Write It! How to Overcome Roadblocks, Finish Your Project, and Get It Out There
by Brian Mercer
It took me ten years to write The Kaladrious Reflection, an epic science fiction trilogy. My next book, a 110,000-word mainstream novel, I finished in just ten weeks. What follows are the techniques I used to streamline the writing process, to go from taking years to completing my projects, to finishing in only weeks.
Technique #1: Set daily, small, easily achievable writing goals. In life you get to define success. Define success in a way that you know you can't lose. When it comes to setting daily writing goals, don't take on too much. If you're too ambitious, you're only going to get discouraged. Set daily, small, easily achievable goals. The key word there is "daily.
There's a power in doing something a little each day, accomplishing it and feeling good about it. It's those constant little successes that are going to motivate you to get your butt behind your desk every day, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you habitually write a little each day, you'll get into a rhythm and your subconscious will be primed to spill words out onto the page the moment you sit down.
Example: There's a fallacy that you need long, unbroken stretches of time to get serious work done. I dispelled that myth early on, when my office manager allowed me to modify my schedule from eight-hour days to nine-hour days in order to take every other Friday off. The idea of having an entire day to write every other week seemed like the perfect way to finish my novel quickly.
In practice, however, I found I got less accomplished with my new schedule than I did when I worked a regular eight-hour day. The reason quickly became apparent. Since I was getting up an hour earlier to go to work, I had less time for my daily writing sessions; I was essentially saving my writing time for my days off. The problem was that I was never productive every moment of my day off. I'd take stretch breaks, breaks to eat, breaks to use the bathroom. There were always interruptions.
I solved these issues by returning to my old, eight-hour schedule. I still came into work an hour early, but instead of working, I wrote. While I couldn't write for ten hours straight on my day off, I could write ten hours in one-hour increments over the two week work cycle. After writing habitually at the same time each morning, I found myself brimming with ideas. When I sat down to write, I couldn't type fast enough.
Each two-week cycle I'd have as much as twenty or thirty pages, instead of the paltry eight pages that I'd write on my days off. And it was easily my best work to date. That's the power of doing a little each day.
Tips for daily goal setting:
Set a goal that you know you can effortlessly accomplish. Maybe it's writing fifteen minutes each morning. Or writing a paragraph on your lunch break. Your aim is to build daily momentum. Half the battle is getting your butt in the chair.
If possible, make your goal time-oriented rather than page-oriented. If you've been studying the habits of professional writers, you've undoubtedly heard this advice: Write one page a day. But I say, write one hour a day instead. Or a half-hour. Or fifteen minutes. Writing a page can take fifteen minutes or two hours, depending on your subject, mood, and environment. When you set a time-goal, however, as long as you block off the time properly, you know you can accomplish it every day.
If possible, break large writing sessions down into smaller sessions. If you have the luxury of writing for multiple hours every day, break a long session into smaller, hour-long sessions. While you might not be absolutely productive for three continuous hours in one stretch, you're likely to use the time more effectively writing, say, an hour in the morning, an hour at lunch, and an hour in the evening. If you do this habitually, you'll find your subconscious will be working even when you're not actually at your desk. When it finally comes time to capture your thoughts, the prose often comes in long, continuous streams of consciousness.
Technique #2: Write first thing; wake up early if necessary. You've likely heard this advice before. That's because it works, and not just for writing. Whatever is most important in your life, whether it’s writing or studying or exercising, do it first thing. If you don't, life inevitably intervenes.
Example: A few years ago, I had a twelve-week deadline to write six one-hour scripts, a 60-page instruction booklet, and to complete the altered-state sound engineering for a CD companion album to my first book. I had to do all this while 1) my co-author was on tour and couldn't help, 2) I was going through a major house remodel, 3) I was working full-time, 4) I was scheduled to travel out of the country for two weeks, and 5) I was preparing for the PNWA's annual 3-day writers conference. Waking at 5:30 AM every morning and writing allowed me to finish the project on schedule when I otherwise would have been unable to find time to write.
I realize that not everyone is a "morning person," so rising at the crack of dawn won't work for everybody, but the earlier in the day you can schedule your writing sessions, the better.
Technique #3: Use motivational triggers to your advantage. Almost everyone who loves to write has an activity that, when they're engaged in it, compels them to write. Maybe it's reading a good book or books by a particular author. Maybe reading poetry or listening to music (especially cinematic soundtracks) inspires you to dance with the muse. Maybe what motivates you is watching movies or listening to Uncle Bert tell stories about the old days.
Example: There was a period in my life when my only free time was during my work lunch hour. So I made a pact with myself: I'd spend my lunch break alternating between reading a book and writing a chapter on my current project. I promised myself that I wouldn't write a word until I finished the book I was reading, and I wouldn't read anything else until I'd finished writing my next chapter.
