Strategies for Writing


Are you writing alone in a garret supported by your massive inheritance  with no other demands on your time or pocketbook? No? Here are a few ideas  on how to reach your writing goals in conjunction with (or in spite of)  all the other demands on your time and energy.

[This essay is adapted from a workshop I led at the Pennwriters 1997 Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.]

Main sections in this essay:

1) Introduction 3) Strategies Change  5) Finally. . . 
2) Begin With the End in Mind 4) Use Your Time Wisely and Appropriately  


I was inspired to lead a workshop on "strategies for writing" because so many people have wondered how I managed to write (and write so much) with three small children. Writing is my profession; parenting is my responsibility. The one does not cancel the other, in either direction -- it just means I have to be clever in how I juggle my time and, more importantly, in the way I think about how and when I want to get things done.

First, I should state right out that I don't have a "One True Way" answer. This isn't an essay that deals with AN answer but rather with process. It is more a discussion of strategies that have worked for others and the necessity of thinking about the process rather than letting impulse dictate the course of your writing career.

Most people have multiple "roles" they juggle in the course of daily life. For a writer juggling many roles, it is vital you have something else: a special reserved place for writing, whether that be a desk, a corner of the kitchen table, the library, some kind of private space, and, to go with it, a set-aside time when no one is allowed to disturb you, not even yourself.

Two Definitions (for the purposes of this essay)
I define a writer as someone who writes.
I define a full-time writer as someone who derives the majority of their income from writing.

A major obstacle facing most writers, who in many cases are self starters and who often have to work without a firm deadline all on their own, is that it's easy for distractions to surface, to throw you off track. In addition, conflicting goals can cloud your vision.


Therefore . . .

Identify your goals and then look at your individual situation and quirks to see how these goals can best be achieved.

Short term goals and long terms goals serve different purposes.

Make realistic short term goals; with long term goals you have more leeway.

For example: short term "I want to write a book and have it done by the end of the year" is a different goal than "I want to spend as much time as necessary researching a meticulous historical novel which I will then spend as long as it takes writing to get right."

For example: a short term goal might be: I've never been able to finish a novel so I want to finish one by the end of the year versus a long term goal of: after five years I want to have 3 novels written and out under consideration by publishers, with one of those sold.

Yet a third example: short term: finish the novel I have under contract versus long term: be getting half my income from writing or write a "big" (breakout) book.

These short and long term goals will be different for each person. Other people cannot define them for YOU.

Now break these down into steps: figure out -- given your goal -- what you want, and how to get there. Consider what you want to achieve and make a game plan. 

Here's a for instance: I have trouble with production, with actually sitting down and producing. SO, as my short term goal, I'm going to write 4 pages a day. Now consider in addition to what end? You do need to have an idea of what you want to write, whether it be articles, stories, a novel, or something else. Four pages of journal is sufficient if your goal is to generate the habit of writing, and in that case you might want also to set a time frame -- Ill do this for 3 months so that I can get in the habit of writing every day.

Again, for instance, if your main goal is to finish a novel, then think about what your weaknesses are, as well as your strengths. If "petering out" partway through the plot is a weakness, then write an outline and follow it; if plot is a strength but description is a weakness, then think of exercises to work on description, or go back through every page written the day before and add two lines of description, or study novels that you think do a good job of describing and try to analyze what the writer is doing that makes it work; and so on. You can follow this pattern regardless if your goal is x number of articles, or a short story, or a novel.

Strategies change with every book. Every book has its own demands. And writers learn to change their strategies depending on the demands of the current project.

Some writers are more productive with a deadline looming. The writing plans of others are bound by the other work they do. The key is, when necessary, to loosen up and try other patterns of working so you aren't fighting yourself.

Writers talk about this kind of thing all the time -- the different ways writers work.These are some of the patterns I ran across when talking with other writers, mostly in the science fiction / fantasy field.

General ways of working: (I've noted in parentheses the name of the writer who mentioned this pattern to me, if I can recall it)

When writing an historical fantasy: lots of preliminary research to pin down dates, personages, then additional research as writing (Kara Dalkey)

Write out a mini-outline of necessary upcoming scenes.

Start slow, accrediting sentence by sentence then, BAM, reach critical mass and it consumes all waking time; once see this pattern as a way of working, you can see the explosion coming and "clear the decks" of other business so you're free to do nothing but work (Katharine Kerr).

Turtle-novelist with uniform pacing of energy (Deborah Wheeler).

Outline extensively; work out dates; refine as go along; add notes to outline as go and as getto know things better; outline helps keep control of pacing and balance so can space out fight scenes, love scenes, action v reflection etc.; atout line stage try to figure out if have enough material for the length(Diana Paxson).

Writing a novel:

Write linear -- from point A to point B -- first draft; then go back and revise.

Write big scenes in any order, out of order, then when all of them are in place, fill in between them (Katharine Kerr).

Do the entire book in "headwork", then write as if to dictation (I call this the Mozart method; I call The Sword of Heaven: Jaran novels 2 & 3 my "Mozart" book because I had thought about it for ten years before I wrote it, and I had a very clear idea of the structure, plot,and flow of the novel.)

Start with a scene in mind that you want to reach; all else is uncharted territory.

