Sunday, January 12, 2014

How to Write with a Gun to Your Head

Some writers can unleash words on the page with the speed of machine gunfire, others labour over the delicate placing of a comma for half a morning. Whichever camp we fall into, we would all like to write faster. To get that speed, there's no need to bury your face in a bowl of cocaine or load up on caffeine.
You can't sit at your computer, hammer away and hope for the best. Without knowing what you're trying to achieve, you're never going to achieve anything. You need to set goals, both big and small and more times than not, the smaller ones are by far the most important.
If you set yourself the goal of writing a 70,000 word novel in 6 months while working full time you probably wouldn't write a word. The thought of it is too overwhelming. But if you set that God awful, daunting task into a series of mini goals, it's not only achievable, it's surprisingly easy.
70,000 words in 6 months
That's 11,600 words per month
That's 3,000 words per week
That's 416 words per day

416 words per day!
If you can't commit to 416 words per day, then you have no business being a writer. Sorry, it's best you know now, go do something that's fun and sociable. You can't do anything with any sort of speed without knowing what it is you're trying to achieve. So set yourself goals.
The blank page can be intimidating but knowing what your story is before you write makes the page easier to fill. Write outlines. I wouldn't write a shopping list without an outline. Start small and write your story in one line. If you can't tell it in 20 words, you're going to struggle getting it into 50,000 words. Go from a one liner to a paragraph, to a one pager, five pager, ten pager and finally a scene breakdown (not every writer works this way, but I find it helps when working with complex plots). Working with small documents saves you from writing scenes that you may not need.
You might be as insightful as Richard Yates or as beautifully brutal as James Ellroy, but you will never know it unless you have the discipline to give the world the middle finger, plant yourself in front of the computer and commit your words to the page.
Writers write and the writers who don't are not. A writer works at their craft every single day, whether it's for half an hour on the train or ten hours at a desk. Instead of watching TV, write. Instead of going on a date, write. I don't care if there's a bomb on the bus and if it drops below 50 mph the bomb will go off, write. Because they're the types of sacrifices you need to make to the God of words if you are to write long form fiction.
The image of drunken and drugged writers indulging in vices to make deadlines is a cliche that is sometimes not far from the truth. I recommend fistfuls of codine for down and dirty, fast writing. Booze is another issue. I always end up drinking more than I write and no matter how much I try to pretend that drinking half a bottle of Jameson's and listening to Guns n Roses is writing, it just isn't. Booze and pills may get you through a heavy weekend but it's not sustainable in the long run when you need to produce hundreds of thousands of words each year. So reach your daily word count, then get hammered.
To write fast, set a goal. Know your story before you start writing. Outline the hell out of it and don't leave your desk/computer/office or cafe until those words are on the page. It's that extra hour, day or week that makes all the difference.


  1. Luke, I am not an outliner. I am a plotter and a pantser. That's Yank-talk for I know the plot and then fly by the seat of my pants. I know the victim(s) and the why of the murder. I know the killer and the other suspects and background of the story. After that I let it unfold when my fingers are on the keys. A talented fellow novelist, Charles Salzberg said of this method which we share,"If I knew exactly what was going to happen, the story would bore me." If my story doesn't intrigue me, I figure I haven't a chance to make it intriguing for my readers.
    On the other hand I cannot agree with you more that we need to write no matter what else is happening and the usefulness of setting goals. I set goals for parts of days: five hundred words before lunch, five hundred more before afternoon coffee break (You denizens of the Commonwealth nations might say tea time.) and if I am on a roll as many as I can fit in until it is time to pack up and leave the library. When I am in first draft, the words may not be very good, but as long as the story is progressing, I keep going. I am not bragging. I am a story addict. The building word count is how I get high.

  2. I find it ...well, not hilarious, but butt-in-the-air entertaining to read different writers' takes on "how to write." All roads lead to Rome, but there's an atlas-full of routes to take! Tim Hallinan edited a book (last year? No, 2012) called "Making Story," in which 21 writers took their turns at the podium regarding how they create their stories (ie, plot, write). The pantsers ("seat of the pants" writers) FAR out-numbered the plotters (outliners). But one thing that pretty much everyone agrees with: you've got to find a method that works for YOU. The other thing pretty much everyone agrees on is you've got to WRITE. If you don't write, you're not a writer, plain and simple. Beyond that, you can pretty much make it up the same way you do the story!

  3. I'm a get it written then get it right kind of girl. My editor would love me to be a plotter but I'm more of a pantser. Val McDermid once told me her productivity dropped by 30% when she started novel writing full time - it was all that plotting while staring at the screen. Going out with the dog or waiting in a traffic jam is equally good plotting time. Dealing with the tax man is a good inspiration for murder....

  4. Personally, Luke, I'm not an outliner, though I have been known to made arrangements up front for guys like IW Harper, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels to be involved in my plotz. However, you make a suggestion that will benefit all who work as you do. Starting with a line (as in a group of words) and expanding geometrically until you have an outline is brilliant!