I found that when I was reading, all I wanted to do was write. And so I'd hurriedly finish my book so I could work on my next chapter. When I was writing, all I wanted to do was read my next book, so I'd write as quickly as I could so I could read another novel. During this period I wrote a tremendous amount of material and finished a great deal of books.
What inspires you to write? I can't tell you what that is. It's different for everyone. Think about it, recognize it when it happens, and habitually engage in that activity to keep you motivated.
Technique #4: Writer's block is an indication of a larger plot or structural issue; go back and re-evaluate. First, let me define writer's block. I don't mean staring at a blank page, not knowing how to begin. I don't know what that is -- maybe not knowing what your next project's going to be -- but it isn't writer's block.
What I mean by writer's block is when your story is moving happily along and suddenly you hit a roadblock and are unable to continue. Now nothing seems to work and you spend hours, days, even weeks, wrestling with a specific scene or chapter.
Often it's not the scene or chapter itself that's causing the problem but a larger plot or structural issue that, when solved, eliminates the problem.
Example: I was working on the third draft of my science fiction trilogy when I ran into a case of writer's block that for weeks left me puzzled about how to continue. In the scene, my protagonist was in a dark, thickly-treed, alien forest. After weeks of being relentlessly pursued by an army of colonial militia, thousands of troops were finally closing in on him.
In previous drafts his escape had been easy enough to craft. But now, in draft three, he kept getting shot! As much as I tried, what had worked in drafts one and two wasn't working now. I was baffled for weeks until I learned that writer's block is often the result of a plot flaw or structural problem.
When I reevaluated the overall story, I realized that I had made the army that was hunting for my hero a lot stronger than I had in previous drafts. So, when I tried to have him escape, it no longer seemed plausible that he could simply slip away. I eventually solved this problem by inserting a new scene from the army's perspective, listing out all the difficulties they'd had during their long and tedious search. As a result, it made the army seem less omnipotent, made the story more three-dimensional, and allowed my character to get away in the manner I'd originally intended.
Technique #5: As writers we are all mini project managers. Plan! Think for a minute of all the tasks necessary to write a book through to publication: There's creating a plot or story idea, coming up with the conflict, story arc, main and impact character through-lines, etc. There's creating memorable, interesting characters. There's writing the first draft, editing and rewriting successive drafts, and formatting your manuscript for submission. There's authoring a query letter, writing a synopsis, and researching and contacting the appropriate agents and editors who might be interested in your work. And when your book gets accepted for publication, that's when the work really begins. All together, the process could take months or even years to complete.
My point is that writing a book is a complex project. By default, then, we as writers are all de facto project managers. One of the things you'd hear if you trained to be a project manager is that on a good project, half the time as project manager is spent planning.
At the top of this article, I told you I'd written my 110,000-word novel in just ten weeks. But what I didn't tell you was that I spent the ten weeks prior to writing it sketching out scenes, characters, and settings. In short, I had a plan.
Notice, I didn't use the word outline. The term "outlining" has a lot of unnecessary baggage attached to it. Planning may mean writing an outline or it may mean organizing notes about your characters, plot, and setting. It could mean jotting down ideas or historical background. Or it might mean having a mini-recorder on hand to capture dialogue or fragments of prose.
If you were a good carpenter and you had enough wood, concrete, nails and the proper tools, there's nothing stopping you from successfully building a house. But I submit that if you had a blueprint, you could build the house better, quicker, and more efficiently. The same applies to writing your book.
Example: When I'd finished outlining my latest novel, I began writing. I had just about finished chapter three when I realized a critical problem: When I looked at the scenes I had written and averaged the number of pages per scene, then multiplied that average by the number of scenes in my outline, I realized I had twice as much book than I had intended; a 220,000-word novel instead of the 110,000-word novel that I wanted to write.
If I hadn't planned, I wouldn't have discovered my error until I well into writing the book. While it was painful to spend the weekend revising my outline, merging some scenes and cutting others altogether, it would have taken a lot longer and been a lot more painful if I had to cut and merge scenes that I'd already written. As it was, I could address the issue before it became a gut-wrenching, tedious, time-consuming chore.
There's nothing wrong with making things up as you write but, in the end, it will take longer. The myth for most people who don't like the idea of planning their stories ahead of time is that planning kills spontaneity. They fear they'll be robbed of those magical moments when their characters take them off in creative and unforeseen directions.
I can tell you, having written stories both ways, that planning doesn't steal away those magical moments. Planning a story is like planning a vacation. If your itinerary has you in a museum when you'd rather walk along the lake, then walk along the lake! Plans are as malleable as you make them.
Using these techniques, I've managed to pump out a tremendous amount of work in short periods of time. Clearly, everyone works a little differently and what works for me won't necessarily apply universally. But if you set daily, small, easily achievable writing goals, write first thing, use motivational triggers, re-evaluate your story when you're blocked, and plan your novel ahead of time, you can go a long way toward finishing your project and getting it out there.
Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection(Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara. www.masteringastralprojection.com