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August 7, 2014

Lessons from RWA14: Help for Slow Writers

Snail crawling against black background with text: Help for Slow Writers

I want to continue sharing some of the tips and advice I picked up from the RWA Annual Conference (partially because it helps me remember them too *grin*). So far I’ve covered Sylvia Day’s insights on failure, RWA’s new stance on self-publishing, and Liliana Hart’s publishing technique.

I’ve been a fangirl of Courtney Milan since before her debut, so one of the workshops I most looked forward to was her “Slow Writer’s Guide to Making a Living” presentation. The workshop was in one of the biggest session breakout rooms in the hotel (maybe the biggest), and it was packed.

I’ve often called myself a slow writer, and I know I’m not alone. Judging by the crowd, a lot of writers struggle with the pressure to write faster and worry that our slowness will prevent us from reaching our goals.

What Is a “Fast Writer”?

Courtney defined a “fast writer” as an author with a new release every 90 days (or less). Those new releases don’t have to be full novels (novellas sometimes count too), but authors who release something new at least every 90 days tend to find success more easily.

Obviously by extension, a “slow writer” would be anyone with a slower-than-90-day release schedule (i.e., us mere mortals). She then discussed two approaches for dealing with that situation. We could tackle one, the other, or both approaches to improve our chances for success.

Approach A: Take Advantage of the Elements that Make Fast Writers Successful—Any Way We Can

She identified three main reasons fast writers succeed more easily:

  1. Amazon’s 30-day and 90-day algorithms for its New Releases pages offer high visibility.
  2. Fast writers build backlist more quickly (and as we discussed last time, backlist is hugely important for reaching a tipping point of sales), which allows for more income streams.
  3. The frequency of exposure keeps authors at “top of mind” and prevents readers from forgetting about the author or the story.

By being aware of those elements, we can try to incorporate them into our situation, no matter how fast or slow we write. Courtney’s suggestions included:

  • High Visibility: Do something every 90 days to increase visibility, such as putting a story on sale or making one free.
  • More Income Streams: Maximize the income for our completed stories by releasing onto more platforms (Kobo, Apple, etc.) or by adding more versions (print, audio, etc.).
  • Top of Mind: Use author newsletters to make readers remember us and why they enjoyed our stories, as well as to promote our upcoming stories.

Approach B: Make the Most of Our Writing Time

Many of us struggle with limited writing time. We might have day jobs or family obligations that prevent us from writing as much as we want. But we also might not use the time we do have as efficiently as possible. *raises hand*

How many of us spend too much of our writing time catching up with social media or blogs? Or maybe we start researching and get distracted by interesting tangents. Or maybe we spend far too much time reinventing the wheel on a writing problem instead of asking for help.

Courtney confessed that, like many writers, she didn’t always use the writing time she had very efficiently. So she shared a few tips for writing faster—which sometimes simply comes down to using our writing time to get words on the page instead of filling it with non-writing activities:

  • She recommended the book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron for helping her increase her word count. I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my list.
  • Track time spent on non-writing activities, such as accounting or ebook formatting, and ask ourselves if it would be better (more economical in the long run) to outsource those activities—especially if we’re not good at or hate the activities.
  • Pay attention to habits that trigger non-work (distraction) activities, and change the habits.

Our Habits Can Help Us or Hurt Us

I want to focus on that last bullet point because this one spoke to me the loudest. Courtney went so far as to hire a Productivity Consultant to help her identify her habits and triggers, and she shared the gist of what she learned so we all can benefit.

When we find ourselves distracted,
figure out what habit “triggered” the distraction
and avoid that habit in the future.

For example, Courtney found that much of her writing time was taken up by research tangents (she writes historical romance and needs to look up historical details). Once she interrupted her writing to go online, she’d often get distracted by non-relevant historical tidbits or by checking social media, etc.

Now, Courtney makes of a note of any historical research she needs to do and saves that for the last half hour of her writing session. Ta-da! She enjoys solid writing time and still completes her research, but at a time when accidental tangents and distractions will interrupt less.

She also blocks access to the internet during her writing sessions, the better to avoid the temptation of distractions. Popular programs include Freedom, Cold Turkey, Focus Me, Anti-Social, Self-Control, LeechBlock, and StayFocused. Some are free, some aren’t, some are for Mac only, and some are for specific internet browsers—this post compares most of those productivity programs.

Do Your Habits Help or Hurt Your Writing?

For me, I have a hard time writing first thing in the morning. I live in the western end of the U.S., and I’m not a morning person, so everyone is awake before I am. Because of that, I first want to check my email in case of issues. But once I start down the path of email, replying to comments, checking Twitter and Facebook, etc., it’s hard to know when (or how) to stop.

