Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bigger Stories 1 – Larger than life characters

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere. Not just in the wonderful stories that Conan Doyle created, but in a whole new world of Steampunk Holmes (Downey’s movies), in contemporary London Holmes (Sherlock, with a twitchy Benedict Cumberbatch) and in a contemporary U.S. Holmes (Elementary), not to mention the wonderful Mary Russell books (by Laurie R. King) that begin with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
What does this have to do with a writer’s productivity? The equation for productivity is not words over time, it is audience reached over time. (This could translate to fame and fortune, but might not. We write to communicate. But I will accept finagle factors reflecting intended audience.) Create a character like Holmes (or a powerful concept or a page-turning plot) and more people will read your words. In other words, don’t go mild, go strong. Push what you have as far as it will go.
Note 1: Bigger is not always better. Subtlety has its place. So does reason. The clowns of talk radio and TV’s battling ‘bots of BS are plenty BIG, but they do not serve public discourse. I would prefer that they not be as big as they are. Your character should, in the final draft, be sized to your intent.
Note 2: If you go too far, you can always pull back to something that is more reasonable. Going the other direction, from a reasonable character to one that is striking or even epic, isn’t likely to happen. Dial down, not up.
In one of my all-time favorite writing guides, Writing Novels that Sell, Jack Bickham, wrote about how characters are seen through a glass darkly. They only come across the way the writer sees them if you exaggerate. One of his most successful characters emerged when he pushed a description to ridiculous levels to make the point to a class.
In a draft, you can’t go too far (because no one has to see it but you).

·      Would I notice my character if he/she walked past me on the street?
·      Is his/her fatal flaw remarkable and painful?
·      Does my character’s humor or absurdity make me chuckle as I write?
·      Would any other writer love to write a story featuring my character?
·      Is my character the best/worst at anything?
Of course, once you have a hero/heroine that lights up the room, you need to work on the villain. In fact, the villain may be more important than the protagonist. (Here are some nice tips on creating the antagonist.)
The first step to a Bigger Story (and making your writing time really count) is creating larger than life characters. Don’t be afraid to go too far.

Friday, June 29, 2012

My Achin' Back!

Physical disability and writing often go hand-in-hand. Flannery O'Connor suffered from severe arthritis. Homer was blind. Stephen Hawking produces his books word-by-word despite his decades of suffering from ALS. One of my wife's friends can only work by lying under a glass coffee table, viewing her text as it hovers above her.

One of the reasons why I left the lab to become a writer was because I couldn't imagine myself hoisting buckets of saline solution in a cold room at 3 AM all my life. It didn't seem like something I could do indefinitely, while writing did not appear to be physically taxing. But now I know that many writers suffer work-related back problems, carpal tunnel injury, and neck and shoulder stiffness.

I have an object lesson early in my career, when a colleague first wiped out her hands with excessive typing, and then, after she switched to voice recognition, soon talked herself hoarse. When I reset my writing goals to 10,000 words a week, I immediately bought Dragon Dictate, and I have rigorously kept to a standard of half typing, half dictating. So I've had no difficulties with typing or talking.

But, as I have been intensified my efforts, I've found that I am not immune to shoulder and neck problems. These cut into my productivity, so I have become religious about pausing every 40 to 60 minutes to go through a series of stretches. I'm also becoming more aware of my posture, and, as I work, I usually keep a bolster behind my back and I shift its position frequently.

I think everyone needs to come up with the routine that fits him or her best. One person I know sits on a large exercise ball instead of a chair. Another walks a treadmill as she writes. I was intrigued to discover that Walter Murch, when he edits film, does his work standing. This probably began, of necessity, when he was working with mechanical editing machines, but he carried the practice forward into computer use with the claim that it impacted the quality of the work. I found this especially intriguing since, with no special intent at all, I often edit speeches by printing them out, putting them onto a clipboard, and marking them up as I pace around the office.

