wrote like mad.

Somewhere along the way, those thousands of daily words began to sound immense. Part of it was the paralysis of acquired knowledge—that second guessing of every phrase because you’re thinking of what the story ought to look like after it’s been edited and polished rather than thinking of just writing the damned story. Part of it was the internalization of the “appropriate” writing schedule as slow and measured. And part of it was the increasingly complicated life and schedule before me. A thousand words a day? Damn, that became a stretch.

Here is the contradiction I face today: I don’t have time to write slowly—not only because my writing time is slim and often broken, but because I can’t build the career I want on one book every twelve to eighteen months. But unless I quit all other work, including parenting and homeschooling, I couldn’t see how to make that happen. I just couldn’t get any umph in my productivity.

Then I read this post by Rachel Aaron on how she went from struggling with word count to producing anywhere from 2K to 10K words a day. Then I read it again. Then I set it aside and forgot about it because BUSY.

Halfway through revisions for Sand of Bone, after I’d had days of writing time that produced damn near nothing, I sat staring out the window and longing for those days of fingers flying over the keyboard, when life had been simpler and…

Wait a minute: life hadn’t been simpler at all. Different, yes, but still demanding of my time. So what was the difference, and what impact had that made on my writing?

It took a couple cups of coffee, but once I stopped looking at how I was different as a writer and instead looked at what was different about my obligations, it made sense. Before, many of my daily tasks involved work that was physical. Rocking a child to sleep or sealing and stamping tons of envelopes, cleaning the bathroom or sorting papers requires very little concentration, leaving the mind free to work on other things. So I plotted during those working hours, came up with character dialog, imagined settings and a cast of thousands. By the time I sat down to write, there was no staring at a blank page while I figured out what I was going to write. I already knew. I’d danged near memorized paragraphs from my imagination. The words tumbled out with excitement.

These days, I have few obligations that permit my mind to wander. I can’t teach an all-day seminar on classroom management while considering how a group of warriors are going to react to a change in leadership. I can’t run a karate class while figuring out the connection between an historical event and what a character sees in her dreams. I can’t oversee my son’s high school education while at the same time “rehearsing” the dialog I want to insert into a scene. And I cannot, nor do I want to, quit doing those things.

So I’m screwed, right?

That’s when I remembered the methods Rachel Aaron shared:

Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

What she then shared as her solution was essentially what I’d been doing in those productive years, only I’d been doing it in my head as preparation for my constrained writing time rather than on paper. Once I smacked down my knee-jerk objection (“I can’t take even more time away from getting words down!” “Why not? You’re not being all that productive anyway!”), I set to work making detailed sketches of what I wanted to accomplish that day. The remaining revisions and new writings for Sand of Bone wrapped up rather quickly. Success!

Now I’m facing a complete rewrite/reimaging/slash and burn of what was once two very long novels into a single volume to follow Sand of Bone. (See picture above.) Since Side 1 of Aaron’s diagram seemed to be my personal key to increasing my productivity, I opted to look at how best to personalize her advice to my own method. So in addition to jotting down those points she suggests, I’m adding two elements I’ve discovered are my own stumbling blocks. First, I’ll come up with the chapter’s opening line. It might be the first thing I scribble down, or it might be the last. But that alone will eliminate Blank Page Syndrome.

Second, I’ll use the word “because” when writing down character actions and decisions, and answer that “because.” My poor skill at communicating character motivations is, I think, a very real and potentially fatal flaw in my drafts. I get so caught up in What Happens that I forget the readers aren’t privy to the characters’ Whys. Using “because” forces me to consider it, put it in the forefront of my mind, so I’m not then second-guessing (and thus slowing) myself during the writing process.

I refuse to take eons to finish Breath of Stone, but I’m not setting a firm date until I see how this new method works over the next few weeks. But I’ll whisper to you, my darlings, that I’d like Stone to be drafted and ready for betas by the end of June. Frankly, I’d like it done my Wiscon, but know revisions for Sand will interrupt things mightily.

Today is the start of writing for Stone. I’ve finished the plot overview, then expanded the overview into sixty or so Magic Index Cards. In a few minutes, I’ll pull the first card and set to work handwriting the larger details, the first line, and the because. While Stone will be an imperfect test of the process, it’ll be enough to go on.

Does this writing method match yours? Is it totally different? Have you found something that works well for you?

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3 thoughts on “On Making My Writing Time Matter”

  1. Wow! Thanks, that is absolutely brilliant. I had half worked it out, which is great because it means I’m on the right track, but not before I’d had to bin 70k of the last two books in the K’Barthan trilogy and start again. I’ve written about 400k since my son was born (he’s five) but I suspect I’ve binned about 200. Efficiency in my writing would definitely be a boost, I think. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to apply it to my next book and see how it goes.

    Cheers

    MTM

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