Welcome to 2015! In honor of the New Year, I’m kicking off a series of posts about Writer Tech, both technique and technology.
Since technique (how we use the tools) is more important than technology (the tools) this first post is an interview with my friend and colleague Becca Patterson aka mreauow (on National Novel Writing Month and Twitter). During November 2014, Becca wrote over 141,000 words and completed two novel projects. Today I interviewed her about the methods she used to keep writing through a very stressful time.
E. P. Beaumont: You wrote at least 150,000 words — if I’m remembering correctly — in November this year. What was your final word count for the month?
Becca Patterson: Not quite 150K. My final word count was 141,115.
EPB: Ok, I guess I was rounding. 🙂
BP: I was hoping for 150, but didn’t quite make it that far.
EPB: And that was alongside Municipal Liaison duties for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and a full time job.
BP: And a few freelance gigs too.
EPB: Plus a stressful personal situation. You were getting ready to move.
BP: Yeah, well we weren’t sure where we were going, but we knew we had to get out of our current living situation.
EPB: Which makes it even more stressful (my situation in summer 2013). You’re packing stuff, with no idea where it’s going to get unpacked.
BP: So we were packing mostly for storage, and trying to find a place to move to while still dealing with the situation in the house at the time. Getting out and writing were ways to cope with all that other “baggage.”
EPB: Tell me a little bit about what your writing routine looked like in November. What tools or methods did you use to structure your time?
BP: The short version: Write in every spare minute available.
The longer version: I filled my schedule. First with the things that make money, then with those that make words and finally with all the other crud that had to get done. Most days that meant getting up right when the alarm went off so I’d have at least one 15 minute bout before leaving the house.
At work, I carry a notebook so anytime I don’t have to be doing my actual job I could write. Part of the morning routine was to copy the last line from my WIP into the notebook so I would know where I’d left off.
After work, I’d go to a write-in, different ones depending on the day. First things first, check the forums and get the ML stuff out of the way, then transcribe what I’d written through the day.
That would set my mind for the coming writing.
Then I would set the timer for 45 minutes and get going. 45 minutes of uninterrupted concentration on the problems of my characters and what they were going to do about it.
The payoff: after those 45 minutes I could do anything I wanted to distract myself until I wanted to write some more. Then another 45 minute timer.
EPB: I remember you were talking about those bouts as “45s” – to be distinguished from the weapon of the same name. 🙂 Tell me about how you decided on that container.
BP: They were a weapon too, just not a deadly one.
Trial and error mostly. I started using the timer with 15 minute sprints some years ago, but didn’t like the pressure to write fast. Then I started setting the timer for different amounts of time.
Eventually, I settled on 45 as the optimal time for me. I can concentrate for that long without losing speed at the end. I don’t feel totally worn out, nor do I feel like I have to push to get everything written.
EPB: Interestingly, last night I read an article in the magazine Fast Company where they were talking about a study of productivity (in tech, I think). It turned out that the most productive people worked 52 min (on average) followed by chill-out/warm-down for 17 min (could be reading or walking). When you do the math, that’s about 1/4 of time in rest mode, not too far off from our 45-minute/15-minute routine at the moderated write-in.
How do you handle the transition from the writing bout to “real life so called?”
BP: In my life as an interpreter there is a lot of research showing that interpreters can only do what they do for 20 minutes before functioning begins to taper off. Writing isn’t quite as brain intense so it makes sense that I can do it for longer.
EPB: Interpreting is pretty intense work. You have to be paying attention to accurate input and accurate output at the same time. And, well, constant motion.
BP: Yeah, I’ve seen the brain scans of interpreters in action and they are intense just to look at. I don’t know if writers have been studied to the same extent, but I would guess there’s some correlation. It feels like it sometimes.
EPB: I am very curious as to what brain scans of fiction readers vs fiction writers would look like. When I’m in the fiction writing flow it feels just like reading – very active daydreaming – except I’m in the driver’s seat.
BP: Yeah, I’ve felt that too. It would be an interesting study to say the least.
Anyone want to give it a go? I’d volunteer to be scanned.
EPB: 🙂 Same here! Did you use those 45 minute bouts to get other tasks done as well?
BP: Yeah. Especially the first Saturday of November. That day was particularly intense with “real life” mumbo jumbo.
EPB: Tell me a bit about your routine that day.
BP: We had an opportunity to get some things packed without the situation interfering, so we had to get that part done that day. Neither my husband nor I could handle packing straight through (emotions) so we set the timer for 45 minutes. Just enough to fill two boxes each. Then set it again for our work.
I went to writing and he does web design.
When it went off, we went back to packing for 45 minutes.
Back and forth like that all day.
It got the job done and a boat load of words written. He made progress on his project too, but I don’t have the details.
