Posts about Productivity

The Cozy Experiment, Part Two

Hey there! It’s time for an update on my Cozy Experiment, which I wrote about here . Overall, I have three cozy goals: Have More Fun, Write More Books, and Publish More Frequently. And to test out new writing processes I decided to write a cozy mystery during the month of September.

Oops! A Miscalculation

I started writing in early September, and it was all ticking along nicely until I realized that I’d miscalculated. I knew that I’d be busy the first few weeks of October, but I’d forgotten that the last week of September was taken up with an impromptu family reunion for my father-in-law’s eighty fifth birthday.

My month of writing time had just become three weeks, and I was almost two weeks in. Yikes!

I should have thrown up my hands and finished the book in October. But like a crazy person I decided I’d haul ass and finish the book before the family reunion. I told P that I’d be “living inside the book” for the next week and I did exactly that.

Drafting a Cozy Mystery in Three Weeks

So my September went like this:

  • I spent one week (plus a few days) outlining the story and preparing to write.
  • Plus two weeks writing the first draft, finishing at 10:30pm the evening of my revised deadline.

All in all, I averaged 4,000 words per day across ten writing days. In actuality, though, my numbers started off low (1200/day) and built up higher, ending with a marathon 9000 word session on the last day.

So I met my goal! But as I’ll discuss below, it came with some ups and downs, and I won’t be repeating this craziness anytime soon.

What it was Like to Write Faster

Writing quickly was surprisingly fun! Because I spent so many continuous hours in “the zone,” the creative process felt immersive and put me in a daydream-like state that carried over from day to day. Emotionally, it was like living inside a movie.

To my surprise, writing quickly was in some ways easier than writing slowly.  It was easier to hold the entire story in my head, I didn’t feel like I was losing track of my story threads, and there was less angst about next steps.

Now for the bad news. Writing quickly was exhausting, especially for my hands. I didn’t handwrite this draft, but even then my hands ached after a few steady hours of typing. I survived by setting an hourly alarm to remind myself to get up, stretch, and shake out my hands. I also took mid-day walks to clear my head. Even then, I used up all my mental energy on my long writing days. I felt wiped, like I’d just run a brain marathon.

Admittedly, I got big confidence boost from this exercise. Writing a book in three weeks sounds impossible, and doing something I thought was impossible made me feel pretty spiffy. I may have strutted around the house for a few days.

But What About Quality?

The million dollar question is this: Is the story any good? I do harbor concerns that a book written quickly might be schlock, and I really don’t want to write schlock! But my hunch is that I did just fine. I’ll know more when I pick it back up for editing in a few weeks.

Speed may contribute to quality in a few ways, at least. Writing quickly made it easier for me to keep track of continuity as I went through the story. And because I was having a lot of fun, and the process didn’t feel sloggy, my hunch is that the fun-quotient will carry through to the reader. But this is an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes, right? I guess we’ll see.

My Thoughts Thus Far

In summary, my initial impression of “writing fast” is that it’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be (yay!), but it was also a huge energy drain (boo!) Would this method allow me to meet my three cozy goals of Have More Fun, Write More Books, and Publish More Frequently? Yes! But is drafting a novel in fifteen days something I can do repeatedly? Probably not.

Doing it once was a fun challenge, but doing it over and over would be too difficult.  The writing life will lose it’s luster if it costs me all my energy and my ability to enjoy my non-work life.

That’s why, for my next round of the cozy experiment, I’ll slow down and search for the sweet spot between speed and sustainability. I’ll do all my book prep in October, and then give myself the full month of November to write the draft. That’s still plenty fast, but not so fast I’ll burst into flames.

I’ll check back in December and let you know how that goes.

The Cozy Experiment, Part One

Well, it’s official. I’m cheating on Power Play with another manuscript. My indiscretion began innocently enough. I was outlining a new cozy mystery novel and I found myself tempted to jump in. And BOOM, 2.5 weeks later, I’m about halfway into the new story and zooming toward the exciting conclusion. At this pace I expect to finish the first draft by the end of the month. Wheee!

Today’s post is about how I’m changing up my writing process in order to release more books, more quickly. So feel free to skip it if you don’t care how the sausage is made.

Mmm… delicious murder-mystery sausage!

The Problem of Too Many Ideas

Have you ever seen that black-and-white clip from I Love Lucy where Lucille falls behind on the assembly line? Before long, she’s stuffing her mouth with chocolates from the conveyor belt to try and keep up appearances, but we know she’s out of her depth. Too much chocolate! Too much good stuff! Yikes.

That’s how I feel about my story ideas. I can’t keep up pace with the stories I want to tell, and I feel bogged down when the writing process goes on for too long. Boggy writing leads to boredom, and boredom is poison to the creative process.

