Yesterday, Susan Meissner piqued our curiosity by talking about how she writes a 300 page book in 30 days. She closed by saying that her secret begins with the letter P, and challenged us to guess what P stands for. Several of you left comments making your guesses.
Today, Susan picks up where she left off yesterday:
My hat goes off to all who postulated what the P stands for. Never mind that I never wear a hat. A writer who is getting something done surely is pathologically passionate and an expert at perspiration. But pedantic perfectionists probably can’t write 300 pages in 30 days and be happy about it.
I want everyone to be happy.
I want world peace.
If you are a pedantic perfectionist, you’re going to have to snap out of it. Garrett gets the prize if there was a prize. His answer is the closest to that dynamic that enables me to write fast. His word is Planning. Mine is Pre-Writing. Both suggest there is something you do before you start to write, but mine is more specific. Lots of people can plan a party or a vegetable garden or a ground assault. But only writers pre-write.
Before you haters-of-outlining pack it up and leave, pre-writing is not about outlining. It’s not about taking something that evolves with an energy that is wildly kaleidoscopic and turning it into something that is static, tedious and smells of manacles.
It’s about the blessedness of familiarity.
Familiarity with your project — at every angle — is the Great Enabler. Pre-writing is all about tutoring yourself on the intimate details of your project. It’s knowing your book on the inside before you release it to the outside.
I write fiction. I invent people for whom something has gone very wrong, I plop them into a time and place that matters, and I make these people wrestle with that wrong thing until it changes or until they are changed.
And the best way for me to do all that is from the point of intimate knowledge. I must know these people. Not just what they look like or when they were born or what they do for a living, I need to know what they are afraid of, what they value most in other people, what they can’t get enough of. I need to know where they live. Not the street address or the color of their bedroom curtains. I need to know their environment like I know the setting of my own life story. The setting should matter. And I need to know why it matters.
If I’m going to write 300 pages in 30 days I must know the major plot pivots of my story arc up front. Any good story is a succession of plot turns that raises the stakes (as Donald Maass would say) and accelerates the story’s pace. Within the span of those 300 pages, I need to have four or five really meaty plot pivots; moments on which everything shifts. And the last one has to be stellar and it can’t happen on page 147. Timing is everything. My plot pivots have to be strategically placed (not perfectly or pedantically placed). How am I going to get from Plot Pivot 1 to Plot Pivot 2? I need to know that. Perhaps this smacks of outlining. It’s not outlining. If you let me keep at this, I’ll eventually tell you why.
Lastly, I need to know me. I need to know wherein lurk my greatest weaknesses. Writers are notoriously adept at procrastination. I need to know how to slay the procrastination monster that hovers at my elbow and has hungry eyes for my muse.
It all comes down to a lovely selection of P words: People, Place, Plot, Preparation and Pact. I plan to elaborate if you let me. It took me less than an hour to write this blog post. Why? I already knew what I was going to say. And no, I didn’t copy and paste this from previous workshop material. I wrote it all new just for you.
But it took less than 60 minutes because I am intensely familiar with this topic. I know it. When you are familiar with the subject matter, you can write 650 words in 60 minutes. I just did.
Hey, did you know if you wrote 650 words in 60 minutes, you could conceivably write 1300 words in two hours, and 2,600 words in four hours? Do you know how many words are in 10 pages? About 2,800 give or take. And did you know if you wrote 2,800 words a day, which would be 10 pages a day, why, you’d have 300 pages in 30 days?
Now you’re probably wondering how I can know all the intimate details of my story before I start to write it.
I thought you’d never ask . . .
Randy sez: I’m glad to hear someone besides me talk about pre-planning a novel. I whole-heartedly agree. Knowing your story before you start writing it is key to writing fast. My typical hourly rate is around 1000 words per hour, though I have been known to write 1500 words in 40 minutes when the story was really ripping along. I don’t have to try to make this happen. I just sit down and write. But I spend a lot of time thinking out my story before I ever start writing. I know a few people who write substantially faster than I do and a lot who write substantially slower.
By the way, life is not a contest to see who writes the fastest. Speed is really not that big a deal. What matters is getting your story written as well as you’re able to do it. If you write best by writing relatively fast, then don’t try to slow yourself down unnecessarily in a vain attempt to write better by writing slower. Likewise, if you write best by writing relatively slowly, don’t try to speed up just to get it done quicker. Find the speed that works best for you. Writing fiction should be fun, not drudge-work.
OK, Sooz, hit us with the next installment. What’s your process for learning your story before you write it? You get extra credit if you use the word “snow” in your answer.