Archives for category: How to Write a Novel

Yesterday I spent the entire day preparing for a vacation I’m about to take, but instead of cramming in as many words on my WIP (work in progress), I spent the day scheduling my tweets for the week. I have an unspoken rule with myself: in order for me to call a day “productive,” I must meet a minimum word-count requirement of 2K, ideally 3K. According to these terms, yesterday was a very unproductive day. When I think about it, Twitter and blogging are the two activities that normally hinder my word count on these less productive days. I began to wonder if I should reassess my definition of “productive.” Yes, writing is all about the writing, but there’s got to be a reason why I spend so much time tweeting and blogging.

For me, Twitter is like a water cooler. It’s were I go to mingle with other writers and to gather information on the industry. But Twitter can also be a time drain for many writers. I know this from personal experience. Far too often, Twitter is like my candy dish, as opposed to my water cooler. I know I shouldn’t reach into the dish every time I pass it, but I do.

When all is said and done, I am a writer and my loyalties rest with my word count. Yes, it’s okay to have a day or two of Twitter/blogging activities every so often, but anymore than that, and I’m only making it harder for myself to jump back into that WIP.

Here are some tips I’ve developed in attempt to keep myself from falling into the “Twitter Abyss”–that nasty state of wandering from tweet to tweet while ignoring your writing. I hope other writers will find these tips helpful in structuring their days and in improving word counts.

1) Know your ideal word count, and aim for 50-75% of it every day. To determine your ideal word count, pick a day without distraction (yeah, right), and write for 5-8 hours straight, taking a 10-15 minute break after each hour of writing. Make sure to have an outline for each scene before you start this day, and make sure to keep writing, no matter what, in between those sweet breaks. Your word count at the end of this session is your ideal word count (for now). Your ideal word count will most likely increase as your writing skills grow.  Now, calculate your daily word count goal. So, if you wrote 3K in 5 hours, then you should aim for a minimum of 1.5-2K words/day, 4-5X’s/week.

2) Post your daily word count on Twitter at the end of every day. I started doing this a few months ago, and having that public accountability has upped my sense of duty. I want to meet my word count because I know I will be posting it for others to see. This was terrifying for me at first, but now that I’ve been doing it, I can’t stop.

3) Host writing sprints on Twitter. If you’re dragging or feeling distracted, send out a tweet inviting others to join you for a writing sprint. Set the time. I like to do 30-60min sprints, during the afternoon. Ask participants to tweet their word count at the end of the sprint. Then, write. To illustrate, the last sprint I hosted was a half-hour lunch sprint in which participants wrote as many words as they could from 12:00-12:30p.m. EST (or something like that). This little sprint motivated me to write 500 words during that session, and I’m hoping it motivated others on toward their goals too. Just imagine how many words you could write per day with 3 one-hour sprint sessions.

4) Use TweetDeck to prioritize what tweets you actually read. HUGE TIME SAVER. I do this, and now, instead of weeding through tweets from the 1K+ accounts I follow, I can simply create a column for my top 40 accounts. I only see the tweets from those accounts, so I’m less tempted to keep scrolling through the endless feed from every account I follow. Okay, I still scroll through the endless feed sometimes.

5)Use a service like FutureTweets to schedule your tweets ahead of time. I find that I’m less tempted to search around on Twitter when I do this. I also feel less pressure to constantly log on, find something to tweet about, then tweet. I can take care of all my tweets in one or two sessions per day, and I don’t have to worry about killing my followers with a pile up of tweets at one time.

6) Twitter and/or blog on your breaks. At some point, you will need a break from your writing. I like to take mini breaks (5-10min) every hour, and a longish lunch break. Whenever I return form these breaks, I usually check my Twitter feed. Yes, these Twitter diversions sometimes take much longer than anticipated, so you might want to only check Twitter once every two hours or so.

The Key to Avoiding the Twitter Abyss

Whatever the case may be, I’d say that keeping yourself on the “write track” and not falling into the Twitter abyss boils down to 1)knowing your word count and 2)developing and sticking to a daily routine that helps you to maximize that word count. As much as writers may resist cliches, I can’t help but say it: The numbers don’t lie.

I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.