Three things you need to do to write well

There are three things you absolutely must do if you intend to write novels.

The first is to actually write. Many people will say you should write every day, and I generally like that because repetitive practice does wonders and writing every day will get you to published quicker than anything else will. This holds true for sports, dance, music, art, and any other physical skill or mode of expression a person might want to develop into a career.

I’ve taught for many years now and I have had kids tell me they want to play professional ball. One of them, now in 10th grade, carried a basketball with him everywhere. Every chance he got, he was practicing. He woke up early to practice, stayed up late, and did quite well on our team. His parents got him a personal trainer (at great expense to themselves) and I honestly believe he has a shot. But he is one of at least 100 kids who’ve told me they intend to play pro ball, and he was the only one who practiced every day. Typically they tell me they want to play, but they don’t put in the 3-6 hours of practice a day that they need to become professionals.

Fortunately no writer has to put in 3-6 hours of practice a day to go professional. We’re not looking to be professionals at the age of 19. We won’t peak in our twenties and retire in our thirties with a busted knee. But it would be a good idea to do a little organized writing every day. It gets you in the habit. Some people say that if they have to write every day it turns into a chore, and this can be true for some (not for me; I get an endorphin rush every time I write). But, if you intend to go professional, writing really will be a chore. At least part-time. If you only write when it’s fun, you won’t make much money at it.

That said, I don’t write every day. I wish I could. The ADHD makes it hard and so does my job. When report cards are due I must grade first. I don’t intend to make any money off of writing for at least several more years, though. I love my day job. I’m 44. I’m hoping to be publishable by the time I’m 55, so that I can have supplemental money (note — supplemental — writing pays for shit for most people) when I retire. I’m not your average young hopeful with dollar signs in their eyes.

The second is to read.

Read everything, but especially read fiction, and especially read fiction both in your genre and of the length you want to write.* You must read, and you should read fiction for at least half an hour every day. I typically read fiction for an hour or more. You could get away with not reading as much if you’re writing for TV or movies or something, but if you intend to write something other people will read, you must read too. I’ve read a lot of works from people who don’t read, and they struggle greatly with things like how to use words to describe settings, feelings, character, action (especially fight scenes, sex scenes, etc.). They struggle with sentence formation, paragraph structure, and the like.

Reading will not only tell you a lot about what’s considered normal in your genre, but it will teach you more about the above than any craft book, lecture, YouTube video, etc. You must read. (Plus there are genre conventions that work well, visually, but don’t work at all in text, like the jump scare. That’s a staple for horror movies but doesn’t work too well in print.)

You also want to read a tremendous amount of nonfiction because you need the largest base of general knowledge you can possibly get. I loved general education classes in college and structured my GE to help me as a writer. Today I’ve read articles on the writing process, ADHD and ADHD medications, assault weapons laws, weight loss recidivism, women and professional imaging, Morton’s toe, parents who eat lunch with their kids at elementary schools, wolf packs, teaching, and the news. Part of that is my ADHD, but part of it’s also building up such a base of general knowledge that research becomes easier.

I’ve also noticed that if I write a lot without reading much fiction, I run out of words. It’s the strangest thing. I stop being able to describe things. I think of reading as taking in fuel. You better gas up before you drive to grandma’s, that sort of thing.

The third is to critique other peoples’ works. That one deserves its own article in the interest of not making these too long.


*It’s also very, very important to read outside your genre. You should be familiar with every genre’s conventions, especially since they cross over to an extraordinary degree. Many thrillers, mysteries, SF/F books, etc. have romantic subplots, just as an extraordinary number of books are actually mysteries. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is basically a mystery packaged as a young adult fantasy novel. I know there are a number of men out there who would not be caught dead with a romance, but that’s what Kindle is for. No one can see the cover of the book you’re reading when you’re reading on a Kindle, and if your masculinity is that fragile, you can always delete it from your Kindle when you’re done. It’ll still be there for you in Amazon’s cloud.

Scrivener

My favorite writing program is Scrivener. Lots of people like Google Docs or MS Word. It’s fine if you do.

I started with Word. I wrote a 120,000 word MS in Word, and that’s where I discovered that Word is terrible for novel writing.

See, I had one document. It was that long. It took several minutes to open. Scrolling through it to find anything took forever. It was unwieldy and annoying and ended up being quite large, megabytes-wise. And editing in it was absolute hell. The comments function isn’t really designed for novelists, and there was no way to get back material I’d cut out unless I pasted it into a different Word file. Soon I had random Word files everywhere and that just wasn’t working for me. I tried breaking everything into chapter files, but that meant opening a bunch of files any time I wanted to look for something that had happened earlier in the story.

