Mars Dorian asked me to write about productivity: How to be productive in your writing? I've written a few posts in the past about this. On making time for writing, on motivation and self-discipline of writing from home, on locking yourself up in order to write, and on my writing routine which hasn't changed much over the years. But it's time I wrote an updated post talking specifically about productivity.
What kind of a beast is productivity, and how do you conquer it?
Productivity is different for every writer. It depends on what works for you and where in your writing career you are: A beginner? An experienced writer? A pro? I like to illustrate the differences by using this lovely productivity synonym: fruitfulness. Let's say instead of producing words you're producing apples. Harvesting them (unless you know how to spout apples from your mouth). How do you measure your productivity? Do you count the individual apples? The crates of apples? The pounds? The hours it took you to pick them? The number of trees you worked on? And what's a good harvest? How much did your land yield compared to last month versus ten years ago? Rainy season versus dry season? Rodents versus your neighbor's thieving boys? As you see, there are many ways to measure it, and it's up to you how you do it.
I'll illustrate on my own example. I've been writing full-time for four years now, and I have started out with one method to measure my productivity, and slowly graduated to a different one, which I think will change again with time.
- Word count. I started out by counting the number of words I've written in a day, using Stephen King's On Writing as an example. King said he wrote 2,000 words every day. So I set that as my goal. If I didn't bang out 2,000 words a day, I felt unproductive. Then I realized that 2,000 doesn't mean shit. Sometimes those 2,000 words were great, but most of the time they were awful and had to be rewritten or cut out altogether.
- Hours. I switched to counting hours. I thought, okay, if I wrote for four hours straight, even if I just stared at the screen, I had a productive day because I have put in the time. My daily word count dropped to 1,000-1,500. I was thinking more before writing words down. Some days I wrote up to 5,000 words, and I couldn't stop at the appointed time. I had to find a stopping point, and so I needed to come up with a new method of measuring my productivity.
- Chapters. I decided to count by chapters. If I wrote a chapter a day, or even half a chapter, I felt productive. But then this stopped working too, because some chapters were long, some were short, and I got lost again in my method of counting. It had to change once more. And it did.
- Scenes. I started counting by scenes. A scene was a unit small enough to fit into my writing time every day, and by finishing at least one I felt productive. Now my daily word count dropped to 500-1,000 word a day. But I found I had less to fix later. And then the scenes started misbehaving. Some I thought out well and they flew out from under my fingers. Others took me a whole day to think about and I hardly even started writing them before getting burned out for the day. That's when I came up with the method I'm using now.
- Time. I measure my productivity by the time I stop. Usually I start writing around 8 AM and stop around 2 PM, but on productive days it can be 3 PM and 4 PM and 5 PM. I glance at the time and keep going if I feel like it. Then as soon as my attention starts to wander, I stop. It's no good after that. It means my brain is exhausted for the day. So an unproductive day would be when I stop around 12 PM, and a very productive day would be when I stop after 4 PM and later. The number of words or scenes no longer matters. What matters is for how long I was able to work on it without starting to think about something else. Which leads me to the second point of this post.
How to be productive in your writing?
Now that you've figured out how to measure productivity, how the hell do you stay productive? How do you keep churning out books? Again, it all depends. There are as many ways to do it as there are writers. Whatever works for one writer might drive another writer up the wall, and vice versa. I'll share with you what works for me, and I see it working for many people.
- Zero distractions. Unless I know I have at least four hours of uninterrupted writing time, with no distractions, I can't be productive. Even if it's only a suspicion that something might come up, say, around 12 PM, I get so anxious, I can't concentrate and the whole day is blown. Often I wait for kids to leave for school before starting. Or for Royce to leave for work. Sometimes he works from home, and we have an understanding that when I come down to the kitchen for a snack or more tea, he knows not to talk to me. I can't be interrupted. I'm thinking, and every interruption costs me roughly thirty minutes of lost concentration time. I also have my phone turned off, my email turned off, and my Internet is only on for research, if I have to look something up. But no social media. If I'm dying to share something, I might tweet it quickly (or post on Ello), but I don't look at responses until after I'm done writing.
