This is the first in a new series of blog posts that Teen Eyes will be featuring about the writing processes of different writers. Today we have J.B. Cantwell, who is not only a Teen Eyes client, but a fantastic middle grade writer. You can find links to purchase her books at the end of this post.
I do a lot of things fast. Write. Read. Drink. Talk. Ride my favorite pony up the hill (The faster, the better, man. YEE-HAW!).
But faster is obviously not always better.
I’m new to this whole writing game, and when I first started I had no idea of what a good daily word count was. Early on, in an attempt to try to figure out how this whole book-writing thing is actually supposed to go down, I read Stephen King’s On Writing. In this wonderfully entertaining read, King talks about how any author worth his salt should be writing 2000 words a day, every day, no exceptions (except, maybe, hospitalization). I remember thinking that was nuts, and I fretted over how I would ever come close to measuring up to this mainstream master’s expectations. Back then, I was lucky if I spit out 1K a day.
As time went on, and I delved further into the world of independent publishing, I realized that a lot of my peers were writing 2K a day, and many of them were writing way more than that. I figured that surely the people writing 5K, 8K, some even 10K a day were ending up with nothing but crap. But I was also jealous.
Here I must insert a disclaimer. I know not everyone reading this is interested in self-publishing, and that’s totally okay. But for me, the fact that I self-publish is crucial to the discussion about my process. I have to write fast, and here’s why…
In the indie world, volume is really where it’s at. To get anywhere, to keep your name in people’s thoughts as they flit between Amazon searches, you have to be good and you have to be fast. Indies don’t have anything near the advertising dollars that are put behind traditionally published books. We don’t have access to major reviewers. We don’t have access to the same level of marketing to children, a big issue for the middle grade author in particular. The visibility of frequent publishing (aside from craft, of course) is really our only way to compete with the slow-moving traditional publishing houses.
But just because we have to write fast doesn’t mean get to abandon quality.
Let’s take a minute to talk about craft. Just because you can type 8K words a day doesn’t mean that they’ll be good words. As a starting point, you need to figure out how many good words you are able to produce each day; that is to say, words that need maybe two or three edits before being publication or query-worthy.
And you need to decide how high you are aiming with regards to quality.
I like to imagine writing quality as a dial. On the low side, we have basic language education. You speak English. Good job. In the middle, when books start to read well and become entertaining, we have craft. And over on the high side, we have God. I’m not a religious woman, so it’s not the actual almighty I’m talking about here. When I say God, I mean high art. Award winning. Magic. Words that stick to your soul. Stories you’ll never forget.
So, when you consider how fast you want to write, and how many edits you want to do before moving on to publishing or querying, you have to consider where on the dial you are aiming. Many audiences (actually most, I tend to think) are perfectly happy with a well crafted book, and they’re too distracted to appreciate God anyways. But that’s not quite enough for me, or other more careful readers. Personally, I feel that I currently have a decent grasp on craft. I am writing hard and hoping to push over into the God side of the spectrum as I learn and grow in my craft.
So I’ve made my decision, and I’m aiming for in between craft and God. I want to be good. Really good.
For me, there is no better way to do this than to practice. I only have so much patience, so I’m not going to practice on the same book for three years to polish it shiny and then try to sell it as God to a Big 5 house. People do this. You might be doing this right now with your own manuscript. But I can’t wait that long between projects. Like I said, I like to do things fast, which means a reasonable amount of project turnover to hold my interest. This does not meant that I’m putting out crap (at least, I hope not). I don’t use my impatience and a need to write fast as an excuse to get lazy with my storytelling. And I don’t need to, because I really believe that with each book or short story I write, my writing improves tremendously. The more I write, the less major structural editing I need to do. The more I write, the cleaner the first drafts are. All of this saves time.
Instead of honing the same manuscript for those three years, I am practicing as I go. My writing gets better month by month, and as I flex that muscle I also get faster. Currently, I have built up to being able to write between 3-4K words a day (on a good day). But if I slack too much, get too distracted by life, get too caught up in editing instead of drafting, I end up slowing waaaay down. Turns out this whole thing really needs practice, and rewrites, and new stories, and constant consideration. For me, that means tackling, and finishing, projects, and then moving on.
There are two main types of writers. Outliners and Pantsers. An Outliner is someone who does extensive research and gives a lot of thought to what they’re going to write before they write it. They draw up detailed plot scenarios, many of them on a chapter by chapter, scene by scene basis. Doing this helps them write lightning fast because they know, scene by scene, exactly what is going to happen next.
Then there are Pantsers. Pantsers just sit down at the keyboard and start pounding on it, often giving fairly little thought about what they plan to write. Usually, there’s a rough idea, maybe a rough outline about the world their characters inhabit and what’s going to happen to the protagonist over the course of the entire book, but that’s often it. They just hit the pavement and run with it.
I land somewhere in between these two types, but I err on the side of being a Pantser. On the one hand, having an outline can help me write faster, but only a little bit. Also, I find that if I’m writing something really emotional, an outline only gets me so far. That said, for novels I do write an outline. I usually pay attention to it for the first half or so and then forget I ever made it at all. But if things are going so well that I’ve forgotten about the outline, that’s okay by me. It means the story has sprouted wings, and that’s the best I could hope for.
