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Smashing The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

So you’re writing about six different novels all at the same time and none of them are getting done and you just can’t decide which to work on next. What do you do?

Katya posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am 22 year old college student. I am immensely in love with creating my own characters and worlds. Currently I have six projects, most of them more than one novel. The trouble I am having is picking the right one to work on. Sometimes I work a bit on this one, a bit on that one, but that does not help me finish any of my projects. I want to sit down and just finish one crappy first draft so I can polish it and be proud of finally finishing my first novel.

Do you have any tips when you are stuck with several projects and do not know which one to go with?

Thank you for your time,


Randy sez:  Katya, the good news is that a lot of writers would pay to have your problem, which is that you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ideas.

The bad news is that you have a bottleneck in your writing process. That bottleneck is strangling your production. You are spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

The good news is that you can break that bottleneck right now.

But first you have to identify it. 

Let’s start by identifying what you’re doing well. You’re generating ideas. Lots of ideas. So many that they’re competing for your attention, and you’re afraid that if you don’t work on them all right now, you’ll never work on them.

That’s an illusion. The reality is that by paying attention to all of them all at once, you are preventing ANY of them from ever getting published.

The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

That creates the biggest problem most novelists have: the fiction writing bottleneck.

What’s the solution?

Let me tell you a little story. About 15 years ago, my buddy John Olson had that same problem. I asked him what he was working on and he gave me a list of 10 different books he was working on. All at the same time.

I pointed out that he was working a full-time job and writing in his spare time. Even if he had 40 hours per week to write, he’d only be able to spend 4 hours per week on each book, and he was competing with professional writers who had 40 hours per week to commit to a single book. So John didn’t have a chance.

So I told John he had to pick one, any one of the ten, and commit to it. He picked one and agreed to make a firm commitment to write it, but only if I’d coauthor it with him. As it turned out, I really liked that idea, so I agreed to work on it. The result was our award-winning novel Oxygen.

Breaking the Bottleneck

Now how do you commit, Katya? There are two things you need to do, and these have to be firm decisions that you won’t back down from under any conditions:

  1. Pick one novel–any one of them. If you can’t decide, then flip a coin. Seriously. It truly doesn’t matter which you choose now, because ultimately you will choose all of them.
  2. Join the 500 Club. That means you commit to writing at least 500 words on that novel EVERY DAY until it’s done. No excuses. No rollover words from yesterday. Every day you have to put down 500 new words on that novel. You can write more words, but under no circumstances are you allowed to write fewer. You can edit some words from previous days, but that editing time doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is new words.

How does this solve your problem?

The answer is simple. At 500 words per day, minimum, you will finish that novel in just a few months. You can afford to set aside everything else temporarily because you are guaranteed to be done in a few months and then you can pick up the next project. And the next, and the next.

The fact is that just about every commercially successful novelist on the planet has a word count quota. Some of them have a time quota, but word count seems to me to be better, because you can waste 30 minutes staring at the screen, but you can’t write 500 words staring at the screen.

The Magic of the 500 Club

There is nothing magic about 500 words, by the way. Maybe you want to join the 250 Club instead. Maybe you can join the 1000 Club. Or even the 2000 Club. But whatever club you decide to join, make it a hard commitment. Absolutely no excuses unless you’re unconscious or giving birth or at the top of Mount Everest. And even in those cases, some writers would drill out their 500 words.

The magic comes from being totally committed. The bottleneck for most writers is the actual production of first draft copy. They don’t spend enough time on that. Which means they don’t have enough to edit or sell or promote.

Stephen King used to tell interviewers that he writes every day except Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. But he notes in his book On Writing that this was a lie. Because he writes every day including Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. And he’s in the 2000 Club. That is part of the reason he’s successful.

First draft copy is your number one priority as a writer. If you get that habit right, everything else will tend to fall into place.

The Fiction Writing Challenge For You

Katya, I challenge you to join the 500 Club for one month and then report back to me. Leave a comment here on this blog.

And the rest of my Loyal Blog Readers, I’ll give you the same challenge. Try the 500 Club for 30 days and report back to me in a comment here.

If you do that, one month from now you’ll have AT LEAST 15,000 words, and possibly much more. And 15,000 words per month, every month, is two full-length standard-size novels per year. Every year, for the rest of your life.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


Writing Fiction When Chaos Strikes Your Life

How do you keep writing when chaos strikes your life? When everything is suddenly different? When you feel like you’ve lost your rhythm?

Isaiah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello Mr. Ingermanson,

I am a junior in high school aiming to one day write a novel and hopefully make a career out of writing. I have been writing fiction since I was six years old, but really picked it up when I found your book “Writing Fiction for Dummies.”

