Tricks of the Trade
In a particularly relevant study during #Nanowrimo season our authors share some of the tricks of the trade they use to stay on track and remain both positive and productive.
Elisabeth never expected to get published. Here she gives us the motivation and time-management tricks that got her there.
When I started writing I had no real expectation of being published. It took me a couple of years, writing in front of the TV when my husband was away and my children—pre-schoolers back then—were in bed. There was no pressure and I could take as long as I liked. All that had changed by the time I had landed myself a two-book contract. I was teaching 2.5 days a week in a new school and an unfamiliar year group, so I had to balance writing with everything else.
Now I’m seven books in and teaching four days a week (but surely I live off my royalties? I hear you cry. To which I answer: I wish!) The kids are both at secondary school and there isn’t a night where the whole family is in at the same time. I’m juggling a lot of balls. These are a few of the things I find help to keep me (relatively) sane and make sure I meet the deadlines.
1. Avoid the internet. If I have to work at home I turn the Wi-Fi off so I’m not tempted to nip on and see what is happening on Twitter or Facebook—also better for the blood pressure I find.
2. Guard your writing time. Something I have struggled with. Because writing started out as a hobby it took a long time for my family to see it as a job, and even longer to understand I can’t break off for a chat, or to sort out the car insurance, or find their lunch boxes, because the words fall out of my brain (yes, mum is crabby now—you only have yourself to blame). Make sure your writing time is that. Say you’re going to work. Close the door. Stick a special hat on so they know not to come near until you’ve finished what you’re doing.
3. Create a space. One of the things that helps with getting the time is having a space. My husband works from home but his Man-cave is down at the bottom of the garden, so the kids are less likely to go find him to sort out arguments, or have him look at a really interesting Pokemon meme. My laptop used to live in the living room. I would sit there and try writing while everything went on around me. It wasn’t any wonder my attention was fair game, really. Now we’ve re-organised the house and I have an office—calling it my Ladycave really doesn’t sound right—where I can go work. It doesn’t stop people coming to find me, but it means they have to go upstairs and get through a door. Maybe I’ll balance a bucket of water over the frame to deter them.
4. Work set hours. Treat it as a working day and take tea breaks. Forty minutes works best for me, but people swear by variations on half an hour on, ten minutes off.
5. Snatch the moments you can. I’ve written in the car while waiting for my kids at band practice, and by the poolside during swimming lessons.
6. Set word goals. 75,000 words is a big number and scared me silly at first. But 2,000 words a week, or 1,000 words a day—or whatever you set—is easier to think about. I use an Excel doc with the dates until deadline day. At the start of my writing week—currently Tuesday—I put in the count for the previous week. Watching the numbers count down to zero is good for the stress levels. I also have a column for anything else that happened to prevent me reaching it or mean I did twice as much.
7. Don’t sweat the details. Especially writing Historicals it is easy to obsess about research and details. I’ve lost hours researching online. Now I’m trying to be disciplined and put a marker in the text where I need to go back to it. CJXTypeofbread, or similar, means I can find them using the spellchecker—if I’ve missed one and you’ve spotted it please keep it to yourself now.
8. Plan ahead. Knowing what you’re going to write before you sit at the keyboard saves time and increases confidence. Whether you’re a plotter, pantser, or something in between, having an idea of what needs to happen helps. The level of detail can change, but knowing you need to get your characters from the stream to the castle while revealing the hero’s deep seated fear of trout is useful. You might want to draw elaborate flow charts in rainbow colours, or ‘stream, trout rejection’, might be all you need to get the words flowing.
9. Don’t make your hero scared of trout.
Michelle tells us how we can use our limbic system to work for instead of against us, and tells us which techniques she uses to keep herself on track.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever read (Twyla Tharp The Creativity Habit) was to think of anything which requires complex skills, as polishing the clock face. You work around the clock face, on individual skills, and continually work on re-polishing those skills. If you don’t know the skill areas, try listing things like character, plot, dialogue, setting, description, narrative action etc. to give yourself an idea of what to work on. But I find it a comforting thought that I can always improve and that skills can grow rusty.
The thing about writing is, the more you know, the more you know you can improve and work on. It is as Maya Angelou said—you do your best until you know better and then you do better. By going around in a clock face, I find I recognise the fact that I don’t know everything and there is always something I can think, 'oh, that’s right, I’d forgotten about that', and that is how I can make things stronger.
