So you’re writing a novel. Let’s say it’s for NaNoWriMo, and you’re a few thousands words in the hole — say 8000 words. You have heard it possible to write 10,000 words a day, if you allow yourself the entire day for writing. You have a day off from school, or work, or whatever — today is going to be your day to catch up. What do you do?
[All writers work differently. The writers, the professional ones, whose advice works for me the best are those who work with outlines. YMMV? I guess]
I am the world’s most unromantic writer. Well, except for the professional writers like Holly Lisle and Lizette Gifford who put up websites for writing newbies. If you think my style is unromantic and “takes all the fun out of writing,” well, you probably should see what these wonderful people are doing. Writing is a job. For some, like me, it is a serious hobby. Whenever you think about something you read here “my god, this takes all the fun out of writing,” remember two things: I don’ t think so, and at the bottom of it, I don’t care — this is not about how to have fun while you write. I am having fun doing it anyway, and part of the fun is where I accomplish my goals.
Prepare for it: write an outline. You want an outline that covers 10,000 words. I find that I work best when I have 500-word “prompts”. I describe my plot, each scene must take at least 500 words. I never studied anything formally, so I might be doing this “all wrong” (but I’ve had multiple 15K days, so just listen for a moment…) but I just write a single sentence of what I want this scene to be about. Here is an example from an unwritten novel of mine (“Night of the Loving Dead”, a comedy horror about a necrophiliac and a zombie):
- Pete walks into the cemetary
- Pete finds a likely body
- Pete is startled by a voice
- Pete finds Tim, a zombie
- Pete is horrified
- Tim pacifies Pete
- Tim questions Pete’s actions
- Pete comes up with an excuse
[As an aside, no, I’m not worried that people will steal my idea. First of all, this one is pretty insane anyhow. Second of all, I have like ten other book ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s true in start-ups, and apparently it is also true in writing.]
Here. That took abut 5 minutes of doing, and since it’s 8 scenes, it’s 4,000 words. Spend about 15-30 minutes on your outline, and preferably do it before Friday. Make sure to include “padding”: about 10% more scenes than you strictly need. For 10,000 words, that’s 20 scenes: add a couple. If you have time, add more. Why are you adding all these scenes? Because you will find some are so hateful, so stupid, so idiotic that you will not understand what in the world caused you to come up with such things. Pad. Trust me on that, it will save your life.
Here is another thing you should do before Friday: calibrate. Like any well-tuned machine, you are not aware of what your writing facilities are like before you test — so just test. Choose one of your scenes, and write as hard as you can for 15 minutes. Here are the rules:
- No fixing typos. If you’re not making at least one typo every three words, you are not typing fast enough. Type faster, until your accuracy suffers enough.
- No fixing spelling, or checking spelling. If you don’t remember how a word is spelled, spell it phonetically, with an approximation, or what have you.
- No going back. Backtrack by going forward. I have a memorable scene where the characters reach the natural conclusion (they decide to go ahead and take a risk) when I realized that this is ending too soon. One character said “well, before we do it, let’s whine a little more,” and they did.
- No going back. Fix mistakes by going forward. “John was walking. No, actually, John was running.”
- Only include punctuation when you feel like it. Drop it whenever you are not sure. “John was wlaking no sactually joihn was running”. (This is how a typical sentence would look like, by the way.)
- When you can’t think of a good word, throw in some approximation, or ten words which do the job worse but adequately. You need to describe an emotion? “Sad”, “happy” etc. work. Later, you’ll find the perfect synonym with the connotation you want.
- No stopping. The scene ended? Describe each character’s inner monologue. Even if it’s first person (“John thought that Millie must be thinking that he was brave.”) Describe the scenery. Describe what the characters are wearing
- No switching to another scene. That scene has to last 500 words and 15 minutes, and you will type and pad if you need to. Be repetitive if needs be. “The workers were happy and they felt happy because now john was buiyg them dirnks”.
- No searching for names. John, Paul, Mike, Sam and other meaningless names are just fine. Fix the names later, when you know the characters.
- No formatting. There are strict ways to format dialogue. Forget about them. Formatting can easily wait until after the first draft.
- Adverbs. Learn them, love them, use them. They’re horrible writing — for the second draft. In the first draft, they allow you to say “run quickly” when you would have searched for “sprint” or “gave it his all” or whatever.
- In short: whenver you can sacrifice accuracy and quality for speed, do it. Your prime goal is to get the draft out.
We’ll call 15 minutes where you do nothing but type furiously following the rules above (and any others you hit on that increase your speed) a “session”. How many words can you get per-session? Usually, it’s at least 500 if you’re a decent typist.
OK, so now it is Friday. You have your 30 scenes all neatly written as one-sentence prompts, and now you are going to have to write them. You know how many sessions you need — at least one per scene (sometimes a scene will be so good you’ll want to continue it). All that’s left now is to make a session schedule that won’t cause you to commit suicide. My schedule is optimized for me, naturally. I’m a morning person, so this is what I do. You can probably upshift it for people who prefer later hours. You can fit 3 sessions into an hour with 5 minute break between them, and this is what I use for most hours.
Wake up bright and early, 7am. Before you start morning rituals (shower, breakfast, etc.), try having an hour of typing. 1500 words are gone, and it’s 8am. Morning ritual time! It’s 9am. Do the thing for 2 more hours. It’s 11am, and you’ve got 4500 words. Try and do it until 12pm. Maybe you’re tired, allow yourself some spazzing out — but get two sessions in. 5500 words, and it’s just noon! Have lunch. Enjoy it. Take your time. It’s 1pm. Do sessions for 2 hours. It’s 3pm, and you’re 7000 words in. You’re doing great. Take a break until 4pm, and now do another two hours. 9000 words in, it’s 6pm, and you’re on your home stretch. Take another break, and at 7pm, try again. The words will be yours!
If you stick to such a schedule, and you manage to type even faster, you can even reach a 20K words day like that. Towards the end of NaNoWriMo, I could regularly churn out sessions with roughly 1000 words, but I was also tired from doing this a bit — which served to compensate well. Next NaNoWriMo, I have a goal of a single 150K words novel, so we will need even more tricks!