So, with the idea that a healthy writer is a more productive writer, what do you do to treat yourself well as you write? And do you think it has any impact on the character of your stories, articles, or books?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

If You Can't Do the Time, Do You Do the Crime?

Words or the clock? If you want to be a productive writer, you need to make a commitment. In my experience, half of the working writers I know set aside a specific block of time each day for writing and half give themselves word quotas. If you have already made the choice for yourself and it's working, you know which is best for you. If not–or if you are headed into a new writing situation–here are some things to consider.

First, if you are under contract with a deadline (even if you have set your own deadline), your ultimate measure is finished copy. Your editors and publishers really don't care whether you have dedicated 100 hours or 1,000 hours to your manuscript. They care about what you put into their hands on time. So, even if that draft that led to “the call” from an agent or an editor came as the result of setting a timer each day and getting to work, you need to set some goals for completed drafts, rewrites, and final edits that add up to meeting your commitments.

This is not to say that you should throw your timer away when a contract arrives in the mail. All the rituals you have developed as a writer will help to keep you writing in changed circumstances. But you do need to add a regular way of tracking your progress.

I found that the best way for to track progress is not day-to-day. My own rhythms as a writer are not so consistent, and that daily charting sometimes can make me feel anxious. For me, hitting my goals over the course of three-day periods feels about right. For others, that daily tracking or recording progress once a week may be more appropriate.

I've also found that pages of draft per day do not equal pages of rewriting or editing. The same measures do not carry over. The biggest part of revision for me is determining the full shape of the story after it has been drafted. This involves outlining, rearranging, discovering holes, clarifying the theme, and sorting out the subplots. I don't write many words during this stage. And it always takes longer than I think it should. So I put aside a big chunk of time for this work. But, each evening, I define which piece will be completed in the following one to three days.

For all the specificity of the later stages of writing and of working under contract, my preference for drafting is a set period of time each day. When I twist the dial or push the button on the timer, it's like hearing the starting gun. And, if I have done nothing by the end of the time period, I walk away with no guilt. However, in the vast majority of cases I never hear the timer go off. By the time my designated minutes are completed, I am totally lost in the writing.

Ultimately, I think how productivity is best measured depends upon both personality and external factors. If I look at the way I have worked in the past, even back when I was a student in grammar school, I have always used a mix of time and goals. So you may have the answer on what is best for you already at hand.

What about you? Have you arrived at the perfect productivity measures for yourself? And if so, what made you choose them? If you still are not using measures, you have questions or concerns? Do you worry such measures will harm your creativity?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Dream It; Be It

Last month, I made the decision to become a full-time, independent writer. Now, this was not as harrowing a decision as the one I made many years ago to leave the chemistry lab to become a writer at a non-profit. After all, it is a lot easier to go back to writing for a paycheck than it is to reenter scientific work after stepping away. And I have a lot of evidence now that people will pay me for putting words on paper.

Nevertheless, my move is not without some risk (and the stress of the transition has put me into physical therapy). The spontaneous smiles are accompanied by moments of doubt. Following your passion is good advice, but that path doesn't lead you into a land of rainbows and unicorns. How, then, does one take the advice of Dr. Frank-N-Furter? Don't be it; dream it?
  • Know what you want. For me, a day that mixes fiction and nonfiction, that includes both writing and rewriting, that allows me to complete projects that never had enough time, is almost enough. I just have to enough money to pay most of the bills.
  • Believe you can do it. Yes, every creative person has doubts, but can you construct a list of capabilities and accomplishments that makes the case that you are ready to take a leap? I can't prove that I will write bestselling novels, but I can provide a strong case that I can create prose people will pay for. Think in terms of putting together a portfolio for investors. Could you show the clippings, contracts, credits and samples that would make a case for yourself?
  • Have a realistic timeframe. How long do you expect to wait until you see evidence of success? Until you achieve specific goals, such as getting an agent, making as much money as you spend? Getting contracts that carry you into the future? Many creative people underestimate how long they need to achieve their goals, and that builds disappointment and anxiety. Make you best guess for each goal, and add in (50%) extra time.
  • Stay away from doubters. Bradbury was big on this. Over and over again, he told writers to cut loose any friends and associates who sowed seeds of doubt or flat out told them they couldn't do it. He was on to something. Some people have a perverse need to crush dreams. And their continuous streams of advice will echo in your mind when your own doubts rise up. It is especially important that the people you are closest to can support your choice in at least a limited way (say, for the length of your timeframe).
What if you fail? For some people, this can be devastating. It need not be, if have supporters around you. Small and even large failures do not need to stop you. They do not need to kill your dream. But they may cause you to modify your dream. If you learn your lessons along the way, you may even end up with dreams that are more satisfying to you. You need to be the right dream, not an imaginary dream. So make the mid-course correction and carry on.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Get Your Groove Back!