One area I have been working a lot on recently is time management. It came about by accident, as I was procrastinating and decided to read a book on brain science and writing (Around the Writer’s Block by Roseanne Bane). It immediately became clear that while I had been working on the nuts and bolts of writing, I neglected something I thought I was good at—time management. Because I was less focused, my productivity took a nose dive. I convinced myself that I was doing necessary things for my career, when in fact I allowed my limbic system (fight or flight) to take over, and started avoiding the hard-creative part of progressing my WIP. The other key take-away was that I didn’t need to find the cause for my behaviour. I simply needed to acknowledge it had happened, and take active steps to get my limbic system in the back seat rather than driving my brain.
Bane mentions the triumvirate—process time, product time and self-care time. For me, I suddenly realised I had neglected the process time—the white noise of journal writing, doing needlework or activities which allowed my brain to process ideas and engage with my subconscious. Simply doing pages before I start working on the current project where I write whatever comes into my head, seems to clear my brain so I can focus on my work-in-progress. In other words, I was able to write out my anxiety, my other ideas for novels, things I need to research etc., and then I was ready to focus on the current work in progress. I have also started to schedule in social media time. Bane also mentions that sometimes writers become far too focused on word count but there are other aspects of writing, such as editing or simply staring off into space, which need to be included in your product time.
Also I went back to basics and started using the fifteen-minute technique I used when my children were young. Writing for fifteen minutes only, but completely focusing on that writing project during that time. The results were astonishing. My word count suddenly rocketed back up and I completed my current WIP in a reasonable time—eight weeks for a 70,000 word manuscript is not bad, particularly when the last one took me nine months.
I discovered my other tip for dealing with my limbic system this summer. I actually know far more about my work in progress than my limbic system sometimes wants to admit. Story Trumps Structure by Steven James is a book about writing for the dedicated pantser. For example, with a romance I know there will be a happily ever after, and I know there will be a Long Dark Night of the Soul just before the couple gets together, which tests their beliefs, etc. I don’t need a detailed outline in three acts. I tried and failed so many times with outlining my manuscript. In fact some of my worst revisions were when I have adhered slavishly to a three act structure. All I need to ask is, what is going to go wrong next and how is this going to drive the relationship forward. It is about taking a deep breath and saying to my limbic system, 'no need to panic, I have got this'. I know my genre. Everything will turn out fine in the end. It is what editing is for.
So if you find your WIP is not progressing as quickly as you’d like, perhaps some of these ideas will help you focus.
Nicole goes meme-tastic and seeks out the quotes and sayings which help her and may help you with your writing.
Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out—you always do. Just keep writing. —Twitter User
Every first draft is perfect because all a first draft has to do is exist. — Jane Smiley
Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day, for the rest of your life. You want glamorous? Throw glitter at the computer screen. — Katrina Monroe
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. —Arthur Ashe
Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow. —Carrie Fisher
A negative mind will never give you a positive life. —Unknown Author
You will not always be strong, but you can always be brave. —Beau Taplin
The dream is free. The hustle is sold separately. —Sharran Srivatsaa
90% of those who fail are not actually defeated. They simply quit. —Paul J. Meyer
Three simple rules in life:
1. If you do not go after what you want, you’ll never have it.
2. If you do not ask, the answer will always be no.
3. If you do not step forward, you will always be in the same place.
Geri shares her tricks for keeping your writing manageable.
Figuring out that we’re writers, and that we have a gift and vocation that not only cannot, but should not be ignored, is a profound awakening for many of us. I knew I was a storyteller back in grade school, but then “forgot” about it as life and studies progressed, and found myself deep in the midst of a Naval career when I “remembered” I’m a writer. It would have been far easier to either ignore the calling or shove it on a shelf for “later” in life, when there’s more time. But the words and characters kept showing up, as did their trauma-drama existence.
Beginning the first story, novel, or screenplay isn’t the most difficult. It’s staying the course and finishing it, and then, in the truest mark of a pro, beginning the next story. And the next. In the meantime, rejections or low sales of the first story amass. It seems too hard. Will we stop writing, really? No, probably not. But it’s so tempting to at least stop submitting, stop spending those extra precious hours at night or early morning in front of the screen. There are surer ways to make a living, more effective use of our energy and talents. And yet… The story keeps narrating to us, invisible to others, until we put it on the page.
We have to write.
How do we preserve this gift while staying sane? My suggestion is to keep it manageable. Can you write one page per day? Or two? If you can write 500 words per day, can you commit to five days per week, for a total of 2500 words per week? That would give you 10,000 words each month. Let’s say you do that for only six months this year. That’s 60,000 words—longer than many category romance novels, or two solid novellas. Not bad.
