Some people need more help with the details of actually getting words on the page, so here are some pointers. Keep in mind I’m an expert, neuro-atypical procrastinator with ADHD. I’ll spend 5 hours avoiding for every 20 minutes of writing. But that also means I’ve had more experience than most in wrestling with my resistance. I may not have defeated my demons, but I’m intimately aware of them and can offer some unique strategies to keep yours at bay.
Basically, I recommend creating a writing habit centered around timed sprints for about an hour a day (three, 20-minute sprints); I recommend doing this in iA Writer or a writing app on a smartphone or iPad, for minimal distractions with a bluetooth keyboard. I think it helps to have a different device or space or routine for writing the words, than you have for putting it all together and doing deeper revisions and edits.
Resist the urge to edit, polish, rephrase or even correct typos or punctuation issues. Try to stay in the flow. There’s even evidence that writing blindly (typing while closing your eyes or looking at a blank screen) can boost wordcount; something similar happens when you dictate.
Bribing your muse
Awhile ago I started playing with the idea of acting like the author I want to be, which includes buying myself things that make me feel like a “real” writer: the fancy laptop in the old leather bag; slight emo-goth dieselpunk attire, that sort of thing. I have a blog post up about establishing an author brand. But the main thing is, it’s OK to buy yourself silly things that make you feel good. Feeling good about your writing is a big deal. One of my favorite things is a wooden Penna Keyboard, because it’s so pretty, even if I don’t use it often to actually write (I should, but I prefer my smaller, portable one). It cost well beyond reason. I’m trying to make writing more enjoyable, since it’s not just about function. I’m bribing my muse with pretty things.
My other idea was to only eat cookies and sugar while writing, to trick my brain into being addicted to writing (getting that rush of dopamines) but I have no self control… maybe you’ll have better luck. The idea is to make writing feel good; which is why I recommend lighting a candle, preparing your writing space, etc.
Best hardware and software
I did a lot of research to find a better writing setup – for me personally, I use a bluetooth keyboard with the iPhone iAwriter app (on dark screen). It keeps the text centered and fades out when you hit return.
I share to Dropbox, then copy and paste it into my longer Word document, scene by scene.
I think there may be benefits to turning off the screen completely, or using stressful stuff like Write or Die or The Most Dangerous Writing App. But it’s mostly about setting a habit.
Three, 20-minute sprints a day is all you really need. With practice you should be able to write at least 500 words in 20-minutes. 1500 a day is plenty, if you do it consistently.
The difference between a three month novel or a one month novel is not that you write it faster. (You’re not actually typing more words per minute). You’re just writing for 3 hours a day instead of 1.
Six steps to an unbreakable writing habit
I made this video as a “nanowrimo prep” lesson, but it summarizes six of my favorite productivity and motivation strategies.
1. Clear Your Plate
Someone asked me recently how to find balance, between life and writing. I don’t feel qualified to answer, because I don’t “find balance” – I drop the ball. If you’re trying to juggle too many things, you’ll never master any. Yes, we have responsibilities and need to earn a living, but you just need a few small chunks of time to write. If you can’t find them, you’re going to need to give something else up.
This isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing less. It’s learning how to say no and when to say yes. It’s about putting yourself and your writing first. This may require some support from friends and family, or maybe you just let a few projects slide. You can create a lot of mental bandwidth by giving up on some items (instead of having them loom over you, creating doubt and guilt – because you haven’t done them).
2. External Accountability
Working around other people helps keep you on task and in the zone; that’s why I love doing writing retreats and surrounding myself with other authors. I’m in a productivity camp in Thailand, and every day we have to check in, set our goals, and checkin again 8 hours later.
You can set up your own writing group, or at least find a writing buddy (there are even sites you can use, like FocusMate.com, which pairs you up with someone to do a short burst of coworking. You can organize your own by getting on a group skype call, and “write together” even if you’re far apart.
Make sure someone knows what you’re trying to achieve. Try and make sure someone is counting on you to finish (teams of writers competing for word count goals can work well).
3. Timed Sprints
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Sit down and write. Do three writing sprints a day and you will finish in no time (with practice, most people can write 600 words in 20 minutes). There are also gamification tools to keep writing fun, like WriteorDie or 4TheWords.
After experimenting with the best writing apps and keyboards for writers, I have a new system that works well: I make sure I know what’s going to happen in each scene (and can remember it and write it down in a sentence or two) – then I move to a bluetooth keyboard and my iphone, using the iAwriter app. Small screen, no distractions, always move forward.
It can also help to close your eyes, or turn the screen around (you can better visualize, and use the meaning of the words without focusing on the letters.
