“You’re a machine,” people have told me. “How do you write so fast?” I’ve been asked. Well, today I’m going to tell you how.
Let me start by saying that what I do may not suit everyone, it is just the way I work. If you can take something helpful away from my process to help your own writing, then that’s great. If not, then that’s perfectly okay.
First, a bit of background info…
I’ve been writing seriously since late 2009, so in a few months time that will make it five years. I’ve written six novels, three novellas, two partials/proposals (synopsis and three chapters), and a few short stories. Three of my novels are published, one is contracted (and another but it isn’t written yet), the other two novels are on submission. Two of my novellas are published, the third one is contracted. I self-published one of my short stories, two others are provided free on my website and the others are hiding away on my computer till I figure out what to do with them!
The first novel I wrote took me about a year. I’d heard that was an average time frame. But I want to write faster, I thought. My second novel took me nine months (ironically, the storyline touched on pregnancy), and my third novel but first to be published (Fast Forward) took me four months.
Hmmm, if I could decrease the length of time it took each time, how fast could I go?
Obviously, you can’t whip up a novel in a couple of days and nor would I want to. But my fourth novel took twenty days to write. Not consecutive days, but twenty days of actual writing over about two and a half months. The book was only 52,000 words, maybe it was a fluke? Nope, my fifth book which was 84,000 words took twenty-seven days and my sixth book which was 70,000 words took twenty days. Again, these weren’t consecutive days – I didn’t write for twenty days straight, and nor did I write all day, but I started this sixth book on 20th Jan and finished on 28th Feb, so just over a month.
To show you how I did this and how I write fast in general, I’m going to share some details on my writing process. One of my critique partners calls it the Pressure Cooker Method. Quite appropriate, since I love the pressure cooker in my kitchen 😉
To sum it up, my process is divided into three parts:
Sometimes, the steps might overlap as I go back and forth with new plot ideas or if I feel like I really need to edit and perfect chapter five before writing chapter six.
The most important part for me is the planning.
Yes, my name is Juliet and I am a plotter.
If you’re a pantser and rolling your eyes right now thinking, ‘Oh, she’s one of them, this article is obviously not for me’, hang in there a moment. I didn’t always plot a lot. And sometimes, I even pantse myself, but I’ve learned that for me, plotting reduces how much editing and revising I have to do. This is good for me, because out of all the steps involved in writing it’s doing the actual writing that I enjoy the most. Some people say they like ‘having written’ but not the actual writing. I like having written too, but I love the writing itself – fingers typing away madly on the keyboard as ideas and thoughts scramble over themselves in an effort to be born onto the page. That makes me feel alive and powerful, gives me a natural high.
Did I jot down a plan for this blog post? You betcha. Just a few notes in point form, but I know what I’m going to write and what comes next, yet still I can pantse and type whatever comes into my head. A plan for me is not a strict guide to follow or else, but provides a framework to keep me on track.
- I usually start by visualizing the story in my mind. Much of the work is done before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I have to feel the story before I can write it. Luckily, I was always good at daydreaming, so this is like having a 3D high-definition movie playing in my head, minus the costly ticket prices, popcorn, and tall person in front blocking my view.
- I also like to start with a title and a one sentence or one paragraph pitch or blurb so I know what the main premise of the story is. If you can get the story down to a paragraph, it helps you stay focused as you write and not waste time writing scenes that don’t move the story forward.
- Then I write down as many things as I can about the story in what my critique partner and I like to call a Vomit Outline. Just blurt it all out, don’t worry about typos or chunky bits or weird bits, and don’t worry if it’s not in order, just do an info dump or word vomit. Sometimes I type this up and sometimes I handwrite it. No one needs to see this, so don’t hold back. You are allowed to write strange things like:
John and Jane bump into each other at a café (not literally) and swap phone numbers, they see each other again the following week (what will they do? Where will they go?), sometime later in novel they will talk about this day and reminisce, but before then some interesting stuff needs to happen (like what? What the hell is this story about?), and maybe they will be witness to a crime and then have to go on the run, some exciting stuff happens when they are on the run, and some romance, and they call a friend for help…but how will they charge their phones when they are on the run? Mental note: make it so the characters can at least grab their bags and phones and chargers before they go on the run… etc etc.