After 9/11, I stopped writing fiction for 18 months. Luckily, obligations forced me to keep writing nonfiction, which meant my storytelling reboot wasn't completely cold. When I came back, reclaiming my vocation was slow and the writing itself was different. I got my groove back in three steps.
  • I started small. - Flash fiction had been my friend early in my career, and I found I could write a full story in one sitting. I also discovered that there was a big market for flash fiction, thanks to Duotrope. Ultimately, I was selling everything I wrote. (Note: This is fun, but not a way to get rich.)
  • I transformed my approach. - I used to plot out everything before a draft. Now, I'm a pantser most of the time, and I worry about straightening out the plot when I have something on paper. Both approaches are valid, but making the transition boosted the fun for me.
  • I wrote to serve a purpose. - I moved from flash fiction (and a few short stories) back in to novel length work a the behest of a friend who had a great story to tell and, frankly, some time on his hands after a layoff. A film script was the goal, but he was unfamiliar with that format, so -- to get the story right -- I wrote 45K words of prose in about 6 weeks as regular installments. I then wrote the complete screenplay, which is now making the rounds in contests.
I believe in writing every day, but life still gets in the way from time to time. When in does, it can be hard for me to get back into the groove. I use the lessons above to ease myself back: Start small, find an approach that feels like fun, and have a purpose (serving someone else or a higher good). It worked for me once and it still helps me when I get off track. What do you do to get your groove back?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rewrite 2 - Give It a Rest

Conventional wisdom says you should take a break (usually a month is recommended for a novel) before you begin a rewrite. I've always tried to do that, even when the most I could manage was 24 hours (for a speech). My experience has been that a wait between drafting and rewriting made technical errors (grammar, logical sequence) jump out at me, but, when teaching, I have paid less attention to the wait's benefits to storytelling.

But, on consideration, my stories have gotten better with the breaks I've taken. Why should that be? I understand why reading sentences the way I thought of them rather than they way they sit on the page would be a problem. Isn't story more macro, and less vulnerable to that sort of blindness?

No. And I have a better understanding of why after having read Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye. Murch is the editor of huge artistic and commercial hits, like American GraffitiThe Godfather, and The English Patient. Murch recommends that the editor stay away during filming because the knowledge of what happened beyond the frame of the filming contaminates the approach. It is all too easy to keep an expensive, hard-to-get shot and to dismiss one that was painful and felt wrong to cast and crew -- to the detriment of the people in the audience who know nothing about the history of how the shot was put together.

He recommends that directors, who usually get involved in the editing, take a total break from the film for at least two weeks, and then come back with a level of amnesia. (He liked that Fred Zinnemann, director of From Here to Eternity, would climb the Alps, risking his life, for two week after filming.)

