Monday, February 10, 2014

P is for Productivity

I work a full time day job.  I write four to six books a year.  You can imagine the primary question I get when people learn these two facts about me. Where do I find the time?

Productivity is an issue for all writers, whether your write one book a year or six.  Whether you work a day job or you write full time. Producing good, solid writing is a challenge in any circumstance, and everybody who writes has to find his or her own system that works.  But I think there are a few good working habits of productive writers, so I thought I'd share what works for me and open up the discussion about what works for you.

For me, it's the three Ps - Preparation, Practice and Perseverance.


Preparation is key for most writers, even those who write by the seat of their pants. It just takes a different form for different writers.  But we all prepare to write in some way.

For pure plotters, the preparation happens before they even start the book.  They've outlined their characters' lives, pasts, goals, dreams, family and friend connections, eye color, hair color, favorite color, etc.  They know how the romance will progress and if they're writing a subgenre such as romantic suspense, they know how the mystery plot will progress. Paranormal writers may, additionally, plot out entire worlds and the rules of those worlds, the hierarchies and the politics and the sexual mores. 

For hybrid plotters (I fall in this category), some parts of the book will be carefully plotted out, while others are sketched in lightly, allowing room for growth and discovery during the writing phase. 

Pantsers - those brave folks who sit down to write without any sort of outline - may seem unprepared to the more obsessive of us plotters, but in truth, pantsers are prepared as well.  They're just prepared for a different experience - the discovery phase, if you will, their minds open to a wide range of possibilities and their hearts in tune to the story they want to tell.

But even before the first word is written, the first character conceived, the first plot inspired, writers must prepare themselves for the task.  This means learning what stories really are, the elements and the patterns that all stories follow in one way or another. We can read great books by great writing theorists such as Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon or Christopher Vogler.  We can read great books, books that people love, books we've experienced that made us want to write in the first place.  But we should always be in a place of learning, whether we've written fifty books or no books at all.


Yeah, this is the part of writing nobody really wants to think about.  The part where you sit your backside down in front of a keyboard (or paper and pen or whatever) and put in a few hours getting words down on paper.  This is the discipline part of the equation.

As was true of preparation, every writer has to find his or her own path to discipline.  Whether it's a certain number or words or pages a day, or certain number of hours a day spent creating, writers need to form a plan of attack that allows them to produce words and pages and, finally, entire stories or novels. 

For me, I prepare a spreadsheet that acts as a work calendar.  I know how many pages it takes to get 55-60K words, which is the word count for the kind of books I write.  I know how many days/weeks there are between the time I start my book and the time it's due to my editor.  And I know I like to give myself a one-month padding between finishing the book and submitting it, in case I need to do extra polish or need extra writing time.  So for me, it's a simple math equation - Divide the number of pages needed into the number of writing days I have available.  I add extra pages to days when I know I'll have more writing time, such as weekends and holidays, and fewer to days when I know I won't, such as Mondays and Fridays, my busiest days at my day job.

For you, the schedule may work around your home life, your family, your job, your own interests—every writer is different.  The key is coming up with a plan that allows you to work at a comfortable but productive pace and meet your deadlines without stressing yourself to death.


Even when you prepare, even when you practice, there are still going to be unexpected things to arise.  Personal life gets in the way. Your day job goes crazy and requires even more of your time than you expected.  Or the book you're writing simply won't cooperate.  I've had all of these things happen to me, but you know what?  I still had to deliver the book on time, because I'm a professional writer and that's my obligation to the people who pay me money to do what I do.

Now, clearly, there are times when you can't avoid the need to adjust your deadline, such as an illness or injury that makes it impossible for you to write.  Or a family death that paralyzes you with grief for a few weeks.  But anything short of that? You have to work through it and deliver on time.  Your reputation as a professional is at stake, so you have to learn how to keep pushing through the chaos and get the work done.

I have a book due this coming Friday. I finished it yesterday.  That is waaaaaay too close for my peace of mind, but I had a few things happen over the last two months that conspired to put me behind.  One of those things was a book that never did decide to cooperate. But I can't afford to let a book dictate my productivity that way. I have to produce, even if it's difficult.  Even if it's more of a chore than a joy.  Thankfully, that is a rare situation for me. I mean, every book has uncooperative moments, but there's usually more enjoyment than despair.

But it doesn't matter that this time the book was a pain in my backside. I still had to finish it. I still have to submit it.  So I just kept plugging along, working through the messes, until I had a book that I maybe didn't love like chocolate but I wasn't ashamed to turn in.  Plus, I know I'll have two more chances to edit it before I'm done.

Perseverance also goes for your career in general. Unless you're a genius or lucky, you're not likely to make a big splash with your first book or even your fourth or fifth book.  But you can still build a satisfying, rewarding career as a writers just by sticking to it and paying your dues.  My first three or four years as a writer weren't exactly boons for my bank account.  But the past three or four years have proved to be much more rewarding from a financial standpoint.  I stuck with it. I didn't give up.
So those are my tips for productivity. Do you have any tips of your own?

Oh, and, by the way? I have a new book out this month: BLOOD ON COPPERHEAD TRAIL.  Check it out! 


Cari Hislop said...

Brilliant post! Productivity book wise hasn't been my strong point this last year (due to brain malfunction brought on by a wonky thyroid), but as you rightly point out, productivity has many facets. I couldn't write, but I could read so I gorged myself on stories and non fiction interests which have inspired characters and story ideas galore in genres I haven't touched in decades (if ever).

I'm finally writing again. I'm not quite ready to face finishing or starting a novel, but I've been working on several short stories.

As for advice, I think the most important thing that has helped me to be productive over the last fifteen years has been learning how to rewrite. I have to thank my college English teacher. She made us rewrite our essays over and over.
It was an obnoxious, but valuable experience. Without her voice nagging me to rewrite I would never have written anything worth reading!

Larynn Ford said...

Thanks for the great pointers, Paula!

Ali Hubbard said...

I love this! This past year was all about discovering what works (and doesn't work) for me. But, what I love most? Power through it. Because that's what I learned works best sometimes, so it's good to hear that.

You have a great work ethic. That's another way of saying, "power through it.!"

robertsonreads said...

I'm not a writer but those tips are useful. I'm a secretary and such as today, I had to plan out what I needed to produce today looking at the long term goal.
Thank you
Ginger aka robertsonreads

Louisa Cornell said...

Another great post, Paula! Your productivity continues to amaze me so I will take any and all tips you have to offer.

Getting back to the book after a derailing day or three is the hardest part for me. I work hard to keep moving forward because I know that is the only way to reach my goal.

People are always posting great photos with inspirational messages on them about powering through and making your dreams come true. I have printed the photos out and I keep them in an inspiration photo album. When I have a horrible day or feel like giving up I flip through this photo album and it helps.

Rashda Khan said...

Excellent post! Thanks for sharing Paula! And I'm constantly in awe of your productivity :)