New Project = New Process

I recently started drafting the novel that will become the creative component of my doctorate thesis. Although I’ve previously written one full-length novel, three novellas and numerous short stories, I found myself asking the question: “How the heck do you do this?” 

The truth is, my fiction writing muscles have become a little rusty. In the past six months, most of my focus has been on the craft of academic papers, assignments and my thesis. As part of honours, I was required to submit a novella, but most of the past six months were spent editing that story – not drafting. It’s a lot easier to edit a first draft than to write a first draft.

I have confronted the dreaded blank page many times in the last six months in the writing of the previously mentioned papers, but it is far easier to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.

Non-fiction has a set structure and a particular voice. There is the introduction, a body that contains a clear argument and a conclusion. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence and a concluding one that ideally, leads to the next paragraph. It must have a distinct voice, whether it be your natural speaking voice or one that is appropriate to the topic or in-house style guide. Non-fiction must be backed up by fact, whether that it be in the form of research or experience. Through trial and error, most of us established a set process on how best to write non-fiction pieces.

I start with a vague question or area of interest. Then I read. A lot. I make note of useful papers and record exciting or relevant quotes. This stage goes on until I sense that I have read enough material. Usually, that means I’ve started to notice links and connections between the sources and my own ideas or question. Key ideas become heading and each heading is given a particular word count. Then it’s basically paint by numbers. A conclusion is added and then the introduction. That’s my process. And it works. Your non-fiction process is likely different from mine, but I bet it’s pretty much the same every time.

Fiction does not adhere to set processes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a process, but I also enjoy messing with that process and challenging it. Fiction writing is creative after all, right?

I wrote my first novel with no outline and no character profiles. What guided me was an idea I had for a pivotal scene, the kind that happens towards the end of a novel. All I had to do was figure out how my characters got there. Of course, the first draft was a complete mess! By writing an outline, timeline and distinct character profiles, I was able to see all that was wrong with the manuscript and then fix it. Since then, I’ve written three novellas. For these, I used skeleton outlines (paragraph summaries of each chapter) while simultaneously writing character profiles. This worked better, but of course, there were still a few hick-ups. And in case you’re wondering, there will always be hick-ups! For my honours project, I decided to write a really detailed outline which quickly became the first draft, but because I was so intent on figuring out the structure and logic of the story, I spent little time developing the characters. It was only later during the editing phase that I constructed the character profiles that helped transform them from puppets to people.

For my latest project, it felt right to construct a (very) loose outline and a complete set of character profiles before beginning the first draft. I’ve set a word count for each day, and after I hit that word count I spend five-minutes brainstorming what will happen next. These ‘mini’ outlines are roughly one hundred words and are a great launching pad for the next writing session.

Now, for a word on word counts. For this project, I decided to set a fairly low daily word count. When writing the first draft, I usually prefer to get the ‘crappy’ first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can then get onto the next task: fixing it. Sometimes that meant writing 4,000-6,000 words a day. And that is not very enjoyable. This approach also zaps your energy and it usually affects your productivity the following day. So for this project, I’ve decided to end my writing sessions before I become exhausted. This way, I stay hungry and excited about the story.

I’m currently 15,000 words into the first draft. Though I know the general trajectory of the story, I will not hold the story to this outline if it no longer feels right. Stories have a mind of their own. They have their own natural and logical flow. If you show up and do the work, inevitably, the story will tell you how to write it. For instance, I started this draft with the intention of using a rotating, first-person point of view. And it totally didn’t work. So, I changed to third person. And so far, so good. Under the guise of ease, I set the story in a town I once lived in, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I was totally bored. Frankly, writing about a town I once lived in made me a little uncomfortable. It was too close to home and I didn’t enjoy seeing my fictional characters tromping around the stomping grounds of my past.

So, in 15,000 words, I’ve already realised that the setting and POV aren’t working.

You can plan and plot all you like, but sometimes, you don’t know whether or not something is actually going to work until you start writing. That’s ok though. I’ve worked on enough projects to know that I’m presently at the bottom of the hill that is my story. Though I can make an assumption about what the view from the top will look like, chances are that my expectation will differ from reality. The only way to find out though is to climb.

