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. 🙂
Thank you, Randy and Susan, for saying it’s ok to write at my own pace and just do what works! You got my attention here–I probably would have ignored just another writer telling me his or her way is the ONLY way.
I’m an artist. Some artists spend months making elaborate sketches of their subjects, choosing just the right angles and colors before they mark up a canvas. And then there’s those like me who make the sketch on directly (with lots of erasing of course), mix the colors on the fly, and be prepared to make spontaneous wonders and layer over my mistakes. And throw out a couple of failed masterpieces before I get it right. Both methods involve lots of thought–just in the second method the thought comes out in the problem solving during the execution. But as far as I’m concerned, both take a lot of time, and both make beautiful art.
Or what about actors? Method actors spend months studying their characters until they know them inside and out, and their subltlety in astounding. But then there’s improv actors who can pull out an incredible performance on a dime.
Might writing be something of the same? (Yes, by now you must know you’re looking at a drafty non-outliner here.) Sorry Randy, I love your blog but I hate snow!
Mmm…I see a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle..) hint here, LOL.
I love this topic. It’s very informative.
Carrie Neuman says
I wonder if it’s an intovert vs extrovert thing, Cate. Supposedly, introverts like to think things through while extroverts like to talk through them. I’d think creating is the same way.
I like to know what scenes I need, but not the details of what’s going to happen in each one. I know who’s trying to get something. I know where the characters were before they got there and where I need them to get in the end. Everything else is a mystery, a fascinating puzzle.
ML Eqatin says
Good post, Susan. “Write what you know and know what you write.” I certainly appreciate that as a reader. That’s why I use blends of people I know well for my characters (as I have mentioned before, my stories are all set long enough ago that nobody can complain): When I put them in a situation, I know exactly what that character would do. And I don’t have to make up my plot twists, I just pore through old documents and select from a huge smorgasbord of historical fact. But doing all the research before you write does take time, there is no way around it. And the travel part is expensive.
Pam Halter says
My best understanding of knowing your character intimately is so you can have them do something totally foreign and therefore throw a delicious twist to the story. 🙂
I always think my stories through. I say they’re simmering in my head. When a story is “done,” I sit at the computer and type as fast as I can. I’ve always thought it was amazing how much I could accomplish doing it that way.
Thanks, Susan, for affirming this way of writing. You have encouraged me today!
Very interesting and helpful! I am scared of pre-writing because I’m afraid I’ll get out of control and write a jumbled mess. Then again, that fear is what’s keeping me away, so maybe I should give it a whirl anyway…
Bruce Younggreen says
After having my novel stalled for three years, I discovered Randy’s snowflake method. That was on December 4th. Since then, I’ve worked through the first four steps and am working on the fifth, development of my major characters’ story summaries. I’ve got to tell you, I’m beginning to realize why I thought this story was going to work! I’m beginning to understand my characters. Pieces are falling into place. What I wrote three years ago will have to be scrapped entirely, but when I start writing the novel (again) I am completely confident that I won’t be able to stop it from flowing out of me.
Smells of manacles??? eew.
Thank you, Susan, for the Pretty, Practical and Promising “P” word. Yay—I can relate to Pre-writing; I’m a Planner. Unfortunately, I’m also a Piddler and a Procrastinator.
Randy sez: By the way, life is not a contest to see who writes the fastest. Speed is really not that big a deal.
I agree – it’s not about speed. For me, it’s about making better use of my writing time. My word output compared to the amount of time I spend at the computer is Pitiful.
Now I want to pump out the prose (I never knew I was an aliteration addict until today). But—sigh—that must now wait until after Christmas. 9 relatives announced they are coming to join my family of 7 for the holidays. They don’t say it to my face, but I KNOW they expect chocolate covered confections and don’t know I’m on strike this year. And they’re taking over my writing room.
bonne friesen says
The serendipity just keeps on happening with this blog and the things I’m already reading about!
Randy talks about ‘composting’, I just read Karen Weisner talking about ‘brainstorming’ in “First Draft in 30 Days”, now Susan calls it ‘pre-writing’, and she’s going to tell me more! It always helps me to have more than one perspective on a new concept.
Having written a Nanowrimo novel with an underdeveloped story world, I know I desperately need to get a grip on this before I start another major undertaking. Having the plot set kept me going, but it lacked the layers of awesome that could have been there if I’d had all the juicy tidbits floating around for me to pluck and discreetly scatter through the action. *sigh*
Writing the novel might take less, but the thinking or pre-planning part takes a lot of time. In today’s fast-paced world, I’m trying hard not to think about novel writing in terms of time. Writing a good book in 3 yrs is worthwhile than writing a crappy one in 6 weeks – is my bible nowadays. 🙂
I’m not qualified to answer the question but I like extra credit. You could say you have to pack the tiny flakes of ideas together before you can throw that snowball of a project out into the world.