This is just a silly example but hopefully you get the drift. Sometimes this is one page, sometimes it’s eight – whatever works. This aint’ no synopsis, this is when you can let loose and spill it all onto the page; big things and little things, plot twists and even what the character ate for breakfast if you like (this is a vomit outline after all).
- When I have a good grasp of the story and its main plot events and character arc (you don’t have to know everything about your story, you can come back to the outline later to add more), I make a timeline. I decide what timeframe the story takes place over and then make a word document with a table inserted, creating a sort of Story Itinerary or schedule. Don’t freak out, it’s nothing like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory or Monica from Friends would do. 😉
- For the 70k story I wrote in 20 days (Haunted Ever After), the timeline was easier to plan as the story was only set over five days. In the table, there are two columns and one row for each day. If your story is set over a year, you could have one row for each month. In the first column of each row I list the day/date and I leave the second column blank. I make sure I’ve allowed enough room for each day and then I print out the table.
- Look at your vomit outline, however gross and messy it may be, and take the key points/plot events and write them into bullet points in the appropriate day/month of your timeline. In pencil is best as you might rearrange them later. (It’s just struck me now that some writers use Scrivener, a writing program, which probably does similar things to this. Again, whatever works for you. This is what works for me). By the end you should have a list of general bullet points for every day/week/month when something takes place in your story. Eg: John has dinner at Jane’s house, John and Jane witness a crime…etc.
Now you have a schedule to follow when you write so you are not left wondering ‘what am I going to write about in this scene?’ Your story is mapped out and you are ready to write.
*Note: I usually write chronologically, but with this method you can take any scene from your timeline and write it when you wish. If you want to write the end first, go for it. If you want to start from the beginning, go for it.
- I decide how much time I have available for writing (eg: 30 mins, 2 hours), and get comfy. I have my writing instrument of choice (see below), my timeline, pen, and post-it notes on hand, as well as a timer. I decide what scene to write from my timeline and pick one of the bullet points. Then I break this down into more bullet points! This doesn’t take long, and I only do it just before a writing session. I put these new bullet points onto a post-it note and stick it beside my screen. Each point is one ‘thing’ that happens, even if only small.
Eg: for ‘John has dinner at Jane’s house’, I could break this down to:
- Jane opens the door and John gives her flowers, Jane sneezes.
- Jane serves dinner and realizes she forgot that John is vegetarian.
- Jane and John share awkward conversation.
- They hear yelling outside and go to the window to look.
Or, here’s a real life example of one of my scene post-its:
- Now that I know what’s going to happen I can type madly, turning the events into a cohesive scene. But first, SET A TIMER. This is what helps me write extra fast! Even if I have two hours available to write, I’ll only set the timer for 30 or 60 minutes. Then I’ll reset it. I’ve found that a shorter time limit makes me write more words.
- While the timer is running, the only thing I do is write. I don’t worry about what I’m writing, I have my plot points on the post-it next to me so I know what needs to happen, and the writing itself can be fixed up in edits later on. No checking emails or social media, no answering the phone. YOU ARE WORKING! You are currently unavailable and in an appointment. That is how I view my writing sessions. If you were serving a customer in a shop would you stop halfway through their purchase and say ‘hang on, I just want to check this Facebook notification’? No. Treat writing like any other job. You can check your messages when the timer is up.
Following this method, I can usually write between 1200-1500 words an hour, sometimes up to 1800. So if my word goal is 3000 words a day, this would only take two hours.
- After I’ve written for the day, I usually jot down the date and how many words I wrote that day on a scrap of paper stuck to my wall with blue-tak. When I finish my book I can see how many productive days I had and how long it took to write the book, which makes it easier to plan for upcoming deadlines. When first starting with this, you can also choose to note down how many hours you wrote for each day so you can work out your average words-per-hour. If you have a competitive streak like me, you’ll want to up your game and beat your personal best. 😉
*Note: Here’s a little secret that has had a BIG impact on how fast I write: I don’t always write on a computer! I share my writing between my Macbook Air, and a nifty little device called an Alphasmart NEO2, or NEO for short.
It’s a lightweight portable word processor that runs on AA batteries (which means no charging or running out of battery while out and about – it took over two years before I had to change my NEO’s batteries!).