So it takes you an hour to write what, 500 words? Can you carve out one hour, just ONE. HOUR. Each day, for five days per week? You can. Please, please, do it. We need your story. I need your story. It might not be this exact one that you’re writing today, tonight, or that you penned earlier this morning before the birds sang, but eventually, you are going to write a story that gets out to the world. Whether you independently publish it or sell it in a huge deal to a traditional publisher, your story will make it out there. And you will make a difference in the life of the reader.
I know it seems impossible, the odds insurmountable. But remember, it comes back to what you can write today. Just for the next few minutes—can you go write a paragraph?
Something I’ve found that works for me is that I must have either word count or time goals for each writing session. Because I write full-time, I know that I have to write at least five days per week, often six. I try to have one full day away from the keyboard each week, although some deadlines require an extra push. I have to know what I need to do each day—one day at a time. Writing is its own muscle. The more consistently I write, the more I’m able to do. Not stream-of-conscious words, but solid story words that become my first draft. Keep the word goals small at first. Try for a page—250 words double-spaced—when you begin. They won’t be perfect, you’ll be editing later. That’s okay. Keep going and do it again the next day.
It took me six years to finish my first book (it never sold, thank goodness). Over the next six years I wrote four or five books, and the fifth one sold. The first ten years after my first sale I published (wrote) eight-nine books. Over the last three years I’ve written eleven books. But it all started with the first book, with getting up at dawn and working from 0500-0700 for two years when the kids were tiny, before they woke, to get my page-a-day done.
There are many, many accounts of authors who have special needs children, aging parents they care for full-time, special needs themselves to include life threatening illness, and yet they keep writing, keep putting words on paper if even for only ten minutes each day. Find those stories if that will motivate you. Learn about the struggles other writers have had—because we’ve all had them in one form or another. The difference in successful authors is that they accept life on life’s terms and equally accept that they are writers. They get the words done. You can, too. Please—go write. We’re waiting for your story.
Geri Krotow's upcoming release, Snowbound with the Secret Agent will be released January 2019, a Harlequin Romantic Suspense. You can find out more about Geri and order her books on her website.
Alexis is one of PHS's Aspiring Author Editors, and she shares with us her tricks for keeping that word count up no matter where you are.
As someone who works only two days a week, I realise I’m relatively lucky. In theory, I should have plenty of time to write. As an unpublished author, I’m not, for the moment, up against any tight deadlines. So why does life seem to get in the way?
My eldest son and his girlfriend live with us, and my youngest son moved out a couple months ago, so up until recently we had a household of six people. Six adults. All coming and going, talking, laughing, making noise, cooking, having showers, slamming doors, putting the washing machine on, brewing up, and generally being around.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my sons to the moon and back and adore having them there. I also care very much for their girlfriends, but you can imagine the complete and utter busyness of our household on a daily basis. Then there’s my husband of 38 years, who is part-time too. He works three days a week, and we share four days off together, which is great, but he is the first to admit that his boredom threshold is low. I’m not speaking out of turn when I say he insists on a lot of lovely day-trips out to alleviate that boredom.
So, even though I enjoy all that, finding time to write felt hard for me. It felt frustrating, too. I adore writing romance, and, when I worked it all out, I reckoned I wrote for no more than a couple of hours a day maximum. Most days it was even less than that.
Luckily, I write fast. When I’m in the zone I can definitely churn out the words, but something I’ve recently started to do on a more regular basis is to write longhand. This was suggested to me by someone I’ve met many times at the fantastic writing courses run by the equally fantastic Kate Walker, and has really upped my word-count.
I first started to do this on my last holiday when I didn’t fancy lugging my laptop abroad. Apart from the weight of it, I was always worried about its safety when we were out and about during the day. I knew it wouldn’t fit in the room safe either, so that made up my mind.
I used to scorn writing this way. Really scorn it. I mean, as a trained secretary, my typing speed is 70 words a minute, and writing like that would, I thought, be slow and snail-like. Why on earth would I do it?
But I’ve discovered it isn’t. Writing long-hand, for me, gives my brain time to process my thoughts before the words go down on the page. The words seem to flow more easily, the conversations between your hero and heroine more realistic and meaningful, blocks are easily written through—especially if you have a lovely pen that glides across the page. You do need that, by the way. It also doesn’t matter how much you cross out, or how scruffy your handwriting is. As long as you can read it, what does it matter? Some people swear by pencil, but that doesn’t work for me.
