Changing Your Process

I’ve been asked repeatedly about how I stay so productive, about how I changed my process and my work habits, usually on Twitter. It’s an impossible subject to cover in 140 characters, so I decided to do that here. Since lots of people are writing like busy bees this month, it seems like the perfect time to articulate my thoughts.

First, let me dispel one myth. Process is not a permanent, indelible thing. People say, “I can’t do that. My process dictates that I…” Well, no. You control your work habits and your brain. Maybe it turns out that you did most of your “good” writing on the hood of a car. Does that mean you can only write that way? No. You’ve trained yourself into a dysfunctional style, and it’s possible to rewrite the way you work, just as you can revise a novel.

My process used to be this:

1) Come up with shiny new idea.

2) Write furiously.

3) Lose faith.

4) Spend 9 months rewriting the first half of the book.

5) Lose heart.

6) Come up with shiny new idea.

7) Repeat.

That was my process. And I hated it. Some people can finish books while tinkering with them. I’m not one of them. I find it to be a really inefficient way to work. HOW can you perfect the first chapters until you finish the draft and you’ve seen the big picture? It seems to me that it makes sense to hold all your revisions until the end. It can be hard to keep that internal editor in check; that jerk wants you to be perfect out of the gate and won’t shut up until you address the issues. I’ve found that making a list as I write of things I know I need to address in the first revision or the second keeps me focused enough to continue writing. And then at the end, I have a checklist of issues to tackle.

At this point, you might be saying, I can’t do that. I’ve always written this way. Well, that’s just wrong. You can do anything you want to, anything you set your mind to. If you don’t really want to change your process, then stop reading.

The rest of you? You can do this. But you have to believe you can, just like a person has to believe he can stick to a fitness regimen or a healthier style of living. Read this if you have any doubts. Back now? See? Roxanne St. Clair wrote 30 books my old way, the slow, tinkering way. And now she’s a convert. This really works.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t say you can immediately jump from writing 500 words a day to 5000. There’s mental training involved; and there are physical issues, too. If you’re not used to typing and suddenly that’s all you do all day, your hands, wrists and arms will hurt. I don’t want anyone getting injured trying to be more productive. That’s why you train up. Whatever pace you’re currently writing at, make sure it’s comfortable. Then, over a long period of time, months, not weeks, train up. For me, 1K used to be a good day, and it would take hours. Once I had that so I could do 1K in a few hours, not 8, I raised the bar to 1500. You can raise your daily goal by less words if 500 is too many. Here’s the next key: STOP EXPECTING TO CHANGE YOUR HABIT IN 21 DAYS.

According to a recent study, a daily action like eating fruit at lunch or running for fifteen minutes took an average of sixty-six days to become as much of a habit as it would ever become.

To be honest, for me, it’s more like three months. I don’t adapt quickly to change. So if you tried a write-more, write-faster program and you didn’t give it 3-4 months at each stage? I’m not convinced your brain could’ve fully settled into the new pattern, new work habit. And when I say train up, I mean 3-4 months on each level. So going from 1k to 1500 (or whatever your new goal is) should take 3-4 months. Then you need that long writing at your new pace to let it sink in. Then you up the ante again. Obviously rewriting your process and your work habits is a commitment that will take years if you don’t want to relapse into old methods that are easier because they’re more familiar.

To make it easier to write more daily, you need to get to know your productivity patterns. Some people work best in bursts; others want to get the words done, so they can tick them off the to-do list. (I’m that way.) Others think best in the morning. Some people can only focus once the house is quiet and it’s dark. Once you identify the sweet spot, you need to claim it for your writing. You also must figure out what motivates you and offer yourself little rewards for getting your work done. I can’t work that out for you. As people are always telling me, everyone is different. But people are all capable of change, if they want it bad enough.

It used to be super hard for me to write 5K in a day. But deadlines recently have kept me writing at that pace for about six months. And you know what? It’s not hard anymore. I can do it in about four hours. My sweet spot used to be 3K. But I’ve rewritten my brain again. There are physical limitations, however. If you have weak wrists or carpal, you may want to look into a voice dictation software package, like Dragon. Know your own capabilities and then work to your fullest extent. It’s possible, I promise.

But you have to want it and you have to believe your process isn’t magical, handed down by the divine muse. It can be changed. For a full breakdown on how to maximize your productivity, I recommend reading 2k to 10K by Rachel Aaron. I didn’t use her system when I was training up, but her methods are similar to mine and she’s got it all down in a concise guide. You can also take a course from Candace Havens, if you need more hands-on coaching.

If you have specific questions, I’m happy to answer them in comments.

Photo by Darcy McCarthy.

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About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. says

    Good points. We are indeed in control of our habits but have to be willing to invest the time and persevere to make it a habit and discipline. Thanks for the reminder.