Three years ago I came up with a really good idea for a book. Its been steeping in my head for almost four years and now I finally feel that the idea is ready to be put on paper. I’ve been writing it for about two months now, and I finished the prologue yesterday. The truth is that I have never had this much trouble writing, and here’s why I think that is. For seven years we lived in one place, and then we were forced to move, and then we moved again, and then we moved again, and were planning to move again. I can’t make a habit out of writing because my environment is constantly changing, my old desk which made me feel professional is in storage, all my books that sat on my shelf and made me feel smart are buried somewhere beneath all that furniture, and my bedroom walls that used to keep the noise away are gone. Do you have any suggestions on how I can re-kindle my old imagination and adequate ability to put it onto paper?

Randy sez: That’s a good question, Isaiah. The issue I think you’re facing here is that chaos has entered your life. You used to have stability. Now your family is constantly on the move, and that’s extremely unsettling.

You’re not alone. When major changes come up in your life, it’s going to put a crimp in your writing.

This happened to me years ago, when my kids got older and needed the room I’d been using as an office. So I went from having a nice quiet office to having a desk in the corner of the chaotic family room. And that really threw me for a while. It’s hard to focus on writing when people are interrupting or looking over your shoulder or just milling around.

And a few years later, my family and I sold our house, moved halfway across the country, rented an apartment for a few months, bought a house, and got settled in. Once again, major chaos for months and months.

So how do you deal with that?

First off, just acknowledge that a major change in your life is going to disrupt your writing. Unless you’re superhuman, it will. So you need to give yourself some slack here. At your age, a disruption of a few months may seem like forever, but in the grand scheme of things, you’ve got a long, productive life ahead of you. If you live to be 100, you’ll probably still be writing fiction then.

Second, you need to find a writing space. It sounds like you no longer have your own room. Not fun. But is it possible you can find a place outside of your home where you can write?

A lot of writers make Starbucks their office away from home. I’m not kidding. They take their laptop to Starbucks, buy the magic potion of their choice, and settle in to write.

A lot of Barnes & Noble stores have areas where you can sit quietly at a table, and I often see people with laptops there. Maybe they’re writers, maybe not, but even though it’s a public space, nobody is looking over their shoulder.

Maybe you can find a place at the school library or a public library or SOMEWHERE that isn’t home and will keep away the prying eyes and yapping mouths of family members.

Having a writing space is absolutely critical. I’m grateful to have an office with a door now in the house we moved to. I can turn on the music of my choice and get lost in my own world. You need to find your space, and this may take some creativity. But without it, writing is much harder.

Third, you need a writing tool that works with your writing space. For a lot of writers, this is a laptop, but not necessarily.

I know a lot of writers used to love their AlphaSmarts — small, dumb devices that you could type text into. They were light and practically unbreakable and you could upload your work to a computer via USB. Nowadays, a lot of my friends really love their iPads. Those are pricey, but there are other tablet devices that are cheaper.

At one point in my life, I used paper notebooks. They were the small 50-page bound notebooks that you can buy at Office Depot cheap. I used them because I needed to write away from my desk and I couldn’t afford a laptop. I called my notebooks my “laptop” and they worked just fine for getting down the words. I still have a box full of them in the garage, and they never need backups. They aren’t sexy, but they work.

The point here is to find a tool that you can work with. Fancy is not as important as portable and easy to use.

Fourth, you need writing time. You need to schedule it. This is hard. You can’t necessarily schedule the same time every day. But if you don’t schedule your writing time, then other things will crowd out your writing. It’s a law of the universe — little rocks crowd out big rocks.

Figure out when you can write and then try to make that time sacred. Professional writers do this. Amateur writers don’t. If you want to be a professional, then start acting like one, and one day you have a very good chance of being one. This is another law of the universe.

Isaiah, I hope that helps. I won’t pretend that managing your writing life is easy. It isn’t. But it’s worth doing. Good luck!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Ain’t Got Good Grammar?

Can you get a novel published if your grammar ain’t no good? That’s a good question and it deserves a better answer than a mere “yes” or “no.”

Elizabeth posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

My question is about grammar. I’ve just started to take my writing seriously and noticed that my grammar is not all that great and needs some real improvement. I’ve tried reading grammar books, but they seem to confuse me as to what I should do. Do you have any suggestions on this? I know I need to have good grammar to get published later on in life.

Randy sez: This is a good time to talk about your strengths and your weaknesses. Everybody has strengths. Everybody has weaknesses. Is it better to focus on the strengths or the weaknesses?

Strengths are those things that you do Xtremely well. An editor says “yes” to your book because of your strengths. But no writer on the planet is strong in everything. Some writers are strong on plot and only mediocre on character. Some are the opposite. Some writers shine on dialogue. Some on their creation of a compelling Storyworld. Readers have different tastes, but they typically gravitate to writers who are strong in what they like, even if they’re not so strong in other areas. If you’re going to get published, you need to be strong in at least one area.