In other words, that’s a horrible habit for my productivity. Luckily, once I’m serious about writing, I know how to reduce distractions (I minimize non-writing windows and start my “writing music”), but I need to learn how to get into serious mode without arm-wrestling myself. (I’m open to suggestions for that trick. *grin*)

My point is that just as Courtney said, if we notice we’re getting distracted, we can stop and mentally rewind our actions until we figure out what the trigger was. If we then change our habits to avoid that trigger, we’ll automatically (and relatively painlessly) prevent many of our distractions from ever occurring.

Hopefully something in Courtney’s advice can help us. I’m not in the position to worry about sales yet, but if others are anything like me, there’s always something we can do to maximize using our writing time to actually, you know, write. *smile*

Are you a fast writer or slow writer by Courtney’s definition? Do you worry that being a slow writer might affect your career? Could any of her Approach A tips for adapting “success elements” apply to your situation? What about her Approach B tips for making our writing time more efficient? Do you have bad habits that sabotage your writing time? Do you use internet-blocking programs or have other tips to share?

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50 Comments on "Lessons from RWA14: Help for Slow Writers"

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Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

I’m an incredibly slow writer but then this is the first time I’ve written anything for years as well as being the longest thing I’ve ever written. I’m easily distracted but I don’t want to push it as I know it also doesn’t take much for me to drop a project. I figure that if I write as and when I feel like it I’m far more likely to complete it than if I put myself under pressure. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. It’s still frustrating though that eight months into the year I’m still only up to the fifth chapter but it’s better than abandoning it.

I’m hoping that as I go along I’ll pick up more speed. In a world where some people have a high output, I’ll be left trailing if I can’t keep up.

Jordan McCollum

I’m actually a pretty fast writer—I’ve written novels in two to three weeks—but I wouldn’t dream of publishing that quickly! While my first drafts are decent, like all first drafts, they often fall short of my ultimate vision, and I add 20-30% in the revision, editing and polishing process. Getting a full-length novel through my critique group, beta readers and editor takes three months, at the bare minimum! I won’t release something unless it’s the absolute best I can make it, with the best help I can find.

Since I started using Leechblock, I’ve noticed my distraction triggers: whenever I don’t know what comes next, even the next line, I pull up Twitter or Facebook. It had become such a habit I didn’t realize I was doing it until I blocked them. I have two levels of blocking: first, I limit Twitter & Facebook to ten minutes per hour. I’ve found that’s plenty of time to get what I “need to” done. Second, when I’m really having trouble focusing or just doing the work, I turn on a filter that blocks everything but a couple dictionaries, thesauri and a few quick research sites. Now my laptop’s broken (waaaaah), and I miss it!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Wow something new every 90 days…that’s madness! :O So I’m definitely a slow writer, lol. I’m not even sure if I can finish this novel by the end of this year, sigh. The tips I have for myself: –Set a daily quota of writing for myself, i.e. at least 2000 Chinese characters per day. Of course, when I get busier (more activities or get a job), I’ll have to reduce that quota, but there will always be a quota. So when you set such a minimum, this forces you to figure out a way to meet this minimum everyday, so you automatically find ways to avoid distractions and get things done! –I write on my phone, not my computer, so I could turn off my Wi-Fi. But this isn’t very helpful because often I need to check the online dictionaries because there are words I’m not sure of (Chinese isn’t my first language, after all!) What distracts me most are when my friends message me on Facebook or Whatsapp and then we chat nonstop. So when I see a message come in from the FB messenger, I drag it away to the cross to put it away. And I avoid checking Whatsapp, FB, and my emails. Every morning, I edit and factfile what I wrote the day before, so I make sure I finish this editing and factfiling in the morning before I let myself do anything else. Afterwards, I just need to make sure I finish that 2000 Chinese… Read more »
Carradee
*grins* One of the many reasons I like Wattpad: It forces me to focus on a specific WiP until it’s drafted, plus gives me a regular kick in the pants of “Get this finished and released, already! Folks are wanting it!” I also find that getting immediate feedback on a WiP (such as I’m getting on Wattpad) helps prevent writer’s block, for me. Folks comment with what they’re pulling from the stories, with their reactions, and it’s so gratifying and reassuring to see readers who are getting EXACTLY what I was aiming for out of my main series being posted…even though books 3 and now the in-progress 4 are first drafts. (I’m getting a fair number of “WOW” comments based on that detail alone.) The Wattpad folks are also proving great at catching oopsies, inconsistencies, problematic typos, and being bewildered when I screw up a transition or use a word I didn’t realize was on the archaic side. (I grew up reading the Bible and a lot of classic literature, which my mother apparently assumed was necessarily child-friendly. That sometimes shows in both some of my vocabulary and how I use words.) In fact, I’ve had a few folks volunteer to do an “oops” check on book #3 for me, and one already sent it back in to me. She’s caught such charming details as a time I call a woman a guy’s “husband”. (Um, oops.) Some of her changes seemed to make the text more formal, and I nearly… Read more »
T. Powell Coltrin

There is so much good information in your post. I know that I waste time on the internet so I’ve had to put rules in place. I love sitting for long periods of time writing, starting at 5:30 am. Yes you heard me right. That’s what happens when you get older.