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  2. says

    My process is constantly evolving, it seems (and I find that to be a good thing), so I’m definitely game to look at new ideas for increasing productivity. Thanks for the encouragement! :)

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  3. says

    This is perfect timing for me. I tend to be a ponderer — I write a few pages, ponder for a week, write a few more — and I’ve taken on the challenge of doing a faux NaNo (all of the companionship, none of the pressure) this month. I’m using your tips to keep up my word count even after November is over!

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  4. says

    By the way, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with people who write slowly. If that’s what they do and they’re happy with their productivity, then they should stick with it. My advice only applies to people who want to write more but aren’t sure how to go about it.

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  5. says

    Excellent advice, Ann! I’d like to add a little to this because some people may find it hard to come up with sufficient fictional ideas to write up 5 k/day! I believe that maintaining a blog helps keep your writing abilities in good shape.

    The blog is not your novel of course and it’s non-fiction (for the most part, unless you’re a poet. I’ve got a friend Jo von Bargen who’s a marvelous poet and all her blog posts are poems…amazing!) Still, the mere act of writing on your blog every day really helps to keep you in writing shape. Or you can do it every other day – actually I publish a post only once a week, but I fine tune my posts so I go back to them and expand them at least every other day: I like to produce quality content!

    And strangely enough, there is a connection here between fiction and non-fiction: I find that I write better, dialogues flow smoother and I catch my own typos more easily (after all, no editor goes through your blog posts: you’re entirely responsible for them!)

    In short, a blog is a good exercise, like doing the scales on a piano! I would love to have your opinion, Ann!

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    • says

      I don’t blog anymore because I found it to be time-consuming, and it took away from hours I could be spending on my paid writing. However, if other people find it to be helpful to include it as part of their training, then that’s totally cool.

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    • says

      There’s also the question of sustainability. I mean, when I was finishing Horde, I wrote 18K in less than 24 hours. I slept for 2 hours in that 24. I ate a meal and showered (but nothing more). That’s NOT a sustainable working pace long term; it leaves no room for anything else, and I pretty much only do it when I’m finishing a novel.

      So when you’re training up, you’re looking for a pace you can maintain regularly, all through the year. No burnout. No physical problems. And that number of words will be different for everyone, depending on age, joint health, etc. There’s no right answer. I can’t guarantee everyone will be able to hit 5K daily. But everyone can be -more- productive than they currently are, even if it’s only a few hundred words. And over time, they will add up.

      I also can’t stress enough how important it is to take time off. I don’t work weekends when I’m on a normal schedule. That’s two days a week where I rest my brain and my typing muscles. I also recommend 1-2 weeks off between projects. No writing at all during that time. Just relax and refuel.

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  6. says

    So very true – especially the part of ‘wanting’ it! As I train for my first full marathon, I’m trying hard to use the lessons learned there (one step at a time, one training run at a time, slow and steady, stick with the program, gradual increase of time and mileage) and apply them to my writing. Also finding the perfect time is important – I’ve found that afternoon runs are much better than trying to do it first thing in the morning when the last thing I want to do is run. In writing, working on NaNo, I’m finding that first thing in the morning is working.

    Great post, Ann, and perfect timing as I work toward a process that works ‘for me’! Thanks!

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    • says

      Yes! It’s so crucial to put the time in and to learn your own style. Some people’s brains just don’t wake up properly, so first thing isn’t best for them. You and I like to get our words done early. Once you’ve learned what fits best, it’s easier to turn it into a habit because you’re not forcing an unnatural fit.

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  7. says

    Interesting post! I’ve been taking a writing break for the last couple of weeks as I edit my manuscript I’m prepping for publishing. When I DO write, I try to do 2K a day. That seems to be possible for me and I can always write more on a given day if I’m up to it. I may eventually try and up this number, but do it as you say: a little at a time. :-) Great thoughts, Ann!

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  8. says

    For some people, writing sprints are a great help. Others find it helpful to “compete” with friends in word battles. I have done 1K1hr on Twitter before, but I have a friend who prefers to write in 40 minute bursts with a 15 minute break between each session. She can get crazy amounts of work done in that fashion. It all depends on what works for you. There’s no limit on HOW you can be more productive. :)

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  9. says

    Thanks for the excellent post. I’ve been trying to adapt and you’re right, it’s not something that happens overnight. Writing sprints have helped, especially since I’m always amazed that I can get four or five hundred words done in a short amount of time. I’ve set a goal of 2500 words a day going forward. I’m not there yet, but I’m hopeful that my changes will help me reach it.

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  10. says

    Ann,
    This makes perfect sense to me. I can generate 2000 words in a three-hour block of uninterrupted writing time. It took me several novels and doing NaNo to get to this level. The wild card, though, is when something in the story is not working. That will bring my productivity to a grinding halt. That is when I need to employ strategies to overcome writer’s block. Thanks for sharing this approach to increasing the daily word count.

