More Writing Strategies, and Cory Doctorow’s Writing Tips

In my last post I detailed a few writing strategies that had worked for me, and I referenced a helpful article by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. It’s a fascinating piece, with several intriguing suggestions, some of which I like and others, not so much.

As I said before, I love his idea about committing yourself to writing a certain number of words per day. However, I disagree strongly with the idea of writing an exact number of words. If I’m inspired I want to continue writing for as long as time permits. On the weekends I sometimes write as many as 2000 words per day on my primary project. Most days, though, I don’t have time to go much beyond my minimum 500; my day job takes care of that. If I were a full-time writer, though, I would need to balance my time between writing new material and other activities such as researching, editing, and promotion. I would probably either set a maximum word count or a time limit.

Doctorow’s reason for stopping at an exact word count – even if it means quitting in the middle of a sentence – is so you have a continuation point in your brain for the next day. That’s a good argument, but for me, it’s not necessary. I rarely get stuck on a story, and if I do, I’m obsessive enough that I think about the problem while doing other activities, such as walking the dogs or driving to work. I almost always come up with something.

Another of Doctorow’s rules, which I arrived at independently, is “don’t research.” More precisely, he means to keep your writing and and research times separate. Part of the trouble with Fidelio is that, being in the steampunk genre, which requires a lot of historical research to do correctly. I love history and could spend hours reading about it- but it doesn’t get your writing done.

When Doctorow is writing and needs to reference a fact that he doesn’t currently know (the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example), he doesn’t stop to research that fact. Instead, he inserts the abbreviation “TK” into the text, to remind himself to insert the information at a later time. He uses “TK” because the combination appears in very few English words, making it easy to search. During my July experiment I began doing something similar. For my own place marker I use a descriptive phrase in curly braces, such as {name of spouse.} As a software developer I use braces all the time, but when was the last time you saw them in fiction? The advantage of my scheme over a fixed marker such as “TK” is that I don’t forget what kind of info I need to substitute in any particular place.

Now for another of Doctorow’s point that I don’t like: dump the word processor. He suggests using a plain-vanilla text editor such as “emacs” rather than a word processor like Microsoft Word. It’s true that word processors can be distracting with all of their formatting features, but there’s also an advantage in ease of use. Besides, I use very few of these features until the entire work is done. I’m a Open Office partisan myself; it’s simpler than Word but much easier to use than emacs, which I appreciate from a programmer’s standpoint, but not for prose. Features like word wrap and double spacing make the text easier to read, which means easier to edit, and jobs like paragraph indenting and converting quotation marks are done automatically.

That brings me to a rule of my own that was not in Doctorow’s article– I like to plan in advance what my primary writing project will be for the upcoming month or two. If I didn’t, I’d be tempted to jump around from project to project and not finish any of them. For example, when I started Diana’s Fury at the beginning of July (to be honest, I’d already written one scene, but lets not quibble) I didn’t allow myself to switch projects it was finished. However, to ensure I wouldn’t stray from Fidelio for too long, a set a drop-dead date of August 1st. Luckily, I finished the rough draft of Diana a week early, so I then took the opportunity to work on an urban fantasy story I’d started and abandoned in 2011. Although I haven’t yet finished that story, it’s next in line after I’m done with the rough draft of Fidelio.

These simple rules have helped me vanquish a problem that has bedeviled me since I’ve started writing seriously- my obsession with working in a totally linear fashion (that is, writing one book at a time.) That’s what almost killed my enthusiasm for the craft. I spent many months writing my first book, Centrifugal Force and many more editing it. During the editing phase I had many cool ideas I forced myself to forgo. Eventually I got so burned out on the book that I had to put it aside for a few months. Now that I’m doing two or more projects in parallel (one for just writing, another for editing, and a possible third for research and/or outlining) that doesn’t happen to me any more.