Apart from the battery life, the other benefits are that it has a small screen that only shows a few lines of text so you have less temptation to re-read what you’ve written while writing, the screen isn’t backlit so you don’t get sore eyes (it’s that old fashioned black text on a greyish-green screen), and there is no internet! On this machine, you JUST WRITE. Also, it saves automatically as you type (even if you turn it off, you can turn it back on and resume where you were without losing anything), it turns on in an instant so there’s no waiting for things to load, and when you’re done you plug it into a computer via USB and can import directly to a word document (the words will gradually appear while it transfers) or save it as a text file and copy/paste into a word document. I LOVE IT. I also find the small layout really easy on my hands for typing and to get comfy with it on your lap. And it doesn’t get all hot like a laptop. Plus, if you accidentally leave it in your car no one will steal it because they probably won’t know what it is and think it’s an old, outdated piece of junk!
Sadly, the supplier I bought my NEO from has said that they are not making them anymore due to everyone using iPads and whatnot. I would still prefer writing on my NEO to an iPad. I wrote my last novella on my laptop and found that I was nowhere near as fast as on the NEO. You should still be able to buy them from eBay or Amazon though (might be second hand), so if it sounds like something that could help you then do a search online and see what you can find.
*Another note: I usually write while lying down (except when I write at cafes!). Bit hard if you’re using a desktop computer but if you write with a laptop or NEO, try it! Don’t know if it makes a difference, but it sure helps me get comfortable and makes sure I don’t get up and do anything else when I should be writing! Maybe it’s a blood flow thing too, who knows?
- If I have time, either right after a writing session or at the end of every day or two, I’ll do a quick read-through and tweak of the chapter/s I’ve just done. If I’m writing a novella I’ll usually just leave it all until it’s finished, but I find with a novel, doing this helps remind me of certain plot points and characteristics to help me stay focused and write the later scenes. And it’s good for picking up when you’ve accidentally changed someone’s name or hair colour.
- By doing the above, and by doing the detailed planning and plotting before writing, I’ve found there isn’t usually a lot to be done with editing. This wasn’t true for my first and second books when I was just learning the ropes, they required A LOT of revisions (and I’m still going back and forth revising that first book each time I get new feedback).
- When the manuscript is finished, I can usually do the edits in a few days. First, I go to my trusty list of overused and passive words and search for each in my manuscript, deleting them or changing them to something better. As I do this, I often find little things to adjust or improve in the narrative or dialogue, and doing little tweaks out of order can be helpful because you are not involved in reading the story at this point.
- When I’ve cut or changed as many of the passive words as possible, I do a mental checklist on the story and characters, making sure I haven’t forgotten any important details and seeing if there are ways I can enhance their characterization in subtle ways through their appearance, word choices, and behavior and body language.
- Then I read through the manuscript from beginning to end and tweak anything else that’s needed as I go. I try to set aside a good chunk of time to do this so I can read the whole book in a day or two, which makes it easier to pick up on inconsistencies and repetition.
- Done! I send to my critique partners if there’s time then do another edit with their feedback, or I send to my publisher and await the final verdict.
>> For my 70k in 20 days manuscript, Haunted Ever After, I kept track of when I wrote and how many words I wrote. I started on 20th January and finished on 28th February, and wrote on twenty days during that time. My word counts ranged from 1300 a day to 5000 or 6000 a day (but most were around the 2000-3000 mark), reaching a grand total of 70 227 words, and getting it sent to my publisher on deadline day.
>> My 84k in 27 days manuscript was written in a similar way, starting on 1st July and finishing on 7th September.
Does writing fast lead to a reduction in quality? I’ll let you be the judge! My 84k book February or Forever was published last February and you can check it out here.
If you don’t know me well you might be wondering if I have a lot of time on my hands to churn books out. No, I’m a busy single mother with a son with special needs. For the last four years I played teacher and helped him through high school via distance education, while also running an online business and writing my books.
We’re all busy these days, but if you’re passionate about being a writer, you will make time to write. Life gets in the way for sure, and I certainly don’t write every day because some days it is just not possible, but I try to not let too many days get away from me.
I also try to remember my priorities. If something can wait for another day, I let it wait. My priorities lie with the wellbeing of myself and my family and close friends, my responsibilities to my publisher, and then with others. Don’t let little things waste your time, and be kind to yourself. Allocate time to write when you will refuse to get sucked into demands from others (unless you have a young baby or child or other urgent reasons, then you have to be creative with your time!). Make writing a priority and don’t be hard on yourself when you get to the end of a hard day and haven’t done any. Go to sleep, start again tomorrow.