The writer is just like the director here, with a head full of knowledge about the scenes in the story -- none of which is of value to the audience. So breaks are just as essential to editing a book and getting the story told in a way that best serves the audience. We need to get rid of all that excess information.  So when you finish a draft, give it a rest.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eat the Elephant

Since I hang around writers, I regularly hear these laments:
"I still have to write my synopsis."
"I haven't been able to write chapter 3."
""My article is due, and I haven't started it yet."
This is heady, frustrating stuff. I always feel pain, the same kind of pain I feel when it is my synopsis or chapter or article.  How can anyone take on such a frightful task, composing elegant, engaging sentences suffused with meaning that magically come together in a lyrical whole that amuses people and rouses them to action? How do you get the damned thing done?
Because you read the title, you know how. Just as you can't swallow an elephant whole, some tasks can't be done in one action. You need to break them up into manageable bits. 
So a few dozen milliseconds after my stomach wrenches at the prospect of, say, writing a commencement speech in three days, I begin to think about how the task can be broken up into smaller bits. What are my key questions. Which people should I talk to? Which Web sites should I visit. How do I dig into the history? What are the possible themes?
You don't have to get the whole job done in creative sweep. You can do a little work on this, and then on this, and… then it's done.
I once got an editing assignment for a book that was half written and stalled. The deadline for a draft was six weeks out. The publication date could not be moved. I had no expertise in the subject area.  
I immediately put aside all concerns post-draft work (proofing, editing, illustrations, etc.). I'd get to those later. Focusing on the draft, the number one thing was an accessible structure. (This is true for almost all nonfiction.) My first jobs became:
  • reading through existing material
  • talking with the author about his intent
  • investigating structures that achieve the intent
Each of these jobs is specific and limited. I was lucky to get great cooperation from the author, including his agreement to my doing rewriting and adding a considerable amount of new material. Looking for smaller tasks made the assignment -- delivering the draft in six weeks -- possible, and, ultimately, the book was done on time and well-received. When you shrink the work down to size, it gets easier.
What do you do to break up the writing tasks you face?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Draft 3 - How to choose the best reader to write to

Last time, I wrote about the importance of addressing your first draft to one specific person. But who should that person be? What are the criteria for choosing the initial proxy for the vast hordes you hope will treasure your work?

When I'm writing a speech, the fastest way to the answer is a conversation with the host:
  • Tell me about the worst speech ever to this audience and why it went so badly, and
  • Tell me about the best speech ever to this audience, and why it worked.
The responses to the first are immediate and invaluable. The speaker's language was too simple/complex. The speaker talked about what he/she was interested in, not about why we invited him/her. The speaker talked about facts without any emotion or point of view. Etc.

I probe on these, getting the specifics (without revealing who the hapless speaker was), and I have a wealth of information on what does not work. There is always something that would have appealed to me had I been in the audience, and that is a good reminder that a speech written that only delights me can be an ineffective speech.

Getting a response on the best speech usually is not as automatic. Here I really need to exercise my skills as an interviewer, often helping them put themselves back into the audience on that happy day. The specifics of what worked are usually easy for me to abstract, and they are gold nuggets for my own work.

My final step is to imagine who I know who would have hated the worst speech and loved the best. This person is my audience.

I've taken similar approaches with nonfiction books and articles, and editors have been extremely good at providing advice for these. Reading successes and failures helps for both fiction and nonfiction.  Ultimately, you want to find someone you know who:
  • Has similar interests to my ideal audience,
  • Is comfortable with their vocabulary,
  • Has about the same attention span,
  • Is similarly knowledgeable,
  • Has about the same "hot button" tolerance (regarding sex, religion, violence, politics),
  • Has similar values and perspectives, and
  • Will accept you as the source on this topic to a comparable degree.
Such knowledge will direct your pacing, word choice, examples, and means of engaging the reader. If you win with your proxy reader, you will probably succeed with your target audience as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Draft 2 - Write to Someone Specific

Vonnegut wrote every novel with one person in mind - his sister. Decades after she had died, she was still his primary audience. This idea is powerful for any writer. One reason why stories, speeches and articles often seem to be unfocussed is because the author had multiple audiences in mind from the first draft on.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of having a clear understanding of who might be the reader or audience from the beginning, especially when I write a speech. But nothing beats the power of creating (at least) a first draft aimed at one, specific person. The piece can and should be looked at more broadly in later drafts, but a version that is definite and specific and grounded provides an unbeatable foundation.

