I think it’s so useful to get advice from other authors and I will absorb all the information I can get my hands on to help navigate through this complex business. Back in July, author Karen Inglis shared her writing process in an interview I did with her. Today it’s the turn of Emily Organ, another author I admire greatly.
Emily is about to release her third book this year. Yes, you read that right, three full-length historical fiction novels that make up a trilogy. So fast is her output that I’m still on the first one, but at least I will be able to read straight through the whole story, without having to wait for the next one to be released!
I asked Emily to share her tips on how she does it and I’m sure you’ll agree, there is some great advice here that relates to writing in general. As Emily says, you can write as slowly or as quickly as you want, but when it comes to knowing how to get your novel out in to the big wide world, there is a lot you can learn from this lovely lady.
Over to you Emily…
I can’t remember where I’ve read it, but there is a piece of writing advice which says the real writing happens in the editing. I think many writers agree with this, we can hardly expect our first draft to be an accomplished masterpiece.
With this in mind, I aim to get my first draft written as quickly as possible. Once it’s done I can go back through it several times and refine the story. I find it much easier to edit existing words into a book rather than sit staring at a blank page trying to concoct a perfect book first time round.
But with a word count which is often between 80,000 and 100,000 words, writing the first draft can be daunting.
My word count each day is between 3,000 and 5,000 words and that’s done in about three or four hours of writing which I have to fit around the other things I do. To achieve this word count I aim to be in a ‘flow state’ when I’m writing where I know exactly what I want to write and I’m bashing away at the keys on my laptop with no interruptions or distractions.
It’s not easy to achieve this flow state and it takes practice. But here are some methods I use:
1. Outline your story: I used to be a pantster and my first two books were written without any planning. However I rewrote tens of thousands of words and cut out even more words than that while I was writing them. The first book took me three years and the second book took me one year. Although there’s nothing wrong with this approach, it didn’t strike me as a productive way to write. These days I outline every chapter and I can get my first draft done within a month.
As well as outlining each chapter, I describe each location in the book and outline each character before I start writing the actual story. And because I write historical fiction there’s a lot of research to do before and during this stage too. I’ve heard this stage of writing referred to as ‘pre-production’ – a phrase borrowed from the film industry. I enjoy this pre-production stage now and do as much as I can to prepare for the writing – or ‘production’ phase.
Outlining doesn’t mean the storyline is set in stone right at the beginning – I frequently change my outline as I work because plot and characters can take unpredictable turns. But I find that outlining beforehand keeps me focused and prevents blank page syndrome. If outlining seems difficult then read up about story structure. K M Weiland has written a number of books on outlining and I found them very useful when starting out. Outlining your novel: Map your way to success, is a good one to begin with.
2. Schedule writing time: we all have busy lives and some people mistakenly think that writers are somehow blessed with more time than anyone else. Most of us have family and work commitments so you need to carve out time in the day when you can sit and write in peace. I get up earlier in the morning now and I make writing a priority over chores and admin. Even if you can’t write every day you need to try and find time each week. Your writing time needs to be quality time which means…
3. Cut out distractions: to be writing in your uninterrupted flow state you need to stay off social media, mute your phone, ignore your emails and focus on what you’re doing. My writing involves a lot of research and it’s tempting to quickly google something to find out what underpants were like in the middle ages or similar. But this interrupts my flow so when I come across something I need to research I just write down ‘blah blah’ or similar and make a note in the document that I need to go and research something for that part of the story and come back to it and fill in the blahs.
4. Time yourself: if you find it hard to remove distractions then set a timer to give yourself an amount of work time in which you promise yourself you’ll focus on nothing else. The Pomodoro Technique is popular with writers: you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break and then repeat. I used to use this technique a lot but then I found that the timer going off at 25 minutes was too much of an interruption. I’ve discovered I can keep my concentration for longer so now I work in about 50 to 60 minute intervals.
5. Set a word count: decide how many words you can write during each of your writing sessions and then work out what you need to write per day or per week to meet a goal which you set yourself. If you don’t reach your word count target then don’t beat yourself up about it but revise it down. Once you’ve done this though, it’s important to stick with it as much as you can. You may find that the more you write, the quicker you get.
6. Don’t listen to your inner critic: you can’t get the words flowing if you criticise yourself as you write. You do need to use your judgment with your work and ultimately decide if what you have written is what you intended to write, but that comes at a later stage in the writing process. When writing a first draft you need to ignore those thoughts. I like this piece of advice from Joanna Penn in her book The Successful Author Mindset. This is what she says to her inner critic when she’s writing her first draft:-
‘Thank you for helping me to be critical in the editing process but right now, I need some time to play and be creative. I need you to rest, but please come back when I’m done and you can help me with the next part.’
If you’re really unsure that your writing is any good you could always schedule in regular review periods (eg every 3,000 words) to check that you’re happy with your writing so far. But it’s important to get the words flowing and not be interrupting yourself too often. Some writers feel that their best writing is done while they’re in their flow state – being ‘in the zone’ can mean you write from the heart and with passion. There’s an argument that spontaneous writing conveys something more meaningful and is at risk of being over-edited and dulled down.
These tips may help you if you want to write quickly, perhaps you want to tackle NaNoWriMo or finally finish off a book idea. But you don’t have to write quickly, you can write slowly if you like. There is no right or wrong way and that’s the best thing about your creative journey: you get to choose.
Sharing this for What I’m Writing.