How to get the most out of a writing session

We all have looming deadlines whether they be personal or professional. If you have a full-time job, if you’re studying or if you have a family or other commitments, chances are you struggle to find time for writing. For a lot of us, writing is something that happens in the fringes. Maybe you write for an hour every weekday morning before you head into the office or maybe you’re lucky to carve out an hour on the weekend. Regardless of when, where and how often you write, these slithers of time are precious and you need to make the most of them. This week, I’m listing the four steps you can take to maximise your productivity within any given writing session.

If you prefer to video content, you can watch this week’s video here.

Be selective in your location

Writers can be pretty precious when it comes to our writing environments. I often take my laptop with me when I’m travelling and I always set out with the best of intentions. Although I manage to achieve some writerly goals while on the road, the moment I leave the comfort, ease, and familiarity of my day-to-day environment and routine, I struggle. My usual focus and discipline disappear and I have to white-knuckle my way through the drafting, revising and publishing process.

That being said, the types of distraction that occur while travelling can also occur at home, so you need to be clever in the selecting of your writing location.

Let’s say you prefer to stay home and write in your study on the weekends. Though you may love the convenience of being able to get up and make a cup of tea, go to the bathroom or sloth around in your sweatpants, the reality is that writing at home can be counterproductive, especially if you live with others. Your spouse may knock on the door and entice you with suggestions of a cafe lunch, the kids might burst in and beg you to take them to the park or you may simply look out your office window and notice that the lawn needs to be mowed, the car needs to be washed or the washing needs to be taken off the line. Even if you set yourself up in a room with a lockable door, there is a good chance that domestic distractions will come a-knocking anyhow.

If this is the case for you, consider getting out of the house and setting yourself up at either a library or at a café, I believe that a coffee an hour is the going rate for occupying a table. If you opt for the latter option, again be selective. Don’t set yourself up at a café where you know there is a high probability of running into someone you know. If you find the noise inside cafes too distracting, you can either opt for noise cancelling head phones, venturing out at off peaks times or you can pick daggier cafes that are less busy.

Turn off your devices

Dani Shapiro has often compared writing on a laptop with internet access as akin to writing at an amusement park – there are just so many distractions! If you want to get the most out of your writing session, then you need to turn off the devices or features that are likely to distract you. That means any device that rings, buzzes or has a colourful touch screen. If you’re writing at home, switch off your wifi or invest in one of those nifty apps that blocks your access to the internet and others apps for a set time period. Now there may be instances when you can’t turn off your phone because you’re expecting an important phone call or perhaps you prefer to be available in case of emergency. If that’s the case, then at the very least I recommend that you turn your phone on silence and that you make use of apps such as Freedom that way you aren’t tempted to quickly Google something or check your social media feed anytime you hit a rough spot in your manuscript.

Set yourself up before you start

Regardless of whether you are writing at home or at a library or café, you need to set up your workspace before you start writing. If you’re writing at home, clear your desk, have your research notebooks close at hand, fill up your water bottle, open or close the window, turn on the aircon or heater, slip on a pair of socks and have a snack close at hand if you wish. For me, I place a small vase of flowers on my desk and I bring my dog and her bed into the room with me. Not only do these small tasks minimise the likelihood of interruptions, it also sends a signal to the brain that you’re about to start a writing session and it’s time to get serious.

The five-minute outline

Now, I know that some people detest outlining and that’s fine. If you have a process that you’re comfortable with and you don’t want to change it then that’s your decision. However, one of the best ways to increase the productivity of your writing session is to know what you are going to write before you sit down to write it.

Before you open your word doc, spend five minutes roughly outlining what it is you’re going to write. If you’re working on a novel, do a rough outline of the main story beats that need to occur within the next scene, what that scene is trying to achieve, which characters are present and where they are. If you’re working on an article or blog, break that piece down into dot points or subheadings.

Those first few minutes of any writing session are always going to be painful.

We all know what it is like to push through that initial resistance.

Eventually…usually… you can break through that mental barrier and the words begin to flow. The length of time it takes to get over this mental hurdle lessens when you know where your story or articles is going, and what it is you are trying to achieve with that piece.

So there you have it guys, those are my four quick tips for a successful writing session. If you have any tips of your own that you would like to suggest, feel free to leave a comment in the section below. If you’re into social media, you can find me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

Happy writing!