Lights, camera and… write!

Fantasy author Rachel Aaron’s scientific approach to documenting and improving her writing process led her to prepare ahead of writing. It prompted me to think of an analogy to moviemaking: writing is like a movie production. Pre-production, set design, lighting, camera tests, etc. are all done before actual filming begins. No one grabs a movie camera and starts filming. Steven Spielberg can shoot a movie in 90 days, but only after spending months in serious production to prep for that 90 day sprint.

Writing is the filming. It should come way after a lot of other preparation. Check out how Pixar makes a film; the animation comes pretty late in the process. Well before the cameras roll on a movie (especially live action), directors tackle these tasks:

  • storyboard or outline
  • create character backstories
  • plan each shot
  • design sets, props, costumes
  • cast each role
  • develop lighting and sound concepts

The writing equivalent is:

  • outline the plot and the emotional beats
  • develop the characters
  • setup each scene
  • build out your world in detail
  • choose a tone, voice, pace, POV

For example, make sure you know Bob’s apartment layout before the gangsters bust in and fight him in an extended action scene. What kind of furniture is there? How well does Bob fight? Is he surprised? Who are the gangsters and do they want him alive or dead? Do you know enough about Bob to know why he’s in this situation and how he’ll react? How does this fight scene serve the larger story?

Do this all before you produce the prose. In some ways, you have to do more pre-production than in a movie, because soundtrack, special effects, pace and editing are done in post. But in writing that is just a lengthy rewrite that can upset other elements (“my magic system isn’t right, now my plot is wrong!”). When you get the hang of it, you will no longer be distracted by things that can be dealt with in post (like stopping to develop a minor character name), and you won’t have to stop for critical details you should have known already (when did Chicago last have trolleys?) but with all that work done in your head, it will improve the quality of what you write.

If you need a minor character’s name, slap a placeholder in there (X will do) and, as they say in Hollywood, fix it in post (production). Rewriting/editing is the post-production: filming pickup scenes only if needed, sound and score creation, film editing. But this should pale in comparison to the pre-production.

I have done the ‘dive right in’ approach and end up redrafting or rewriting, backing out of cul-de-sacs or becoming truly stuck on how a scene should play out. Everything comes out contrived and poorly thought out. You can fake it and just keep going, but pounding out words when you’re lost leads to making a mess that takes forever to untangle.

Each minute of pre-production planning seems to save me about an hour of time actually writing, I think. With all that pre-production active in my head, the writing happens faster and more naturally. Write faster, write better.

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Writing at 1500 WPH

For the new year, I wanted to make better use of my writing time (which mainly happens on my commuter bus). It is a common rule of thumb  for fiction authors to write 2,000 words per day. However, there are some authors who struggle to hit that and others who blow right by it.

I love discovering and testing productivity hacks and have picked up a few on writing speed. Jennifer Turner explains how she writes 10,000 words a day. Nathan Lowell said at a Balticon panel I attended that he regularly produces over 10,000 a day. Rachel Aaron measured and analyzed her productivity (how many of us think to do that?) and devised a three-sided approach that moved her from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day (from 500 to 1,500 words per hour or WPH). And Dean Wesley Smith has made the case that writers need to write fast and describes how to shoot for 1,000 WPH.

Do these speeds sound improbable? I gave it a shot with my 55ish minute bus commute, timing my hourly rate using the techniques they laid out. Here’s what I have racked up far this week:

  1. 1,400 WPH
  2. 1,500 WPH
  3. 1,700 in 55 minutes
  4. 1,500 in 47 minutes

The first two attempts were writing short stories by the seat of my pants (the 1,400 occurred on a dark ride home, the day after a sleepless night, and there was some nodding off in between the typing). The last two attempts were not writing actual prose, but story bible/world-building/exposition. But it was also completely by the seat of my pants with no planning.

By comparison, Dean estimates that he can write about 1,000 WPH, but I bet he uses a Qwerty keyboard layout while I use the superior Dvorak layout (big grin).

But is anything I wrote this fast any good? I won’t know until I read through it again, but as I wrote it, it certainly seemed like awesome material. I really didn’t want to stop and my brain flew along with my fingers. Dean believes that you can’t tell what you wrote quickly or slowly, so faster is just more productive, but Rachel believes that quality increases with speed.

I could see how maintaining the speed may help maintain voice and characterization better. In brainstorming, idea generation should be fast and inhibition-free and quality improves by increasing quantity. Since the brain does both activities (and they really are  similar), there’s probably something to porting lessons over from brainstorming to fiction writing.

I’ll keep posting my results as I go. Tell me what you think or your experiences in writing fast.