Shannon: I’m very excited today to tell you about the latest trick I’ve discovered to help me become a better writer: SPRINTS! I know many of you probably do this already and I’m late to the game, but man-oh-man, has it made a difference in my output.
The basic idea of a sprint is to set a timer and eliminate all distractions and write without thought of editing. At the end of the time, take a break. Then begin again.
At a recommendation, I bought Chris Fox’s book, 5000 Words Per Hour. It’s a short book, only 80 pages, so a quick read. The principles weren’t new to me: avoid distractions, plan ahead what you want to write, do not go back and edit. But I’d never actually set a timer or kept a spreadsheet. And I rarely adhered to the “absolutely no distractions” rule.
Within a week of this method, I’ve increased my output from 1000/hour (and that’s when I actually maintained a certain discipline with no cheating on Facebook or email) to 2000/hour. I do half hour sprints and take whatever break I want. I check email, talk to my husband, walk about, (have been known to do jumping jacks if I need to feed the Fitbit—only because I’m crazy) For years, I’ve set my word quota at 2000/day. Now I’m easily doing 3000 and it’s only taking me a couple of hours, with breaks included.
Here’s the kicker: I haven’t noticed the quality of writing has diminished.
Jess, what’s been a game-changer for you?
Jess: Crap, I want it to be sprints! (Leaves to order 5000 Words Per Hour; comes back) All right. For me, my latest game changer is technology. Specifically, self-publishing technology. In June, I got the rights back to my first ten Murder by Month Mysteries. It’s been a whirlwind to get them formatted and published, and then to let the world know that the books even exist.
Without Vellum, the book-formatting software that is so good I was willing to buy a Mac for it (Vellum doesn’t work on PCs), and AdEspresso, the ad assistant that makes the byzantine world of Facebook ads navigable, I wouldn’t have been able to get the books out as quickly as I have, and they wouldn’t be selling as well.
Shannon: Vellum is amazing. I avoided the whole Mac dilemma by a) getting a writing partner who does this stuff and b) using Mac In Cloud. I’m totally going to check out AdEspresso because that whole FB ads thing makes me cry.
My second trick is what I call the Val Kilmer. I read somewhere that Val Kilmer is one of those method actors who completely embraces a role. He insists on being called his character’s name even when not on the set. He dresses as the character 24/7 and never breaks the role. This is a very old memory and might not even be correct, but that’s irrelevant. It’s my trick title so I’m sticking with it.
What this means for me, is that when I sit down to write, I try to weasel myself deeply inside the brain of my point of view character. I see what she sees, smell through her nose, and process emotions in her heart. It’s not easy.
The last few books I’ve written have been first person, and whenever I catch myself writing those telling words (I see, I notice, I hear) I stop myself and ask, how many times do I (Shannon) say to myself, “I taste the milk and notice it’s sour.” Instead, wouldn’t I be more likely to think in my head, “Dear lord, spit it out!”
By self-inducing schizophrenia with my point of view character, I believe my writing is more immediate and vibrant. But I’m always looking for ways to improve, so, Jess, what have you got for me?
Jess: I love the Val Kilmer! I think that sort of method writing is the best way to go.
My final tip is a simple, elegant plotting hack that follows the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) theory.
I develop my main character, freewriting on her, searching the internet for photos of her, listening to bits and snatches of conversation to figure out what her syntax is.
I decide what she wants more than anything. To give it extra punch, I try to align her desire with something I really want (to be heard, to feel part of something bigger, to get answers, etc.). I write this single goal on a brightly-colored notecard.
Grabbing a pack of white notecards, I begin to scribble all the obstacles to her reaching that goal. I aim for eighty or so, one per notecard.
As subplots begin to emerge and cohere, I may give them their own color (purple for a romantic subplot, blue for a friendship subplot, etc.).
Then, I lay all those cards out on my living room floor, rearranging, adding, and tossing until I have a neat and sweet package.
I start writing the book.
There’s something about getting physical like that with my book that makes me feel in control of what is, really, a crazy-difficult process.
Readers, what tips do you have to add?
(This post originally appeared on Femmes Fatales.)
Jess and Ali will cover more life-changing writing tips at their writing retreat in France this June, and delve deep into building a writing career at their writing and publishing workshop in California this August.