And it actually is less work. Think about it -- which is easier, writing a letter about how your day went to your best friend or writing such a letter to the citizens of New York? With your friend, you know what he/she is interested in and might find amusing. You have a sense of vocabulary and diction from the beginning. You also have a good estimate of how slowly or quickly you should develop your points. And you know what it might take to engage and persuade your friend. Try that with NYC.

There are two important points that should not be missed: The person you choose to write to should be someone you know well, and this person should be a good proxy for the ultimate intended audience. So choosing who you are writing to is likely to vary from work to work, and it will be one of your most important decisions.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Guest blogging and answering questions today

I am the Guest Blogger at Jungle Red Writers today. Stop by and join the discussion.

Emotions Hook Readers (and Drive Productivity)

Emotion can drive not just the reading experience, but the writing experience -- so here are some thoughts on emotions.


Remember the beginning or Romancing the Stone, where Joan Wilder is overwhelmed by tears as she completes her book? This is played for laughs, but genuine, strong emotions are what fiction writing is about. (Ray Bradbury said emotions are what life is all about.)
 While you can get away with wit, slices of life, nostalgia and whimsy, and you can even charm the reader with lyrical passages, without a good balance of scenes that move the reader, there will be no sale (and no motivation to complete a work of any length). Without these strong, genuine emotions, your writing cannot go anywhere.

What are the strong emotions? Rage. Grief. Joy. Wonder. Terror. Passion. Disgust. These emotions hit you in the gut, make your laugh until it hurts, give you chills, raise your heartbeat – create real, physical responses. And they need to be genuine. Some writers are naturals at living the scenes they write so that, like Joan Wilder, they use up boxes of tissues as they work on novels. For others, the tools of the actor may be helpful. Sense memory exercises  evoke physical responses, and they are part of the work the reader expects the writer to do – whether they know it or not. 

You know the quote, "Sincerity is everything; if you can fake that, you've got it made"? Maybe. But I suspect you'll get caught eventually if you don't make the emotions genuine. 

I recently finished reading a set of contest entries—the first 20 pages of novels. These were supposed to hook me and keep me reading. A couple did, but most did not. 

The problem was not so much the quality of the prose as it was a lack of genuine, strong emotions. Curiously, I found a good amount of genuine, weak emotion. The writers were present for many of the scenes they composed. That's good. 

Unfortunately, they were concentrating on being clever, or their characters were irritated or mildly curious or calculating or, worst of all, content. These emotions are real, but they don't grab hold and refuse to let go.

 As experienced by the writer, they probably were involving during the writing session, but such weak emotions are diluted once they hit the page. The reader is not pulled in and the writer, probably, is not pulled back into the story. 

In small amounts in a novel or screenplay, weak emotions may work and even help with the management of tension. However, if you write 20 pages, especially the opening pages of a book, and you don't infuse that work with genuine strong emotions, the reader will stop reading.

 And you just might stop writing.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rewrite 1 - Talk to yourself

For a speechwriter, few things are more painful than hearing your principal stumble over the text - especially if it is your fault. There is no way to prevent this completely, but reading the text aloud before you hand it in cuts down on the chances of embarrassing moments and eliminates the pangs of guilt (mostly).

Yet, a significant percent of the speechwriters I have known and worked with count on listening to the voices in their heads, and they hand in copy that suffers before the audience, time and time again. I can tell immediately if a speech (that may have looked good on paper) has never been read aloud. And this is such an obsession for me, that I have actually confirmed read/never read with the authors. My surveys show that, in general, a stumble means the text has not been tested with an actual, oral reading.

