Author’s update: This post has been so tremendously popular that it inspired me to pen an entire book of writing advice. For authors seeking help in outlining and choreographing their novel, check out my bestselling guide Write like a Beast.
I get one day per week to write my books, and I’ve learned to make efficient use of what time I get. In addition, when I write, I like to put my daily word count up on Twitter. This isn’t for anyone’s benefit but my own because the public accountability keeps me burning along in my work. Without some incentive, I may spend a few extra minutes cruising the web. By focusing and following my method, I can easily average between 8,000 and 10,000 words per writing day.
But inevitably, other authors see my daily word counts and ask how I write so much in such a short amount of time. I know how these authors feel because I have plenty of authors I look up to in this regard. My mind boggles, for example, at how Brandon Varnell can pump out 14,000 words in a day without breaking a sweat and still have time to relax in the afternoon and evening.
When people ask me how I write so many words in one day, I always tell them the same thing: It’s all in the outlining and preparation method. Then, of course, people ask me what methods I use, and that requires a lengthy answer in direct messages with questions and clarifications.
While I enjoy talking shop with fellow authors, I’ve already spent hours explaining my outlining and writing methods to individuals. So I’ve decided to simplify the lengthy answering process and just post this blog entry about it. Anyone with questions after reading this is of course free to contact me for answers, but at least this will cover the basics of the process and cut down on the bulk of the repeated explaining.
Before the Outline
I generally begin story conception with a short, one-paragraph statement on what the story will be about.
“A romance author takes a job as a journalist on a backwater planet.”
“An action story about a man seeking revenge for his burrito.”
“A man defends his ancestral home from an invasive slumlord.”
Once I’ve got a general idea, I create a cast of characters. Just general character impressions: Name, physical characteristics that stand out, relationship to others in the story, and goals. I especially do this for the main protagonist and main antagonist since their dynamic will create the entire plot.
“Main villain – Jack. Slicked black hair and scarecrow thin. Buying up the land all around the main character’s home. Wants to create a slumlord empire over the city and control it through criminal means.”
By setting up the characters and especially their competing goals, I’m setting up for the actual outline.
Next, I open a standard word document. At the bottom I create three paragraphs setup like this:
Act 1 –
Act 2 –
Act 3 –
Beside each of these I write the steps that need to be taken in each Act to advance the story. For example, Act 1 may say, “introducing all the characters, setting up the feel of the city, establishing relationships, showing the rough economy, and beginning the tension between the antagonist’s goal of owning the city and the protagonist’s goal of keeping his family safe in their ancestral home.”
This setup shows me what each Act needs to accomplish to advance the plot. Writers should study the 3-Act structure extensively to make sure they’ve got the setup in mind and know how to advance the plot through continuous tension.
Once I’ve got the basic Acts laid out, I create a table in the word document divided into 3 vertical columns. Each column represents an Act in the story, running top to bottom.
Within each column I list scenes I want to include in chronological order. Scene descriptions include several things: Location of the scene, characters in the scene, goals for each character during the scene, brief description of action which takes place, and how the scene ends.
“Inside the main character Tony’s living room. Tony is there, and Jack is present with two hired goons. Tony wants to get Jack out of his house while convincing him to leave Tony’s family alone. Jack wants Tony to bend to his will and sell the house for almost nothing. The two engage in small talk at first but then argue back and forth with increasing hostility until Jack threatens Tony. Jack walks out, and Tony has a bad feeling about the future.”
I layer in scenes which will be long and short to create a flow of plot through each Act. Act 2 is of course double the length of any other, but it may not look like it on the page, I just make sure the scenes included are meaty and will include lots of action or dialogue, and possible some complications which change the scene halfway through.
Once I’ve got each scene written out in brief, any scenes that seem longer, or too vague, or are hard for me to hold in my brain get broken down further in a separate document. I create bullet points and list the actions taken and how the scene shifts. This is especially helpful in fight choreography rather than trying to brainstorm cool things to happen that extend the combat scene. Brainstorming while writing often slows writers down, so doing the work ahead of time can help foster a better flow of thought during the work.
That’s it for outlining. Then I head into prep for writing day.
I carry the Evernote app on my phone, which allows me a massive number of free documents which can sync to my work computer at home.
