Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ten Tips for Writing Fast

Okay, I've adressed the why, where, when, and what of writing faster. In this last post, I'm going to focus on how to write fast.

1. Measure obsessively. You can't know how many words you currently write in a given time frame unless you count them and divide your count by the time you spent writing. Ug, I know, math. If you wanted to do math, you'd be an accountant, not a writer. But, if you want to increase the speed of your output, you need to know how many words you type on average in the first place. This won't be a number you can get just by sitting down and typing for a single hour. You'll need to collect data over weeks and months to get a good sense of your current speed. My hunch is, you'll notice that your speed is improving as you continue recording data, since the simple act of being aware of how quickly you can write will help you stay focused on putting out words, and help you avoid distractions like going on Wikipedia to find out what material they use to build blimp frames and realizing three hours later that you've not typed a word.

2. Set deadlines and treat them seriously. I've measured my own writing speed enough to know that I average 1000 words an hour. This means that, if I'm writing a 120,000 word fantasy novel, I need to spend 120 hours with butt in chair. My last contract called for me to turn in books every six months. Since I need half of that time for revision, this meant I had to write my first draft in three months. Since three months is roughly 12 weeks, this means I need to write 10,000 words a week, which means I need to set aside ten hours each week of butt-in-chair time. Ten hours is a surprisingly large amount of time to carve out of my life due to my day job, personal relationships, and simple daily chores. But, that means it's especially important to look ahead each week and schedule what hours you're going to be dedicating to writing. If you don't plan out these hours in advance, and guard them jealously, you'll never get anything done. Writing isn't just a hobby, it's work. If you have a day job, your spouse and children and friends understand that there are hours in the week when you go off to work for certain blocks of time and won't be available. You need to make sure they have the same attitude toward your writing hours, and the first step toward this is to make sure you have this attitude.

3. Tell the world about your goals and your progress. I announce my deadline for completing a draft on my blog and do a post every Sunday night saying how many words I wrote the previous week. Other people might announce these things on facebook or twitter. If you avoid the internet, tape a chart to your refrigerator for your family to see. If you announce your goals, you have more incentive to keep them. And, if your friends and family see constant, steady progress, they will begin to understand that this is something important to you, not just some temporary fad you're going through.

4. Write it wrong! Perfection is the biggest enemy of first drafts. You get confused about what a characters motives are, or aren't sure if some plot point is plausible, or just feel like the way you've describe the room the characters are standing is is boring and clunky. The temptation is to sit and work on a single paragraph for an hour until you get it right. Avoid this temptation. Writing isn't a performance art. If you're certain you just wrote the most tangled, inarticulate sentence ever recorded in the english language, don't worry about it. You get a second chance before you have to release the story into the wild. Even a third, fifth, and ninth chance, sometimes. If you saw one of my first drafts, you would find it littered with parenthesis that say (fix) or (look up) or (word). Because, sometimes I know that the paragraph I've just written is clunky. Or, I need to look up who was president in 1903. Or, I'm pretty sure I've just used the wrong word. (Higg bossum? That can't be right.) But, if I hop onto the internet or grab a dictionary, I know I'm likely to notice that I have an email, or be tempted to check what the weather is going to be this weekend, or get distracted by a headline telling me nuclear war has broken out. Once I'm locked in to the story, I need to stay in the story. I can address all my doubts and questions when I rewrite.