Google Docs is worse. I know some people love the Cloud, but I’m not that fond of it. I don’t like not owning my software or the place where I store my creative works. Also, Dropbox corrupted some of my files and I’ve known people who have flat-out lost files they’ve stored in Drive or Dropbox or iCloud. So, no thank you. It does have revision history, which is one up on MS Word, but it’s not as robust a program.

Scrivener is basically a database program. You can create “folders” and put “files” in them. Each file can be whatever you want — a chapter, a scene, some notes, etc. They’re easy to organize. You can “paperclip” things to them and even write on the “folders” as if you were writing on the outside of a manila file folder. It’s quick to open and quick to organize the files. It’s also not big.

It comes with some other features that make it extremely useful. (I don’t even use all the features.) You can toggle “split screen” and split it right/left or top/bottom, if you need to have two files open at the same time. There are templates for characters and places and you can modify them or make your own. It compiles into a variety of different formats based on how you intend to publish it, so I can press a button and have something I can read on my Kindle, or publish to PDF, or whatever. You can set target goals and there’s some pretty sophisticated statistical analysis stuff I don’t use, but you could probably use it to figure out how many times you use the word “probably” if you needed to.

On the right hand side is the Inspector, which has several useful things. There’s a notepad for jotting stuff down or storing sentences. Whatever’s on the notepad is saved to that particular file. There’s an “index card” you can write on, and some general meta-data that you can customize so you can indicate if you’re on your alpha draft, or if this scene contains those particular characters, plus you can toggle things so that the file does or doesn’t get included in your ending compile (useful if you have a “notes” file). You can attach hyperlinks to files inside Scrivener or on the Internet. You can create keywords, comments, and footnotes.

Best, there’s a function called ‘snapshots.’ I  use this extensively. You press the button, and it saves your text file into a ‘snapshot’ which is dated and appended to the file without being included in the compile or word count. You can name each snapshot. This is a godsend for editing. Before I make any changes to my work, and especially before I erase anything, I click “snapshots.” If I make a mistake with my edits, I can roll back to the snapshotted version. I can also click on the snapshot and read it in the side bar without rolling anything back. I honestly don’t know what I would do without snapshots. It’s the single-most useful feature I’ve found in a writing program.

Another thing that’s useful is that it has several “views.” The first view is the standard word processor view — you type your text in it. But if you click the button at the top, it takes you to a literal corkboard screen with index cards that you can write on and move around. Those index cards are your file folders. It’s extremely valuable for plotting. If you don’t like index cards on a corkboard, there’s another screen that shows you your outline in list form, and you can edit or modify that.

Scrivener is about $45, goes on sale every time there’s a NaNo (3x/yr), and you can get discounts on it through subscribing to various writing sites. Also, they let you put it on more than one computer, so I have Scrivener on every PC and Mac I own. They have great customer service and a forum and there’s a really good Scrivener for Dummies book which is better and more useful than their tutorials. In addition to using Scrivener for writing, I also use it for curriculum planning and I’m compiling the recipes we use frequently into a “cookbook” (they have a template for that) so that we can eventually get rid of most of the cookbooks that we only use for one or two recipes, and free up a little space.

Last, there is a timeline program for novels and the two can link. Super nice!

Scrivener is used by countless published and unpublished writers. Their testimonials page goes on forever. If you plan on seriously writing, I encourage you to download the free trial (good for 30 disparate days) and give it a try.

Again, I don’t get compensated by anyone for anything. This is really me loving this product.

My process

I’m friends with Chris Brecheen, who does a blog about writing, and he posts re-runs sometimes. The latest one was about his process. He says that he has been told that some day he’s going to be so sick of the question he’d rather poke out his eye with a refrigerator magnet than answer it (paraphrased), but then he wrote a big long post about it with references to cherries and the like.

In the (hah!) hopes that some day I will become famous and someone will ask me, I am hereby answering that question. I guess that means I’m popping my own cherry. How masturbatory.

I dunno. I’m pretty scattered. I don’t write every day. I don’t write at the same time every day. Chris really likes this old writer named Dorothea Brande,* who was the person who suggested writing at the same time every day, so that’s probably where the advice comes from. If I were to write at the same time every day, I’d have to get up 1-2 hours earlier than I do and I hate the very thought of that with a burning passion. See, I have a gold medal in insomnia and getting to sleep is hard, so why would I want to wake up earlier than I have to? If you haven’t slept, your writing is going to be shit anyway. Also, I have ADHD (see previous post). That means it’s hard to do anything regularly unless I have to physically go somewhere to do so.** Maybe when I’m rich-and-famous I can have a shed in which I write, but I have to write first.

When I do write, I typically put on my writing playlist first. It’s full of hard rock, industrial, dubstep, and 80s music like Madonna. I pick it for the beat and the general tenor of the music. I’ve listened to all those songs so many times I no longer need to ‘hear’ them so I just let them subliminally wash through me and add to the tone of my books.