Here's the lesson -- You owe it to yourself, no matter what kind of writing you do, to read your work out loud at least once. It exposes errors, awkward phrasings, convoluted logic, and ambiguities. If you can get someone to listen as you read "final" copy, this is best. But reading the text to yourself, with a pencil in hand to correct or tick off problems to handle later, will substantially improve your prose in a fast, efficient way.

The biggest reason people don't read their text out loud is it feels like unnecessary work. It is easy to convince yourself that, if it looks good on paper or sounds good in your head, reading the text aloud is a waste of time. I have never found this to be true for myself or my students. People have argued with me about this, but I always win by having them read their "perfect" copy out loud.

For many people, it is uncomfortable to read out loud. Oddly enough, this can be true even when no one is around to listen to the reading. Having had nuns who made me quake as I stumbled through oral presentations, I have some sympathy for these people. Here's my suggestion: Read very quietly to yourself. It works.

I got this idea when I took a course with Danny Simon (the inspiration for Felix Ungar). He said his brother Neil would lean in toward his typewriter and read copy to himself before removing a page. Sometimes, he rolled the paper back in so he could make a change. Sometimes he just chuckled to himself.

One more tip: Before I read my text to myself, I let Alex read it to me. This is one of my Mac's text-to-speech personas and the only one I can tolerate. It is available via system preferences, speech, text-to-speech. (Microsoft has text-to-speech, too.) Alex is amazingly good at finding problems. I don't try to correct the text along the way as he reads. Instead, I drop in a Zen comment when I hear something that doesn't sound quite right. (That is, I have the reviewing bar open, move the cursor to the spot where the problem is, and click on the comment button. I do not enter text into the comment box because that would force me to pause Alex.) I go back after he is finished and fix the places I've marked. Since I put Alex to work, my own reads discover about 90% fewer errors.

Finding problems is what rewriting is all about. That's why, even though it sounds crazy, good writers need to make a habit of talking to themselves.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Humble Timer

Tick tick tick tick tick. I love the sound of an old egg timer counting down the minutes. Serving up a satisfying "bing!" at the end. I use a timer about half the time that I write (especially when I feel sluggish and reluctant). There have been times when I have done nothing but stare at a page for the full 15 minutes (or whatever the designated time was). More often, I jump as if a starting gun has been fired, write lousy and great sentences, and then keep writing after the bell rings.

I thought my dedication to the timer was eccentric, but my students claim it is the most useful help for productive writing as all. (Not all students, of course. Writers, if nothing else, are individuals.) Here's what I get:
  • A ready tool
  • A ritual the reenforces good habits
  • A taskmaster that does not accept excuses; the dial marches forward no matter what I say.
  • Permission -- to write less that perfect prose and to stop when the timer goes off.
I have used the timer primarily for drafting, but I've found it is also a great help for rewriting (my least favorite activity). For me, there is an extra requirement - I need to decide the day before what I will do specifically during that time period (proofing, removing "junk" words, doing a "backward" analysis. Without a plan other than "rewriting," the timer is not a help. With the plan, I stay on task and get the productivity I'm looking for.

I like real timers, but I use timer apps as well. CNET always has a few timers available for download, including free ones.

I'll end with a question. Why aren't timers used more often? The students who rave about timers and report productivity during classes have generally had success with them in the past. Why do they fail to use them on a regular basis? How can the habit be encouraged?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing Prep 3 - Highlight your reasons for writing

Isaac Asimov, the author of about 500 books, had an office in his Manhattan apartment that overlooked Central Park. This priceless view was completely blocked off so Dr. Asimov could focus on his job - writing.

On the other hand, Ray Bradbury's writing space was crammed with toys, magazines, posters, statues and photographs - all primed to inspire the next story or scene.

Preparing your writing space is a key to productive writing, but it depends on what your specific needs are. Most writers I know have problems with distractions, and should take a cue from Asimov. Limit the clutterLimit the input. This does not necessarily mean you need to work in a monk's cell, but, if the things around you draw you away from the work, get them out of the way the day before. (Cleaning up before you write is an evil excuse to do something "productive" that is not writing.)