Based on past experience, I figure I can comfortably work on a story for 3-5 months before I want to light the thing on fire, throw it into a dumpster, and push the dumpster off a cliff into the angry sea. Thus my aspiration is to become one of those fast writers I’ve read about.

In a perfect world, my writing process would look something like this:

  1. I have a fun idea!
  2. Quickly now… I’ll write it down.
  3. Done? Kewl. Time to proofread the story and boot it out into the world.
  4. NEXT! (snaps fingers)

Imagine me at my computer, writing, having fun, and then raising my fingers periodically in the air to snap them. NEXT! NEXT! NEXT!

Stephen King famously said a the writing process should last a season or so, and that feels about right to me. And it helps to stow my ego. My books aren’t intended to be masterpieces, like Michelangelo’s David.  Spending years or decades on a single book sounds like torture. Instead, I want my books to be like delicious muffins, fresh out of the oven. Tasty. Consumable. And available in packs of four, six, or twelve.

MOAR MUFFINS, I’ll shout, while my fingers form a blur on the keyboard. I DEMAND MOAR MUFFINS!

Quasi-Valid Reasons for Writing Slowly

My slower-than-preferred speed comes from good intentions, mostly. And I’m not ready to abandon my good intentions, because I see the wisdom in them.

Caring about Quality makes me want to hang onto my manuscript until it’s as perfect as I can possibly make it.

My desire for Personal Growth makes me take on ever-more challenging writing projects.

I fear workaholism and that thing known as “the grind.”

And my less-valid reason for slowing down is that I procrastinate. My favorite forms of procrastination are cleverly disguised as important activities. Reading business articles, writing blog posts, and so on. None of those things are inherently bad, but I do sometimes put them ahead of my work.

The Cozy Experiment

A few weeks ago, in light of my too-many-ideas problem, I some changes to my writing process. Here’s what I’m trying to do and accomplish:

Three Cozy Goals: Have More Fun, Write More Books, Publish More Frequently.

Four Helpful Rules:

  1. Write a “good enough” book and release it promptly. Obviously I’ll still edit and proof my work (I’m not a monster), but there’s a difference between responsible editing and obsessing over unreachable “perfection.”

  2. Spend 80% of my time writing within my comfort zone. Murder mysteries are fun, and they’re within my comfort zone. On the other hand, sprawling multi-POV espionage novels like Power Play are fun but much harder to write. My new notion: What if I allocated 80% of my time to writing what I can easily write, and about 20% of my time to more challenging projects?

  3. Set a reasonable number of work hours, then focus on having fun and being productive within those hours. For now, that looks like 5-6 hours a day, with at least one day off per week. And I’m not letting work torpedo important family stuff, so there are extra days off for things like visits to the parents, and vacations, and so on.

  4. Use fun/procrastination activities as a carrot. This blog post is a good example. I’ve been working on it for a few minutes every day, but I decided not to publish it until I hit the halfway mark on my manuscript. And that was oddly motivating. 🙂

And My Three Anti-Rules:

  1. Don’t track numbers other than a quick glance at “how many words I wrote today.”

  2. Don’t worry about story length, because the story will be as long as it needs to be.

  3. Don’t put too much emotional importance (ie: angst) on any one story, because I’m making muffins, right? MOAR MUFFINS!

Taking Action

To put these ideas into practice, I’m picking up one of my ideas for a cozy mystery series and running with it. And I tried to make it as easy on myself as possible. I spent three days building a super-basic outline of one paragraph per “story beat.” I also made some character sheets, with basic stuff like names, physical descriptions, family background, and so on. That way I don’t get bogged down thinking up names when I’m in the middle of writing.

My new mantra is “Don’t overthink it! Have fun and keep it loose.

Once the setup was done, I sat down for 4-6 hours each day to have my fun, and I watched in surprise as my word count stacked up pretty quickly. So far, so good! The story has diverged from the outline a few times, but that’s not a problem, it just means my characters are waking up and asserting themselves. That’s what I like to see.

This whole thing has been a shift in mindset, I suppose.  I’ve turned my fun/relax dial up, and my stress/control dial down. And while I’ve got more to figure out, so far the experiment is going well.

Introducing Ellie

Well, I’ve got a delicious story-muffin in the oven, so I’ve gotta run! But if you followed me this far, let me quickly introduce you to Ellie, my new heroine. She’s a 55 year-old retiree taking her first cruise, and she’s heading off on a bigger adventure than she could ever imagine. Murder. Intrigue. Exciting Ports of Call. Fruity Cocktails!

More to come!

Letters: Getting Unstuck

Today’s post is about overcoming problems during the writing process.