Why, no, I don’t write middle grade. Why do you ask?

I have three monitors. The big one sits in the middle and I have two equal-sized ones that I have mounted to each side. On the left side is my collection of a million-and-one tabs, including my Google Play tab. On the right side is my social media screen, which I almost always have open to Slack because that’s where my writer buddies hang out. I turn Facebook off because Facebook is the time killer.

I have the middle screen completely filled in with Scrivener, the software I use for my novel. Scrivener is like the industry standard for novelists. It looks a little overwhelming at first, but it’s awesome and I’ll probably do a whole entry just on it. My Scrivener always has the left side open to the binder and the right side open to the inspector.

I usually read a bit of what I wrote the previous time, to get a feel for what I was doing, and then I start writing. Because I have ADHD and can hyperfocus, I tend to lose track of time. I think I write about 500-600 words per hour, but I’m not sure. There are times I giggle incessantly and other times where I stop, mid-sentence, and stare off into space. Sometimes I write a scene and hate it, at which point I might stop, split my screen, and rewrite it, but mostly I just keep going and make notes in the note pad portion of Scrivener that say “fix this.”

I’m in a critique group that requires I produce 3000-3500 words of new material each week, six weeks out of seven, so there are times when I finish the last word and immediately send it off to my crit group. Other times, I just let it sit. I’ve got a nice “cushion” of a few weeks’ worth of submissions so I’m not feeling pressured to write right now. (It’s a benign pressure, mostly created by myself.)

Then, typically, I go to bed. Sometimes I’ll stay awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking about what I could do with my story, but I’ve found it’s actually much more productive to think through story issues in the car than it is in bed, probably because my body is occupied driving the car, but my body isn’t really doing anything in bed but laying there. That could be an ADHD-related thing.

*I get no kickbacks from anything I link to.
** Kaiser (my HMO) keeps trying to treat my various joint problems by giving me sheets of paper with exercises on them and telling me “do these exercises 2-3 times a day.” I can’t do that. I can’t even remember to do that. Which is why my joints suck. If I had to go somewhere, I could do it. I got a lot more exercise when I had a personal trainer to try not to let down.

Writing and ADHD

About three weeks ago I was diagnosed with ADHD. Last Sunday I was put on Adderall.

I’m 44 years old. I’ve lived my whole life with this disorder and didn’t know it. I’ve also been writing since I was 8, and I started seriously writing in 2013. In addition to that, I’m a high school teacher.

I’d noticed I’d been having a lot of trouble, both with writing and with grading. I love being a teacher. Teaching is fun and richly rewarding. I also love writing, which is, again, fun and richly rewarding. But there were parts of each that I just wasn’t doing on a timely or efficient basis. For example, I discovered over the years that I’m a binge person. I can’t write for an hour. I can write for ten hours. I can’t grade for an hour, but I can grade all day.

Unfortunately my life isn’t set up to make it so that I have huge chunks of time available to write or grade. I usually have a little bit here or there.

I tried to come home and start writing at 5 and then write til dinner at 7, eat at 7, and do something with my family for the rest of the evening. What happened was I either didn’t stop writing, or I couldn’t get to the point of writing because I have to ‘set the stage’ first and that took until 6:30 and then it was too late. So I dropped that. And the same thing would happen with grading.

The reason I opted for medication was because I want to be able to write or grade for an hour or two most every day. I don’t want to be so hyperfocused on either that I can’t do anything else, and I don’t want to fear the hyperfocus so much that I goof around and waste my time.

Now me goofing around and wasting my time doesn’t mean I never write. A little less than 2 weeks ago I wrote 8800 words in one day. It took me 14 hours. I haven’t written a thing since. I’ve completed two manuscripts, each novel-length, and am working on a third — I’m about 52% of the way through. But I’d be a hell of a lot more productive if I could be normal.

I wonder how many writers have ADHD and that’s why they can’t meet deadlines? Because deadlines are really hard for me, and for a lot of people with ADHD. I worry about trad-publishing because of deadlines. If I ever indie-publish, I probably won’t actually set a publish date until the book is ready to go, just so that I don’t miss the deadline.

I’m hoping the Adderall helps. So far it’s been really horrid, but maybe I’ll adjust. And if I don’t, there’s always Ritalin. To be honest, I’m kind of afraid of the Adderall. It’s an amphetamine. That’s like speed. I don’t like stimulants–I don’t even drink coffee. But if it helps, I’ll do it, even though the Adderall makes me feel crappy and gives me mood swings and, while it’s in my system, completely kills my appetite, which comes back with a vengeance once the medication wears off.