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  11. says

    Thanks for the encouragement. I keep thinking to myself “if only I wrote faster” etc, etc, but thanks for pointing out it’s a matter of getting myself there… not actually expecting myself to instantly be able to execute such a feat!

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  12. says

    Thanks for the great blog. Personally, whether it involves writing more/faster or some other aspect of writing, every author can benefit from a change up in their process. It doesn’t need to be much–and you just never know when something will click and be an excellent addition to your process. I’ve tried lots of methods of writing, plotting, editing–you name it. And been surprised how some work well as is, some with a little tweaking, and some not at all. If they don’t, well at least I know that’s not for me. ;)

    Good to know that creating a habit takes even longer than the ‘experts’ once said.

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  13. says

    Train up! I like that. Yes I too was one of those revise as you go disciples and I found it worked for me for a while then it slowed me down and now it’s stopped progress altogether, worrying about getting one chapter perfect before moving on to the next.
    I think…no I know I do have to train up and get myself out of that rut once and for all.

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  14. Ray Pace says

    I’m in my first shot at doing nanowrimo and yesterday did my first 5,000 word day. It took almost two weeks to get to that daily level.

    I have noticed that at that high speed it’s almost like taking dictation. My characters are blurting out info and questions they want brought to the forefront.

    Having done long distance running, I know there’s a runner’s high. I’m now thinking there’s a writer’s high also that comes with kicking it into high gear.

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  15. says

    I have sworn before the gods that I am a slow writer and could never do more than 2k-3k in a day (a very good day). Yet, I’ve never tried. Especially, I’ve never tried in the slow habit-building increments you suggest. Yet, I’ve done that for building other habits. Somehow it just seemed impossible. But knowing there’s a system for the fast draft and thinking of trying something different with “my process” really inspires me. Next project, I’m trying something new. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS POST!!!

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  16. says

    Just downloaded 2k-10k. Funnily enough, I’ve been looking at “couch to 5k” and “couch to half-marathon” training ideas for the spring and the ideas aren’t so different. Excited!

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  17. says

    An excellent, no-nonsense approach to getting a lt more writing done. Why should writing be any different from say…running? We move into the Zone at our own pace, finding our own rhythm. We flex our muscles and bit by bit they grow stronger and we can sprint further..either with words or legs!

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  18. Linda Pennell says

    Ann,
    Great post! It’s a terrific reminder of what can come through determination. We all know that writing is an art, but it is easier to overlook that it is also a skill. Just like learning to play the piano for the concert stage or throw a football into the hands of an NFL receiver, the skill of writing must be practiced with planning, precision, and forethought to improve and attain one’s goals.

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  19. says

    Thanks Ann. This is great. I’m going to try to bump up my daily total a tad. I’ve done the 1k1hr on twitter and that actually gets me to write more. Too bad those are not happening all day long. :)

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  20. says

    My process used to be this: (1) Come up with shiny new idea (2) Write furiously (3) Lose faith (4) Spend 9 months rewriting the first half of the book (5) Lose heart (6) Scream (7) Cry (8) Yell at myself for telling peeps about the novel so I couldn’t dump it (9) Go back to it & HATE my book, the characters, my life. THEN, after I read Stephen King’s book On Writing, where he suggested your approach, write the first draft in 1-2k per day then go back & edit ONLY after the first draft is complete, I changed. I wrote those 1k-2k per day, it was grand (although I resented the fact that I wasted so my time the other way.) It worked but I relapsed, tinkered away again. Now I’m back on track with his/your method but I JUST realized my main character has a motivation-lacking problem & I need to fix. That evil editor and the first half of the book are whispering again. NO! So I took your sage advice, made that little “side” list you suggested and hope I can resist it until the draft is complete (well with the first half oh so edited!). THANK U!

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  21. says

    For me, I have to do edits as I go. Like you, I’ll put down ideas I need to fix, but it is usually things that I need to ruminate on a bit before I get the idea right. I make a note and move on, letting my subconscious work on it a bit before I come back to it (I have about three scenes like that ATM).

    But I also realize that if I wait too long to do certain types of edits, I never will. A version of the story will get cemented into my brain as being “the way it is” and, short of deleting the entire section and starting over (which I’ve done), I can’ t change it. I don’t like deleting and rewriting scenes like that, but I’ve had to do it because my mind gets biased by what is already on the screen.

    That being said, my editing as I go doesn’t really impact my writing speed (at least that I think) as I can write as much as 10 or 15k words in one day. Granted, that usually requires several days of brainstorming before that burst, but still good progress.

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  22. says

    I love this post. I’m always looking for ways to be a more efficient writer. As luck would have it, I took a seminar with Candace Havens. She, um, sort of blew my mind. A first draft in two weeks? That concept is still rolling around in my muddled brain. But seriously, I loved her class and will use a lot of those techniques, even if I don’t ever do the two-week draft. Extremely helpful.

