Friday, July 12, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...How to Write More Words Per Day

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Note: I'm syndicating these over on the Hunt to Read official blog. Check it out if you haven't yet.

You've finished the prep work. You have your tools. You even managed to sit down and start writing; it might not be Hemmingway, but hey, at least you have a jumping-off point.

Yet if you're anything like I was, you're struggling. Maybe you've inched your way through 10, 15, even 25 or so pages. Well done! My guess is that unless you really have a story burning a hole in your brain (it happens) or if you're just naturally juiced up about writing (also happens), you've probably hit a bit of a lull.

I should know; when I quit my previous job, as an attorney at a large law firm, it took me a while to really get going as a writer. Keep in mind that most of my work as an attorney was writing! I often had to churn out incredible numbers of words on very short deadlines, proof my own work, and deliver it to partners or clients.

And yet, when I no longer had that structure in place, those quick deadlines or nudging emails from eager clients, I struggled.

It didn't help that I bought in to a lot of the myths I heard about creative writing: that it's hard. That you have to write, then re-write, then re-write again, send off the manuscript, get rejections, re-write again...etc. I would sit down, focus for a couple of hours, look at the page progress in my double-spaced Word document, and figure, "Well, five pages is pretty good for the day. Maybe I should write a blog post to build my all-important 'platform.'"

It's amazing how young and naive I was only two short years ago!

Even if I wanted to write more, it was about that time of day that the "brain fog" seeped into my mind. I could hardly think, let alone conjure up how a "scene" with these ridiculous "characters" was supposed to go. Much easier to do some "research" to figure out how the characters would react!

[Blood boiling...can't resist...urge...to strangle...self!]

Dean Wesley Smith does a fantastic job of laying out a lot of these myths and chopping them down in his fantastic Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series of posts. His post about "Writing Faster" absolutely altered the course of my life.

Let me back up; in law school, my last "class," if you can call it that, was a sixty-page independent study paper under the fantastic Professor Anne Coughlin. Call it a thesis of sorts. It was about how law and trials had served as entertainment for the masses from Ancient Greece through the Lizzie Borden trial and beyond; what was so compelling about the law that turned us all into slack-jawed lookie-loos, even in ancient times?

It was a decently fun paper to write, but it was also very research-intensive. Fortunately, the school gave us an extra week after graduation to finish up the project.

Unfortunately, I was my immature, younger self. Instead of doing the responsible thing and finishing the paper up by graduation, I left campus with a grand total of 20 pages written.

With three days left, I had 25.

I wrote the rest of that paper, all 38 pages of it, in three days, heavily researched, writing about ten hours per day. Proofread, edited, the whole nine yards.

Yet there I was, three years later, struggling to write more than five pages in one sitting.

Of fiction.

Something wasn't right here. I knew I had the capacity to write more, but how in the heck was I supposed to get back to that level that I was at when I finished my paper in those manic three days?

More importantly, how could I keep that pace up, or even surpass it for long stretches of time?

Here are some of the tips I've gleaned along the way to do just that.

Get a Job Writing


This is easier said than done, but nothing helped me more than becoming a beat reporter covering the St. Louis Rams during the 2011 season.

I wrote six columns a week, each one at least 1200 words and often closer to 1500. One of those columns each week was my colorful "Power Rankings," which contained clearly fictional, outlandish scenarios involving teams that developed a bit of a cult following.

Those Power Rankings columns averaged 5000 words.
I wrote them in a single day, on what was supposed to be one of my days off: Tuesday.

I went above and beyond first of all because I loved what I was doing, but also precisely because I wanted to push myself, to get back to that level of stamina that I previously was at.


Not only that, but by writing so much, my ancillary skills (thinking up topics, editing, researching) all developed a lot during that single season of football.

But even more than that, I was getting paid to write; it made it seem like more of a profession to me. Though my work outfit was often a polo shirt and jeans instead of a suit and tie, I still learned to put fingers to keys and write, write, write.

That said, it's very tough to earn an opportunity like that. I'll be the first to admit that I was very lucky to land that gig; if I hadn't quit my job two months before, I would've seen the posting, fantasized about applying for it, then shook my head as I went back to tedious legal work.