Sharla Rae

I’m a slow writer so when I saw this topic clicked over FAST. 🙂 I too live on the west coast and it the e-mails in the morning. I do set a quota on time to comment on blogs etc. and I try to esp. visit those who visit our WITS blogs. It’s a matter of courtesy to at least tweet. 🙂

Still, I spend too much time on media. I’m thinking of setting a timer, allowing one hour in the morning, 15 minutes at lunch and 1 hour after dinner. Anybody else to this? I wonder if it works.

Carole Beckham
Carole Beckham

I just bought the Kindle version of Rachel Aaron’s book — for 99 cents! — and it is good. I used a little of her technique by doing detailed outlines. That way, I always knew what I’d be writing about the next day. I’d start the process by listing things within the scene itself that I wanted the scene to cover, and then delete each item on the list as I covered it.
Then I had a family tragedy and am only now getting back into my fiction, and wondering if I can really do it again. Thanks for the recommendation. I always read your newsletters, Jami; they are always good, the best, in fact.
Cheers!
Carole

Deborah Makarios

Ninety days! I keel over just thinking about writing a first draft in that time (and I don’t even have a day job).
I have found that rearranging my schedule to have two longer blocks of writing time instead of snippets here and there has helped. (It takes me a while to get into the swing of things.) Not something everyone has the luxury of doing, I know…
Hoping to have the first draft of the WIP finished this month! Fingers crossed! – or more accurately cramped 🙂

DMac
DMac

I’m glacially slow ;-p I have all sorts of good intentions and schedules and all that, but then I find myself editing every sentence after I write it. So I have to resort to NaNoWriMo-style word sprints — set the timer, write like the wind for 10 min, pause to catch breath, repeat. Also I force myself to leave my comfortable home office and easy Internet access, and go to a nearby cafe with my laptop but WITHOUT my power cord — b/c then I can’t go on-line b/c it drains the power too quickly.

chemistken

Wow! According to Courtney’s definition, my writing speed would have to be considered “sluglike.” If I wrote one novel a year, I’d feel as though I were speedwriting. My problem isn’t so much about distractions, although the job and family life does take its share of time, as it is about me just writing slowly. Even when I know what happens in a scene, getting those words down on paper is just a real struggle for me, and I have to keep banging away at words before it finally comes together.

Kirsten

Oh, wow! I thought I was a fast writer, since I’ve won NaNo every year since I started doing it. But then there’s revision … so a book, or even a short story, every ninety days would be impossible for me. I can see why this presentation was packed.
Strangely though, I don’t have trouble with distractions. NaNo was great for learning to get into the zone pretty much anywhere anytime, and as long as I have my playlists to write with I can get words on the page. Once I get going it’s pretty hard for me to tear myself away. 🙂
I just read a great post at Janet Reid’s blog last week about how writers need to have some down time just to day dream. She maintains that all this blogging and tweeting and researching might take its toll on our creativity. I was so relieved to read that! I think as writers, deep down we really do want to disappear into the stories, but all the distractions are just a way to avoid facing that first bump of awkwardness that is the beginning of a writing session.

Great topic! It sounds like you had a very productive time at the RWA Conference.

Julie Musil

I’m definitely NOT a fast writer! Every 90 days? Sheesh! I’m learning to be more focused with my writing time, which does help me finish projects faster.

Christina Hawthorne

Excellent post, Jami. I’d have responded yesterday, but I was at the fair/rodeo. I couldn’t help but notice that we have the same problem. I’m not a morning person and when I’ve forced the issue I’ve written some superb gibberish. On the other hand, plodding through mail requires far less mental effort. My problem, like yours, is that it drags on. On thing leads to another leads to another and so on. Too, my overactive curiosity carries me off on tangents. Next thing I know it’s early afternoon. I’m finally putting my foot down…I think. Last week I tracked how I spend my time and was appalled. Still, armed with awareness, I improved towards week’s end. I almost have too much time available and need to schedule blocks for certain tasks like mail and research (research is enemy #1 because it’s a slippery slope to idle curiosity).

