Thursday, August 31, 2006

WORK METHOD

Someone asked me recently about my work method and how I’d increased my productivity. How is it that I used to spend six months writing an Intrigue? Then another month or six weeks editing the book. And now I’m writing three or four books a year-–both category and single title.

About ten years ago, I made the decision that I was going to write faster. I found that I could turn out a rough draft in two to four months. But I couldn’t shorten the editing process. I give myself permission to write a draft that needs work. Then I layer in all the qualities that elevate that draft from rough to polished.

I can’t get it all at once. When the whole draft is finished, I edit on the screen to improve the sentence structure, the character development, the action, and the emotional content of the book. Then I print out the book and start adding what I’ve left out. After I write in the changes, I print out the manuscript again-–then see more places that need improvement.

I usually repeat this process several times before I’m satisfied with the book.

When I’m writing, I start each day by editing what I wrote the day before. That's how I get into what I'm working on. When I read the previous day's work, I always find stuff I don’t like. I’ll want to improve a lot of the sentences. I may not have enough of the characters' emotions. Or I don't have the action quite right. Or the dialogue needs work. I have to add layers to get it right.

I basically set myself the task of writing ten pages a day. I might stop and read e-mail or talk on the phone. But I go back to the story and stay with the day's work until I get those ten pages. I might get that done by early afternoon. Or I might still be working at ten at night.

One thing I’ve found is that writing gets easier the more you do it. If you write consistently, you will be able to increase your output.

Also, I’ve written a lot of books. Because I have a lot of experience, it’s become easier for me to know if the story isn’t working. I can tell pretty quickly if a scene is off. If it’s too far off, I have to figure out what's wrong before I can go on.

On the other hand, sometimes I write a scene that I know isn't quite right--and leave it in the ms. I think of it as holding the place for the scene that will be right--when I figure it out. Those "wrong" scenes usually don't have the character motivation quite right. But I put them in anyway to hold the place for the correct scene, when I figure out what the character would really be thinking and doing.

I know there are some people who can't go ahead until they have each scene right. Giving myself permission to have it slightly wrong is one way I forge ahead.

Of course, if it's TOO screwed up, then it will throw the rest of the book off. So I have to be able to recognize that, too.

I also increase my productivity by having more than one book going at once. I mean, I might be writing one book, but I have another proposal sitting there, ready to go. Or I have to deliver an Intrigue one month and a Berkley the next month. If I'm having trouble with one book, I'll put it down and work on the other one--until I figure out the basic problem with the book that was giving me fits.

I just wrote 100 pages of a Berkley novel, a sequel to BEYOND CONTROL, called BEYOND FEARLESS. It’s about sexually linked telepaths whose powers increase when they link up with their soulmate. But I think those 100 pages are going to turn into 90 pages because the beginning needs tightening. When I edit, I often tighten what I’ve written. And I’m just as likely to expand the text. It all depends on what I think the book needs.

I had to put my Berkley book down because I'd planned a research trip to Boston, for the Intrigue that's due in a couple of months. I'd written the whole draft of that ms, guessing about the settings in some scenes. Once I saw the real locations, I changed some of the scenes to fit the actual settings-–and added missing details that I never would have known unless I’d been there. Now I'm editing the book once on the screen. When I finish that, I'll go on to the paper editing. When that book is finished, I'll go back to BEYOND FEARLESS..

One reason I try to write fast is so that I have time to put each book away for a while. When I pick it up after a few weeks of working on something else, it's easy to see any problems with the ms, because it's like someone else wrote it.

If you’d like to discuss productivity, let me know.

18 comments:

Jenn Stark said...

Ruth,

These are GREAT tips--I'm in the midst of a session on boosting productivity, so I'm a sponge for this sort of thing; thank you for sharing your technique!

Jenn

Rebecca York said...

Let me know how it works out.
Rebecca

Kimberly said...

Ruth,
I am an incredibly slow writer and would love to increase my productivity. Your comment about the "placeholder scene" intrigued me because I do much the same thing. The problem is when I figure out the "right" scene and go back and write it I often need to make adjustments in other parts of the ms. Does this happen to you? And if so, how do you deal with it?

Julia Templeton said...

Fantastic tips, Rebecca!

I envy you for having the ability to bounce from one book to another. I usually take a few days to transition between books/time periods. I'd love to be able to bounce back and forth with ease. Maybe one day...

Thanks for sharing your technique with us!

Rebecca York said...

Kimberly, I guess it's partly a matter of experience. If I have to rewrite, I just do it. Generally, these "place holder" scenes affect the emotional content of the story. One thing I find is that when I've changed the motivation in a scene, it may not change the whole emotional landscape of the manuscript. Sometimes it adds "texture" or layers to the conflict between the characters or to their relationship.

After I figure out what was really supposed to be happening in the scene, I carefully go throught the scenes that follow, making sure that they make sense in terms of the new information.

I just came back from a research trip to Boston. I went there to look at Copley Square and the interior of Trinity Church, as well as the walk from the Hancock Tower to the square. Seeing the locations changed a lot of the physical landscape of the story. But I was lucky that it didn't change anything emotionally. While I was in Boston, I rewrote the scenes to make sure I had all the information I needed. Then I went through the rest of the ms, making sure it all matched.