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  23. says

    Love this post–shared it on Twitter. I have very limited time in which to write, and so I’ve had to constantly alter my process to fit my schedule. I can tell it’s less than ideal, but it’s what I’ve got, and so I do my best to make the most of it. I’m always curious about ways to streamline the writing process, and this advice was so practical, it really resonated with me. I particularly loved this part: “You have to believe your process isn’t magical, handed down by the divine muse.” Thanks for sharing!

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  24. says

    You’ve hit upon something that I’m now struggling with. I tend to edit as I go, and though it wasn’t a problem when I was younger and single, I don’t have so much time on my hands nowadays. It’s taking me forever to get through my WIP. I think it’s time for a change. Thanks for the recommendation on some research materials. Good post.

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  25. says

    Important post—I use a storyboard and don’t count words.

    I think that that alone can hang you up. I honestly don’t get the rush; the race is on thing. Why? Your writing will reflect that. I’ve never had writer’s block and simply beleive in the process.

    This blog is so wonderful, gives me fresh air to inhale and words full of power…and the comments are just priceless. So grateful to be here.

    Thank you!

    —Jay

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  26. says

    I have read many explanations on how to find what time of day works best for you to write, but I have never had it explained as “sweet spot”. That specific description made it a lot easier to pinpoint when I get the most writing done!

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  27. says

    One can definitely rewrite one’s brain! Like you, I used to be a tinkerer-while-drafting. It’d take me forever to finish something, and I would marvel at everyone who could get a draft done in six months. I made myself learn to leave revisions until the end, and now I’m at about six to seven months for a first draft. They’re poorer first drafts, for sure, and the rounds of revision are heavier, but they’re also substantial. I get more done and a better novel in the same amount of overall time (drafting + revisions, because I have more time to focus on the revisions).

    I used to only be able to write at a certain time of day. Now I’m not so mentally bound (although work, etc., does constrain my time). It’s ALL about mental attitude, and that can be changed.

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    • says

      I’m so glad you said that! I’m NOT a morning person, but I like getting my words done right away, so I have a clear plate for the rest of the day. So I gradually trained myself to work early even though I’m not a morning person. It’s not my natural sweet spot, but it became so with training. NOW I have a hard time writing later because the day’s events can often distract or derail me.

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  28. says

    I love Rachel Aaron’s guide. I stumbled over it last year on her blog and it has been really illuminating to keep track of what I write, every day (or not). Just that process of observation has helped me understand where I falter, and more, how I actually write, at what times of day, etc. I’ve been writing novels for twenty five years, and yes, you can train yourself new ways to do things.

    Also, my beloved started reading her books. :)

    There is so much work racing through my head right now that getting faster is a big goal of mine (and I’m not slow).

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  29. Ronda Roaring says

    Ann, I’m glad you wrote about your ability to crank them out. When I first read an article about you several months ago and saw how much you were producing, I was curious about how you maintained such an output.

    I have to admit that I haven’t read anything you’ve written, but I was wondering about the issue of sacrificing quality for quantity.

    I’m also curious about how using Dragon has affected your style. I got Dragon recently and found that it is difficult for me to think/write while talking. There’s something about the act of typing that helps my mental flow.

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  30. says

    I’ve been thinking about process a lot lately. I tried to do NaNoWriMo and had a bit of a breakdown within the first few days. It was because I hadn’t thought much about process before beginning. So, I decided to stop. I took a few days, completely threw out NaNoWriMo, and recouped. The break turned out to be a really good thing. I settled in at a table in Starbucks one morning and wrote short snippets of everything I had in my head about the story in the order I wanted the events to occur. After that, I realized I had a good outline to work with. My thinking is that I’ll write these big chunks in my head and fill in the gaps after ward. Then, when I have a solid first draft, I’ll go back through it and start revising. I don’t know if this will work, but it’s the only way I can think of right now to finally get this story written.

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  31. Jagoda Perich-Anderson says

    Your advice is super helpful, Ann, and even inspiring. A practical, down-to-earth and realistic “you can do it” affirmation. Now all I have to do is start building that new habit, one day at a time for 3-4 months until it becomes automatic.

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  32. says

    Recently we discovered how we write by hearkening our minds back to our schooling days. What first got us really interested in writing in the first place was the realization that we could go crazy with our assignments, beginning with a basic idea and then introducing anything we felt was necessary (even if that turned out to be a three-headed werewolf). We wrote our first book in much the same way (that is, with a very basic storyline, not a three-headed werewolf). But when it came time for our second novel, we got so excited that we wrote a complete plot outline detailing every single scene. This, as it turned out, squashed our creativity when it came time to the actual writing of the story. Now, with a better understanding of how exactly we write, our prospects for the future are a little better.

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