Write a first draft to "find out what the book is about", then a complete second draft which is so different as to be almost a first draft of the book discovered in the process of writing the first draft (Deborah Wheeler).

Hawaiian Islands method: you know the peaks in the chain, the "big" events that constrain and / or mark the major plot-points, but many of the other scenes and /or events are "underwater" (unknown to you) as you write (I first heard this term from Tad Williams, although he may define it somewhat differently than I do).

Figure out which pattern works for you, and for the current project. You can get into a lot of trouble forcing yourself into someone else's method!

Don't get caught up in spending more time on something than its worth; the converse is also true: Don't stint on the time necessary for what is truly important.

-- How much to research;
For example,Writers A & B have both been invited to write a short story for an anthology for which they'll be paid 6 cents/wd. Writer A doesn't have a lot of professional credits. He decides his goal is to write the best story in the anthology, a "standout", to increase his visibility in the field and perhaps try for awards nominations. Writer B needs the money to fixher garage door, likes the subject, and is happy about the chance to be in an anthology, but she is also working on an overdue novel -- and novels are her bread and butter both in terms of affinity for a form and in terms of making a living. All else being equal (that is, inspiration doesn't grab her by the throat), Writer B probably should not spend three months doing intensive research for a 5000 word story, while it may be worth it to Writer A to do that, depending on his other life responsibilities.

-- How much to outline;

Don't outline just because others say you ought to if you dont work well to outlines.On the other hand, if you're trying to write a many-layered complex novel with multiple plot-lines, maybe an outline would be a good thing to help you keep track of whats going on. As I know to my own regret, this is especially true with a series, where its vital for the poor author laboring under the weight of seemingly infinite sub-plots and a monstrous mob of clamoring characters to keep track of everything that's going on as well as the main characters eye color.


How much preparation(headwork) is necessary before you actually sit down and start writing that first draft? It depends on the person, your pattern of writing, and your project. Sometimes doing work ahead of time before you sit down at the desk / computer screen saves you writing time or makes that time more efficient. Other people may prefer to "discover" as they go, or may find that the actual "organic" process of writing helps them discover things they would not have discovered had they planned it out beforehand.

-- How much time is a project worth given your long term goals?

For example,if you're a working novelist who gets a job writing a men's action / adventure slam bang action novel for a flat rate, don't be sloppy, but don't spend a year writing it either. On the other hand, if you want to write a Newberry-winning childrens novel, don't toss off an idea that seems trendy, but rather write about something that deeply moves you and will, you hope, move others as well. (I myself would never recommend writing purely "for" awards; Im not sure its possible to, and, honestly, if you're not writing because you love writing or because you have some skill at it and its better than working at McDonalds, then why the heck are you doing it, anyway?)

Don't be afraid sometimes to write something easy, for practice, for relaxation, for a break, or just to see how well your writing skills are holding together.

Conversely,sometimes you have to tackle what you're afraid to write or what you think you're not good enough to write. That's how you grow as a writer. I, and many other writers I know, set a goal with each book of some aspect of the writing process or craft that I want specifically to attempt to improve upon: e.g. pacing, evocative details, grammar, readability, memorable characters,and so on.

Important caveat to everything said above: Sometimes you will be stricken with an idea that consumes you. At times like that, maybe you're better off just running with it and damn the consequences. One of the keys to writing is that it isn't reducible to observable phenomena; its not a logical process, although a career can to some extent be plotted out logically with the understanding that other factors -- many of them out of your control -- will influence the outcome.

And then . . .

-- How much time you want to write each week

Your other responsibilities will influence this to a greater or lesser extent. Stephanie,for instance, works for a U.S. Senator; when the Senate is at low energy period or on vacation she has more time to write in the evenings; when it goes into a high energy period she has long hours and thus expects to get little done. Michelle works part-time, has a child, and publishes novels:she has certain times set aside for writing on whatever her current novel project is -- she uses that time for novel-writing, not for anything else.For myself, since I work out of my home and don't have to commute, sometimes the urge to do something else when I'm stuck on a scene is nigh irresistible,but in my case my hours are usually dictated by the length of the school day, so in general (but of course not always!) I plan all other activities for the late afternoon and evening.

Expectations are important. Make expectations realistic. Expecting you'll get to write in a situation where you probably wont will make you crazy. For instance, Kit was about eighty pages into a new novel when their long-awaited house deal went through and they had to move; at that point she realized they would be in house-moving limbo and would be for at least a month taken up by packing, moving, and unpacking / settling in. She decided shed stop even believing she could work during the moving / settling-in limbo, because it only caused her more mental anguish when she thought she could but couldn't.

Sometimes its important to acknowledge that this day / week / month you wont get writing done because of circumstances beyond your control. Other times its important to say: Writing is more important than these other distractions, so Im not going to let them derail me.


The most valuable commodity isn't talent, independent wealth, a contract in hand, contacts with insiders, the magic handshake, and so on and so forth (although some of the above are certainly good to have).

The most valuable commodity is PERSISTENCE.

It is a basic truth that the person who quits climbing wont get to the top of the mountain.If you want to get to the top of the mountain, whatever that may be, keep putting one foot after the next. Its the only way.