I started writing the first draft a new book, and this time through I’m trying something new.
I used to work as a Systems Analyst/Project Manager for software development teams. So it’s no surprise that I’m always interested in looking into processes, especially my own, and trying to find areas that can be improved.
I’ve been lucky this last year, in that I’ve had a lot more time to write. This year I’ve set a writing goal of 2,000 words a day. This goal, as well as more writing time, has enabled me to get through several drafts of Mulrox in less than a year. (I think it’s worth noting that I only try to hit this goal when writing drafts).
For me, this is a great improvement over the previous book, Parallax, which six years in, is on some unknown draft, and still not ready to share with others. I’ve learned and changed a lot since writing Parallax, but I don’t want to go back to taking that long on a book again. So I wanted to see if there was a way I could reach that daily writing target of 2,000 words in the amount of time I had for writing when I was working full time.
I recently read 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox. As the title suggests, the book’s aim is to teach you how to write quickly. The book is short and practical – exactly how I like non-fiction how-to books. It’s definitely worth the read. You can check it out here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25765338-5-000-words-per-hour?ac=1&from_search=true
You can also get the book for free if you sign up for his mailing list on his website: http://www.chrisfoxwrites.com/
The book describes a straightforward method that aims to help you improve your focus, create a daily habit, and amp up your writing and editing speed. The gist of the method is to do writing sprints. In these writing sprints you set aside a dedicated time every day, in the same place, and then get used to working in short very concentrated bursts interspersed with small breaks. As you progress, the amount of time you spend writing before you get a break increases.
I had some reservations about whether writing was the type of thing I thought should be done fast, or whether it is better to take your time and try to get it right the first time through. I worried too that these short periods would be an annoyance to longer periods of deep thought.
Because I already have a writing habit and a word target goal, and because I’m pretty good at making myself do things on a regular schedule, I wasn’t sure how much of a difference these timed periods would make.
I was also concerned that perhaps I would write faster, but the draft would be such a mess that time saved writing would easily be eaten up by trying to fix a very messy draft. But I did want to see if I could write faster.
I might not have given it a shot, but I have used other similar productivity methods in the past successfully.
When I was in college, there was a time when I was a history major and was assigned hundreds of pages of reading per class period. I am not, and have never been a fast reader. I love reading and I read a lot, but I’m laughably slow at it. As you might guess, I was having trouble trying to keep up with the workload, so I spent a summer teaching myself to speed-read.
While learning to speed read you are told to read as fast as you can for a very short period of time. As you get better and your concentration improves and you can spend longer and longer reading. Sound familiar?
With both speed reading and writing sprints, you are training your brain to focus deeply on one particular task by slowly pushing it and increasing your endurance.
I used speed-reading to get through those semesters of heavy reading and I’m glad I learned how. But I treat speed-reading as a tool rather than a dictate and only use it now when I’m reading something I don’t enjoy but need to understand.
Learning speed-reading was a helpful tool, and I hoped that speed-writing would be similar.
The First Draft
But is writing a first draft of a novel like getting through hundreds of pages of homework? Well no, not exactly.
To do this method, Chris Fox suggests that you have an outline before you start. That way you are not spending your entire writing time trying to think of what comes next.
This is a critical point. Writing with no idea of where I’m going, especially quickly has been a mistake for me in the past. My first novel written during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), was written with no outline. It was so much of a mess that I didn’t even have a clue how to set about editing it. Every project I work on I’ve increased the extent to which I outline, and I’ve never looked back.
Not everyone is a fan of outlining, but I am. I think of it as a creative rather than methodical process that gives me many more chances to make the story original and coherent.
I like to think of all the pieces of writing as slowly filling in layers on the story. The outline sets up the first sketch, the bones of the story, and is your first pass at something consistent and coherent. It’s easier to make changes to the big picture when all you have written is a page. I now do a couple of passes on my outline so that I am changing and digging deeper into the story with each pass. So by the time I get to my first draft, I know the gist of each and every scene.
Even with all that prep work, my first draft is usually a total and complete mess. I have never written a first draft where I didn’t completely rewrite every scene. This is partly because I’m still learning, but I also believe it is the nature of the first draft. You are still getting to know your characters, and digging into the details of the story. Even with an extensive outline, there is so much you don’t know until you actually start writing.
The Benefits of a Rough Sketch
On previous books, I made the mistake of spending too much time in my first draft trying to get the language and every word right. I would invest days working on just a few pages only to have to throw those scenes out later. I’m not saying not to spend time on the language eventually, but as much as you can be sure that a scene is actually needed before you invest time in it the better. For me, this is not just because of the wasted time, but also because I start to lose perspective on the scene the more time I spend on it, or the prettier the language is. If it’s a really good scene but not good for my book, I end up having a hard time cutting it and even recognizing that it needs to be cut.
Because I know where I’m going, and I know that I will need to rewrite anyway, I think the first draft is a good candidate for a quick and dirty pass–just like reading through hundreds of pages of history was a good time to get fast at reading.
For the last week or so I’ve been trying out my new process. I’m not following Chris Fox’s method exactly, but am using it as inspiration.
I get up, make coffee, and read over my notes for the scene I’m going to write. As soon as I feel I’m mentally ready to begin, I start a timer for 20 minutes and get writing.
My goal is to write as fast as I can through the scene. As much as possible I try not to rewrite sentences, stop, or read back through what I’ve written. Any new idea I have while writing I will add as a comment to the text, but I won’t go back to fix or add in detail at that point.
After the timer goes off I stop writing, record the number of words I was able to write, and then give myself a break before starting another 20 minutes. I usually try to repeat this three times before giving myself a longer break and then starting the process over again.
After working at this for a little more than a week, I’ve been able consistently hit 4,000 words in less time than it previously took me to write 2,000. That’s a pretty exciting improvement. Before using this process, I don’t think I had ever written that much in a single day.
I am probably still not to the point where I could write 2,000 words in the time between getting up and going to work, but I’m getting close.
I’ve also found that I’m shocked by how much time I was wasting doing things other than writing. Things like making and drinking tea, lighting candles, walking around the house, playing with the dog. Basically all these tiny little things that would consistently break my focus.
Now for those 20 minutes, I try as much as possible not to take my hands off the keyboard. Then after the timer goes off, I give myself permission to do whatever I want, guilt free.
I’ve only been doing this for a week, so I imagine my process will change. The more I work at it the more my brain will get used to this new task of hyper-focused writing. I’m hoping that over time both my speed and quality will improve.
Then again, it may end up taking me more time to fix these messy pages than it would have taken to write slowly in the first place. We will just have to see.
If it continues to work well I may expand the use of the method to writing other drafts and editing.
What I can say for sure is that the method has definitely improved my speed.
Have you tried any methods to improve your focus or increase your productivity? I’d be really interested in finding out more! Leave me a note in the comments below or shoot me an email.
Thanks for reading!