Making Every (Writing) Minute Count
by Becky Wallace
I have four kids. Four little kids. I love them. They are wonderful. I never question why I had them. They do, however, require a LOT of time. There’s a lot of laundry, meal prep, and practices (and cuddling and story time), but that leaves me with very little time to write. I can usually sneak an hour of writing during naps or maybe at bedtime (if I can keep my eyes open).
Up until this summer, I managed about 500 words per day. For me, for all the stories taking up space in my head, that pace gave me a little anxiety and a lot of frustration. So I set out on a mission to become a faster, more effective writer. I read books and talked to authors and studied best practices. And I found a secret for tripling my daily word count. Three secrets, really. Maybe one of them will work for you.
I’m typically a pantser (meaning: I don’t plot out my books in advance). I like my characters to develop as I write them, to discover their ticks and personality quirks as I work through the story. Pantsing means that I may fumble around for a while before I really figure out where my story is going. This method is not usually an effective way to use my writing time, but I do end up with clean-ish first drafts—strong characters, clear setting details, working semi-polished sentences—but I may have plot holes or pacing problems.
I want to keep that sense of character discovery, but move faster. Instead of doing a full in-depth plot, I make an actual map. With one sheet of blank paper, I write my character problem in a box in the top left hand corner and what I think the ending will be in a box in the bottom right hand corner. (For this example, I’m using a story I tell my kids at bedtime. Maybe someday I’ll actually write it. I mean who wouldn’t love a middle grade story about a princess named Ellemenopea and her pet Troll? 😉
Then I connect the dots, or boxes, with more scenes that lead from Point A to Point Whatever. I end up with a very general scene list that still allows me to develop the story elements, while having a clear picture of where the story is going. For my current work-in-progress (a light fantasy that will probably be 90K words), my mind map took a little over an hour to create and has been well worth my effort. Plus, it’s painless to change if you decide the story is going to go in a different direction.
Once I have my map and I’m ready to get to work, I write a one paragraph summary of the chapter I’m going to work on, focusing on the most interesting/most exciting part of that scene. If I was going to work on Princess Ellemenopea’s story, my chapter sketch would say: Princess Ellemenopea follows her father into the woods, wanting to help rid her country of the viscous, evil trolls. Her father doesn’t want her help, commands her to stay behind. She disobeys, follows the group, but gets lost in the forest. She knows she can follow the river home. Hears a noise in the brush, finds a baby troll hidden in the brush. His skin is soft, his hair is downy, his eyes are enormous. She can’t imagine hurting something that is so harmless. Determines to take it home and see if she can teach it to not be like its vicious, evil family had been.
The foundation of the character arc is there (the princess learns that the trolls were starving, intelligent, generally misunderstood. She decides she will always make her own decisions, searching out the truth on her own) and some of the character quirks, but I don’t get bogged down in the details. It’s quick, easy, and never takes more than five minutes.
Now it’s just a matter of actually writing the words. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Wrong. If I try to write when my kids are awake, I always get interrupted. The stopping and starting totally kills my hourly word totals. That hourly part? That’s the problem. Studies have shown that the human mind is only capable of focusing on one specific task for twenty minutes at a time. Chris Fox, author of 5K WORDS PER HOUR, goes into depth in his book about this subject (which I am not sponsored by, but did find very helpful) and has a great app for tracking work sprints. He also gives a lot of good advice about getting into a distraction free zone, but if you want that information you can read his book. 😉
When I write for twenty minutes, with my scene sketch at my side, I get more done than I usually do in an entire hour of work. Let me repeat that with stats: 20 minutes of focused writing = 600 words > one hour of unfocused writing = 500 words. In one hour of actual work, with breaks between every twenty minute word sprint (where I change the laundry, make beds or pack lunches), I average 1800 words.
From 500 words per day to 1800 words per hour. Boom.
Even on days when I only get 20 minutes to write (or fifteen if I spend five minutes sketching the scene), I get more than when I had a whole hour to write. One LeapFrog video is 23 minutes long, meaning I can actually sneak writing time when my kids are awake.
Now that I’m getting more words down every day, I find myself less anxious and frustrated in general. I hope some of this will help you too!
In second grade, Becky Wallace had to sit in the corner because she refused to write anything except princess stories and fairy tales (and because she talked too much). Her time in isolation gave her plenty of opportunities to dream up the fantasy worlds she’s been dabbling with ever since. She was lucky enough to find her own real-life Prince Charming. They have four munchkins and live in happy little town near Houston, Texas. She is also the award-winning author of two YA fantasy novels, THE STORYSPINNER and THE SKYLIGHTER. You can find out more about her at www.beckywallacebooks.com or on Twitter and Instagram at @beckywallace1.
And you can find out more about her books here.
Drama and danger abound in this fantasy realm where dukes play a game for the throne, magical warriors race to find the missing heir, and romance blossoms where it is least expected.
In a world where dukes plot their way to the throne, a Performer’s life can get tricky. And in Johanna Von Arlo’s case, it can be fatal. Expelled from her troupe after her father’s death, Johanna is forced to work for the handsome Lord Rafael DeSilva. Too bad they don’t get along. But while Johanna’s father’s death was deemed an accident, the Keepers aren’t so sure.
The Keepers, a race of people with magical abilities, are on a quest to find the princess—the same princess who is supposed to be dead and whose throne the dukes are fighting over. But they aren’t the only ones looking for her. And in the wake of their search, murdered girls keep turning up—girls who look exactly like the princess, and exactly like Johanna.
With dukes, Keepers, and a killer all after the princess, Johanna finds herself caught up in political machinations for the throne, threats on her life, and an unexpected romance that could change everything.
Johanna and Rafi are in a race against time to save their country before a power-mad Keeper destroys everything they hold dear in the “enthralling magical world” (Cinda Williams Chima, author of The Heir Chronicles) introduced in The Storyspinner.
As the last of the royal line, Johanna is the only person who can heal a magical breach in the wall that separates her kingdom of Santarem from the land of the Keepers, legendary men and women who wield elemental magic. The barrier protects Santarem from those Keepers who might try to take power over mere humans…Keepers who are determined to stop Johanna and seize the wall’s power for themselves.
And they’re not the only ones. As the duchys of Santarem descend into war over the throne, Johanna relies more than ever on the advice of her handsome companion, Lord Rafael DeSilva. But Rafi is a duke too, and his people come first. As their friendship progresses into the beginnings of a tender relationship, Johanna must wonder: is Rafi looking out for her happiness, or does he want the throne for himself?
With war on the horizon, Johanna and Rafi dodge treacherous dukes and Keeper assassins as they race to through the countryside, determined to strengthen the wall before it’s too late…even if it means sacrificing their happiness for the sake of their world.
Thank you so much Becky for providing us tips on how to improve our daily word count. I know it’s not always easy to make your self plan out things if you’re not usually a plotter.
A huge thank you to all of the authors who have participated in this feature! Your words and kindness don’t go unappreciated. You are inspiring and helping hopeful writers everyday, and they are so much more thankful than you know!
We hope everyone has a wonderful rest of the week!