Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

Experiments in the writing life

By Emma on August 4, 2011

Last week I finished the first draft of 20 Years Later: Revelation, the final book in the trilogy. I wrote the last 10, 651 words of the first draft in two days. On the Monday I wrote 4748 words, on the Tuesday I wrote 5903 words.

I was experimenting, and the results really did surprise me…

But before I go any further, a couple of disclaimers if you are a fellow writer:

I’m not saying anything like “this is the way I think everyone should write” – not at all.
I’m only giving word counts here to illustrate the experiment, not to give some implicit suggestion that mine should be compared with anyone else’s. It’s not a race, and I don’t feel competitive about this at all. I’m thrilled with these word counts, don’t get me wrong, but it the experiment I want to share, not set some implicit target.

The search for the perfect writing formula

I’ve been refining the way that I write for a couple of years now. I know that for short stories I like to have a prompt, and that I prefer to write the first draft in one sitting, never more than two. I know that I write novels very differently. I’ve got to grips with the way that I plan my novels (the agile method I talked about here) and I’ve known for quite some time that I write the most efficiently when I can immerse myself in the book – I’m not good at stopping and starting. When I do that, I usually end up having to scrap a chapter or two before I get back into the book enough to write something that fits.

I’ve dabbled with the 1000 or so words a day, I know that I like to write before everything else, but the only thing that’s problematic about that in my current lifestyle is that if I start my day with novel writing, it’s is immensely difficult to stop and write boring stuff that pays the bills.

I found that when I could set aside a day of writing I could comfortably write between 3,000 to 4,000 words a day, but between audio books, book promotion, client work and family life, those days are rare. When I’m completely in the flow of a first draft, I can crank out 1000 words in 20 minutes, but the average is 50 minutes.

But I knew I hadn’t quite cracked it. I’m not talking about craft here, I’m talking about the sheer mechanical feat of getting words onto the page, specifically for the first draft of a novel.

Clearing the decks

On the Sunday night I realised how close I was to finishing the trilogy. July was a truly hectic month and I’ve been doing my best to chip away at the last ten chapters of the book. I decided to just set aside two days and finish it if I could, because my next project is battering on the inside of my skull and it’s always better to finish of your current relationship amicably than start an affair and then be unfaithful to both.

I reckoned I had somewhere between 8,000 to 11,000 words left to write. That meant a lot of words to write in each of those two days, so I saw a golden opportunity to see what I’m capable of now, and to experiment with two different techniques.

Monday’s technique: Write like hell until I can’t write anymore

When I get going, I find it hard to stop writing, and usually it’s the need to go and attend to another responsibility (even just feeding myself when my husband reminds me) that stops me writing. I can usually write 2,500 words in a good stretch, then I have a desperate need for tea.

So on Monday, I decided to write until my body told me to stop. I took breaks when I needed to, but after 3000 words I was starting to flag, the breaks were getting longer and my brain was literally feeling wrung out. The first 1000 words of the day took 45 minutes, by the end of the day 1000 words was taking about 90 minutes, so my speed was going down too.

As an aside, I wasn’t trying to get the words out as quickly as possible, I was just measuring words per hour as part of the experiment, and as an indicator of energy levels.

So, by 7pm that day I had 4748 words, and I felt absolutely knackered. I had thoroughly enjoyed myself however, and was looking forward to the second day.

Tuesday’s technique: Write in one hour sprints with breaks in between

Looking back, I have no idea why I didn’t try this sooner. I suppose it’s because it goes against my personality to stop doing something I love voluntarily.

But my goodness, it was a revelation.

When I forced myself to take a break, I deliberately did something non-cerebral, away from the computer. I took a shower, I did some housework, I went for short walks. Having stopped right in the middle of a scene, I stayed in the story, and was desperate to start writing again at the beginning of the next sprint. There were five sprints on that Tuesday, and by the end of it I’d written 5903 words. Not only that, I wrote almost 1,500 words in the last sprint, which was the complete opposite of the productivity trend I saw in Monday’s experiment.

And I didn’t feel wrung out. I could have kept writing, but I had table tennis and then it was a bit too late to go back to the machine. Had I not finished the book, I’m sure I could have written just as much on the third day, but all the client work was waiting, and besides, the next project hasn’t started yet.

So why am I writing about this?

It’s not to say “hey! I’ve discovered the secret formula to writing thousands of words everyday!” I can tell you that. I’m partly writing about it to help myself remember it, and to keep a record of various things I’ve discovered as I wobble through being an author – that’s what the writer’s rutter is all about.

I feel this experiment was critical, not just because it’s given me an indication of how I can write the most productively, but also because it proves that constantly experimenting and refining how we write is so important. I feel that another piece of my writing life has fallen into place, and it’s taken nearly 50 short stories and 3 novels to find it.

This is not about craft

I know now how to plot novels and get words down on the page in the way that suits me best. That’s all. These are, to my mind, mechanical things; ways to be creative and productive. I think I’ll be learning how to write for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine, at any point, being able to sit back and say “I have nothing more to learn about the craft.”

I hope I don’t ever say that. Yuk.

So there you go; two days, four cups of coffee, six cups of tea, 10,651 words and one happy author.

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{ 9 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Martin says:

    Hmm. There’s a bunch of time management techniques that suggest trying to work like this. But whenever I try it at work I tend to end up doing one task per sprint then switching to something else for the next one. And I fail to keep it up for more than a day or two.

    Never tried it on a sustained task. But the idea of stopping while you want to carry on. That sounds right.

    • Emma says:

      I’ve had the same experience with that kind of approach for normal work tasks. It felt completely different when it was a sustained task, but also when it’s one I love to do. Yeah, I reckon that had a lot to do with it too…

  2. Congratulations on finishing the book, and the trilogy, and having a publisher for it, and publishing From Dark Places on the side, and for doing loads of other stuff at the same time!

    Could this be the same, frightened little girl whose blog I started reading two-and-a-half years ago?

    • Emma says:

      Thank you 🙂 Hehe, we’ve come a long way haven’t we? That frightened little thing is still here, I just don’t let her drive so much any more…

  3. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I love reading these posts of yours. It’s a good insight into how another author works, and sometimes I think “Oh I’ll have a go at that”. More!

  4. Megan says:

    It is a scientific fact that the human body and brain are more productive with ten minute breaks every hour. My constant complaint to corporate America, but they just smiled and nodded politely. :grins:

  5. Tim says:

    Yesterday I wrote an email: 603 words in one day. A little more than 75 words per hour.
    Thankfully my job requires numbers not words.

    Mmmmm…. Numbers….

  6. DB Macks says:

    Thank you for your inside. I agree with you, there isn’t a rule that all authors have to follow to be good authors, except one: WRITE. I am glad you got the time to do this. I got most of my third book out in in a month. Now I am going back through trying to get it as good as I can before it goes to my editor.

    I want to try your approach.
    Keep posting, and Thanks

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