Writing: Your focus, Putting the ‘Product’ in Productivity
Who ever said writing was easy wasn’t talking about the whole process. If all we had to do was throw words on the page, the task would be simple. Ah, but such is not the case. We have issues to consider; annoying little contentions like story, characters and plot. Oh, forget the non-fiction writers, all they have to worry about is a deadline—that and cashing their checks. Just kidding, no hate-mail please.
If our task wasn’t hard enough we have a whole wagon-load of real life concerns vying for our time, attention, and energy. It’s enough to give gray hair to those of us who don’t already have it. Earlier in this series we addressed those problems, and discussed a few solutions. We’ll take for granted at this point that you have worked out the logistics of having some time to write. We’ll go further, and assume that you’ve done some things to give your actual word output a boost i.e. you’ve taken some time to unwind, have a comfy chair, some music (or lack thereof) to create a relaxing environment, and have an efficient mechanism for actually recording your words.
You hand-writers out there, I’m sorry I’m just not going to throw you a bone. Learn to write and type at the same time would you! Even talking to a tape recorder and typing from the transcript would be better. Just so there’s no mistake. I don’t care if Moses himself used a Underwood manual typewriter, it is NOT an efficient recording medium. I hear old curmudgeons grumbling in their beards about new-fangled contraptions and how they wouldn’t be caught dead writing with them. Sometimes I just wish they would just hurry up and die so I wouldn’t have to hear and read such lame whining by old dogs who refuse to learn a new trick. There are plenty of classic era writers who successfully made the transition to electronic word processing. It doesn’t have to be a computer, just as long as it has a memory and an ability load documents and move paragraphs around.
When I started out (a longer time ago than I want to admit), I wrote two novels on a typewriter. I’m glad they were both pretty crappy or I would have to rekey them into the computer. Those scripts are UGLY with whiteout, pen corrections and notes—simply a nightmare. If you have some cockeyed notion typewritten documents can be scanned into the computer. Ha ha, fooled you! I hope you’re willing to pay a fortune to have it done. OCR (optical character recognition) is still far from perfect, despite all the radical claims on software boxes. Trust me—I moonlight as a consultant, I’ve tried to organize processes for this. Efficient OCR for anything over a few dozen pages is extremely time consuming and resource intensive. It can be done if you’re willing to spend large to buy mechanical feeders and specialized scanners. This is simply far outside the reach of the common person. In the long run, the energy spent ends up better put toward simply re-keying the document.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that digression (rant?) over, we’ll get back to maximizing productivity.
Knowing what makes a productive writer
A famous author (Sue Grafton) said that it’s when she’s really stuck, that she knows she has something viable.
I point to her statement for a reason. Here’s a pro who’s written lots of books (and contracted to do the whole alphabet—B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, D is for Deadbeat, etc.) that views the times she gets stuck as being good. Does she have a screw loose, or could it be that she’s on to something?
What Sue was referring to when she said ‘stuck’ was having written to a point in the novel where she had painted her protagonist into a corner and there just didn’t seem to be a solution to the problem. How could this successful lady view this as good? Well, for those of you who don’t recognize her name, Sue Grafton writes detective/murder mystery type books. The key to a good mystery / thriller is coming up with a surprise twist. Sue gets to that stuck point in her books and grapples with it until she figures out a solution.
What does this mean to you? It goes to an important aspect of a good writing attitude. Just because you aren’t putting words on the page doesn’t mean you’re not writing. If you are actively considering what comes next in your book or story, playing out scenes or dialogue in your head—you are writing. It’s when you can’t get anything in your head that relates to a story that you have to worry (we’ll get to that later). Some people beat themselves up (psychologically anyway) when there’s no actual tangible product. Unfortunately, this is negative reinforcement that usually only makes the problem worse. I’ve said before, and will probably repeat myself a few times more. Try to make your writing fun and enjoyable. Shackling yourself to the word processor might force you to write, but is that what you want? I doubt it. You want to rush to the keyboard chortling to yourself, eager to record your brilliance for others to read. Whether or not you’re really as spectacular as you think is irrelevant; you enjoyed that “I’m-so-clever” feeling.
It is amazing how time vaporizes and pages appear when you are on an inspiration roll. I am only a moderately productive writer and I have experienced inspired marathon weekends where I churned out six chapters between Friday and Sunday evening (about 60 manuscript pages or 18000 words for me). Is that a lot? I have friends who think that’s impressive. People who write non-fiction will probably think it’s pretty ordinary. On a weekend like that I probably put in 12 – 16 hours of work. If you do the math, it’s not really special at all. At 40 words a minute, you can punch out about 24000 words in 10 hours.