- Routine. My daily routine is what's keeping me productive simply because it's so familiar, I do it without thinking. I get up around 7 AM. I drink a cup of coffee, quickly check email on my phone to make sure there aren't any new book orders (my customers come first, over everything else), and then I start writing (usually around 8 AM). I do nothing else until I'm done for the day (usually around 2-3 PM). I come down to eat a light lunch around noon, and I might nibble on some nuts while staring out the window and thinking. I might stretch a bit, do some yoga, while still thinking, but I don't do anything else until I'm done with my work for the day.
- Quiet space. Some writers love writing in coffee shops or to music. I can't. I have to be alone in a quiet space where there is no noise. I used to write to music, but not anymore. It's too distracting lately. I read aloud everything I write, and I read every sentence up to fifty times or more, until it sounds right. For that I need silence. I act out every line of dialogue. For that I need silence. I might even jump up and run around, or try to act out an action sequence. I listen for the sounds I make, the breathing, the grunts, as my writing is very visceral. And for that I need silence. Writing like this with other people staring at me would be impossible.
- Adequate sleep. As writers we don't think about this enough, and we like to boast how we run on fumes and coffee, but lack of sleep seriously undermines our productivity. When I don't get enough sleep, my attention scatters. When my attention scatters, I can't concentrate on my story and I keep jumping around in my head and getting distracted. If this happens, I try to write for as long as I can and then instead of drinking more coffee I take a nap. I find that upon waking I can get more writing done as opposed to if I fueled myself with caffeine and forced myself to keep working (though when at the end of a draft, I sleep less and less every night, going on pure adrenaline of finishing a story). I also found that eating and exercising tie into this as well. If I avoid sugary foods and do yoga, I sleep better. If I take a walk, I sleep better. If we make love with Royce, I sleep better. And when I sleep well, I write well. Simple as that.
- Plan. I was a pantser, writing out of my head with no plan whatsoever, before I shifted to plotting everything prior to writing down a single word. I found planning ahead has raised my productivity. When I know what to write, it just flows. When I don't know, I stumble, I get lost, I search for words and can't find them. I get stuck. And then I get blocked. It's a terrible feeling. Now that I have a plan, I simply write according to the plan. It's wonderful. It frees me up to write instead of agonizing over what happens next and if it makes sense or not. The plan changes, of course, in the course of writing, but the general strokes and the direction are still there, and it keeps me moving forward even on the days when I don't feel like writing. It's like any other job. I know where I'm going, and because of it after putting in the necessary hours, I get there.
If you've got any productivity tricks I haven't covered here, SHARE. We can all use them.
But I also found that lately I'm more relaxed when it comes to any kind of anxiety connected to writing, productivity included. About six months ago I was worried sick that it's taking me so long to finish TUBE. Over a year! Oh goodness! Now I know it probably won't be finished until March 2017, which will make it the only book of mine I have worked on for two whole years. So what. It needs it. Every book is different. I also know by now that my very first effort is my most inspired. When I plan, I hold the story back. But when the plan is ready and I write, I let it go and write my best stories, even if they need to be revised to death. The plan for Rosehead and Irkadura has developed in my head over the years, and so they are my best stories though I didn't consciously plot them. Siren Suicides was my first so it's clumsy because I was too afraid. And The Badlings was interrupted with the whole copyright issue. I made myself finish it. I wasn't inspired anymore. Same with TUBE. I started writing it on the train without having thought about it, without any plan. Then I had to resurrect it. With Janna it will be much better. The first draft I wrote is essentially a backstory on Janna from her perspective. The summary I wrote is for a thriller where Erasmus Burke, the detective, is the protagonist, so I'm very excited about writing the true first draft of this book.