EPB: So how did the two of you feel at the end of the day?
BP: Tired and amazed at how much got done.
I mean, we thought that the packing would take all day – I mean ALL DAY – and it sort of did, but we also got so much else done and it didn’t go as far into the night as we’d thought.
We still had the energy to watch a movie that night.
EPB: Which was a complete break for both of you, on both fronts. 🙂
BP: Oh yes.
EPB: Packing stuff to move is hugely emotional. I remember last summer… ack. Confronting the Past, box after box of it.
BP: Not just the past for us, but other changes as well.
EPB: And packing for storage is even more intense, because it has to make sense.
BP: There’s that. And then the reason for the move intrudes no matter how you try to keep it at bay. You just can’t not think about it while you are wrapping your precious tidbits in newspaper and hoping that they will arrive “wherever” in the same number of pieces as you put them in.
EPB: So that was a really intense day. How did that energy carry over into the rest of November?
BP: It gave me a reason to dive full body into the worlds I was creating. Just to get away from the “real life”. In some ways, it was easier to deal with the murdering and life and death situations I put my characters through than the stress of real life.
I did the same with my day job and the other gigs I had. When I was there I was all there. There was nothing else.
Writing was something that could be my everything just about any time I needed it.
EPB: How did you create links between one writing session and the next? You mentioned writing the last line of your WIP in the hand-writing notebook each morning. Were there other things you did to hook one session to the next?
BP: Then LazyLaura [National Novel Writing Month participant in USA – Minnesota Twin Cities region] showed up and gave me a bit of a competition, ooh and that made it all the more real.
EPB: Her NaNoWriMo handle was serious misrepresentation. 🙂
BP: In November, I don’t really need to link them, because they come so close to each other in time. About the only thing I didn’t throw myself into was “real life” so my characters were constantly trying out the next scene in the back of my head.
Other months when I’m not going so full on bug-nuts crazy about it, I usually spend the first few minutes of a writing session reading over the last few paragraphs that I wrote. Just enough to see what I was thinking last time and get back into that head space.
EPB: You mentioned the “opportunistic work bouts” during the day, as well as 15-minute bout in the morning. Did you have any fixed appointments with yourself to write during November? Like, “it’s such & such o’clock, time to write”?
BP: Well the write-ins functioned as that. I go to the coffee shop or wherever and it’s time to write. It’s that habit thing. Where even if you say you’re going to take it easy, once you get there it just happens because it’s what you’ve come to expect to happen.
EPB: Ah yes, engraving it on the nervous system with repeated use. 🙂
BP: Well, it’s like my weekly session all year at Your Mom’s Basement [gaming cafe in White Bear Lake MN]. I’ve been going there so long, every Tuesday, I get there and my muse is already at the table ready to go. I don’t think I could have a bad writing day there anymore. I mean, even when I’m not trying I get over 4K there every week.
I should maybe try once just to see if I can break my record.
Once I got just over 8K in an ordinary evening.
EPB: Quick definition for ‘write-in’ for those who aren’t NaNoWriMo participants.
BP: Sure, BRB with that.
A write in is when two or more writers meet at a coffee shop or community center (library, restaurant, etc) with the goal of writing. It’s about sitting in proximity to other writers to get inspiration and accountability for your own project. Each writer is working on their own project, so it’s not really a collaborative thing, though it can be if you get stuck. “Hey, so my characters just painted themselves into this corner, what can I do?” “Blow up the bar?” “Bring in the dragons.” That kind of thing.
They are also there to keep you going when something horrible happens that you weren’t expecting.
I don’t think that I could have finished “Daughter of the Revolution” were it not for my writing buddies at that one write-in.
EPB: So, are there any other writers whose working method inspires you? People you follow on-line, know in person, or learned about from reading? And what tips & tricks can you share from them?
BP: My first inspiration from a writer was Jane Yolen. I met her at a convention and got lucky enough to have her share a table for breakfast one morning (the hotel restaurant was over crowded). She was the first “real author” that I met, and she was nice, too. That morning she took the time to coach a young writer who was on the verge of giving up writing. Her best advice was BIC – Butt In Chair.
After that, I’d have to say Devin Harnois, who constantly claims to be a lazy bum but somehow manages to publish an awful lot of really fun quirky books. He was one of the ones who helped me keep writing when bad things happened in “Daughter of the Revolution”.
Then I found Kristine Kathryn Rusch through her “Freelancer’s Survival Guide” and recommendations from you and Devin. I started following her Thursday blogs about the business of writing and learned that there were so many different ways of dealing with the business of writing. I’d been living under the delusion that the only way to make a life as a writer was to get an agent and a contract from a traditional publishing company. She put the stake in that lie, then introduced me to her husband Dean Wesley Smith.
