Chip MacGregor

February 3, 2015

Before You Write: Part 4, Assembling a Writing Strategy


brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing techniques that can help position you for a more successful writing experience, I’m talking today about assembling a strategy to help answer the “when,” “how,” and “so what” of your writing process. A lot of the pre-writing exercises I’ve discussed can be used by the savvy writer to put off the actual novel-writing process indefinitely, but if you’re one of those authors who actually wants to write his story instead of just talk/think/brainstorm about it, you’re going to want to put some kind of a plan in place to help you manage your writing time and meet your writing goals.

When are you going to write?

There are lots of people more qualified than I am to tell you how to use your time productively, what time of day/year is ideal for maximum creative synergy, how to arrange your furniture for minimum bad karma, etc., but the fact is that none of those experts is going to be helpful if you don’t start by understanding your specific lifestyle. What works for someone else may not work for you, no matter how much sense it makes on paper. When establishing a writing schedule, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When do I feel the most energized/alert? If you can coordinate your writing time with the time of day you are mentally the most active, your writing time will be more productive.
  • When do I have the most free time? (Note: if you would argue that you don’t have any free time, answer the question this way instead: when do I spend the most time on Facebook? When do I watch the most TV? See what I did there?) Is there a way you can arrange your schedule so that your free time and your energized time coincide?
  • What can I eliminate/sacrifice in order to create more writing time? If you’re looking at your life and you truly don’t see a place to make writing happen regularly, you’re going to need to rearrange your priorities to make some room. Maybe you get up an hour earlier, or get rid of one show you watch regularly and write in that time slot instead, or plan to eat cereal for dinner one night a week to free up an hour of what used to be cooking time– if you want to write, it’s not just going to happen, you have to make space for it on your calendar.
  • Where have I struggled in the past with finding time to write? If you know that your personal Achilles heel when it comes to writing time is that you always end up spending it on housework, leave the house during your writing time– it’s hard to cheat on your writing time with laundry if you’re at Starbucks. If work email sucks you in every time you go near your computer, try writing on a spouse’s computer, or (radical measures here) turn off your WIFI during your writing time so no new emails can come in and distract you.

How/how much are you going to write?

Once you have your writing time on the calendar, the last thing you want to happen is to sit down and waste three-fourths of it figuring out how to get started. Once you know how much writing time you have to work with each day (or each week), set some realistic goals for what you want to accomplish during that time. Types of goals can include:

  • A word count– P.G. Wodehouse always wrote at least 1000 salable words per day before he’d let himself do anything else. Sometimes he’d meet that goal quickly and spend the rest of the day playing golf, and sometimes he’d spend the entire day in his study, presumably cursing. Some writers like this method of goal-setting because it’s objective– it’s easy to measure your progress and when you hit that magic number, you’re done, even if you didn’t finish a scene/chapter. This works fine for writers on a flexible schedule, but if your writing time is pretty limited, make sure your word count is realistic– you don’t want to set yourself up for frustration by choosing a goal you can’t regularly meet in the amount of writing time you have.
  • A scene/number of scenes– This works well for authors who have planned out their plots in a fair amount of detail in advance. If you already have an idea of the scenes that will make up your novel– the characters they involve, where they take place, what happens in each, etc.– you can chip away at your novel even in small increments of writing time by completing even just one scene each time you sit down to write.
  • A chapter– though this can be a sort of subjective unit of measurement, it can also be a reasonable goal for authors who’ve written enough novels to have a good feel for their normal chapter length/structure, or for authors writing types of fiction such as category romance that often has shorter chapters.

When establishing goals for your writing time, use what you already know about your writing style/preferences as a guide. For example, if you know you have a hard time beginning in the middle of a scene, plan to write a certain number of complete scenes during each block of writing time rather than making a certain word count your goal– this will ensure that you won’t stop in the middle of a scene when you reach your word count and have to face beginning in the middle of a scene the next time you write. If, however, you benefit from beginning your writing time with the momentum of a scene already in-progress, your goal could be to write from one point of tension to another, always ending your writing time at a moment when the stakes are high– a defining moment in a relationship, in the middle of an intense conversation, a situation where a character is in danger, etc., ensuring that you always come back to your story at a high-energy place.

How will you keep yourself accountable?

