Writing a novel is definitely a different beast than writing short stories. In fact, comparatively, a short story is merely a kitten to the beast of of novel. So while I sit and stew on the characters and story I would like to write, I decided that I want to hack the process of writing a novel.
I realize that the idea of hacking the novel writing process will spark a slew of criticism from creative authors everywhere, so let me explain before I’m fiercely judged into writer’s Hell.
Hacking anything is a tool, not an end. It’s having a system or method available to you that you know you can use to be extremely efficient and effective when you need to do. Just because someone can write 4000 words an hour, doesn’t mean they can’t also write 300 words an hour when the text calls for it. It simply means that you’re able to write as fast as you want to, especially when on a deadline. Once you see the methods, you’ll understand. And just to clarify, this method is for getting the first draft done. I’m still exploring how to hack the revisions process.
Also to note: I don’t always use this method. In fact, I only recently started using it on much larger projects to help me stay away from big plot holes while, at the same time, greatly increasing the speed of my first drafts. I’m still working out the kinks, but so far it’s working great. Essentially, I’ve taken the best advice and tools from a lot of authors, removed all the personal bias, and carefully measure how each process can act as a force multiplier — that’s when the combination of two or more things is exponentially more effective than the individual pieces.
The Right Tool
First, I set out to find the best writing tool possible. Having endless note cards, multiple books and websites open, inspirational pictures, and everything written as one big manuscript (or perhaps even broken up across multiple files) in a word processor, was far too slow to sift through and difficult to organize. So, I found something that puts all of that in one place, and even lets me quickly reorganize anything that I want to, including scenes. Rather than bore you with all of the incredible details, I HIGHLY encourage you to check it out yourself. It’s a rather inexpensive piece of software called Scrivener. If you take time to learn how to use it, I’m sure you’ll find it to be as awesomely useful as I have.
The Write Tool
I know. That was a cheesy play on words. But I didn’t want to spend any more time coming up with a good subheading. After having a great platform for creative and organized writing, I wanted to find a way to truly layout my story in a way that had depth and avoided plot holes more easily than writing and rewriting an endless stream of drafts. I thought I had found that in The Snowflake Method. And while I think it’s probably the absolute best method available for avoiding plot holes and having a lot of depth in your characters, I found it to be a long treacherous journey into writers block and lack of motivation.
But rather than throwing the whole idea of vector writing out, I decided to see what parts of it were the most helpful, what ultimately made writing the story faster (at least in the end), and what ultimately slowed the whole project down. Below is what I’ve found to be the best revised Snowflake Method. You’ll want to become more familiar with The Snowflake Method to truly understand each point.
- Write a one-sentence summary of your story, not unlike the one-line blurbs found on best-seller lists.
- Take an hour or two to turn that one sentence into a paragraph that lays out your story structure. I personally prefer a three-act Hero’s journey to help get the initial story idea down. But I’m sure you’ll find that your characters may decide to take the story in a different direction as you write. That’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged to let them do so. But for now, you just want to get a solid story idea down. You’re not writing the open-ended back-of-your-book-summary either. Instead, you want a very brief summary of your entire plot.
- Sketch out your characters. If you’re not sure who they are yet, then you can switch this step with step 4. This is probably one of the most important steps for avoiding plot holes and adding depth to your story. But you also don’t need to spend a ton of time on it. Do some quick sketches, and come back to add more ideas as you have them. Basically, you want the characters name, a one-sentence summary of their story within your story, their goals, motivations, obstacles, and how they’ll change by the end. Also, jot down a quick one-paragraph summary of their story too. If you don’t know some of the details yet, then leave a placeholder to come back to. Also come back to write details about their backstory as you have more ideas about each character. I find it helpful to actually write from the character’s point of view, as if they’re sitting across the table telling me about themselves and what story they’re caught up in now.
- Start turning your story summary into an outline, and fill it in. I’ll talk about that process in a minute. I personally found the Snowflake way of doing it to be too much analysis and not enough creative writing. It won’t zap the energy out of your story, but it will definitely zap the energy out of you.
The Wright Tool
Okay, now I’m just being silly. But since “wright” means “maker” or “builder”, I found it fitting. Now that we have a great platform to write on and a good sketch of your story and characters, let’s talk about hacking the actual writing process to get from 1000 words per hour to 4000 words per hour.
After what seems like an enormous amount of searching, I found this diamond of information from Monica Leonelle, about writing up to 3000 to 4000 words an hour consistently:
Most writers struggle to consistently write 1000 words an hour, and 3000 words sounds outright ridiculous. I’ll let the article speak for itself on how it’s possible to write 4000 words an hour of really good first-draft novel material, but here’s a brief summary:
- Outline. This is essentially #4 of the hacked Snowflake Method above. It helps you lay out the complete story, so the final writing is essentially filling in the story, which happens very quickly at that point.
- Write a paragraph summary of your chapter.
- Expand it into five paragraphs per chapter – your beats and pacing that also indicates by section whether it’s dialogue, descriptive, or inner monologue.
- Turn those paragraphs into instructions for what needs to be written. USE PLACEHOLDERS! Save research and the hard thinking for later.
- Fill in the blanks so that the story flows enough that anyone reading your draft could follow what’s going on. Usually, “filling in the blanks” happens easiest after taking a day off before coming back to the text — this is especially true for the placeholders in your text.
- Focus. Set aside blocks of time to focus without interruption. She writes in twenty-five minute blocks. I prefer the 60/60/30 method. In other words, I work fifty minutes to an hour , take a ten minute break, work another hour. Then I take at least a thirty minute break where I get away from my computer entirely (or notepad, if you’re one of “those” writers, haha!). Not only does this focus time double your writing output, the purposeful breaks keep you from turning into a zombie.
- Improve “typing” speed. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, including learning Dvorak — which both gives you a speed bump and lessens the amount of stress on your hands from typing like a madman. However, Monica suggests getting rid of the typewriter and going into full dictation mode. I find that dictation isn’t helpful until the outline is ready for first-draft writing. At that point, software like Dragon Dictate can easily double your speed.
- Energy management. Some people take walks. Some people read for pleasure. Some, like me, take purposeful breaks, drink Bulletproof Coffee and Yerba Mate’, write music for a while, and carry around a mini-recorder for when ideas catch me off-guard. The point is, know where you are most productive, know what helps you sustain your energy over time, and know what food, exercise, and general health-boosting options work best for you, then USE THEM! You’ll up your writing speed and creativity yet again!
I suppose you could up your writing speed even more, and start using James Patterson’s method. He writes more than one book a month! But he has the help of others to scale up how many stories he can write at once. He outlines or sketches out a story idea, then sends it to a trusted ghost-writer or friend to write the meat of the story. They often write a chapter at a time, so that Patterson can review the work, revise it, and even completely change directions when needed. At that point, you’re still a writer, but more like a co-writer and creative director. That’s not to say that you can’t still write completely on your own, but more that you have the option to scale up the amount you can output. It’s a great method to use if you want to pump out massive amounts of stories, or if you simply don’t have enough time to write your incredible story idea into a novel, but do have some extra money to put towards it.
In the end, it’s about writing a great story. But this article is about hacking novel writing, not about how to write a great story.
To write a great story, I suggest that while you’re coming up with your story, plot, and characters, you read through How to Write a Damn Good Novel (one and two), by James N. Frey. Both are incredible guides for fleshing out your story.