I think recently I’ve learned the most from Dean Wesley Smith. He put up a blog where he details his writing day. It was so much like what I wanted my days to look like it was just amazing. He also made me see that I didn’t have to spend so much time “crafting” my words. Too much time spent crafting would ruin any good story. He reminds us that our subconscious brain is a much better story teller than our conscious brain, so keep the conscious brain out of it as much as possible. I’m also enamored of John Scalzi, but that’s more about his feminism. And I’ll never tire of Mercedes Lackey’s stories.
EPB: That reminds me – didn’t you draft a whole book over spring break this past year?
Yes. The second in the Daughter series: “Daughter of the Queen”.
I was looking at my spring break and realizing that I had absolutely nothing planned and my husband had a full week of meetings and school and such. It was going to be very boring when I realized that I would have 9 days to play at being a professional author. So I set myself the goal of 70,000 words of novel in 9 days.
My husband thought I was crazy, but just stood aside and let me have at it.
I didn’t make it to 70,000 though, because the story ended at 68,000. Still, I finished the novel in one week and two days.
EPB: Hey folks go wild over spring break all the time. 🙂
How did you structure your writing time?
BP: In bouts, but I wasn’t using a timer.
I would sit down with the goal of writing 1000 words and let her rip. somewhere around 1,500 I would look up and realize that I was done with the goal and go do something more leisurely (like play video games).
I couldn’t concentrate on the games for very long before my characters were yelling for me to get back to the computer.
EPB: Aha! Author playing hard to get!
BP: Sometimes though they would need something specific and would send me on a walk around the neighborhood.
I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I’m crazy now. I’d walk around having arguments with my characters and sometimes realize I was actually talking out loud.
Sometimes with more than one voice.
EPB: Your plotting is character-driven. How much plot look-ahead do you usually have?
BP: Very character driven. At most I can plan for the end goal (not the end scene, they’ll find a way to miss it). I joke, only sort of, about the time I tried to plot out a book. I had it all planned, who was going to do what, when they were going to hit peaks in the tension and all of that. Then I started writing and the characters went off in their own direction only showing up to the outline for the deaths (and usually not how I’d planned them, but the right person would die). Even then one of the characters I’d planned to kill off early, because she was supposed to be a minor influence on the plot, found ways to come back and cause turning points when I didn’t intend them.
I made it through that book, but it looked nothing like my outline.
So I start with an opening scene and an end goal and let it all flow from there.
Sometimes the characters don’t get to the goal.
Those are hard books to write.
EPB: So you know your characters pretty well once you start the novel. What kind of prep do you do to make sure that’s the case?
BP: It depends. If it’s a new series in a new world, I’ll probably interview several of the characters. I like the 30 day character interview, but it’s not the only one I use. Sometimes I just take them for a walk if I already know the world. For example, this November I was writing the next two in the Daughter series so I already knew the characters and the world.
I didn’t do much more than have a sit down over dinner with any of them.
EPB: So then the plotting for those novels is what kind of problems you’re going to throw at them, and the plot is what they do to react?
BP: I don’t even go that far. I know the first problem I’m going to throw at them to get things started.
Everything else comes from how they react and how the people around and against them react to what they do.
EPB: Tell me about the “writing tools” you use – notebook, pen/pencil, computers, software, etc
BP: My primary tool is Scrivener, which lives on my laptop. It’s a specialized program for long form writing that helps me keep track of things as I go along.
When I don’t have that, it’s pen and paper. I’ve found the kinds of pens that work best for my hands so I don’t get cramps and a notebook style that just fits my way, so I’m kinda particular about those.
Not that they are anything special for anyone other than me though.
EPB: Writers like all craftspeople are fussy about their tools. I know I have my favorite pens and notebooks too. 🙂
What’s your favorite place/position for writing?
BP: I like to be at a good table. Other than that, it doesn’t really matter, I don’t spend much time in my body when I’m writing.
As long as my hands can do what they need to comfortably, I kind of leave them to it and go into the story. I don’t exactly think out the words, although sometimes I can see when ASL has influenced my thinking too much – the grammar goes all wonky – but I tend to watch the movie of the story in my head and let the automatic processes get it into the computer or onto paper.
I can always tell when I’ve done that with my handwriting – it looks different than when I was thinking too much about the words (and the spelling is worse).
EPB: And you think out loud while walking. 🙂
BP: Yeah, and while I’m doing the dishes or laundry.
It’s become a giggle point with my husband.
BP: He yells at the TV and I talk to my characters. Sometimes we talk to the cats too. So many times when we aren’t talking to each other, but it keeps things interesting.
We do talk to each other plenty.
Don’t get the wrong idea.
EPB: I interviewed you while walking on the treadmill (more about that in a later post). This was a five-mile interview.