This fall, I’m writing the rough draft of my current manuscript. I hate rough drafts. Getting raw material down in a highly-imperfect form is a battle on Every. Single. Page.
So I’ve developed some tricks that keep me focused. Maybe some of them will work for you too.
1. Create a calendar for your story.
I create a Google Calendar separate from my real one. It helps me track who is traveling where in my fantasy story and how long it takes to get there.
It also gives me a bird’s eye view of scene pacing. Has everything in the story happened in the same week? Do I want this? Are the off-page events dated consistently?
I put rough start/end times for events too so I don’t have three scenes in a row set in the evening with nothing to fill the missing days.
2. Daily word count minimum.
I can’t stress the importance of this. Know your end goal. Do you want to be done drafting by the end of the year? The season? The month?
Break this big goal into a daily word count. Use a per session or per week goal if you don’t write every day. These smaller goals will make the project feel doable.
Accountability is key to getting your draft done. So many “want to be” writers languish in the drafting stage. This does not have to be you.
3. Plan your writing time strategically.
Chose a block of time free from distractions. Consider the routines of your household, when you feel at your best creatively, the demands of your other responsibilities, and the condition of your environment.
If you think best at 5 am but can’t sustain getting up that early without burning out at your day job, that may not be the overall best time even though it is best for you creatively.
If you write for an hour in the afternoon while your kids do school, but find yourself fighting with them every Wednesday because they’re not paying attention to virtual co-op, maybe take Wednesdays off.
Find a regular time that works for everyone so you set yourself up for more success than failure.
4. Set a 20 min timer.
When I have the luxury of a long stretch of writing time, it’s easy to squander it. I find it helpful to set 20 min timers to keep me focused. Play with the length of time to see what works well for you. 20 min lets me get in the groove and feel good about my progress or catches me before I’ve wasted too much time.
If I’m really having trouble with focus, I set 3 minute timers. I usually have to crash-and-burn several times on these before I wrench my brain into focus, but after that I graduate to 20 min.
5. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence.
This may drive the OCD among us crazy but hear me out. Nothing stalls productivity like the blinking bar in a word processor. It reminds me with every tick I have no idea what I’m doing.
Stopping your writing day mid sentence artificially gives you momentum on the next writing session because you already know the next word. (This is not my tip! I got it from someone much smarter than me. I just can’t remember who!)
6. Put something irrelevant after the blinking bar.
Put a one-sentence summary or a line of dialogue (usable or not) after the bar. Just knowing I have not reached the white void keeps my inner critic appeased, even if the only sentence between me and the void is fake.
If it’s a summary, it might keep me focused on where I’m trying to go. Alternatively, a line of dialogue becomes a game. “How can I find a way to use this?” you ask yourself as you keep writing. Just don’t get so distracted you lose focus on the scene goals.
7. Dump mental distractions somewhere. Move on.
Google Keep is my best friend. I keep it open in a tab on one of my monitors. When I think of some task or chore I need to do later, I jot it down so I can refocus on writing without forgetting the task later.
If I think of something to research, an inconsistency to address during revision, an idea about plot direction, they go into other Keep Notes or places in my Scrivener file. Stay focused on word count when you’re drafting. Everything else can wait.
8. Be realistic about your focus needs. Not optimistic.
Everyone around me seems to get work done with TV or music playing. After years of trying to force this in college and grad school, I have finally accepted I cannot.
I wish I could. But at the end of the day, my job is to get the book written. If I can’t do that while Castle is playing on my other monitor, Castle has to go.
Respect your focus needs and write how you need to write.
9. Find a composition tool that serves your needs.
I write in Scrivener. I’ve used it for years. I love it! However, this is the first year I’ve productively written in Scriv. There are so many buttons. It’s easy to get distracted without a proper writing plan and schedule (which I’ve never had until now).
I’ve also used Ulysses or even Google Docs, though I don’t recommend the latter for intensive novel development.
Consider your needs. Are you drafting a shorter work? Is this your first time writing? Word or Docs will probably do the trick.
If you are experienced, are working on a complex project with lots of characters and researchers, and need a way to handle revisions, investigate novelist-specific software. Pick one, learn it, get to work. Stop playing with buttons.
10. Consider tools that work with your method, not someone else’s.
I’m more of a plotter versus a pantser, which means I plan my books in advance. The traditional bullet-point outlines we learned in school are one option. However, they lack the flexibility a creative project demands. I’ve good success with mind mapping software. I’ve used MindNode in the past but generally stick to Scapple, the sister product to Scriv.
If you’re a pantser, you don’t need to bother with outlining tools until revision. You need basic things to catch all your brain-dumps. Google Keep, Google Docs, blank files in Scriv, a notebook, sticky notes, drawing paper…your mind is frenzied and chaotic. Work with that. Embrace the mess. Capture ideas as they come.
11. Bring others into your book’s community.
Do not: Post obnoxiously false-humble things seeking praise or validation.
Do: Share bits of actual content worth sharing.
I do this on Twitter (and Instagram, to a lesser extend). I like to participate in #1LineWed (a screenshot of some text lines from your book) and the now-defunct #ThursdayAesthetic (a photo collage according to a theme announced several days earlier by the hashtag’s creators). This introduces your work to others and might help build an interested audience. Maybe even beta readers for later!
Engage with other creators to expand your own network and learn from what they are doing. Cultivate a relationship. Don’t monopolize the conversation about your book alone.
12. Be real with yourself about the difference between networking and wasting time.
Community is good. Procrastination is not.
Don’t let your networking efforts take precedent over writing the actual book. I use Twittimer to schedule one to two months of #1LineWed tweets in advance so that I don’t have to babysit it every week. There are other services that do this too, some across multiple platforms.
13. Tap your other skills to build a brand.
If you’re an artist, o how blessed thou art, you multi-talented soul. Teach me your ways.
We live with an image-oriented internet. Draw your characters, your setting, anything. I’m (tragically) not an artist, so I build my brand with a Twitter presence and blog. Whatever other skills you have at your disposal, find a way to use them for your book brand.
Again, don’t let this distract from the real work of drafting. Especially if you are a pre-published author, your biggest task is to finish the first book and get published so you have a credible spot at the table.
14. Don’t forget to read.
Reading is the oil that lubricates the writing engine.
If I go too long without reading, I question everything. My ability to form sentences. My word choices. My basic understanding of the English language. It’s not pretty.
Read within your genre and target audience. Occasionally read outside your genre and target audience just to keep your creative landscape fresh.
15. Think of your rough draft as actual shorthand.
This is my newest revelation.
I think we are so desperate to prove we can do this “get a book published for the first time thing,” we don’t give ourselves the freedom to right proper rough drafts.
Proper rough drafts SUCK. They are riddled with inconsistencies, gaping plot holes, terrible description, flat dialogue, and embarrassing tags. This is not your writing. This is a collection of crappy words on a page you will then mold into writing during revision. After you make sure the crappy words generally tell the story you’re trying to tell.
Turn off spell check. Silence your inner critic. Get words on the screen. That really is enough for a rough draft.