Stephanie Scott
Stephanie Scott
Thanks for the post! I think it’s helpful to keep in mind these 90 day releases are most likely romance fiction and in genre markets like New Adult, erotica, category romances, etc. Though I think some big single title authors have multiple book releases per year, but the biggies I can think of it’s more like 2-3 and not 4. All that to say, IMHO I think this 90 day release schedule relates to a smaller segment of writers than yo would think. I could be TOTALLY wrong on that, but that’s just my experience what what I’ve seen/heard with RWA circles as compared to what I see/hear outside of RWA. I’ve listened to several workshops from past RWA conferences about fast drafting books (Candace Havens has workshops through her website). I think it’s a cool idea, though newer writers should take more time with their books if they are still learning the ropes. Even if you draft a book in 2 weeks or a month, you still have revision and other drafts and I just don’t see how those can get done in a month with enough time for release. A 90 schedule seems likely for category or novellas for writers who are experienced, who already have a relationship with an editor they trust, and they are business savvy. All that to say, I hope no one gets discouraged by thinking taking 6 months or longer to write a book is slow, or therefore “bad.” It’s not. Though the… Read more »
Patricia Lynne

I am a slow writer. Think glacial slow. The other day I managed to get a good writing session in. What really helped was closing Twitter. I turned off the app even That really helped, so future writing sessions are going to start with turning Twitter off..

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[…] Lessons from RWA14: Help for Slow Writers […]

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[…] you a fast writer or a slow writer? If you fall into the latter group, Jami Gold offers some tips to help slow writers that she learned from Courtney Milan at the RWA14 writers conference. Janalyn Voight adds her […]

Kate Warren

Hi, my name is Kate, and I’m a slow writer. It started several years ago and I haven’t been able to kick the habit. I have some things in my life that are genuine challenges (four kids, three on the autism spectrum) to finding writing time, but I am also guilty of doing things like going on Pinterest (in fact, that’s how I ended up here, so maybe that’s not too bad?).

Thanks for this post, Jami. It’s given me some things to think about, and reminded me that there ARE things I can do to be more productive.

Kathleen S. Allen (@kathleea)

I’m a fast writer. I can write a novel in two weeks to 30 days depending. I’d love to do this 90 day thing and I have put up stories on Wattpad and published novellas to keep my name out there. I’m going to try and do this from this point forward once I get an agent (my current goal). I do have quite a few self-published books and a couple of novellas/short stories on Kindle. A friend of mine once told me she wanted to have 25 things “out there” so she could supplement her income with nice royalty checks and that’s my goal too.

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[…] I pointed out with Courtney Milan’s advice in my post about slow writers, sometimes correcting an issue simply comes down to avoiding situations that force us to face that […]

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[…] writer, and I didn’t want to hold my books back that long. Courtney Milan’s advice of doing something every 90 days to increase visibility and take advantage of Amazon’s 30 and 90-… was closer to what I felt capable […]

Ella
The 2k to 10k a day thing really does work, at least for me. Once I get an outline in my head – and then type it up in Scrivener 🙂 – I go through and split it into sections that will work for one scene, paste the sections into separate Scrivener files, and just start typing. In March, I had some time off from work, and I did a 20k novella in four days. Since I have a series going, I have a formula for the scenes (can you tell I work in a scientific industry?) – start with the mc, then my secondary mc who always has to have a subplot (although I may switch that around in a book), then maybe a character who is just going to be in that book. I went through and wrote all of one character’s scenes, then the next, then the next, and made sure the whole thing tied up at the end (although the two MCs don’t get together). That didn’t include editing, obviously. But still. After that I added 25k to a novel I started last summer. I thought it was done, but I was wrong. I realized that it needs more scenes in a certain time period. Ah well. It’s halfway through the series, anyway. But what I did get written was done using the 2k to 10k. It definitely wouldn’t work for a pantser. I don’t think I make a good pantser. I pantsed my NaNo last… Read more »
Ella

Sentence only writers understand:

“I pantsed my NaNo.”

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[…] shared the advice before that slow writers can be more successful by creating more income streams for each book. In other words, for each book we slowly pound out and release, we can maximize our income by […]

Julie
Julie

I think Stephen King, King of the Pantsers, has a great method for getting more stuff out there. He writes novellas or short stories between his Brick sized novels. They’re also sold as book collections and as individual items on Amazon.

As for me, I was the LA Municipal Liaison in California for a couple of years around 2006. Won NaNo three times, I think? And then crashed and burned and only *just* got back into writing. What I found was the Fast Writing method was like magic, the type described by you and others here on your blog. Things clicked within the draft that I hadn’t even thought of. BUT I hit a wall afterward because I was clueless about *revision* actually meant!

I’m looking forward to your next Take off Your Pants class, because just like you, if I write too much down, I feel locked into the ink on the outline. Just can’t do it.

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