Figure out how you want to proceed here. Maybe try starting your next project in a different manner than previous projects. Are you a pantser? Try sitting down for a day or three and making a detailed outline. See where it takes your mind. Are you an outliner? Try sitting down with no plan at all and see what happens after a few hours. In either experiment, you’ll start to learn which types of approaches lend to better stories and faster writing.
And take a look a the book 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron for ideas about what you might be capable of based on this decision.
Anothoer thing that helps me get faster is scheduling. I have some fun things I like to do in the middle of the day, and I don’t let myself do them until I’ve done half of my work for the day: 1500 words. I am very lucky in that I have all day to play with, so my schedule works like this…
Get up. Suck down coffee
Drop monsters at school
Get off butt
Take a shower
Go do fun stuff
Pick up monsters
(Notice that nowhere on this list does the word vacuum appear. Still waiting to hit the big time so I can afford that full-time maid. But I digress…)
One thing I do that can sometimes help if I’m struggling with a particular scene is to work on two different projects every day. In the morning I’ll draft, and in the afternoon I’ll edit something else. It gives my brain a break from chewing on the problem of the day, and I get more done overall. It’s actually more difficult to split my focus like this, but it gives me an out if I really can’t decide where to go next after that first 1500.
While I don’t do extensive outlining like some, I do have a big ‘ol schedule posted all over the wall next to my desk. As I’ve come to realize that writing novels takes me a while (maybe a month longer each than I would like), I decided I should start releasing short stories related to my Aster Wood series, and I threw in a new series for lower middle grade readers while I was at it. This decision, apart from being sort of fun, is all about branding and visibility. In regards to the Aster Wood shorts, I get to explore the minds of some of my characters in depth, and I also get a shiny new title out every month or two. And the pressure of knowing that I’m supposed to be getting a short out each month is enough to light a fire under me to not slack off. Also, something I’ve discovered since I’ve been working on the shorts is that it fires me up for the day. For the shorts, I sit down at the keyboard and pants it, fingers flying over the keys. Once I start hearing the ticking of my fingernails and see the words start to take shape, I’m suddenly in the zone. It’s a win win. And it helps to do a small, less intimidating project when you’re having a hard time getting going. If you get stuck or overly distracted, write something. Anything. Sometimes even a detailed email will get my fingers into the groove of tick-tick-ticking on the keyboard, and suddenly my brain frees itself from the mud and starts producing again.
This writing thing takes an enormous amount of determination and discipline. But the only way to get faster, most would agree, is to write every day. And that’s tough when your first grader is puking on the classroom rug and the cat just pooped in the hall. Again. But you gotta try. It’s like dieting. When you fall off the wagon, you gotta shove a carrot back in that greedy mouth and keep on going.
I consider writing stories to be a problem-solving endeavor (which is why I like it). I create a problem for myself to solve (decide on characters, world, conflicts), and then I have to solve it in a way that is hopefully engaging and entertaining. The problem is…that I’m creating problems. A novel is like a giant puzzle, intricate and infuriating once you start to dig in there. One of the reasons outlining doesn’t work well for me is because of this puzzle-like aspect to writing; I need wide-open spaces with a lot of wiggle room to navigate my way around problems. When I’m faced with the problem of the day, trying to figure out how my character feels or what he’s going to do next or whom he’s going to meet, I will frequently stare into space and inevitably ask myself why the hell I’m doing this.
But my problems are rarely solved while sitting in front of the computer screen. For me, the biggest challenges I encounter in my writing are usually solved in the bathtub. When I get so stressed out about not being able to solve a problem, I hop in the tub with little focused effort on how I’m going to solve it. The less I focus, the better, and usually by the time I’m in the water, I’ve come up with a solution. It just pops into my brain out of thin air. I don’t know why.
So take a walk. Go grocery shopping. Play with the dog. Take a nap. But when your break is over, get right back to it so you don’t backslide.
If you want to write faster than you currently do…
Figure out how many words you can currently write each day that will only require 2-3 edits before becoming publication worthy (or query worthy, as the case may be).
Decide: Craft or God? Where on the spectrum are you aiming?
Come up with a different project that you can work on at the same time as your main endeavor to see if you can train yourself to double your word output. Even an extra 500 words a day on a side project is going to net you 182,500 words a year.
Find your bathtub. In other words, take a break when you’re really struggling. Just make sure it’s only an hour or so or else you’ll fall back to general procrastination. And good ideas do not come during procrastination.
Schedule yourself a few months out. Print out some free calendars and post them on your wall next to your desk. Look at them frequently so you don’t forget your goal dates.
Above all, keep going. You might not be writing your God novel this time around. You might still be practicing, like me. But move forward.
Good luck to us all, fellow writers! Here’s hoping we all learn, over time, to produce great books on tight schedules. Or, at the very least, hit our deadlines.
If you would like to buy her books, you can do so by going to these links-
Aster Wood and the Lost Maps of Almara (Book 1)-
Aster Wood and the Books of Leveling (Book 2)-
Aster Wood and the Blackburn Son (Book 3)
6th Grade Supernatural: Abigail’s Curse (Pre-Order)
Interested in sharing your writing process with us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org