Sunday, October 21, 2012

How I increased my word count while DECREASING my writing time

I'm a mom with two little ones at home. They used to nap. That was a great time to write. And then they gave up naps, and this summer became the first time that I had to figure out how to make writing happen when I had a two-year-old laying herself across my keyboard and demanding that I play dolls with her.

The answer is that I didn't write. I played dolls. And I still produced a manuscript faster than I ever had. I started July 12. I finished my first draft on Labor Day: 82,000 words. And even sending it out to beta readers and doing several revision passes, I had a polished manuscript to send to my agent at the beginning of October. 

Here's how I did it:

1. Don't be too precious about your process. This post should be subtitled "Confessions of a Reformed Pantser."

I have seven complete manuscripts under my belt. I started writing almost five years ago and I was all about thinking my plots out in the vaguest terms, sitting down at my laptop, and then letting the story come out however it wanted to. It was fun. And it kinda worked. I mean, I was writing genre fiction--romantic comedy--so I started with a funny conflict, came up with a meet cute, figured out how to keep the characters apart for most of the book, and then a way for them to get back together. And then I wrote and the scenes came to me slightly faster than I could type them. It was cool watching what came out. I mean, I didn't know what to expect, and it so often charmed me. That was it: I was a pantser through and through. I didn't even do outlines.

I also had to write in total silence, in a certain space, at a certain time of day, and so on and so forth. All of that eventually changed. I learned to write with Yo Gabba Gabba during whatever time my kids were willing to quit running around like maniacs and watch TV long enough for me to tap out a few hundred words.

Anyway, this worked all right for a couple of books. And then I hit my third manuscript. And somewhere around the middle of the book, I couldn't quite figure out how to get to the end where my two people get together. So I wrote to find out. And I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. And I ended up with 119,000 words. I fought so hard for all of them, sometimes wanting to beat my head against the keyboard to make the scenes work out and the characters behave.

But it was waaaay too many words. So I had to cut. And that was painful. I still remember the weeks I spent doing it, going through the manuscript and over and over again, whittling words away, slicing scenes, until I got it to a manageable 95,000 words.

But it took soooo long. Nine months, at least. Probably longer, between the writing and the drafting. But my publisher had asked me for a two-book-a-year commitment, and there was no way to do that at the pace I was working at. Plus, revisions SUCKED. It was iserable cutting out 20,000 of the words I'd fought so hard to get down.

I'd been to lots and lots of conferences and workshops by this point, and I'd heard many writers talk about their outlining processes, but my reaction was always the same: it's not for me. My brain doesn't work that way. I can't think like that. And I don't want to miss the joy of discovery and sense of surprise as I go.

At the same time, what I was doing wasn't going to work. So I tried a compromise: an outline. Think old school Roman numerals and the whole bit. I put in the major conflicts and pivotal scenes in a few jotted phrases.

It helped a little, but I still ran into a sagging middle, where I couldn't figure out how to get my main characters out of the conflict I'd painted them into. Instead of writing my way through it, I quit writing for a while. A month, actually, where I let my subconscious brain work on it until I finally figured out a way through and I sat down to write again. I was still over, only about 10,000 words now. Only. Ha. It still sucked to cut them all out. SO HARD. Once again, I HATED revisions. I couldn't understand how people could talk about enjoying them.

And then came my sixth manuscript. Once again, I felt it getting away from me in the middle. I looked at how many words I had, and how many words I was limited to, and how much story I still had left to tell. I thought, "There's NO WAY." But I had a deadline and couldn't take a month off to figure it out. So I tried something completely different.

I counted how many words I had in the scenes I'd written so far. I averaged about 3000 per scene. And I know I wanted it to come in at no more than 85,000 words. And doing a little math, that meant I could write about 36,000 more words to stay in goal. And that meant 12 more scenes. Since I knew what my final scene was, I started working backwards to figure out what 12 scenes I needed to write to get there. And I wrote about hundred words or less describing each scene.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING. Suddenly, it wasn't a big deal to sit down each day and fill in all the spaces around those hundred words. I powered through the rest of that manuscript at record speed. I ended up having to cut 5000 words still, but it was a vast improvement, and I resented them far less. 

I couldn't wait to tell my critique partners about my discovery. It was process-changing. They were impressed, knowing what a pain my drafting and revision process had become. A few days later, one of them sent me a link to a blog post from Rachel Aaron, who took the process I'd intuitively stumbled upon and pushed it even further. By now, I'd recognized that I had to change my process even more to be efficient and lower my stress levels, and so I couldn't wait to apply the full process the way she described it. 

Because here's the thing: when I was able to work faster and not fight revisions so hard, writing had become fun again. And just as full of fun surprises as it ever was.

But this post is too long, so I'll do part two tomorrow (found here) to explain how I translated her suggestions to my own.


  1. I've been eagerly awaiting this here post. And I'm eager to read the parts that come next. Even though we revise differently (I add where you subtract) we may benefit from the same system. How serendipitous.

  2. Yay! Thank you so much for sharing this, Melanie! :D I am a total pantser and have been struggling with the middles of my books. I'm definitely going to try this!

  3. I needed this post. It seems like my middles superglue my thoughts to them and don't allow me to get any further. The sad part is I know the end. I just seem to get there from the middle through pantsing it.

    I need a new method, and I like what you are selling.
    I look forward to your next post.

  4. Fine. This pantster will go take a peek. lol

  5. Love it, Melanie! I'm a mega huge outliner. I have to know where the story is going. I also just finished some major revisions for a line I never expected to submit to. So my 90K book had to be cut to 60K. It was a mixture of torture and self-discovery. I now know I can totally hack a book to pieces and put together a great story. Isn't it amazing what we learn as we continue our writing journey?



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