I take the next several scenes I’m going to work on and paste them into a new note titled Upcoming Scenes. Throughout the week, whenever I have spare time I open that document and peruse the upcoming scenes. I may think about them while driving, or poke at them during my lunch hour.
Any cool ideas get added to the scene description or put into the corresponding choreography note. I also write the choreography during the week in spare minutes, maximizing the efficiency of my writing day so the time will be purely about writing and not brainstorming. And when I get home, I copy and paste the edited scene descriptions back into the Outline document on my computer, so the outlines match.
Then, on writing day, I follow a specific set of steps to maximize my time and help my mind enter a creative flow state.
On the actual day of writing, I wake up early to get the most out of my time. This is helpful because I have children in the household, so I need to dodge everyone if I don’t want to get bogged down with requests to play. It also prevents me from feeling like I should delay my work to spend time with family, because everyone else is asleep.
Showers help me wake up faster, and if I’m feeling particularly sleepy I’ll take a cold shower to really invigorate the body. I don’t set the temperature as cold as it will go, but I do set the shower to lukewarm and then tick downward until it’s just cold enough to feel chilly on my skin and cause me to gasp whenever I dip my face or my head to rinse.
I eat a protein-rich breakfast. Actually, I eat a hearty dinner, usually leftovers from the night before so I don’t have to waste time cooking. The protein stays with me longer and helps fuel my mind, and I won’t experience a sugar crash like I would if I eat donuts for breakfast.
I avoid caffeine or sugar unless my children have kept me up all night. Many authors make the mistake of loading up on too much caffeine or sugar to compensate for not feeling motivated, but this may cause a person to become too jittery to sit and focus. My performance-enhancing drug of choice on days where I feel too tired to focus is one half of a can of Coca Cola. I save the second half for the afternoon in case I start to wane.
I have a separate writing space I use only during my creative times. This is a corner in the basement with an old desk where no one else goes, hidden behind a wall so no one can see me and walk over with questions about where their favorite toy is.
I also have a ritual which separates the writing time from the rest of my day at home. For me this involves kneeling and saying a prayer before pulling out my chair and taking my seat. Some folks may do a short physical exercise or a short meditation, chant a mantra, or any number of other activities. The important thing is to create a ritual to mark the difference between the productive time and relaxation time. Working from home creates a unique balancing challenge, and rituals can help make the difference here.
While writing, I’ve got a playlist of music designed to trap the overactive parts of my brain with patterns and arrangements deep enough to draw it in without yanking in the creative part of my brain as well. My playlist is mostly a blend of Sabaton, dubstep, drums&bass, and video game music. Nothing where the lyrics stand out or the rhythms get disrupted. I’m looking to create a flow state, not be entertained.
I also take frequent breaks and challenge my mind in non-creative ways so the creative part rests. The old teachings about burnout said that a person needed recreation and vacation away from the work and they’d be just fine, but research shows people can return from vacation just as burned out as before. Instead, new research indicates that burnout may be caused by overusing certain parts of the brain without variation, and that performing activities resting the overused parts but exercising unused parts may actually prevent burnout. With this in mind, I take breaks to wrestle with my son, play soccer, do puzzles, debate logically with friends, play chess or video games, or any other activities which do not engage the creative part of my brain. These short, concentrated breaks allow me to quickly refresh during the day and get right back to writing.
The last thing I do is trust my own process. Many authors write and then edit as they go, constantly backtracking and making edits and reading their own work obsessively before it’s even done. I refuse to allow myself to do this. I know that any book I work on will go through a minimum of 3 drafts before it’s finalized, and editing will take place at every step. I open a new document in Evernote titled (Book) Edits and list changes to be made there for when I finish the rough draft. Allowing myself to edit as I go has cost me countless hours of backtracking and lost flow, so I no longer allow it to happen.
This is everything about my writing process. With the above steps, I’ve found that I tend to average about 1,500 words per hour and can comfortably hit 10,000 words in about 7 hours, including a half-hour break for lunch.
Anyone with questions is welcome to reach out and ask them. I look forward to hearing from you.
For more information on this topic, check out my writing guide Write like a Beast where I elaborate on this method and a range of other topics to help writers maximize their word count and quality