When you prepare for NaNoWriMo you hear a lot of advice about "writing as quick as you can" or "not editing as you write", while the latter will be easier for some than it is for others, that first instruction to "write as quick as you can" is not universally easy when you don't know how fast you can write.
As a copywriter, blogger and now author of fiction, I have trained myself to write fast because I know that although a first draft is never "the finished product", it is "a product that I need in order to finish".
In an ideal world the required research for an article I'm writing for a client or a chapter for one of my books, would come before any first draft, but when I have a deadline, an already reasonable grasp of a subject and the need to have plenty of editing time - which is fast becoming the case for 90% of my writing - I much prefer to just write a first draft as quickly as I can and then add in details or do thorough fact-checking later. Only rarely does this approach backfire, which is good enough for me.
In addition to using a number of these tools and resources for distraction-free writing, below is a list of the things I do in order to write that first draft quickly, and I hope they help you too as you approach NaNoWriMo or any of your writing goals.
Go to the toilet before you start
Now, I don't want to sound like your mum before a long car journey but interruptions are detrimental to writing quicklyand not going to the toilet is detrimental to your physical health.
So empty your bladder, fill up a receptacle with your drink of choice and put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door to your office, bedroom, shoe cupboard, or wherever you choose to write. Now you can begin...
Know what you want to write
Not everyone can write on demand and the art of "freestyle writing" is just that, an art. If you struggle to get going, spend the first ten minutes of every writing session creating a list of things you want to achieve in the time you have, then cross them off as you go. The act of eliminating tasks from this To Write List should also fuel speedier writing and the focus helps ensure you're writing what you're supposed to.
One small piece of advice to accompany this: When it comes to fiction, don't be to strict with how closely you stick to these goals... if you find yourself moving in a completely different direction - and the words are still pumping themselves out of your fingers tips - roll with it.
Don't look back in anger... and edit
This is one of the fundamental rules of NaNoWriMo and one you shouldn't mess with if you want to win at the challenge.
Editing is time-intensive and can knock future progress of your novel off track. If you have to read what's been written before in order to get writing again, I thoroughly recommend an alternate approach, namely leaving notes for your self at the end of a writing session which tell you where the story needs to go next.
Create a routine and happy writing place
Our brain loves repetition and associations. By writing roughly at the same time, in the same place under the same or similar conditions - think same writing music/playlist, maybe light a candle, and drink the same drink each writing session - your brain will associate all these things with writing and so will do some of the hard work for you in terms of getting you ready to write.
Frankie Says Relax
A deadline, a daily word goal and an over-arching objective of finishing a book or a chunk of client work can put pressure on the speediest of productive writers.
Breathe. Chill out. Stretch.
You've got this.
A stressed writer is never a speedy writer. Plus stress gives you wrinkles and bad skin, which doesn't really matter during NaNoWriMo month as you won't see many people but don't make leaving the confines of your writing den on December 1st any harder than it has to be.
Don't worry about repetition, grammar and spelling (within reason)
"The first draft of everything is shit" said Hemingway so make sure yours is too by not giving a monkeys about things being spelt correctly (even when you know they're not), about the correct use of grammar and especially don't sweat it when you find yourself starting the third sentence in a row with the same word (guilty!!).
Of course, if you can avoid doing these things you will save yourself time in the long run but when you're still working on picking up your speed and meeting word count deadlines, I would always say that pace and quantity is more important at this stage. However, if you are aware that you're using the same words too many times, or misspelling the same words repeatedly, a list of these culprits on a Post-It note by your workspace should put a stop to their antics.
Have a system
Writing is always a bit like running hurdles, as fast as you are able to go, there are always obstacles you have to leap over in order to maintain your pace. Have a system for dealing with those many obstacles.
My system includes:
- Using "XX" when I can't remember a name or detail or date for something. I can easily go back and find this out later.
- Using initials for names if typing them out takes too long (don't worry they should still contribute to your word count).
- Using "said" for all dialogue, which some writers consider best practice anyway, but for me, it's just one less thing to think about when I'm writing a conversation between characters (and often, if I'm really going good guns and the conversation is just between two people, I'll just leave out the "he said" or "she said" and simply type out dialogue.)
- Using short versions of words. I use numbers over words for numbers; I use "&" for "and";
- Using brackets for leaving notes for myself in Caps, if i'm not happy about something I've written and I find myself twitching about not acknowledging this, e.g. (CHECK THIS) or (CAN ELABORATE IF REQUIRED) or (THIS MAY NOT BE RELEVANT) or (TOO SALESY?). The latter comment is something I try not to do in NaNoWriMo as that's a tone of voice/editing comment, which should be assessed later (after 30th November) but sometimes when you know something isn't right, and you know your future self may not realise this, you feel it wouldn't be right to just ignore it.
Leave blanks to fill with research
In addition to the use of "XX", I also use [ ] to leave comments about research that is needed later, more often than not this is to do with description of a place or a person, which I either don't have the knowledge of yet to write, or possibly most likely, I simply can't be bothered at this time.
[INSERT DESCRIPTION OF TOWN] or [INSERT BACKGROUND ABOUT FAMILY'S DISFUNCTION] or [CHOOSE BEST ENDING]
Yes, I have actually used the last one, which leads me nicely into...
Write two different endings/beginnings/paragraphs and decide later
I know this sounds a bit converse - writing more to write quicker - but I know that anything that stops you writing and makes you think too much is a danger to fast, productive writing. Too often in previous cases, I have become stumped about a scene - most frequently a beginning or an ending - and my preoccupation with it eats into my writing time. I therefore write multiple versions of a scene I'm not happy with in order to process my hesitation and make it nice and easy for me to decide later what I want to happen.
When it comes to writing fiction, I don't always make up my mind about how a story is going to end (or start, or even be developped in the middle) and this can still be the case when I'm writing it. Two definite examples of this from London Eyes, were Keep the Change and The Tourist. In both cases, I had alternate endings and it wasn't until several re-writes of each that I decided on an ending, a process that was only helped by saving two separate versions of the story. After letting some time pass, I read each one with fresh eyes and this helped me "see" which ending was best. I had doubts over the ending of each story at the time of writing the first draft, so I plan on writing multiple versions of an ending or beginning etc in my first draft of next month's novel so when I come back to it, I may be able to see which one is best. Another bonus of this is that it will add to my word count
The same is often true for much of my copywriting work, I also write several versions of the copy before I really pinpoint a style and tone of voice that helps achieve what the client wants.
Skip to the good stuff
No matter how much you enjoy writing, there will be things you thrive from working on and others that feel like pulling teeth without anaesthetic. A lack of enjoyment will frequently equal a lack of speed so give yourself permission to push the ejector seat button when you feel your interest and writing pace slow down.
Reward your efforts
Chocolate, wine or your favourite TV show, have something at the end of your writing session as an incentive to get there. While the daily word count of 1667 words in NaNoWriMo is a nice clear goal, outside of the month of November, I set myself "timed sessions" for work, on the premise that if I finish sooner I can get up and do my fun activity sooner.
Because I write every day (for clients, myself and my books) and can't afford the calories of daily glasses of wine or chocolate, my reward is reading or watching an episode of whatever TV series we're ploughing through (currently Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire and The Wire (again)).
What tips or advice do you have for writing quickly? I'd love to hear them.
Remember to bookmark this page for the daily NaNoWriMo Inspiration posts that will be published here every day during November and you can read 21 reasons why you should do it in the first place.
Frances M. Thompson
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