Another thing that helps me write fast is that I have a lot of determination to succeed in this industry. It’s my passion, it’s what I want to do with my life, so I treat it with the importance that it deserves. Having dreams and clear goals can help you get your books written faster, especially when you have lots of other ideas you want to write about! Knowing that when I finish one book I can start on another I’ve been dying to write keeps me going!
…So think about what you want to achieve with your writing. If you want to write at a leisurely pace at the end of the day for your own enjoyment, whether or not you get published, then writing fast may not be a concern for you. If you want to be a prolific author with multiple books published and make a full time career out of it, then learning to increase your writing speed will help you greatly. This doesn’t mean you should rush, just be efficient. Try some of my tips if you like, see how they go, and remember that it is okay to do things your own way. What I do may not work for everyone, but I hope that it will help at least one of you out there to maximize your writing time and get more joy and satisfaction from bringing your ideas to life.
P.S – Now that I’ve written a long blog post on how to write fast, I’m off to search for a blog post on how to write shorter blog posts… 😉
*P.P.S – UPDATE for 2016! – Since this blog post was published, I’ve continued my rapid writing to have 15 books published, and 18 written. I’ve increased my highest word count PB to 2000 words per hour. I still set a timer, and I still use post-its, however I sometimes write on my Macbook Air laptop instead of the NEO because it is light and has great battery life, and when I was writing my 5 book YA series I found I needed my series files open while I wrote to better handle the overarching plot as I had to keep referring to things that had happened. So it’s a mater of what works for you with each particular book. I still find the NEO the fastest way to write.
>>>As a lot of writers struggle with productivity, procrastination, and being prolific, I am now offering coaching for writers to help break through any blocks to your writing success, and/or to help answer your writing and publishing related questions or anything to do with your manuscript or WIP and how to make it shine. I’m also offering a limited number of partial critiques. For more info visit the COACHING & CRITIQUING page. And stay tuned because I will also be running an online course in the near future on becoming more prolific. Write on! 🙂
1. Create a High Concept Hook
Can you summarise the premise of your story in a short sentence? Does this sentence clearly state what the book is about? If not, you might need to work on either clarifying what the heart and soul of your premise actually is, or reworking your idea to be more ‘high concept’ and unique.
Try to incorporate character, goal, and conflict. Who is your character, what do they want, and what’s going to make it difficult for them to get it?
The main thing to remember is to be specific, not vague, and make it memorable.
For example, here’s the one sentence pitch I used for my novel, Fast Forward:
Aspiring supermodel, Kelli Crawford seems destined to marry her hotshot boyfriend, but on her twenty-fifth birthday she wakes in the future as a fifty-year-old suburban housewife married to the now middle-aged high school nerd.
From this we can tell who the character is (Kelli, a model), what she wants (her boyfriend to propose), and what her conflict is (she wakes up 50 and married to someone else).
A less memorable way of writing this could have been:
A young woman wakes up on her birthday to find that she’s middle-aged and married to someone else.
It still has some merit, but it’s not specific enough. To turn it into the high concept premise mentioned earlier, instead of just saying ‘young woman’ we point out her name, her occupation, and her age. Instead of saying ‘middle-aged’ we say fifty years old, in the future, and a housewife. And instead of saying she ‘married someone else’ we make it known that her husband is the nerd from high school who is now middle-aged. See how being specific makes a huge difference?
>>What can you do to your premise/hook to make it more specific and interesting?
2. Start Your Story at the Inciting Incident
Your story could start in several different ways, so make sure you choose the way that best showcases your story’s premise and kick-starts the plot. By the end of the first chapter your high concept hook/one line pitch should make sense, and the reader should be motivated to read on and see what happens. Don’t start with backstory and then only begin the real story in chapter three, start the story where the story starts.
Have a think about what sets off your story, what is the key action that puts your character into the situation that propels the story forward, and start there. Action and dialogue are key to starting the story with a bang. Avoid excessive narration and description.
For example, in Fast Forward, the story starts with the main character, Kelli, on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday. We first see her enjoying everything that’s great about her life, and then she gets a rude shock when she wakes up in the future and finds that she’s doubled in age. By the end of chapter one, the story premise has begun and the conflict is unfolding.
