Saturday, 17 October 2015

The CaptainRaz Patented Guide to Writing More with Less Stress

A friend of mine was having a tough time with his writing and I offered to send him some advice, which he accepted. I've posted what I sent him here because it might be useful for others as well. And if nothing else it'll serve as a reminder to practice what I preach.

General advice: read Dean Wesley Smith's blog. Dude talks a lot of sense about how to write prolifically and how to have a sustainable career in writing. He may not have won a whole bunch of awards for his work, but he has been making a living from his writing for 40 years, both traditionally published and indie published. A lot of what I've been working on myself has come from his advice.

1) Carve out time to write.

How you do this is up to you and what works best for you. Do you work best with a set daily word count to aim for or will it be better to set aside an hour a day as writing time? Whichever works best for you, you need to get your butt in the writing chair on the regular. Preferably every day. Treat this time as sacred. Writing time is important time. Bite the heels of anyone who tries to disturb you during this time.

2) Don’t worry about creating capital a Art in your writing time.

The time you carve out for writing is important; what you write in your allotted time is not. Sometimes the pressure of creating something perfect is what makes us not create at all. Blank pages are terrifying when you sit down to create art. Work on changing your mindset; try to tell yourself you're not here to create an award winning piece of writing, you're here to have fun. Write what YOU want in your writing time. Don’t worry about awards or sales or edits or any of that. Just focus on having fun when you write. If it's not fun to sit down and write, why are you doing it?

3) Minimise distractions.

Distractions are the enemy, you must kill them with fire. Life throws a million and one things at us that we need to worry about: mortgages, the pile of dishes in the sink, sorting out doctor's appointments, feeding the cat and keeping track of who's winning whichever reality TV show is on at the moment. Worry about this outside your writing time. Writing time is for writing. I find it easier to concentrate on writing as my sole task if I stick some headphones and listen to music. There's a few things I listen to while writing but it is usually either really familiar so I don't have to concentrate on it or instrumental. Sometimes both. Isolating yourself with non-distracting music can really help and I do recommend headphones rather than speakers. In addition, I tend to write in minimalistic writing programs that lack all the whistles and bells of Word or its alternatives. My current favourite is FocusWriter (which is free) and allows near complete customisation. I tend to set it with a black background and green writing (like an old command line computer) and hide any spelling mistakes I make. Turn off the internet and hit full screen and write.

4) Writing sprints are your friend.

I have come to absolutely adore writing sprints. If I'm struggling to make myself sit down and write, a quick words sprint usually gets me going. The basic principle is this: set yourself a timer for 10, 20 or 30 minutes and write as much as you can in that time. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Do not go back to edit or spell check or any of that nonsense. Just keep putting one word after the other until the timer goes. THEN you can correct your horrible typos (which is sometimes hilarious) and inability to spell "field" despite having learned it age 6. You can go back and put in all the words you forgot existed (I did a sprint yesterday where I forgot the word "interim" so I typed in "interthingy", kept going and check afterwards). Momentum is they key with this. I didn't know until I tried sprinting that I can get down 1500-2000 words an hour when I get going. I try to stick to the lower end of that range for quality's sake, but 1500 words an hour is not to be sniffed at. That's how you start a career. Currently I like to use WriteOrDie for sprinting (which shouts at you if your keyboard is idle too long) but a kitchen timer and your writing program of choice work just as well. Word sprints are literally the only kind of sprinting I'm good at.

5) Track what you write.

I used to hate tracking how much I'd written on a particular day, but now I swear by it. Somewhere along the way I became the kind of person who loves spreadsheets for everything and everything, but especially for writing. Setting yourself a goal of 500 words a day? Then you need to know how often you're hitting that, how many days a week you’re missing, when you're exceeding that and what day's you work best on. Plus I find it really useful to try to keep streaks going. Earlier this week I managed five days in a row writing before missing a day due to illness. Still mad at myself for breaking the streak. A little bit of competition with yourself can be good, but don't beat yourself up too much if you miss a target. Pick yourself up and keep going. And track monthly totals. Hitting 15000 words in a month feels pretty good if you've been struggling.