Even without such an opportunity, there are things that are entirely in your control that can help you write more words per writing session:

Start a Blog, or Better Still, Write for a Blog


Anyone can start a blog. It's free and easy on sites like Blogger and Wordpress. I prefer Blogger because it's what I'm used to, but a lot of folks swear by the functionality of Wordpress; to each her own.


I tried turning my personal blog into a "platform" in the early going, tried posting to it every day back when it was about self-actualization. This was pre-Rams gig, and the results were less-than-thrilling; I churned out post-after-post, with no comments and minimal traffic.

I was going about it all wrong, and would have absolutely done things differently if I was starting up now (but that's a different post entirely). It did help me get into the habit of writing every day, so I guess that was helpful.

However, I would suggest writing a blog for a while and then use that blog as writing samples to book a regular guest post gig on another, more popular blog. It's sad, but if you know that more people are reading what you write, and you have a regular schedule, even if it's once a week, I guarantee that you'll take your writing to the next level.


Once you guest post a few times, try to leverage that into a role as a regular contributor. It might scare you now, but remember, this is about increasing your word output.

Mastered that? Maybe pick up another gig as a regular.


I'm just trying to have you replicate what I did as best you can. It'd be great if you could get a gig where you were expected to write 12,000 words a week all in one place. Until then, though, try to replicate the quantity and commitment of that output as best you can.

Write a Long Form Piece on Something You're Passionate About...Then Do It Again


Pick a day. Clear your schedule. Plan out and write a 5,000 word piece on  something that you're passionate about.

I wrote the Power Rankings because I enjoyed writing them on my old blog. They allowed me to mix my natural affinities for football, humor, and fiction. In short, I was passionate about all of those topics, and created a way to combine them.


I'm sure there are similar things that cause you to smile, that put a little more bounce in your step and wind in your sails. Maybe it's a hobby, or politics, or sports, or food. There are literally millions of topics that qualify.

Pick one of them and write a 5,000 word essay, all in one day. You can take breaks, but be careful; the break is a fickle creature that you have to be careful with until later in your writing career. I don't care if it takes you until early the next morning to finish, but write those 5,000 words no matter what.

Then, the next weekend, do it all over again. In fact, keep doing it until churning out those 5,000 word sessions doesn't seem so hard anymore.

Maybe when you're done, if the topics are somewhat related, you can collect these essays into a book and throw it up on Amazon...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The lesson behind this is that not only does it feel good to write those 5,000 words in a day, but you prove to yourself that you can do it multiple times. It's not just a one-time thing because you were writing on your favorite topic; if you do it twice, then why not a third time? Then a fourth time? And so on. Prove that you can write the sheer volume, then repeat it over and over again until you're comfortable with it.

Use the Tools!


By now, surely you have Scrivener. You don't? What!? We covered this two posts ago! Yes, yes, absolutely go get it now!

One of the great things about Scrivener is that it has a "Project Targets" tool that tracks the number of words you've targeted for the day, as well as the entire manuscript. It's under "Project" - "Show Project Targets" in the Scrivener menu bar.

It's absolutely a great way to both hold yourself accountable and also see the steady progress that a 4,000 or 5,000 word day will bring. Use the tools that you already have.

Limit Distractions


Doing all of the above, but still not writing much? Why not try writing at home instead of at Starbucks, or turning off the internet while you write? I'll admit it, because I'm part of a team running a website now, it's incredibly tough for me to turn off the internet at any point during the day or evening. That said, when I started out writing, there were long stretches of days that I forced myself to go without internet to make sure that I didn't just "hop on" a site. Then you type for a while, and before you know it, you're thinking "how did those 3,000 words get up there?" It's amazing what a little forced focus can do!

Don't Edit


I'm not one of those people screaming "Never edit...NEVER SURRENDER!" from the rooftops. I think a lot of folks think that this is what Dean Wesley Smith advocates under his "don't rewrite" philosophy. It's not at all. Don't know why so many people misread that post.

Editing (meaning copy editing and cutting excess fat) has a place in the life of every book.

Just not while you're writing. Re-writing (changing scenes, characters, etc.) is even worse; you start questioning your own work and spinning your wheels.

Get that first draft out on paper. Odds are that you'll think your first draft of your first novel is a lot better than it is. That's fine. Trust me, each subsequent first draft will get a little cleaner, look a little neater. For now, get the words on the page. Don't let an impromptu editing session ruin the flow.