5. Never look back! Similar to item 4, but subtley different. In item 4, I want you to avoid the temptation of spending a lot of time getting what you are writing right now perfect. But, a second danger is the obsessive need to go back to stuff you've already written and tweak or fix it. For instance, perhaps in Chapter three, you realize that the reason your protagonist is so afraid of water is that he kept slipping into the toilet when he was potty training, but in the first chapter you said it was because he'd flipped his canoe over in summer camp, and you know feel like that was kind of lame. So, easy, all you need to do is go back to the first chapter and rewrite the paragraph where you revealed this information. Except, if you do this, you'll notice other stuff in the first chapter you want to change, and spend the two hour writing block you'd set aside to power through chapter three doing nothing but tinkering with chapter one. Then, a few weeks later, you're going to hear a story on All Things Considered about a teenager who gets attacked by a crocodile in her bathtub and you'll think, "Yes! That's the kind of back story that really will bring my character to life!" So now, you go back and change all the stuff you wrote about potty training, and have to go into every other chapter to make sure that you mention that your protagonist is missing his left hand because of the crocodile attack, but then you get caught up because you had a scene where he's talking to his friends in the bar while playing pinball, and you aren't sure if you can play pinball one handed, so you decide to go back and change his missing hand to a missing ear. Only, you've already mentioned, like, ten times that the character wears glasses, and contacts would probably make more sense for an earless man. Eventually, you're sick of the whole project because you've been working for a year and are just on chapter six. The best way around this is to not even look at what you've already written. Forward is the only direction on a first draft. You can't really be certain of everything you need in your first chapter until you've written the last chapter.

6. Here. Now. I've been writing for a long time, and even I get can get confused and unsure of how to start a scene or a chapter and wind up staring at a blank screen for ten minutes. My fix for this is pretty simple. Instead of thinking about everything I need to put into a scene or a chapter, I instead take a deep breath and think about the single moment in time and space that the character is occupying. Sometimes it's mundane; I've started scenes with characters getting out of bed and making breakfast. I've started scenes with a character going to a post office to check their mailbox. Sometimes, it's a bit less mundane. I start Greatshadow with the hero in mid-air after he's been thrown out of a high window and he's plunging toward the ground. The important thing is that you form a mental picture of your character, his surroundings, and what he's doing, and just start from there. Maybe you only spend 100 words describing what's going on, but once you've got 100 words on the page, the thousand that follow should flow more freely. And, if you get stuck: Here. Now.

7. Understand your power zones and steer toward them. Every writer has different things they are good at writing and other things they aren't so good at writing. Some authors have a gift for crafting a scene between a mother and a daughter that unfolds for a full chapter without a single word being spoken, yet you emerge from the scene feeling as if you know everything about the characters. I am not such a writer, and so I don't include many of these scenes in my books. I would just get bogged down trying to write them, and my readers would get bogged down trying to read them.

What I am good at are conversations and action scenes. Once I get two characters on the stage of my page, I can turn them loose and just record their conversation. Grabbing the closest novel I have at hand, Burn Baby Burn, I flipped to a random scene and found Pit Geek and Sunday discussing what might have happened to their former boss and debating what they should do with their lives now that he's probably dead. This fills up six pages, and I really think that the personalities of the characters show through. It's easy for me to write page after page of conversation because, if it's structured right, one thing naturally leads to another. One character asks a question, the other character answers, the first character comments on that answer, the second character objects, the first character asks a follow up question, and boom, boom, boom, back and forth, give and take, and before you know it I've got a couple of thousand words cranked out. Action scenes are have a similar flow: Character A shoots at Character B, who jumps into the river to get away, but Character A steals a motorboat go give chase, and but now Character B has crawled from the river on the other side and is flagging down passing cars, but when one stops it's Character A's henchmen, and suddenly there's ropes and ether involved and before I know it a dozen pages are behind me. Your particular power zones are likely to be different than mine. You may not even know what they are yet. You can't really discover them until you've written a lot. The more you write, the faster you'll learn.

8. Little by little, the work gets done. Sure, I love the days when I sit down and bang out an entire chapter in an afternoon. But, there are times when I don't have an full afternoon, or I'm just stuck, uncertain of what comes next, even after my little "here and now" trick. So, it's late at night, I know I have to be at work early in the morning, and I know that my energy levels are just too low to produce anything of value. The bargain I usually make with myself is to just open the file and write one more sentence. Sometimes, that one sentence sparks me to write more. Sometimes it doesn't. But, the next time I sit down to write, that's one sentence I've got behind me. A book contains a finite number of sentences, and that one sentence brings me a step closer to the final number. It's tiny, almost invisible progress, but it counts. A single raindrop doesn't hold much water. A lot of them together be a flood. The big things can't happen without the tiny things.