6) Stop over editing.

I wanted to call this step "stop fucking around with your stories" but I felt that swearing in a header might be bad. I try to follow Heinlein's rule on this one that says "only rewrite to editorial order". I have a few people whose opinions I trust and I will make edits according to what they say but otherwise I try to leave my writing alone. It's easy to fall into the trap of editing something to death and never sending it out into the big wide world. It’s safer. Less chance of rejection. But at some point (especially if you ever want to make money from writing) you've got to trust that you know how to tell good story; you've got to let a piece stand on its own two feet and let go. It's hard at first, but you've got stop sabotaging yourself in the edit. Minimise editing and rewriting (especially for shorter pieces) and get them out there. Write better for the next one. Stop fucking around with it and get it out there.

7) Never stop learning.

If you think you know everything there is to know about writing then you're done. It’s over. Even your very favourite authors don't know everything there is to know about writing. Always try to be learning. Whether that's getting better with grammar and punctuation (how the fuck do semi-colons work anyway) or learning about the business side of things or working on better, more rounded characters, always strive for the next level. Try new things. Learn how stories work in different genre to your usual. Always be learning something.

8) Finish. Your. Shit.

OK, so I changed my mind about swearing in headings. This one is important though. Having a hundred half finished drafts is no fucking good to anyone, least of all you. This is the step I'm really working on myself, so I know how hard it can be sometimes. Soggy middles are soggy. new ideas are so shiny sometimes. I find I work best with a couple of things on the go at once, but once I have more than four works-in-progress I know I have to sit down and finish shit up. A crappy but finished story is better than something half done with sparkling prose. FINISH. YOUR. STORIES.

9) Deadlines are not your enemy.

This one helps with number 8. Bogged down with a particular story? Set yourself a deadline to finish it by. Maybe you'll be a few days late, but that doesn’t really matter. You sat your ass down and got shit done, and I'm willing to bet you finished it quicker than if you'd left the due date as something nebulous far in the future. I currently have self-imposed deadlines to try finish my WIPs before I attempt NaNoWriMo. Because the last thing I need when trying to write a novel in a month is other stories hanging over my head. Try it. Set yourself deadlines; try to stick to them.

10) Self care is important.

Be gentle and don’t push yourself too much. Take care of mental and physical health. IF you can't make yourself write today that's okay. If you can get something out when you're not at your best: GREAT! If you can't: don't worry, try again tomorrow. And don't expect too much when you're getting back on the writing wagon after a while off. It's not realistic to go from writing 0 words a day to 3000 words a day with no warm up. That’s a recipe for burnout. Always look after yourself first and the writing second.

Ten steps to try to make writing easier and more productive. Working on all of them at once might be daunting, so maybe pick one at a time. And if you want to boil it down to fewer rules? Try this:

Write everyday. Finish your shit. Trust in your ability to tell a good story.

And if you need more? I am a big fan of Heinlein's Rules, I'm going to put them here. Some of them are covered in steps 1-10 but they are worth repeating. These are the key to maintaining a writing career, but are eminently useful for increasing general writing productivity.

Heinlein's Rules

1) You must write(Preferably every day.)
2) Finish what you start.
3) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4) You must put your story on the market. (Entering into competitions or posting to your blog count here. Get it out into the world.)
5) You must keep it on the market until it has sold. (Keep it out there. Doesn't win the competition? Post it to your blog or self publish it. Get people reading your stuff)

Robert J. Sawyer's Bonus Rule

6) Start working on something else.
(One story is never enough. Finish one piece and immediately start on the next. Always be writing.)

For more stuff on Heinlein's rules see Robert J. Sawyer's website. Also worth googling is Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula. It's specifically geared towards pulp fiction, but is a good template for enjoyable stories of other types as well.

Is there more writing advice out there in the world? Absolutely. In my quest to become a better writer (and eventually get paid to do it) I've come across no shortage of writing advice. This is just the stuff I've been working on personally. I just hope it'll be useful for others as well.

Happy Writing!

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