Take a Walk


I used to think that traditional "writer's block" was something. Now, I think it's just me being lazy. Don't get me wrong; I still give in to it from time-to-time, but I do so knowing full well that I'm making it up; if I want to know what happens next, I just need to look at my mind map.

What I usually mean by "I have writer's block" is that I think my dialogue is too boring, or my characters sound too flat at the moment. If this happens, I go for a nice long walk of at least two miles. I always throw on a comedy podcast while doing so; my current favorite is You Made it Weird, with Pete Holmes, but I also really enjoy Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend, The Adam and Dr. Drew Show, and The Adam Carolla Show. They may or may not be for you; there are literally thousands of other podcasts out there to choose from. The important thing is that you pick podcasts that have elements of improv within them

DO NOT steal their jokes; that's absolutely wrong, and NOT the point of this!

DO absolutely imagine that you're the third person in the room, and think what you would say if you were there. This gets your brain back in "improv mode," which gets you closer to being able to be in the moment, writing as the story comes to you. It could be one-liners or bits or whatever, but I've found that listening to improv-y podcasts gets my mind flowing, and gets my "dialogue brain" back on track. Similarly...

Get into Sudoku


I picked up Sudoku on a lark probably about a year-and-a-half ago. I usually do USA Today's puzzle pretty much every weekday; it's always solvable without guessing, and the Thursday/Friday ones can throw you some real curves.

It doesn't have to be Sudoku, but think of other ways to get your mind moving, keep it nimble, and solving problems. After all, solving problems within a set of rules you've created for your characters is absolutely what fiction writing is about.

Learn to Touch Type


If you can't, I'd strongly suggest learning how to touch-type. The crazy thing is, my parents tried to get my brother and I to do so as kids, first through the boring Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and then through the slightly-more exciting Mario Teaches Typing.

It never really took until I was in college, and simply had to find a way to type more quickly than via hunt and peck alone. Since then, just by writing a lot, I've gotten to the point where I can touch type as fast and accurately as pretty much anyone I know.

Some people need a course or software to learn it, though; my brother was one of them. He took a class over the summer one year in high school, and for a while he could type a lot more quickly than I could. There's absolutely no shame in it, and it'll be money well spent. Remember, you're aiming to be a professional; treat your training accordingly.

Summary


All of these activities boil down to a few simple lessons:


-Write. A lot.


-Create a set of circumstances that forces you to write a lot.


-Stretch out your sessions by writing long-form pieces on topics you enjoy.

-Use the tools already in your toolkit.

-Limit Distractions.

-Use physical and mental exercises to break through so-called "writer's blocks," which are often a creation of our own minds.

-Increase your physical typing speed so that when you're "in the zone," you capture all of your thoughts more quickly, and thus capture more words in a shorter period of time.

I know it was a long piece--2,500 words or so. Total time it took me? 90 minutes, start-to-finish. Sure, it helped that I had some idea of what I was going to write ahead of time, but it was largely "just write, dummy!", with purpose and dedication.

Follow these steps, and some day, you'll be able to keep this pace, as well.

Have any tips on how to get more words out on the page per session? How to fight through writer's block? Leave them in the comments.

Previous Posts in this Series:
#1: Before You Start
#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!

In addition to being the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read, D.J. Gelner is a writer in St. Louis Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him directly at djgelbooks@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...Sit Down and Start Writing!

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In this series, I've already written about questions you should ask yourself before you start writing, as well as ways to capture the ideas that you have at odd times, and tools that I use to write and publish my books.

"Yeah, yeah--that's all well and good, but when do I get to start writing?"

Right now.

[Silence]

Not so easy, is it?

This may be the most difficult part of starting a book: your first opening.

A lot of people stress about the start to their book for good reason: it's arguably more important than ever to hook a reader in the first few pages. Amazon and other retailers allow people to "Look Inside" the book at the first several pages. If they don't like what they see, you can imagine they'll just move right along to another, more interesting book.

Believe me, I know. I asked a buddy of mine to read a rough draft of what will eventually become the Debt of Souls series of books. The first comment he made was, "You kept saying the same thing over and over again for the first ten pages, but after that, it got a lot better."

You know what? He was absolutely right. A lot of folks get bogged down in the academic mindset of describing every...little...thing in a room in excruciating detail. My first attempt at a short story back while I was in law school was ten pages of a guy waking up, followed by me cataloguing his apartment as he brushed his teeth and showered. I know--really original!