Weaknesses are those things that you do Xtremely badly. An editor says “no” to your book because of your weaknesses. A weakness is a show-stopper, and you will find it very hard to get published if you have any serious weaknesses.

The strategy I teach for improving as a writer is the two-pronged approach:

  • Identify your strengths and find ways to make them even stronger. Never outsource this, because if something is truly your strength, then it’s almost impossible to find somebody else who could do it better than you do.
  • Identify your weaknesses and find ways to bring them up to the acceptable level. Don’t waste time trying to turn a weakness into a strength. That would be pointless and would waste vast amounts of time. Either find a resource that can teach you how to make your weaknesses at least acceptable, or else outsource this task.

Just as an example, if I were back in high school and wanting to go out for a sport, it would be idiotic to try for the weightlifting team (I’m a beanpole and always will be) or the baseball team (my eyesight is too bad). But my lean physique makes me a good candidate for the track team and I’d be ideal for the 5k, 10k, or marathon. It would make all kinds of sense to do mostly endurance training (my strength), with just enough weight training (my weakness) to give me a decent finishing sprint, and with no attempt at all to improve my eyesight (my other weakness).

Now moving on to Elizabeth’s actual question, her weakness is grammar. Elizabeth, you have two choices:

Door #1: Improve your grammar to the point where it’s acceptable. You’ve tried this and it isn’t working. Stop trying.

Door #2: Hire a freelance copyeditor or proofreader to bring your grammar up to snuff. This seems to make the most sense to me.

The bottom line on weaknesses: Either get the help you need to become acceptable, or outsource it to somebody for whom it’s a strength.

The bottom line on strengths: Focus a substantial amount of your effort on becoming world-class in your strength. Most of the rewards go to those who are really, really, really good in one particular thing. Remember that nobody can possibly be really, really, really good in everything. Pick one strength or two and focus your efforts on those.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Should You Start Writing Fiction First?

Bill posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Well I think I am ready to get started. I purchased your book to day and downloaded the Snowflake software. I was also a system architect and I know the power of databases and sequenced activity.

This question has probably been asked a thousand times and I apologize in advance.

Should I read the book first or jump into the software and read the appropriate section for that stage later?

Also, it would be really cool to have a forum here so that struggling writers can share with each other and you. If there is one then I apologize for being too dense to find it. LOL.

Randy sez: A lot depends on what your learning style is, and that depends on how your brain is wired. Some people learn best by trying first, and then learning a bit of theory to help them understand what’s going wrong. Other people learn best by reading the theory first, and then going and doing it.

The hazard of writing first is that you might spend a long time writing badly, when you could have saved yourself a huge amount of work by learning from the experts.

The hazard of reading first is that you might never actually write anything at all, because you’ll always want to read “just one more book before I get started.”

If you’re a “write first, read later” kind of person, I’d suggest that you give yourself a set amount of work you’re going to create on your own. You might decide that you’ll spend one month writing every day. Or you might set a goal of writing three chapters. You’re free to choose your goals here, but I strongly recommend that once you hit those goals, do these things:

  • Get somebody else to read your work and critique it.
  • Once you have a critique, go read up in a book on how to deal with the weaknesses that were exposed in the critique. (Since you’ve already bought my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, just leaf through the table of contents, find the chapter that deals with a particular topic, and read that whole chapter.)
  • Set yourself another writing goal and repeat the whole process.

If you’re a “read first, write later” kind of a person, I’d suggest you set a limit on how much study you’re going to do in advance. Since you’ve already bought my book, and my book is a general book that aims to give you a broad foundation, I’d suggest you read carefully through Part 1 (Getting Ready to Write Fiction) and Part 2 (Creating Compelling Fiction). Then SKIM the rest of the book (on editing your book and getting it published). Then get busy writing.

  • Work through Chapter 3 of my book (on choosing your target audience–this is critical)
  • Read Chapter 4 (on creative paradigms) and choose the one that seems best for you.
  • Do any action items in Chapter 5 (on managing your time and your work space)
  • Start writing! This may mean starting in on the Snowflake method, if that is your creative paradigm. It may mean just typing words every day (if you’re a seat-of-the-pants type of writers.
  • As you feel a need to study more, do so, but don’t let that keep you from writing. Most all writers ultimately learn by doing. Learning the theory is great and it’s very important. That’s why I wrote my book and created my lecture series–to teach you the theory. But you will only get good when you internalize that theory by writing.

One final note on your comment on the need for a forum: I would like to have a forum. It’s been suggested several times by my Loyal Blog Readers, and I think I’m long overdue to create one. Like everyone else, my time is limited and I haven’t yet found the time to launch a forum. I work best when I focus on one thing and execute it well. I have a strategic plan for this web site, and a forum is part of that strategic plan, but it’s not the next step. When the time is right, I’ll do so. So stay tuned. I do have some major improvements planned for the next several months.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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