Dear Future Cheri,

Hey! How’s it going? I’m sending you this letter to remind you what to do when you’re stuck writing the same few chapters over and over again. Sometimes we beat our head against a too-familiar brick wall, and this particular wall has a head-shaped dent in it! So here are some helpful reminders for the next time it happens:

Why You’re Spinning Your Wheels

If you’re rewriting the same section of your book repeatedly, it’s probably due to one or more of the following problems:

1) You’re not setting aside enough consecutive writing days.

When you take too many days off, you lose track of your story, and you’re constantly reviewing old material instead of moving forward.

2) You don’t have enough plot details in your head.

Sometimes, you’re able to sit down and write the story organically. But other times, especially when you’re in the middle of the book, you you feel lost because the vision in your head isn’t detailed enough.

3) You’re bored with what you’re writing.

It’s possible that what you’ve come up with simply isn’t exciting enough, and no matter how well you write those chapters, they’re gonna seem wrong.

Specific Things to Do

Here are some things to try when you’re stuck:

  1. Schedule at least 4 consecutive writing days.
  2. Take a walk and/or a nap, and visualize the story. What are the images/emotions you need to create?
  3. Ask “is this part of the story exciting enough?” and “are the stakes high enough?”
  4. Go big picture! Review your high-level story outline. Does it still feel right? If not, update it.
  5. Go small picture! Ask “am I clear on the purpose of this chapter and what it needs to accomplish?”
  6. If the story still feels vague, use notecards to outline/construct the section you’re working on.

What Not to Do

  1. Don’t force another rewrite. Wait until you know what to write and you feel excited about what you’ve come up with.
  2. Don’t feel like you need to solve the problem in a day.
  3. Don’t start a new project. Instead, keep your mind focused on the issue at hand even if you’re “not writing.” Word count isn’t always synonymous with progress.
  4. Don’t rely upon logic too much. Keep asking good questions, and let your subconscious work.

Most importantly, future Cheri, don’t view these “stuck days” as negative, because when you notice that you’re stuck, it’s great! Noticing stuckness means you’ve encountered a tangle in your story, and untangling those knots is an essential part of the job. So instead of getting frustrated, get curious.

Keep on going. You’ve got this!

Your friend,

Past Cheri

Writing with Pen and Paper

Last month, I watched Tim Ferris interview Neil Gaiman , and they discussed Gaiman’s habit of writing his first drafts by hand in a notebook, using a fountain pen. Here’s a snippet from that interview:

“If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.”

I already journal by hand, and it hasn’t escaped me how I feel better connected to the creative part of my mind when I’m working with a pen and paper instead of a keyboard. So I wondered: Perhaps I should give Gaiman’s approach a try?

Although I was afraid my hand would get tired, and my handwriting would be illegible, it turns out that I love writing fiction by hand. Not only is it fun, but it comes with all these weird bonuses you don’t get when working on a computer. Like Gaiman suggested, hand writing forces me to slow down and think before filling up a page, and therefore I’m less inclined to drop waste-words on the screen and waste even more time fiddling with them. Additionally, seeing the story in my mind’s eye is far easier when I’m using a pen. I don’t know why, but I’ll run with it! And I love the way writing in a journal makes my first draft feel entirely private, much more so than when I work on a screen. There are no distractions inside a paper journal, and no notifications jumping out to fuck with you.

Hand writing also prevents me from slowing down too much during the drafting process. Tweaking sentences as I go would leave a fat mess on the page, so hand writing forces me to wait for the second draft before I edit. That’s when I’ll shift the story from paper to the screen. I might be moving more slowly when writing by hand, but at least I’m continually moving forward, not backward.

So far, I’ve only found two downsides to going old-school. I’m a bit paranoid about losing one of my journals, given that paper doesn’t lend itself to automatic backups. (eep!) And my hand does get tired (and my handwriting gets sloppier) after 1000 words or so. In practice, this means I’ll break up my writing across more than one session. That’s not bad, just different.

It’s fun to select a journal that fits your story. For example, I’m writing a “cupcake cozy” in glittery blue ink inside a floral-print journal, while my next spy novel is in a sleek wine-colored Leuchtermm. Meanwhile, my witchy novel is in a black journal with a stained-glass appearance. Instead of living as “files” on my computer, the manuscripts themselves become colorful and unique, they feel like toys in my toybox, ready to be picked up and played with. And the more I get into the hand writing, the more I begin to embellish, adding small sketches to help me work out a setting, or making notes about cover art. I’m so used to typing that it’s taken me a while to remember paper is non-linear. I can write AND draw AND make notes. It’s all there in one place.

Huzzah for experimentation! I didn’t think I’d enjoy working by hand, but it’s been great.