4. Track Results
Have a calendar and put it up somewhere visible – cross off the days you hit your wordcount goal; also write down the wordcount. You want to build a visible chain of success, that propels your forward. There are apps that track this, but you should be able to see it all the time.
You can also share an excel file in dropbox or google spreadsheets – you can set it up so your writing group can each post their daily wordcount, and it will keep a running total.
5. Confidence Games
There are some interesting psychological tricks you can use on yourself to stay confident, but the biggest thing is to watch your language; confidence is your body and voice. Look yourself in the mirror and say “I’m the type of person who’s capable of completing 50,000 words in a month” (a friend of mine is putting something together based on research that shows we are extremely fluid in our self-evaluation, it can be helpful to have someone ELSE say this to you, or ask “are you the type of person I can count on to finish this book?”)
You can also use less impressive statements like “why am I capable of writing a book in a month” – ask the question, not the statement, and it will have the same effect without feeling as imposing.
You can even record your own voice saying “YOU are the type of person” vs “I’m the type of person.” You may not believe in you yet, but you can choose to install that belief with deliberate neuro-programming.
(Watch the video for most productivity hacks and tricks, there’s some really good ones!)
6. Energy Maintenance
Last but not least, make sure to take care of yourself and recharge. You’re going to need MORE sleep and rest than usual, or your brain will catch on fire. Get sunlight, put your feet to the grass, breath deeply. Fix you posture and writing set up. Try alternating to a standing desk whenever possible. Take frequent breaks to stretch and move. Drink LOTS of water.
Remember, don’t try to do MORE – you’ll burn out if you do too much. Focus on doing LESS, and choosing to drop some responsibilities so you can focus on your writing
My biggest insights or reveals, rarely happen when I’m doing the work. They almost happen when I’m trying not to do the work. That’s the magic.
Every novel is a path of discovery. I know I can write them well, but I don’t – establishing a writing habit or a deadline is the most important part. But I can plot and story build really fast. I’m less great at putting in the words. *When* I’m writing though, I can do about 1000 words an hour… sometimes 3500 if I’m pushing through. Rarely I might have a 7K day. It doesn’t really matter how fast you write, but the difference between fast or slow writers isn’t the writing, it’s the time spent not writing.
In my experience, the only real secret to writing success is consistency. Not banging out 5,000 word days, but writing a little bit, every day, over a long period of time. That said: there’s also no real benefit to writing slowly. The novel you started a few years ago might never get finished, because as you grow and change and improve, you’ll always see new ways to change it or make it better, which can create a multi-headed hydra.
The Writing Process
Having a map of your story, and having pictured the scenes in detail, will help with the writing process, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Here are some final tips to help you finish writing your book.
1. Write the rough draft quickly. Don’t edit, don’t improve the writing, don’t focus on the sentences. Just block in the conversation, setting and action in big chunks. If you get stuck, make a note and move on. Focus on hitting a certain word count, or getting through a chapter a day.
2. Keep going until you get to the end. If you get stuck, go back to the beginning and start revising and cleaning things up. Every time you go through, you discover new things about your story and characters.
3. Get to the end. Clean it up enough to send to beta readers (or your mom), but keep focusing on the story, not the writing, until you’re sure the story is enjoyable and satisfying. At this point, I recommend reading The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and Story Fix by Larry Brooks, or Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield. (Or, of course, Book Craft).
4. Then start revising in earnest. Don’t get discouraged that the writing may not be that great yet. Those sentences don’t start to shine until the last few rounds of editing.
5. Kill your darlings, which means, any sentence you’re really proud of because it’s such great writing probably needs to be cut (readers don’t want to be impressed with the writing if it distracts from the story. Stick with the story, use the words that convey the right images and emotions, but don’t overdo it.
6. Writing is a learnable skill! You don’t really understand what it takes to write a book until you’ve finished one, and even then, you’re just a beginner. Be proud of yourself, but recognize you may need a professional editor, and also to finish several more books (probably both) before you start producing high quality work.
7. That said, “quality” isn’t necessarily an indicator of commercial success. If you can’t find an agent or publisher, don’t be afraid to self-publish and get your work out there. Who knows what could happen.
8. Different genres have different expected lengths, but a normal first novel should be between 60K (young adult) and 90K (epic fantasy). If you’re shooting for 60K and 60 chapters, each chapter will be around 1000 words, and shouldn’t be over 2000 words—but that’s on average. Some will be longer or shorter.
PS. The most productive writers in history were also the most stimulated (Balzac drink 50+ cups of coffee a day). I have a lot more to say on that subject, but I’m putting specific brews and potions until the Motivation & Mindset for Writers post.