>>What is the best, most interesting place to start your story? What action is needed to kick-start the plot?
3. Have a Punchy First Line
Not only do you need to start your story off right, you need to start with a line that shows something about the character, the goal, or the conflict. Or something that immediately sets the tone or voice of the story, catapults the character into the action, or poses a question that the reader will want to have answered.
Using the example of Fast Forward again for the sake of consistency, the first line is:
I can’t help that I’m beautiful. There, I’ve said it.
Immediately we know that Kelli is beautiful and she knows it, and is probably a bit conceited, though she sees it as just being honest. Of course, this type of character may turn some people off (and I was totally prepared for that!), but the idea is that it will be more fun when we see her get her comeuppance in the future when she’s no longer young and beautiful, and we can have a bit of a laugh at her expense. I also wanted it to contrast with the last line in the book (which I won’t reveal but has to do with beauty) to show how far she has grown as a person by the end of the story and what she has learned about what’s really important in life.
>>Write down some possible first lines for your story… how can you first introduce the character, goal, or conflict? Also, try to end the chapter with a punchy line as well so the reader wants to read on to find out what happens next. Take a look at some first lines from your book collection to get some ideas.
4. Minimise Backstory
You might feel that you have to tell the reader a whole heap of stuff about your characters and their past so they can ‘get to know them’, but you don’t. Character is mostly shown through action, behaviour, and dialogue. Backstory can be filtered in here and there in a subtle way that adds to the story rather than dragging it down.
Going overboard with backstory will slow the pace and become boring. The best thing to do is immerse your reader into the action of the story first (and by action I don’t mean shoot-outs and car chases, unless that is the type of story you are writing!). The type of action can vary depending on genre. It can be a heated conversation, a meeting between two people, an unfolding dilemma, or a funny or embarrassing situation the character finds themselves in. Focusing on some sort of action will reduce the need for backstory.
This doesn’t mean you can’t include any backstory in the beginning, just be subtle and don’t lump it in all in one go. Fast Forward begins with an argument between Kelli and her sister on the eve of her birthday. I included a small amount of backstory in the fourth paragraph to add context to their argument, but then the action resumes quickly. If you include backstory, make sure it serves a purpose that enhances the scene, and not just as a way to ‘tell’ the reader something.
>>To reduce backstory in the beginning, have a think about the absolute minimum amount and type of information needed to make the scene work. Anything extra – get rid of it, and filter in gradually as the story progresses.
5. Show Don’t Tell
Showing means using character behaviour, dialogue, and action to tell the story, as opposed to narration and description.
This doesn’t mean there can’t be any ‘telling’ in your story, some is needed here and there to balance things out and get vital information across, but showing should predominate. Showing helps the reader visualise the scene more clearly and have a more immersive experience alongside the character.
You can improve your showing versus telling by thinking visually, and also by searching for unnecessary words in your manuscript including: starting, started to, began, was, were, almost, saw, heard, and felt. These are filter words, they filter your reader’s experience rather than immersing them in it. They can still be used, but sparingly, and only when necessary.
Here is an example of telling:
I stood in front of the mirror and couldn’t believe what I saw. My belly was loose and flabby, and my breasts were droopy.
And here’s how it can be changed to better ‘show’ what’s happening (from a scene in Fast Forward):
I finally stood again at the mirror, my mouth gaping. I lowered my hands to my abdomen, lifting and prodding clumps of loose skin that felt like a bag of jelly.
What in the name of Dior happened to my flat stomach? Not only did I have a freaking jelly belly, my breasts drooped so far south they were practically residents of Antarctica.
Instead of telling the reader that the character ‘couldn’t believe it’, show them, eg: ‘my mouth gaping.’ And instead of telling the reader that her belly was loose and flabby, put some action into it, eg: ‘lifting and prodding loose clumps of skin’.
Keep these filter words handy and catch yourself out when you use them to see if there’s a better way of writing the scene. Until you get used to minimising these words, you can also just leave it until the editing process and then change them, by using the ‘find’ function on your word document.
Keep these 5 tips in mind and you’ll be well on your way to starting your story with a bang! Good luck to those doing NaNoWriMo 🙂
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Writing Tips for #NaNoWriMo from author @Juliet_Madison http://bit.ly/Hd7ASB
Examples in this article taken from the book, FAST FORWARD, available from all online ebook retailers.