Increasing Your Productivity

BtO reader Suzan Harden wants to know:
Have you become faster in writing a first draft as you gain more experience? What tips would you recommend for us newbies besides having a detailed outline (and other than sending the family to the in-laws and the dogs to the kennel)?

My first manuscript (written with a co-writer) took seven years to write. My first novel that sold (my fourth manuscript overall) took about a year. Subsequent full-length books have taken between five and nine months, depending on the length and complexity of the project, time needed for research, and how desperate I am to meet some deadline.

So how does one shorten the length of time necessary to produce a manuscript?

1. Set a goal and work backward from it.
I knew I wanted to put out two books a year whenever possible. If it takes me a month to write a proposal (about 50 pages plus synopsis) and a month to revise/edit, the leaves me four months writing time for the bulk of the manuscript. Once I get moving on the book, I figured I can reasonably write at least five new pages per day any five days per week for a net gain of about 100 pages per month. Four months, therefore, equals a 400-page draft and six months, a complete manuscript. At least, it works that way in theory.

In reality, it takes me longer than a month to nail down the proposal (part of the reason that publishing two big books a year doesn't always happen for me). This is the point at which I'm establishing characters, framing the story, and figuring out not only what happens but what themes I'm exploring. I tend to do lots of big-picture work, such as webbing, creating sociograms, collaging, and/or brainstorming with critique partners and my agent at this point. This all saves me time in the long run, and in a lot of ways, it's the most exciting, truly creative part of my process.

One time-saver that can be worked into the planning stage is thinking about several connected books and their overarching story, if you plan to do a series, all at once. This makes things much faster when you go to write the latter books, since you'll already know some of the characters and your overall direction.

2. Create a personal "sense of obligation."
I'm very motivated by deadlines. I despise being late for anything, to the point where it gives me nightmares. I put this aversion to good use by telling my agent, "I'll have this proposal to you by ______________." Even though she won't hold me to it, I will. I promise my editor to have projects turned in by a certain date and sign a contract to that effect. But even before I had obligations to publishing professionals, I trained myself for them by setting my own deadlines. I would have a manuscript finished before, i.e., the cut-off to enter the Golden Heart or by the end of my summer vacation. (As a teacher, I worked on a manuscript throughout the school year, then finished it during the summer break, when I had a chunk of uninterrupted (or less frequently interrupted) time. My self-imposed deadlines (written on my calendar in ink) were absolutely rigid in my mind, which turned out to be very good training.

3. Come to terms with my individual pace.
In my heart of Hermione Granger-like hearts, I'm a competitive, Type A creature, as I suspect most authors are. I remember looking around myself, thinking this is cool. I can write a book every six to nine months without killing myself or driving off family and friends. Yet, I looked around and saw that some authors were published three, four, five, or more books in a year. And let's not get started on La Nora (who has the nerve to write as skillfully as she does swiftly.) I had to accept that, as Joni likes to say, I am an orchard not a factory, and that, beyond a certain threshhold (every writer has one) I would be spitting out work that's less than my best and hating the whole process. I'd rather go back to teaching (another career I really enjoyed) than do that.

4. Sell your children off for scientific experiments.
Let's face it, kids are real time-sucks. Spouses, too, and friends, parents, pets, so if you really want to increase your writing speed ---

Wait. Seriously. This solution only seems like a good idea in the heat of frustration or the occasional, deadline-spawned nightmare. You do not want to end up falling dead over your keyboard at the age of whatever, only to find out you completely forgot to live a life.

I hope that this has helped a little, Suzan (and thanks for the great question.) I know that National Novel Writing Month is fun and motivational for a lot of people, but it leaves me feeling frustrated and defeated. As you discover your own process, you'll find bits and pieces of many different approaches that work well for you and others that clash. The trick is in picking the good and tossing the latter.

If anyone else has tips for increasing productivity, I'd love to hear yours!


Anonymous said…
Great article, Colleen! No words of wisdom here, except that I too don't find NaNo helpful at all to my writing!

Suzan Harden said…
Thanks for the tips!

NaNo is one of those things that works great for some people, not so great for others. I finished the 50K for the first time in 2008. It was exhausting, and I couldn't have done it without the husband and kid taking the bulk of the household chores, but it was so worth the effort.
Lark said…
Great advice!! Selling the kids cracked me up although sending the husband on a month cruise has occurred to me.

My productivity soared when aforementioned husband fell in love with cooking. Now he asks me what I want for dinner instead of what I'm making for lunch/dinner. He even grocery shops and cleans up! I can't believe how much time it's freed up!

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