If you’re one of the people impressed by 18000 words in a weekend, you’re probably interested to the secret formula that makes it possible. It’s simple. The stories I write entertain me. I take just enough time to consider where the story is going, then I simply let the characters take off. One of the essential elements to this is really knowing your characters.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your characters are extensions of you. It’s true, but don’t think of it that way. My characters routinely look stuff in the eye that would make me soil my trousers. In fact, it’s that “oh shit!” realization that spurs me on. Like Sue Grafton, when I’ve painted myself into the corner and really have to think hard how my heroes will get out—that’s when I really start to have fun.
Now, it’s not just writing, it’s an engaging intellectual puzzle. When you’re involved enough with the story that the problems challenge you back, you’re not worrying about mechanics, technique or anything mundane. Now, you’re worried about the most important part—resolving the cusps that matter to your heroes.
This desire to grapple the story problems is energy you can use to pull you through the task of writing. In order to get the most of this inertia there’s some important prerequisites.
Being able to type without looking at your fingers really helps. Yes, I know this sounds silly, but if you can type with your eyes closed it’s a big plus. Know the mechanics of your writing. Familiarize yourself with the process of writing enough that it’s transparent to you. This is something like– new speaker, drop a paragraph, quote I hate English syntax, John exclamation unquote jake said period, new speaker, drop a paragraph… You should not have to think about these things. I know I don’t. I just think dialogue. The quotes, attribution, and other entirely mechanical aspects of the writing just fall on the page. Until you learn to hear the words in your head (and to really have the words sing onto your pages, you need to) learn to babble. That’s right. Babble. Many people have thought I was crazy. They see me talking to myself, laughing at my own jokes and chortling like there was someone else with me. Actually, they were wrong, there were several people—imaginary ones. I’m not embarrassed to admit I talk to myself. I do it all the time. Until someone locks me in a padded cell, I’ll probably keep on doing it. As I’m typing this for your eyes, I’m hearing the words and typing what I hear.
Now, I realize this is a gross over simplification of something that does not come naturally to everybody. From talking to other fairly productive writers, I’ve gleaned that what they do is some variation of what I’m describing.
The key thing I will reiterate is not letting the mechanics of writing get in your way. If that—gasp!—means learning to touch type… well it was about time. You hand-writers, I don’t even want to look over there. Unless you can write shorthand (few of you do), handwriting is abysmally slow. Hand-write 18000 words over a weekend? If you can do that, I’ll be happy to bow before your magnificence… and the doctor bill for your soon-to-exist carpel tunnelcondition.
Let’s revisit what we are discussing—productivity. At this cusp, it might be important to take a step back and define what productivity means. In the frame work of these advise articles, I don’t expect you to be suddenly churning out ten pages a day. Although, that’s not an unreasonable goal. If you can produce 2500 words of fairly polished material in two weekends of work, that is a reasonable pace for someone who is balancing a job, children, and a reallife. That means in the space of a year you can have 60,000 words (or a typical mainstream novel) completed. With a little more dedication (or less distractions) you can easily do 2500 a week. This is about 500 words a night, with time on the weekends to polish and finish what you did during the week. If your writing time is an hour a night, that’s about 1 page in 30 minutes. Now, this is typical over time. Sometimes, I get into perfectionist mode and I will spend an hour just fussing with one darn paragraph. Don’t be surprised or despair if that happens. It all averages out over the course of a big project. At the 10 page a week pace, you can complete a 125,000 word novel in a year. Productivity, is not being able to blast out a mess of pages in a short time. It is the ability to consistently generate pages over a large timeframe.
Now, let’s review:
- First: Create a productive environment to create in. This includes a comfortable time and place to do your writing. Additionally, it includes an efficient mechanism for generating words i.e. a word processor or computer.
- Second: Do everything you can to get yourself involved and enthused about your writing. Maintain your writing regime with rewards, not by chaining yourself in your writing alcove. Shoot for consistent generation of words, rather than big exhausting marathons that may burn you out.
- Third: Train yourself to know the mechanics of writing. This is just basic common sense anyway. If you’re a writer, know the basics of English grammar and syntax (assuming you’re writing in English). Understand quotation, paragraphing, and general punctuation well enough that it’s relatively automatic. This keeps mundane trivialities from clogging up the flow of what you’re putting on the page.
- Fourth: Don’t over-plan your writing. Try to make it more of a speculative endeavor where you are pursuing the characters on an action/reaction chain. This kind of writing goes more quickly because it doesn’t require as much thought. Character A says X, character B responds Y… Sharpen your role-playing skills and get good at this and you will never go back.
- Fifth: Remember, that just because you aren’t generating pages, that if you are at least thinking about the next step in the course of your novel or story, you are maintaining your writing discipline.
We’ve addressed issues of productivity and some ways to think about it. In the next section starts a three section series that covers writing resources including advice materials, seminars, conferences, and read-and-critique groups.