The same goes for non-fiction books; no one wants to read a dry summary of the rest of the book up front. After all, if you boil the book down to a few bullet points, what incentive is there to read the rest of it?

Here are a few tips on how to avoid these common pitfalls.

Non-Fiction: Know Your Audience and Start With an Engaging Anecdote

I'm still plugging away on a non-fiction book about wine. I could have gone on some flowery rant about how wine is the drink of the "civilized person," but my goal is to write about the opposite; how someone who thinks that wine is for snobs can come to enjoy and appreciate wine without all of the brow-beating and condescension usually associated with it.

I should know; I used to be one such person, until [aha!] my first trip out to Napa. I quickly dashed out the story of the first time I had an educational wine-tasting out at Cakebread. There's a protagonist (me), a villain (a snobbish fellow tour-goer), and a surrogate for some of the wine knowledge I wished to impart (the wine professional in charge of the tasting).

In so doing, people hopefully get a chance to see a bunch of things; that I'm not fond of wine snobs, that I'm all about opening up wine to a broader audience, that I have some expertise and facility with wine-related terms, and that I'm setting an at least partly humorous tone from the get-go.

Think about starting your non-fiction book similarly, even if you have to fudge facts a little (but just a little) to make the story fit your purposes.

Fiction: Action, Emotion, and Intrigue

I was an avid Lost watcher back in the day. I tore through the first season DVDs in a matter of days while killing time studying for finals. I couldn't believe how hooked I was; whenever each DVD was finished, I drove over to Blockbuster for the next disk (yes, yes, if you're under twenty-five, you likely have no idea what I'm talking about. Just imagine that you actually had to go somewhere to get TV and movies back in the day instead of downloading it immediately. I know: we were barbarians.).

Even though the ending was ultimately a huge let-down, Lost drew everyone in with a combination of action (Plane crash! Pilot is dead! Trees sucked out of the ground!), emotion (Character-based flashbacks! Ooooh, they have to do with what's going on on the island!) and intrigue (What killed the pilot? Why does it sound so weird? Why is this John Locke guy so creepy?).

I think my openings have gotten better with each successive story. In Jesus Was a Time Traveler, I was still a bit verbose, chewing through a bit of backstory in the first chapter, though I stand by it because it's absolutely what the narrator, Phineas Templeton, would do.

Hack was a little more straightforward and to the point; an old guy gets bad news in a hospital right away. By chapter three, he's made a big, life-altering decision and is caroming around in an enormous old car without any regard for pedestrians in his way.

Rogue is probably my best yet: a man, waiting in another man's apartment for some unknown reason. They have a conversation. "He" is upset (who is "he?"). There's a big day the next day, a lot is at stake, the two men are friends, but they fight (why?). It's basically the penultimate scene of the book up front; then the book goes back and catches the reader up to that point until the third act. It's an old trick called a framed narrative, that's been employed by writers for ages; find an intriguing scene toward the end of the book, put it up front to create mystery, and work up to that point.

If you get too much into a character's surroundings, unless there are active chainsaws being dangled from the ceilings and swung from one side of the room to the other as a character desperately tries to dodge them, you probably need to fast-forward to another scene for your opener. Once you have a solid, action or emotion-packed scene, then you can go back and determine if your initial description-laded scene still fits later on in the book; odds are that it doesn't.

Sit Down and Write

I'm going to be honest: unless you're some kind of freakish prodigy (it is possible, but unlikely), you'll look back one day on your first opening and think, "Man, I really could've tightened that up."

That's perfectly fine; writing is a constant learning process. It's okay to experiment a bit with your openings until you get one right.

The important thing is that you try. No book was ever written because someone kept mulling over problems with an opening in her head. Especially for your first book, any opening will be "good enough." By "good enough," I don't necessarily mean "publishable;" rather I mean  "good enough" to get you writing. Once you have something down on the page, everything gets a lot easier, and you can go back and cut-and-paste as necessary.

Do you have any specific tips for starting books? Anything that gets those words to flow onto the page just a bit easier? If so, leave them in the comments.

Previous Posts In This Series:
#3 Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Indie Publish Your Book For Cheap")


Next Time: Write More Per Day
D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him directly at djgelbooks@gmail.com.