Of course, distractions do not need to be physical. The Internet, especially through social networks like Facebook, is probably the biggest killer of writing efforts on the planet today. Search beckons, chat windows appear. Email arrives with a distinctive chime. If this sucks you away from your writing, fight back. Close applications. Turn off the sound on your computer. Use a screen decluttering program. Or just detach your cable or shut off your wireless connection.

People can be distractions. I'll get into the dangers of husbandus interuptus or wifa interrupta or kidi interrupti in a later post, but the short answer to these is establishing boundaries. But, for many writers, the voices in their heads are the biggest distractions. Not the voices of characters, but the nagging voices that say laundry needs to be done, bills need to be paid, or the garden needs to be watered. All the tasks of career, family and household are important, but writing cannot fall the the bottom of a productive writer's list.

Making your reasons for writing explicit can move it up on the priority list. Write them down. Star, boldface and highlight the ones that are most important. Discuss them with your supporters (and avoid the deniers).

One teacher of mine, a successful novelist told me that her writing time was sacred. How sacred? She heard a scream one day, looked up once from her page and saw her son covered in blood. She almost left her writing desk, but, within a heartbeat, her understanding husband scooped up the child and drove away with him. She went back and finished her sentence.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Draft 1 - Stop endless looping

Do you go back after you draft a page, a paragraph or a sentence and immediately begin fixing it? Even worse, do you write a little further, and then go back and do some more fixing on what you just "fixed"? I call this looping, and it is the most common impediment to productive writing among my students. It can lead to complete paralysis, and there's a reason for that -- the part of your brain that composes is not the same part that edits.

Shifting back and forth wastes time and energy. Even worse, it provides an opening for editor in your head (who hates everything) to seize control. Most productive writers separate the act of drafting and the act of editing. As Casey Wyatt says in her blog,"I can fix it later."

If you don't loop, don't start. If you have a habit of looping, it can be tough to break. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Give yourself permission to write badly. Do this every day for at least a week. Remember, it can always be fixed later on.
  • Join a writing sprint (as Casey does), race against a timer, or use a forced march program like Write or Die! Some of my students have also found it useful to shrink their text editing windows down so they can only see a line or two at a time.
  • Keep you forward momentum (and avoid distracting research) by inserting a word or symbol whenever the exactly right word, number or fact doesn't come readily to mind. For years, I have put the word "bagel" into my texts, and then searched for the bagels. (Luckily, I don't write about food.) I heard Jenna Kernan speak recently, and I was delighted to hear she uses the same technique, inserting asterisks (***).
  • Use a dictation program. I use Dragon Dictate for at least half my drafting. It works better for nonfiction than fiction, but it still is faster than typing for me. And it is almost impossible to loop when you are dictating.
 However you do it, break the habit of looping. You'll probably find that your productivity will increase significantly, even though you will be spending more time later on editing.

Do you loop? Do you have a trick to stop yourself?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Writing Prep 2 - Let passion choose your project

Writers have lots of ideas, so it's not surprising that many writers work on many projects at once.  This can demolish your productivity. How can you become more focused?

One approach is to use criteria. Creating your own scoring system is best, but here are a few to consider:
·      High concept – Whatever you write will need to catch the attention of editors, marketers and readers. So if you have a project that stands out as different and generates excitement in just a few words, you might push it to the top of your list.
·      Expertise – A project in a sweet spot where you have a good reputation, either from past sales or from education and experience, is likely to draw time, money and attention. And if you have a platform, such as a blog or newspaper column with many readers, even better.
·      Passion – If you get excited, engaged and interested, chances are that the words will tumble out and your enthusiasm will infect your readers. Why bother if you don’t care?
·      You’re on deadline – This may be the only thing that trumps passion. Your reputation and your career may be bigger than a single project. So meet your commitments.
If you are as nerdy as I am, you may create spreadsheets and scorecards and subsets of the above and complicated mechanisms for assigning and adding up points. As long as this 1) locks in your commitment to a project to work on, and 2) does not get in the way of the actual writing, go for it. But do your scoring the day before you settle into the project. Don’t start the day figuring out what to write.
How do you prioritize your work and dedicate yourself to a project?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Writing Prep 1 - Inspiration is not your friend

