All wannabe authors must learn not only how to write but how to get the writing done. Surprisingly, the latter is often the harder struggle. Books about writing technique and internet sites with writing tips are abundant and easy to understand. If you have the time and resources, there are many formal writing courses available. Most people develop the basic skills simply by writing something on a regular basis. Almost anything will do: an habitually kept diary or journal, chaotically produced draft versions of assorted incomplete works, or copious entries in notebooks meant to be useful (i.e. coherent and readable) later on. I have written in all these ways. You probably have too.

Plan to Succeed

To take the next step in your writing project, you must be able to see the next step. Plans do work. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

So the writing skills build themselves over time. As is so often the case, we learn by a mix of study and doing, in an unsystematic sort of way. However, learning how to write is an open-ended process with no precise goal and no definite end. A lack of organization is not really a problem. Finishing a writing project is completely different in that there is a both a clear-cut goal and a definite end to the process. There may also be a time constraint. In this situation, a want of method will lead inevitably to failure.

Since we all work in different ways, and because such dry details are considered less interesting, the amount of guidance for getting the writing done is neither abundant nor particularly useful. Anyone who reads literary biographies knows that, even in these lengthy books, how authors go about producing a work is often sketchily described or not dealt with at all.

We are all familiar with a few basic ideas the how-to books and tip webpages repeat endlessly:

All well and good, but none of this is useful at the details level. When it comes to actually finishing a work, it is the simple problem of not knowing what to do next that stymies many otherwise talented writers. Inability to see the next step leads to boredom or discouragement and the project stalls. What we need goes beyond an outline or a decision to start on page one and try to wing it. We need a simple plan focussed not on the story, but on the method of getting the story written. There is no set approach to this, but an example from my own experience will light the way.

A few of years after I became serious about my writing, I began to think about changing the rather complex methods of working that I had cobbled together as I pushed forward. My approach, which had evolved with agonizing slowness, was heavily dependent on note making. I would build and carefully elaborate a story from the initial (often vague and simple) idea by erratically accumulating a large number of notes. This method required a great deal of organizing and reorganizing, consumed much time without producing even a draft typescript, and took place intermittently over a prolonged period, the last point making it necessary to have a number of projects going at the same time if I was to have something to chip away at when the current project went dormant. I am a manic-depressive and none of this is a good idea for someone prone to having his life frequently disrupted by severe mood swings and prolonged bouts of brain fog.

I realized that what I needed was a straightforward method calculated to produce a finished typescript in a very short time. This way I could more fruitfully exploit the brief, but often manic, periods when I do get some writing done. I decided it would help if I could specify a few parameters and then work within them. It then occurred to me that this is probably true for everyone.

Sample parameters:

  • devise a 50-step plot which will allow me to say something
  • choose and name suitable characters
  • work out basic setting details
  • quickly assemble the above into a rough and ready book plan (or sketchy outline)
  • book’s length to be 300 to 350 pages
  • book to be made up of 50 six- or seven-page (on average) chapters
  • do two chapters (length flexible) a week
  • book to be finished in 25 working weeks spread over one year
  • improvise as I go
  • work from memory
  • continually adjust and think of ways to stay on schedule
  • make staying on schedule part of the writing process

The rather arbitrary parameters outlined above were born of frustration with my lack of progress when it comes to finishing anything. As most writers do, I like the idea of speedy progress followed by completion, but content is everything to me, and that takes more time than the simple proposed procedure will allow. I opted instead for a two-part arrangement.

I begin every project with the construction of a detailed outline. (An elaboration of the first four points in the above plan.) Instead of sorting notes by subject or type, I integrate items by timeline directly into the outline. This turns outlining into a straightforward process with minimal “bookkeeping” overhead. The method eliminates the tedious processes of organizing notes, checking to see which ones are due to go in, and flagging each note’s eventual inclusion in the outline.

The second phase is the production of a first draft of the story. (The last eight points in the plan above.) I tailor each plan to the needs of the outline and the time I have available.

The key point here is that a plan of some kind must exist. Remember the old adage, “Plan the work and work the plan.” Design your plan to fit your own habits and allow for your strengths and weaknesses, as you understand them. In other words, be realistic and flexible. Note the various considerations that I included in my example: book length, number of chapters, chapter length, the pace of work, the time allotted for its completion, the use of improvisation (but strictly within the parameters of the outline), reliance on memory (to avoid a lot of bookkeeping), and the attention to the schedule. You can include whatever you find useful. Remember that uncertainty is your worst enemy. The more well-defined your plan is, the more likely you are to keep going. To take the next step, you must be able to see the next step.

7 thoughts on “Getting the Writing Done

  1. It sounds an excellent plan, Thomas. Aleks Sager has been completed these last four weeks and with my writing partner, awaiting her comments (which will mean some rewriting). I am sorry to say I only ever have a rough plan, usually I know the beginning and end but not the middle. I’m enjoying writing my third, but you’ll laugh at the simplicity of my approach: force myself to write at least four hundred words over early morning tea, and type ’em up… Sometimes change that scene the next morning, yuk I hate that…

  2. Congratulations on finishing another novel, Lucinda! This is an impressive accomplishment. I look forward to reading *Aleks Sager’s Daemon* when it’s ready. If I were you, I wouldn’t belittle my work habits. You’re getting the work done, and in the end, that’s all that counts. You seem to get some excellent advice from Jo Danilo. Having someone who can give you both honest appraisals and encouragement is priceless.

    I’m including a link to your blog so interested readers can learn more about your new book.

    http://sophieandemile.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/aleks-sagers-daemon-how-horrible-to-be-haunted-by-one-of-your-own-characters/

  3. It’s always interesting to learn about other writers’ work habits, Thomas. Yours sounds like an excellent system – and very methodical! I think we all have to go through a bit of trial and error to find what works best for us as individuals. I don’t have such a fixed regime, as in my case I think my (inevitable) failure to reach goals would lead to discouragement. I tend to rely most on my belief in, and passion for, a project. If it means a lot to me, I’ll get it done; if it doesn’t, I probably shan’t, no matter how much goes in at the planning stage. Interesting post!

    I apologise for having been rather absent in the past few weeks, by the way; I’ve been on holiday. I did continue to read your posts, though!

  4. With school out, I guessed you had gone away for a holiday, Mari. I hope you had an enjoyable time. From Lecco, you are certainly well positioned to visit some spectacular destinations. I’m unreasonably pleased to hear that you kept up with my posts. Vanity, without a doubt! 🙂

    As you know, my methodical work habits have become strictly theoretical since I started this blog. My systematic approach is compensation for the manic-depressive’s endless troubles with mood swings and recurring brain fog. I cannot go in one emotional direction long enough to depend on passion. Instead, I blend periods of exciting manic obsession with more-reliable stretches of intellectual interest in the project. You will notice in the old rough and ready plan that I did not set fixed work dates; just an estimated number of weeks spread over a year. In other words, I plan for flexibility. In this case, I was recognizing that I do not manage regular writing sessions in every week of the year. The writing goals most often missed are the rigid ones.

    A plan allows me to return to a dropped project and pick up where I left off. To help with this, I keep a detailed project log for everything I work on. In other words, I long ago gave up on improvisation and relying on memory. In the log, I include cues and reminders for myself should I have to set the project aside for a time.

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