When I figure out that I need to change something, I do it as soon as possible. I always feel much better when I get it straightened out.

Right now, I'm editing the beginning of the Boston story. It's hard for me to drag myself into it because the heroine has changed so much during the course of the story. She's had a major attitude adjustment, and it's not as much fun writing her the way she was when the story started. BTW, it's called WAIT UNTIL DARK, and it takes place during a black out in Boston. The bad guys stage a terrorist attack on a reception at the Hancock Tower. And h/h have to deal with it.
Ruth

Rebecca York said...

Julia, fear of deadlines helps a lot.
Sometimes to get back into a book, I have to read the whole text of what I've already written. That will pull me back. And as I read, I always see things I want to fix.
Ruth

Judy Soifer said...

I write the way you do, editing the previous pages then moving ahead. I just put out half the amount of pages a day that you do, but I haven't been writing as long as you have.

I haven't tried writing more than one book at once either, even though I have plotted down stories and written some of the scenes. I've put them away until the book I'm working on is done. Unless of course I have a dream about it, then I write it down.

Judy

Rebecca York said...

Judy, it took me a long time to figure out that I could write fast. Also, writing is my only job, so I can devote most of my time to it.
I remember reading Fred Pohl's autobiography. He said he had to write every day. If he didn't, then he might not write for two years. It's not that bad for me. But if I skip a few days, it's harder to get back into the grove.
Ruth

Caroline Clemmons said...

You are such an inspiration! I write much the same way as you do, usually working on two books at once. The difference is I have had far less success. And you're so right--if you get out of the habit of writing those ten pages a day as I have recently, it's hard to get back into the work ethic. I became terribly discouraged at not having found a good agent, not having another sale, waiting for 18 months for editors to make a decision, etc. that it's easy to be a slug. A lot of us look up to you and your good example. You've inspired me and I'll get back on schedule today! Thanks for sharing.

Rebecca York said...

Caroline,it would certainly be harder for me to keep up the pressure on myself if I didn't have contracts. But I would still have to write, because that's what I DO.

There's no good balance in this business. Either writers are having problems because they are not selling, or they're doing well, and their publishers are pressing them to work faster. Neither is good.

Ruth

toby said...

Yes, I think deadlines really prod me to write faster. I tend to mosey along if there are no deadlines, but faced with them, I can pick up the pace. My problem is I tend to get bogged down in making all the details work in first draft, even if they're not vitally important to the story. I find it hard to let go and move on to the next chapter unless I have everything down pat in the one I'm working on (though I know,intellectually, there are bound to be changes further on in the writing processs). It really was helpful to see in black and white how you do it. I'm going to try some of your techniques. Maybe they wil hustle me along.

Rebecca York said...

Toby, I'm glad the comments helped. Something (gasp) I even leave a blank in the text--rather than go look something up! Instead of interrupting the flow, I can look it up later.
Ruth

toby said...

My sense is you're spot on. I think writing has a lot to do with getting into the rhythm of it, into the "zone." And if you keep ditsing around with the details, you lose the rhythm and destroy the spell. I keep promising to try it your way. Now I'm going to go for it. I'll let you know what happens. Love the dolphin pic, btw.

julie said...

What a great topic. As a newbie writer I have already started to learn what does and doesn't work for me. I started out three months ago by writing a chapter and then having it critiqued, fixing that up and then going to the next chapter and doing the same thing. By the end of the third chapter I was hating this book and the critiques were depressing me. I decided then that I would just write the book and look back later. It was a little hard at first but I have adjusted. I write only 2-5 pages a day (with a handful of more productive days) so I have a ways to go to get my productivity up. Every day when I sit down to write I will review what I wrote the day before mostly just to get me back in to where I was. (although I can't resist making a few changes)As I sit down to write my last chapter today I know there are a lot of things I have to go back and fix but hopefully the sense of accomplishment of finishing the first draft will get me through those rough days of editing.

Thanks for the post of your process. I love hearing what others do to so that I can continue to learn and improve my process.

Rebecca York said...

Julie, I sounds like you are really on your way! It always makes me crazy when somebody describes a writing method and tries to promote it as the only way to go. You do have to figure out what works for you.

In my case, I worked on my first novel and read chapters in the seminar I was taking at the local Community College. I had been taking this seminar for over a year when I started the novel, so I knew the people in it and trusted their opinion. In fact, after I'd taken the seminar for several years, I asked some of the people to form a critique group with me, and we are still meeting--um--25 years later!

So I did read each chapter to them and got feedback. Then I edited the whole book myself. And edited it again the way I always do. And edited it again.

Ruth

Kimberly said...

Ruth,

Your comments are so helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your process.

You talked about editing your manuscripts, how many edits (approx.) do you go through and how does this number differ from when you were a new writer?

I would think that editing every day as you do must cut down on the amount of overall editing that's needed. Is that true?

Rebecca York said...

Kimberly, I found I could turn out a first draft much faster. I used to edit once on the screen then three or four times on paper. Now I edit once on the screen and two to four times on paper. I just can't shorten that part much.
Ruth

Brit Blaise said...

I love the tips, but alas life seems to get in my way.

Brit Blaise