Sure, writing should (usually) be fun, or at least enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also not extremely difficult at times. There are a hundred other things competing for the time and attention you devote to writing, and even if you’ve arranged your schedule to create some dedicated writing time, there’s still a very real possibility that you’ll sit down and spend it online in the name of “research” or that you’ll find something else to do with that time while promising yourself to “make up for it tomorrow.” Having some accountability measures in place can make a big difference in your productivity. Some ideas for checks and balances include:

  • An accountability partner– someone who won’t take your BS excuses and who isn’t afraid to show you some tough love if you start slacking on your writing time or squandering it away. Maybe this is someone who’s willing to text you at the beginning of your writing time to make sure you’re on track, or who will encourage you when you meet your goals, or who will kidnap your dog and hold him hostage if you don’t text them a picture of some new pages every day. Whatever motivates you.
  • A writing group– if you belong to a writing group (either an online group or an old-fashioned meets-in-person group) where you’re expected to share new content each week or each month, it can motivate you to create content in a way that’s hard to replicate without an actual deadline from a publisher staring you in the face.
  • A reward system– if you know that you’re motivated by something, figure out a way to use it to bribe yourself to be productive with your writing time. Maybe you “pay” yourself by the word and give yourself permission to use all your writing money for a luxury, or maybe you treat yourself to a weekend trip when you finish the first draft of your novel. Since it’s easy to cheat on this one, you may want to enlist a friend or spouse to award the “prize” so that you have to show the completed pages or manuscript to someone before you can collect.

Establishing a writing strategy that works for you before beginning your novel can stack the odds in your favor for a productive and positive writing experience. I’d love to hear from what other time-management or motivational techniques you’ve found helpful in creating a plan for writing success. Thanks for reading!

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  • Dan Theman says:

    Erin,. these are my plans/goals for writing success.
    I do a complete outline (skeletal initially) from prologue through epilogue. I make sure each chapter starts with a hook and ends with a rewarding story arc. I want the reader to end each chapter with a sense of satisfaction and anticipation for the next chapter. When they finish a chapter and just “peek” at the opening of the next my hook awaits them. Many will then read “just one more” chapter. I wish to keep them out all night, immensely entertained and make them wonder where the time went. The next day I want them to think back on our encounter with a smile and decide “it WAS worth it”. I want them to eventually decide “I LOVE this author” we are going to get together again SOON. This is my “platform”. I want my reader to know our relationship is between them and I, as individuals.. Rather than build “platform” from which I can pontificate to the unwashed masses I’d rather build “rapport” in a more personal way. I keep my chapters short, almost every scene IS a chapter and they whiz by as a pleasurable vicarious experience with gratifying rhythm. My technique could be described as a combination of cherrypicking the best of “outlining” AND “pantsing” techniques and discarding the superfluous rest. I
    I call this my “push/pull” writing style. My hook pushes you into the chapter with great anticipation while my awaiting completed story arc pulls you onward to your reward of a satisfying chapter payoff at its conclusion. I make sure the novel delivers overall in the same way. I want people to receive a lasting “takeaway” (theme) that will remain with them for a long time, the rest of their lives if I can swing it.. I want them to feel strongly enough to HAVE TO tell someone else about the novel and possibly write a great review somewhere. I want them to bring up my novel in conversation motivated by their own inner agenda whether they know it or not.
    I am not motivated by fame or fortune, I have more than I need from “my other life” outside of the publishing industry. To me, the challenge of great story well told is everything. Its all about the art of a genuinely original and captivating story and the craft of masterful presentation. I love crafting scenes, it is never tedium. I love employing all the little style and “voice” reverberations I have developed along the way. I love foreshadowing without the reader recognizing it initially. I love to employ my “abrupt cut” skillfully. I could go on but for the sake of very rare brevity (at least as associated with me) I won’t.
    I have found that three hours in the very early morning yields my brightest creativity. I can, and sometimes do, go longer but can feel the freshness starting to evaporate with the morning sun. I have just finished a novel (fiction, inspirational, approx. 75k words) that took one year to complete in the above manner. In retrospect I recall it to be an effortless joy to write but I do keep reminding myself that it WAS work, somewhere.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    My writing plan has morphed quite a bit since 2001. It used to entail: Get something written 5 days a week.
    Now I’m finding myself doing about 2 weeks of prewriting so that I know where the story is going. I like to finish a chapter every day, but I can start in the middle of a chapter if I have to. If my children are at school, I write during the day after I take them to the bus. If my 3 boys are home, I write at 4:00am until they wake up. I am not a morning person. But late nights are not an option since my hubby is a night owl and would watch movies with me until our eye balls fell out. I would get little writing done and even less sleep without a set bedtime and a morning writing goal. When I am plotting or revising, I keep myself going. Although having a critique partner does help, when we exchange chapters I know she is waiting for me to finish her stuff. When I am writing a rough draft, I jump into the ACFW novel track and set a word count for that month. This is only the second time I have done this, but I am really enjoying it. So now I guess my writing plan is: Write 6 or 7 days a week for at least 1-2 hours either early in the morning or during school hours. Still a bit vague, but it works for me.

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