I’ve read that nothing is more daunting than a blank page. I disagree. I think there’s nothing more daunting than the first blank page of several hundred blank pages. When you sit at the keyboard to start writing a large work, be it a novel or a dissertation, the sheer scope of what you are about to undertake can seem overwhelming. How are you ever going to get from that first blank page to the end of the first draft?
It took me twelve months to get from the first blank page to my first completed novel manuscript. I wrote a dissertation many years ago, so I knew I could finish a large work. But still, watching that word count creep upwards was agonising, and reaching the end was impossible to imagine. Fast-forward a couple of years and I am working on the final scenes of a murder mystery novel. In fact, it’s the second manuscript I’ve written this year. Two novels from inception to completed first draft in six months — a fourfold increase in productivity.
“How are you ever going to get from that first blank page to the end of the first draft?”
How did I achieve this boost in my writing output? Part of it was motivation. I looked at how long it was taking me to write and revise a manuscript, and I realised I was simply working too slowly. I made a conscious decision to devote more of my free time to writing. I started thinking of myself as a writer. I followed James Scott Bell’s advice and bought a coffee mug with Writer on the side. And I invested in Scrivener, a piece of software designed to make writing large works easier and more natural. It was a question of taking my writing seriously.
That was the start. Next I began reading about the craft of writing. I read books. I read blogs. I read discussion forums. And every time I found something useful I incorporated it into my own writing regimen. I found it tremendously encouraging to learn that successful authors face the same struggles I faced myself. The dreaded blank page. The enormity of the goal, impossibly distant. These are some of the writing tips I’ve found most useful.
1. Write often
Most of the advice I came across says to write every day. This is certainly what I aspire to, but unless you are writing for a living and have no other responsibilities it’s not always practical. I aim for a minimum of three nights a week where I devote a few hours to writing, and at least one day on the weekend. It’s surprising how many words you can get down if you set aside 10 hours a week for nothing but writing.
2. When you are writing, write
This piece of advice takes many forms, but it boils down to this: in your allocated writing time, make sure you are writing. James D. Macdonald, a prolific Science Fiction author who contributes to the Absolute Write forums, calls it the Butt In Chair method. He advocates setting aside two hours every day to write, and during those two hours you are either writing or you are staring at a blank wall. No television, no radio, no internet. (More on this later.) James Scott Bell has similar advice, and I’ve heard that Bryce Courtney calls it bum-glue.
3. Minimise distractions
We all get distracted from time to time. When you are struggling with your current task, it can seem tremendously important that you vacuum the carpet. Or dust the bookshelves. Or alphabetise your DVD collection. Resist the temptation. If you are in your allocated writing time, you must write. I like to go somewhere with no internet connection and nobody to talk to. I find a quiet environment is helpful, but a single person whispering in an otherwise silent room is actually more distracting to me than the quiet background murmur of a dozen conversations. Another huge help is Scrivener’s Full Screen Mode. No menus to fiddle with, no word count to obsess over, no icons beckoning to me. Just my words on the screen.
These are my personal bugbears — you should make a note whenever you find yourself doing something other than writing during your writing time. What caused you to lose focus? What steps can you take next time to stop that from happening?
4. Find a place to write
Some people can write anywhere. Plonk them down with a laptop and they are immediately swept away by the current of their imagination. I prefer to build up positive associations between specific places and successful writing sessions. I know that when I’m in my writing place, I’m there to write. I don’t write well in the living room, even when I’ve disconnected the internet and had as much coffee as my body can handle. I have too many other associations with that space. But when I’m at the State Library, nestled beneath the stately dome, seated at an ancient wooden desk, I’m all about the writing.
The same goes for the cafes near the library. Even during my coffee breaks I settle in and crank out a few hundred words while I refuel. For some people it might be a study, or a den. It doesn’t matter what kind of space suits you, so long as it makes it easier for you to write while you are there.
5. Set goals
Obviously your goal is to finish your manuscript, or your dissertation. But a single, monolithic goal is hard to achieve. Far better to set small, frequent, and above all achievable goals. This might be a time goal, like James D. Macdonald’s two hours of Butt In Chair. Or it might be a word count goal, as recommended by James Scott Bell. Bell suggests starting with what he calls the nifty 350. Each day he makes sure to write three hundred and fifty words, working on the assumption that once he starts it is actually easier to keep going. Often he passes 350 without noticing, and sails on to one or two thousand words. I can vouch for this myself.
Another goal-setting exercise is the 10 K Day, where you and a writing buddy aim to do nothing but write from 9 am until 5 pm, with a fifteen minute break every two hours. I’ve done several of these now, and though I never hit ten thousand words in a 10 K Day, I did see dramatic spikes in my productivity.
This is another point where Scrivener shines. You can set all kinds of word count targets for your writing. You can set a word target for your entire manuscript, which gives you a handy progress meter as you plough your way towards the end of your first draft. You can also set a target for an individual writing session, which counts the number of words from when you fired up Scrivener for the day.
My personal favourite is a word count for individual documents within your manuscript. I write each scene as a separate document. I may decide at the outset that a scene should be two thousand words, or it may be a simple cut-away scene of five hundred words. Either way, I get a progress bar and an icon that changes to green when I’ve hit the target.
6. Reward yourself
Give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve hit one of your major milestones. Maybe you’re half way through the first draft, or you’ve hit your daily word count every day for a week. Whatever the occasion, give yourself a treat. Likewise, be understanding with yourself when you suffer setbacks. If something crops up that prevents you from hitting your target on time, cut yourself some slack. The aim is to be your own cheer squad, not to get down on yourself.
You need to be in a good frame of mind to write, and if you are too busy punishing yourself to write well you will be on your way to a downward spiral. Of course, if you find that you are missing your targets more often than hitting them, you may need to revise your targets, or examine the nature of the disturbances. It may be that you haven’t followed points 1−5 as well as you could.