A notebook can be tucked into any handbag ready to pull out when you have a spare minute. I now write on the beach, by the pool, in front of the telly, in bed and occasionally at work on my lunch hour. Anywhere, in fact, where the muse strikes me and I need to get my thoughts down on paper. On my week’s holiday in Spain, for example, I wrote over twenty foolscap sides and couldn’t wait to type it up when I got home. It turned out to be thousands of words.
This might not be right for you. Or, you may already write like this, but for me, it’s changed the way I write. I feel much more productive, and so might you.
Alexis Jakes is an aspiring author herself. You can find out more about Alexis and her projects by following her on Twitter.
For Aleksandr writing is his second job, so he shares how he strives to avoid feeling like he has perpetual "homework" waiting at the end of the day.
There’s a Lawrence Kasdan quote that keeps popping up on my timeline: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
And it sure can feel that way. I have a demanding day job, a long-term partner I still really like, a household, I enjoy Netflix shows and the occasional console game, and I try to eat healthy, home-cooked food. I assure you I don’t barge through the door after nine hours of day job editing, three hours of commuting, cooking, and jump with excitement at the thought of sitting down in front of another screen and keyboard to try and squeeze out what little juice is left in my brain in the hopes of getting a novel out of it if I keep going for, oh, six months or so.
So, yeah, writing a book can be a grind. I call 2,000 words a very good day’s writing. But I need 30-40 of those for a first draft—and we all know that that’s nowhere near a finished book. It could be easy to give up. For example, I haven’t really written any meaningful amounts for six months as I spend the time re-editing and relaunching old stories. It’s so bad I’m getting emails from readers asking me whether I’ve given up.
But with my day the way it is, my financial needs met and my schedule full—why not simply give up? After all, I could just work the job for a few more years and go back to writing in retirement after I’ve moved to a cheaper place to live (basically anywhere not-London). I could just rest on my laurels of a decent-sized backlist that sells a few copies every month and call that a good run. It would get rid of the pressure to produce.
Because it comes down to having these voices and ideas in my head and I want to give them permanence. I can happily entertain myself in the world of a character or a story and savour it just for myself, but I also want to fix it to the page so I can re-visit it all will, as well as share it with others.
I also write for the people who emailed me, or walked up to me at a convention, and I could very clearly see what my words meant to them. There’s nothing quite like an email or conversation with that glow of “you changed my life”. It’s an honour and a privilege and beautiful validation, and it can carry you through the lonely hours of slogging through a set of copy-edits. Somebody out there desperately needs that exact story you’re working on right now. Royalties play a role for many—it’s “money nobody has to work for”, once the initial job has been done. For some it’s groceries, for others it pays for trips, books or nice meals out.
A game-changer for me was to let go of the perfectionism and pressure. A lot of writers read all the advice on all the blogs during the Kindle “gold rush”, where more books = more money. So we all put ourselves on “a book every six weeks” schedules and some of us crashed and burned out. I let go of the idea of writing every day, and I’ve let go of wanting to write four-six books a year. I stopped beating myself up over not hitting word count—if you treat yourself like the only inmate in a slave-labour camp, morale and motivation will suffer; trust me on that.
Instead, I’m trying to apply the same kindness to myself that I extend to others. Above all, I set realistic goals; say, 500 words a day, or rather 3,500 a week, which is an amount I know I can get done on a focused weekend. That’s still 182,000 words for the year or about three novels, or two long ones. I also forgive myself if I’m not hitting target, but support myself in getting it done. I set rewards out for myself, and celebrate my successes. I forced myself to keep a list of all my accomplishments and successes and completed jobs, which I look at when I feel useless or unproductive or berate myself for being lazy (this column counts, BTW). Another really big thing was to keep a “happy file” —add all the positive reviews, kind comments, and compliments you get as a writer. Just copy & paste them in and keep that file close, ideally right on the desktop. When you feel low, read the file from top to bottom as often as you need for that critical uplift.
Some days will still feel like doing homework, of course, but I remember very clearly that I actually enjoyed some homework—not maths, but German and English I certainly liked. And there are the days when the words and characters just pour out, you’re in the zone, and it’s all worth it.
Aleksandr Voinov’s latest re-release is Dark Edge of Honor (co-written with Rhi Etzweiler), a gay military sci-fi romance. You can find out more at his Wesbite, or follow him on social media on Twitter and Instagram.
What little phrases have kept you going and given you insight? Do you have stock advice you give out to others? Tell us in the comments or on our Social Media using #TricksOfTheTrade.
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