Dithering may be the greatest hobble to productive writing. And the chief question that holds people back is what should I write today?
Which story or article should I work on?  Which character needs a bio now? Which scene should I start?
Inspiration for a productive writer is welcome, but it does not constitute a plan.
I'll suggest some criteria for choosing what to work on in my next blog, but it is best if you come up with your own list. Once you do, it can be a tool for making your decision. But whether you are methodical in making your choices or you rely on intuition, make a commitment to tomorrow's writing today. In that way, you have a chance of beginning your work as soon as you sit down.  (I like to have the decision made, and the first sentence written the day before.)
Knowing what you are going to write isn't the only way to prepare (and, for some, it is a given). More on that in the future. In the meantime, how do you prepare to write?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Up Your Productivity

Welcome to “How to Write FAST.” The intent of this blog is to increase your productivity as a writer, whether you write articles, scripts, short stories, novels or blogs.
There are as many reasons why people want to increase their productivity as there are why people write. Bloggers may want to post frequently enough to attract an audience. Journalists may need to deliver copy on deadline. Genre novelists may need to produce enough to keep editors and agents happy. Academics may be facing “publish or perish.”
I began to learn how to write more quickly when I took a job as a radio producer. I was responsible for three radio programs every week, and the work included research, taped and edited interviews, sound effects, and recording with a voice talent. The stories also had to be cleared by the interviewee, which sometimes meant rewriting. A year into that job, I found that I was writing three times faster than I had been. I didn’t have much choice. If I didn’t write the copy in a timely way, the stations that carried us would have to rerun an old show. (It had happened to my predecessor, and that was one of the reasons I got the job.)
What do you mean by fast? Really, anyone can write quickly. The trick is to write more productively. That is, you don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your manuscript done for each hour of work.
To get faster, I first needed to understand where I slowed (or stopped) myself. The first limit was attitude. All the myths around having just the right setting or being inspired held me back. I’ve heard that Salman Rushdie, before the fatwa the turned him into a fugitive, needed to have everything exactly right before he could sit down and do his day’s writing. If a pencil was out of place, the day was ruined. But as he moved from safe house to safe house, he found he could write in the midst of chaos.
Doesn’t fast mean lousy? It can, if you lower your standards for final copy. So don’t do that.
You’ve heard Voltaire’s “the perfect is the enemy of the good”? He was on to something. Another problem I had as a beginning writer was the concern that I would blemish the page with unworthy prose. I had to get over that. A mentor of mine, Damon Knight, gave the best advice: “It’s not a watercolor.”
Whatever you write can be fixed. It can be made better. But you can only improve something that exists, so you need to get something onto the page. Giving yourself permission to write a paragraph that stinks or a chapter that will be discarded or a novel that requires several revisions is part of becoming more productive. Nothing you write needs to be shared. And, until it is published (or, at least until it is in galleys), you can polish, tune and edit.
So productivity can take a hit before you start writing, as you draft and as you rewrite. No step in the process is immune from obstacles that can slow or even stop your progress.
And no one’s challenges are the same. Some people struggle to put themselves in front of the keyboard, but they sail through rewrites. Some people write every day, but make no progress. And some people can spin off first drafts by the dozen, but they can never quite get their manuscript revised.
This blog will look at each stage and offer advice, tips and exercises to help you improve your productivity. It’s almost a sure bet that you’ll find some posts are more valuable than others because of what you need now and where you are in your writer’s journey. My hope is that, overall, you will build that knowledge and skills you need to reach your productivity goals and achieve the success you desire as a writer.