Thursday, January 24, 2013

11 Things to Make Writing Easier (and Faster)

Updated: 1/27/2013 (I tweaked this a bit by adding headings to the list).

When a person first decides to become a writer, it's very exciting but can also be very scary. There's so much to learn, so much to know, so much, in fact, that it's difficult to even know what it is that you need to know and learn.

You begin with baby steps, or…for people who are bold, you leap in and begin to create. You make many mistakes (or perhaps the lucky few don't make many). Above all, you look for ways to sort it all out and create a path for yourself. Here are some of the things I did on my path:

1:Jumping in: I had no clue what to do when I began, so I took a class. I won't say that the one I chose was particularly helpful in an academic sense, but it was energizing simply being with other people who loved writing. Knowing that there were other writers struggling, too, seemed to make the pressure of trying to write seem less overwhelming.

2: Keeping the enthusiasm high:I read books by writers. This helped some. And the books I found most helpful were the inspirational books rather than the "how to" books. Your situation may be different, but what I needed most at that stage of the game was guts and the willingness to put my efforts out there, to get words on paper even if they were the wrong words. For that I needed encouragement more than instructions. (Occasionally I still do. It never hurts to keep a favorite and inspiring work at hand for those moments when I need a good kick in the pants). 

3 Braving public scrutiny and forging cheer-leading friendships: :I joined a writers' group (as opposed to a class). This one also happened to be a critiquing group. There's danger in critiquing if you don't have a thick skin, but…the mere act of gathering with other struggling writers who want to publish can be very thrilling and energizing. As for the critique part of it…eventually a writer who wants to publish has to put his/her work on display, so critiques with a trusted group can serve as practice (and no, I don't know anyone who ever is totally immune to criticism of their work—although those people probably exist—but the longer a writer writes, the more criticism she faces, the easier it is to deal with the situation, shrug it off and get back to work). Critique groups aren't for everyone, and it's a very personal decision. Take time to consider the pros and cons. For me this was enormously helpful at a time when I needed objective readers.

4:Creating a "don't repeat simple tasks" list: (character names) I also indulged in a few housekeeping chores. Knowing how easy it would be (still is) for me to procrastinate, I took all my name books (I have one for last names and several for first names), took a notebook and quickly chose ones I liked and might use at some later time for my hero and heroine. I organized the notebook by alphabet and now (for years, really) whenever I begin a new book, I don't have to slog through fat books of names or ever-changing websites of names. I simply go to my much shorter, already made list and choose a couple of names that suit the characters I want to write. Later, after I've written the book, I go back and circle the ones I've used using a highly visible marker so that I won't be tempted to use those names again (or at least too soon—there are a couple of first names I've used more than once). I don't bother doing this for secondary characters because I wanted it to be a simple system and, of course, I've written many more secondary characters over the years than I have heroes and heroines, so I would have needed much longer lists covering different types of names (secondary characters' names may be very different from those of your main characters). Was this system really necessary? Of course not. But I find it time-saving and it keeps me from wasting hours or days trying to locate the perfect name (and yes, names are important, so finding just the right one can be time-consuming). I've added a few names to the list over the years, but it's actually a pretty short list, all things considered. (And yes, as mentioned, you can easily find name lists on the Internet these days, including a Surname Database, so perhaps this trick isn't necessary anymore. Whatever. I still use it. It still gets me into the story more quickly).

5: Keeping everything close at hand: organizing reference materials. I like to research only as much as I need to in order to get into the book and then research more on a need-to-know basis. Does that mean that I don't over-research? No, I do. Always. It's difficult to step away from a subject that's interesting and which is a vital part of a book, but it's also good to realize when you're overdoing. Having a good handle on the background material for your story is good. Researching in order to avoid writing isn't. So the "research what you need to know" rule? That's my choice. It may not be yours. Regardless of how you approach your research, having all the material together, whether you're talking research websites being all in one folder, addresses of research contacts, or that pile of books and magazines with the pertinent pages marked with Post-It notes, will save you time. Because when you have to stop to look up a fact, you don't want to allow yourself to stray from the book for too long and you don't want to get sidetracked by looking up useless bits of information that may be interesting but aren't really necessary for you to move forward in the writing. This has worked for me. It may (or may not) work for you.

6: Learning not to stop to look up details: It's always tempting to waste time wandering back through a manuscript to see if every detail is perfect, but I've learned not to do that (after once wasting days trying to locate a technical detail, a process which effectively cost me lots of writing time and pulled me out of the mood of the story). If I have questions as I'm writing and don't want to lose the story, I insert a question mark in a separate color, highlight the area or insert a comment reminding myself what it is that I need to clear up. Knowing that I have this reminder of something I need to check out helps me move forward. (Note: Don't forget to go back and remove/change these elements before you submit the book).

7: My "Don't forget" list::  I also keep a list of questions and reminders as I move along in the book (things like "Don't forget to pick up the thread of the lost dog," or even things as silly as "Make sure your characters are wearing clothes." I kid you not. I don't include a lot of clothing descriptions in my books, but now and then I like to insert a bit of "what they're wearing," just to help the reader along). At any rate, anything I think that I might forget or accidentally change as the book progresses (hairstyles, eye color, relationships, minor plot points, foreshadowing…) I scribble on the list. I don't waste time worrying about those things as I'm writing, I don't have to slow down, but I know that I'll cover the bases before I turn the book in.

8: Settling on sources: Long ago I located one or two sources for spelling, synonyms, confusing words, foreign expressions, grammar and punctuation and I keep them handy (these are both online sources and books). There will always be times when I need a question answered quickly. Knowing that I have trusted sources instills confidence and keeps me from getting bogged down.

9:My "keep it simple and don't get bogged down" list for characters  I make a "quick list" of characters (as opposed to the in-depth lists some people keep). On this list, for my hero and heroine, I'll list physical characteristics, personality traits, occupation, background (brief), and conflict. For other characters, I'll list their relationship to the main characters along with any other important info I might need to remember as I proceed through the book. I keep this at hand. Always. 

10.My "keep the cameras rolling" list: I also make a "quick list" of scenes (if you're a pantser, this probably won't apply). This is very brief, a line or two of what's happening, why it's happening, what each scene's purpose is and which character is the point of view character in each scene. Then when I begin to write each day, I know exactly where I'm going, but I haven't written so much that writing the scene isn't fun. I've left room for surprises.

11.My "last chance to get it right" list:  Lastly, when the book is finished, I make use of my Insurance Questions (written about here earlier) just to make sure that I've covered all the most important bases.

Of course, many of these items are simply technical tricks that get me to the writing faster. They won't teach a person how to plot or how to inject emotion into a story, but sometimes getting to the writing faster is what a writer needs. In my case, I often just need to stop procrastinating, get to the writing and stay focused on the story. That's how these items help me.

Even so, every writer is different. These methods work for me. They may do nothing for you. Take what resonates (if anything) and ignore the rest. The beauty of writing is that there are no wrong ways to write, only the ways that work for each of us.

Happy Writing!

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