9. Don't let others read your first drafts. This is a very tough one for beginning writers to adhere to. You want to know if what you're writing is any good, or perhaps you know it's bad and are hoping someone can tell you why. Well, duh, it's bad because it's your first draft. Here are the arguments for not letting readers read your first drafts: First, the desire to have your work read is a tremendous mental pressure. You can use that pressure to motivate you to finish the damn book so that others can actually read it. If you have people read every chapter or scene you write while you're still writing, some of that pressure gets vented. Second, readers are a precious thing. Do not abuse them by showing them work you haven't polished through at least a second draft. Odds are, your earliest drafts are going to be read by people close to you, perhaps a spouse. If you put a raw draft into their hands, they will no doubt say nice things about it, but they may perhaps also suspect that you are so far from being a writer that this little phase you're going through will certainly pass soon. If you put something polished and competent in their hands, they're going to start believing, hey, you really are a writer, and will be more understanding and supportive of why they have to wash dishes and do laundry that night because you're going to be hunkered down writing.

10. Whenever possible, try not to run dry. There's a temptation, when the words are flowing, to write until you reach the end of a scene or chapter and stop there. Sometimes, you almost can't help it; you're just tapping out words in the heat of the moment and then suddenly your character will say the perfectly ironic comment that puts the whole chapter into perspective and you understand that this is where you stop. Even one more word will ruin the chapter.

But, there's other times when you've already put a couple of thousand words on the page and you'll reach a moment of great tension, when something big is about to happen. These are excellent times to walk away, because you know that when you sit down to write again the pump is already primed. There's a scene in the middle of Nobody Gets the Girl when a kid with a handgrenade runs toward the characters and pulls the pin. When I was writing, that's where I stopped for the day, with a live grenade waiting to go off. I had zero problems returning the the book the next night and picking up exactly where I'd left off. Not every book can be structured this way, of course. I'm certain there are many genres of literature where hand grenades play almost no role at all in the story. But, if you were writing a romance, you could stop just as the characters start to kiss. If you were writing a novel about a circus, you could stop the moment the elephant breaks his chains. It's a gimmick, but it's amazingly effective for making sure you can maintain momentum over the course of muliple writing sessions.

Using the word "gimmick" in the previous sentence leads me to the last point I want to get across in these essay. While there are a few gimmicks that might help increase the speed and quality of your output, the reality is that the only certain way to improve your skills is through years and years of practice. You will be a better writer five years from now than you are today, assuming you use those five years to keep writing and keep pushing yourself to get better and better. You need to keep two seemingly contradictory mindsets in your head at once. You need to both feel a sense of urgency toward your current project, a feeling that you need to get as many words on the pages as possible as quickly as  you can. But, at the same time you need to be patient and keep a long term view of your writing career beyond your current project. Right now, I'm focused on the novel I'm starting in November, and thinking of it several hours a day. But, I'm also thinking of the two novels I plan to write after this, another dragon novel and another superhero novel. I'm mentally cataloging the characters I want to explore and the big plot points I can build these books around. So, when I start one six months from now, I'll be ready.

But, even beyond my next two books, I spend a lot of time thinking about other possible books that I might work on over the next five years. It can take a while for my initial ideas to mature. My two most recent novels are books I first thought of in 2004 and 2007. If I had written those books immediately after thinking about them, they wouldn't have been as good as they turned out to be. I not only kept refining and improving my ideas, I kept refining and improving myself. Writing exercises the mind, and with enough exercise and a steady diet of good books and new experiences, your authorial brain will grow leaner, faster and stronger.

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