Aurrora St. James

Romance is just the beginning...

Faster Writing Through Organization

 

As a new writer, one thing I noticed early on was that prolific authors stay in our memories more. We see their names, buy their books, and as a result, they make more money. In my quest to be an author, I quickly realized that I don’t write fast. My first two books took over two years (each) to write. One, because I didn’t write daily and two, because I didn’t always know where my plot headed.


When I prepared to write my third book, I knew things needed to change in my writing process. Both in pre-planning the book and daily writing. After all, one book every two years isn’t *exactly* prolific.


At first, I identified the major plot points of my story and wrote to each. But it was those gray areas in between that really bogged down my writing time. To speed things up, I took a hard look at each step of my writing and focused on five major points:


  1. Really know your characters
  2. Plot a course to follow
  3. Envision each scene
  4. Leave room for changes
  5. Write every day


When writing multiple stories, we must actively work to make each character individual and three-dimensional or we fall into the trap of every hero or heroine sounding exactly the same as all previous books. I’m not talking about an author’s voice here but about what differentiates our characters and makes them unique.


I begin with a character sheet for each character, which is of my own making. The important part of my sheet is not to remember what color hair and eyes they have but to highlight those things which make them stand out. How do they deal with surprises that come their way? How do they react? What makes them laugh? What is the one thing they wouldn’t want a mate to know about themselves? How has that event colored their world and what is their reaction to it? What are their goals, motivations, and events that put them into conflict? These are the things I capture on the character sheet. Because once I know how a character reacts to what he or she is comfortable with, I can plot events that make them uncomfortable. THIS is where they grow and change and what keeps a reader coming back for more.


I include physical descriptions and pictures too. They are definitely important. Jim Butcher names them as tags and traits, noting that every time a character is on screen, at least one of the tags or traits should be used to describe the character. Doing so creates a mental link between the reader and the character, allowing them to quickly recall at the start of the scene who the character is.


Once I know my characters, I focus on plot. Before I begin this section, I must give credit where credit is due. Much of what I learned and will share here come from Cherry Adair, Debra Dixon, and Rachel Aaron. If you ever have an opportunity to take a workshop with of these ladies, I highly recommend it.


When creating a plot, I’ve learned to start with the end and work my way back through the plot. Note the major milestones or turning points that really shape the characters and then intersperse those sections with smaller points of conflict.


I bought a white board, divided it into 20 boxes, and a bunch of different color sticky notes. The boxes represent chapters of the book and the colored note pads are for my characters. (e.g. blue for the hero and pink for the heroine.) I jot down notes of the scenes I can already visualize and place them on the whiteboard where I think they go. At this point, it is about getting scenes down, and allowing the ideas to flow, not about proper placement.


I go back to my character sheets and develop scenes that force my characters out of their comfort zones, pushing them to face some fact about themselves or their beliefs that may need to change in order for them to grow. Finally, I fill in the gaps on the board with sequels – those moments between scenes where the characters emotionally react to what they just experienced. (Scenes are where the action happens; sequels are where the characters emotionally act, regroup, and make a new plan.)


The result is a multi-colored board, which is a basic road map to the end of the story. As with most maps, sometimes you get on the road and have to detour, but this at least gives me a place to start and the major points I want to visit along the way.


Once my board and characters are set, I’m ready to write. At the beginning of each scene or sequel, I answer a few questions to help me focus what I am writing utilizing my plot sticky notes. If it is a scene, I note what the action is. Who is the focal character? What are their goals for the scene? And most importantly, who doesn’t want them to reach the goal and what are they going to do about it?


For sequels, my questions relate more to the emotional aspect. I start with the focal character and their immediate reactions to the events that transpired the last time they were on stage. What is their emotional reaction and why is it so strong? As humans, we review a scenario, try to understand what happened, and reason through what to do next. New plan! Or in some cases… plans. If I have conflicting plans, what are the potential results of each? By noting down these answers, I’ve focused my characters thoughts into a few sentences that I can build upon.


I spend 10-20 minutes on the scene/sequel questions, just long enough to get down the idea, and add in any relevant details about setting, then I’m ready to write!


And speaking of writing, nearly every writer I’ve ever met has had a character throw them a curve they never saw coming. Sometimes a plot twist comes so far out of left field that it’s not even on the same continent as your plot notes. Maybe the twist makes so much sense, you gleefully jump into it and rework your plot from that moment on. That’s okay. If it makes sense with what you’ve already written, if you realize you’ve subconsciously been planting clues for this all along, then go for it. Trust your character to know what is best. You have to leave room for these twists that keep your writing fresh. They aren’t predictable, but organic to the character and world you’ve created.


On the other hand, if your heroine’s elderly aunt has just been kidnapped by the madman and your hero says now is a *great* time for a love scene with the heroine… don’t listen. The timing is all wrong and the reader won’t believe that they are taking a nookie break instead of racing after the much-loved aunt.


Finally, write every day. This was a tough one for me (and sometimes still is). The only way I’ve successfully done so is to schedule a specific writing time daily and have a friend meet me online each day for accountability. (You rock, Dragon!) We meet for a two-hour time block and check in on the half hour to see how writing progresses.


Putting these five steps into play has already increased the speed with which I write. For example, on my current story, I’ve put in 81 writing days and have 265 pages complete. By comparison with my last book, at 81 writing days I only had 230 pages complete. That’s an increase of 15%. Could I increase that even more if I dedicated more time to the book and eliminated distractions? Absolutely.


In the meantime, I will continue to tweak my writing process to make it work for me. Will these steps work for you to increase your writing output? Perhaps. Give each a try and discard what doesn’t work for you. After all, there is no “right way” to write. Not every process works for every person. As authors, our process is usually a mishmash of others’ ideas mingled with our own. For me, writing faster required better organization at the beginning of each step in the process.

 

Links:

Cherry Adair’s Plotting by Color: http://www.cherryadair.com/Plotting_By_Color.html

Jim Butcher’s Writing Blog:  http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/ (Read 9/21/2004 to 11/3/2011)

Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, & Conflict: http://www.debradixon.com/books/gmc.html

Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love: http://rachelaaron.net/series.php?SID=4