Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Productive Writing Stripped Down to the Essentials

I've been doing a lot of teaching, speaking and mentoring over the past few months (one reason I haven't been posting), and it has forced me to hone down my advice to four elements.
To finish a 50,000-word manuscript in one year, follow these steps:
  1. Take two weeks to formulate a premise, thesis, a goal statement, or logline that is distinct, rich, and inspiring. Write anything from a sentence to several pages that can be your touchstone for the rest of your one-year assignment.
  2.  On the day before you begin your draft, write down your drafting goal -- a sentence or two about what you will achieve the next day in your writing session.
  3. On the day you begin your draft, reread your drafting goal, set a timer for at least 15 minutes, and draft without editing. When the timer goes off (or later in the day, write a drafting goal for your next writing session.
  4. Repeat: Draft without editing at least 15 minutes a day and create your drafting goals no fewer than 5 days a week.
That's it, but the devil is in the details. Creating a premise that 1) is rich enough to support 50,000 words, 2) engages your heart and mind, and 3) will move your toward your writing goal (usually a sale) isn't easy. Similarly, expressing a writing goal that moves the work forward and provides clear guidance for the following day takes practice. It may be a few weeks before these don't frustrate you half the time. For many people, the only way to do this effectively is to create an outline or a detailed synopsis, and this must reflect an understanding of the structure of your work and audience expectations.

While, based on my teaching and mentoring virtually everyone can write at least 200 words in 15 minutes (200 words X 5 days/week X 50 weeks =50,000 words), there are two prerequisites that can be problematic day in and day out.

First, they need to know what to write (a good drafting goal), and that can fail in the face of "better" ideas. The goal is a promise to yourself that must be kept even if writing something else is more attractive. Finishing the Work In Progress (WIP) is non-negotiable, even when it feels like a disaster or a fool's errand.

Second, the 15 minutes of drafting must involve putting words down recklessly. No editing, no research, no searching for the exact word. This is a sprint.

Repeating can be a problem, too. Life gets in the way. People get sick. Families have emergencies. Bosses require overtime. But the bar here is purposely low. Not writing everyday. Not dedicating an hour or demanding 10,000 words a week. Are you and your book and your writing aspirations worth 15 minutes a day for 5 days a week? Isn't this a gift you owe yourself? Do it for a month, and it will probably become a habit. You'll come up with strategies to fit it in. And the words will add up.

Based on hundreds of students, this process will work for better than 90% of the people reading this blog. (There are some writers who cannot start writing when the timer/starting gun goes off. There are some who can't adapt to 15-minute intervals. There are some who cannot put drafting high enough on a priority list even to meet the low-bar commitment. And, of course, there are some people not meant to be writers.) This is not to say that this process is easy. Some key capabilities need to be built. Bad habits may need to be broken. There are inevitable setbacks (such as the "this book is crap" moment that comes at the halfway to three quarters point). And I haven't even mentioned revision here.

All of us will need to keep reading and developing craft and handling criticism and observing life. This isn't exactly a royal road. (And an ambitious writer will soon find him or herself adding to these steps and dedicating more time.) But I've found it is the simplest way to turn a non-writer into a writer and to turn an amateur into a professional.

Note on why I dropped out of social media. I've neglected you all for months, but not because I don't love you. I've had an avalanche of opportunities, including interest in novels and short stories by editors, rewrites on novels, a chance to contribute to a nonfiction book, new classes, a Hollywood option, and more. Many of these should be one-offs, driven by interest in a backlog of materials that I put out there for the first time. So, I've had lots of good news, but I expect it will come in more manageable bits going forward. That means I'll be back to weekly blogging.

No comments:

Post a Comment