So now you have them, my “top secret” writing tips, which you can modify to your own liking. Remember, the most important rule is not to write at any particular time of day, it’s just to set a regular time and stick to it. Also, be sure to check out articles and blogs by experienced authors. To a writer, newbies are not competition, they’re comrades.

Amazingly Simple Yet Effective Writing Strategies

Today I return from a one-month hiatus from this blog. In the intervening time I’ve discovered some useful writing strategies that I’d like to share. I came upon some of these on my own; others indirectly. All of them come with the following disclaimer: Everybody is different and what works for one person may not work for another. As we like to say in the Linux world, YMMV (your mileage may vary.)

First of all, I’d like to stress that I’ve been writing regularly for the last several years, and that although it’s more work than non-writers realize, I really enjoy it. That brings me to my first piece of advice. If you try writing, and you find you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. If, on the other hand, you want to “become a writer,” the best way to do so is by frequent practice. As cartoonist Len Wein once said, “A writer writes. Period. No matter if someone is buying your work or not.”

In order to write, you must make time to write, no matter how busy you are. That brings up the second suggestion: it’s important to set aside a regular time each day for your writing. I’ve been lucky in that my day job is more flexible than most. My employer allows me to bring my own PC to work, and I write during my lunch break. Even better, I’m able to take my lunch from 1-2 PM, which means I can use the lunch room when it’s practically free of distractions.

A word of caution: You employer may not be so easy going. In particular, if you’re a technology worker, beware- some companies think they own every bit of intellectual property you produce, whether or not it’s related to your actual job. Before hiring on, make sure your contract only applies to writings relevant to the business. If not, get out as soon as possible – or write secretly, under a pen name, and never let those greedy bastards know what you’re up to. When your masterpiece is complete, quit your job, wait a few months to make it seem plausible, and voila! You just wrote your debut novel in record time.

The third strategy was something I happened on accidentally. For that I need to thank my friend Rissa Watkins, who is in the same sci-fi writer’s group (Nexus) as I am, well as an additional group. During June of this year, her other group staged a writing contest, in which a writer could earn points for writing each day, but lost them all on any day on which you failed to produce the minimum number of words. Rissa kindly invited Nexus members to participate as well, and though none of us did, I was intrigued by the concept.

I had already been writing practically every day, in the sense that I was always doing something writing-related, whether it was writing original work, editing, outlining, researching background facts, critiquing fellow group members’ submissions, or writing for this blog. What I lacked was focus. I decided to apply the principle of the contest on my own, and picked 500 as my minimum word count per day. In addition, I “found” some additional writing time by getting up a bit earlier every day. (Please don’t hate me because I’m a morning person!)

Since starting this strategy on July first, I’ve only missed the 500-word figure one time, and on that day it wasn’t by much. Following this “weird tip” (I hate those ads, too, but I couldn’t resist- should I also say that it makes writing schools furious?) has allowed me to produce much more material than ever before. For the initial test I took a 30-day hiatus from Fidelio’s Automata, the steampunk novel I’d been struggling with, to pursue a concept for an adventure novella that had been kicking around inside my head. By the end of the month I’d finished the rough draft of Diana’s Fury, and was enthusiastic to return to working on Fidelio. The best part of this strategy has been that on most days, I’ve been able to finish my 500 words before my workday starts. This leaves my lunch hour to pursue other writing-related activities, such as critiquing, editing, blogging and research.

Now I must give another acknowledgment: if I’m not mistaken, someone in Rissa’s group attributed the contest idea (at least in part) to sci-fi author Cory Doctorow. I googled his name with the phrase “writing tips,” and found this great 2009 article on Locus Online. Among his suggestions was the idea of committing yourself to writing to a particular word count per day, which, as I’ve noted, has worked wonders for me.

It seems this article has gotten a bit too long, as is my usual habit, so I’ll save the rest for my next post. In the meantime, you can check out Doctorow’s article, which I’ll critique and build upon later this week.