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March 18, 2009

Tactics For Writers

I’ve been writing fiction for a while now, and recently I was trying to get myself producing stories, wondering what tactics to use. I compiled this list as an aid to myself, but thought it might be useful to others. It’s pretty much my writing life for the past decade.

Things I have tried….

After work writing

For a while I came home from work and wrote, long hand, for an hour or so. This was a few years ago when I had such a thing as spare time. I also had less knowledge about writing, so got on with it and just wrote. I also had no computer at home, which meant less distractions.

Pros: Relaxed enjoyable writing.

Cons: Needs a chunk of time in a part of the day when there is now none. Slow. Only wrote when I had an idea. Needed typing up. Stories not great quality.


One story at a time, as long as it takes

I started writing a story, this time on computer, and worked and worked at it until I thought it was great. First I did a decent(ish) first draft, then edited and edited. Then printed it out and edited an rewrote. Until I’d had enough and declared it not finished but abandoned.

Pros: High quality, I wrote a few good stories this way.

Cons: Slow. Only wrote when I had an idea and eventually got blocked with “it’s not as good as the last story”.

Whatever it takes novel style

For my first novel I wrote whenever I could, in half hour chunks if necessary. I had no outline, just a vague plot. Kept going until I finished, then edited lightly.

Pros: I wrote a novel!

Cons: It took a year. The resulting novel was a weak sketch of a first draft which really needed a serious rewrite, but by then I was fed up of it. It remains abandoned.

Planned novel

With a short story as a starting point I outlined the entire novel in detail, which was needed to some extent because it had multiple interleaved plots. The outline was worked on until (seemingly) solid. Then I wrote, sticking to the outline. Most of the writing was done by getting up early.

Pros: Enjoyable experience. No wondering where things were going when writing. Plot a higher standard. Less block. Resulting weaknesses in the novel are more to do with inexperience in writing than the process.

Cons: Some of the wonder of discovery missing.

Outburst novel

I had the idea for my third novel and wrote about ten thousand words in a few days. The start was so completely realised in my head it was wonderful. Then I got stuck. Although I had a vague idea of the plot and couldn’t congeal the ideas into a coherent plot. I switched from the computer to writing longhand and ploughed on until almost finished. Then I left it.

Pros: Initial feeling was joyous.

Cons: After the initial feeling it was tortuous. As with all novels it took ages and the result was nothing complete.

One story a week

I set myself the task a couple of years ago of writing a story every week, for which I thank/blame Jay Lake for this. I got up early every day and wrote and wrote, all longhand in a Moleskine journal, for which I thank/blame Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson.

Pros:  Loads of stories! Good lesson in just writing. Some great stuff emerged. Writing longhand is relaxing and boot time is zero seconds. Very portable. Fast failure time. It’s lovely to look back after a few months and reread stories. Get to riff on the same idea in multiple stories if the first try didn’t work.

Cons: Lack of sleep. Constantly distracted due to thinking about plots. Lower quality in that time span. Took ages to type up and edit. Still haven’t finished editing and revising some of those stories.


Write 200 Words a day

At the start of this year I decided to write two hundred words a day, no set time, just get it done. Word count ruled. For which I thank/blame Jim Van Pelt (and a nod to Cory Doctorow).

Pros: Wrote every day. Some nice descriptive passages emerged.

Cons: Started writing just to get the word count done, not to finish the story. Slow progress. I wasn’t thinking about the story enough and ended up writing flowery descriptive passages two hundred words long.



So what am I doing now? Getting up early and writing for an hour, with an aim to get a short story draft done as soon as possible. If in doubt I keep writing and think about fixing the problems in the next draft. I’ve also tried planning a few stories, but yet to discover if I will suffer from analysis paralysis.

I’m constantly discovering ways to make myself write, and to tease out stories from my head. I have the feeling that it’s often the same for all writers, which makes me feel better. (The internet: sanity checking for writers!)

And I haven’t even talked about submitting stories, because that’s a whole other universe…


That's interesting. I've been writing for perhaps twenty or twenty-five years, and I've tried every one of those strategies (Excepting the 200 words a day one, I'll have to give that a shot) and I pretty much agree with your analysis of them, excepting the longhand stuff. I just can't do that.

I used to have a job that had hours of sitting around waiting for something to happen which allowed for the un-mentioned "Writing *AT* work" option, and that was really optimal, and allowed me to develop a wide assortment of unfinished novels, but then the global economy went in the toilet, and now I can only manage breif spurts of creativity at infrequent intervals.

One nice aspect of the internet is that I get to throw some of my stories online occasionally, and a few people get to read them. Have you ever considered publishing some of your short stories on your site here?

That makes sense. It's not 'real' publishing if it's web publishing, but having written in silence and scorn for a quarter century, I gotta' say I'm hooked on the cheap thrill of total strangers reading my dumb little stories of evil airports and alien dogs on mars. Giddy!

Thanks for the link, though, I'll check it out.

Oh, I wasn't trying to imply otherwise (And I'm enjoying reading your stories online, BTW. You've got a nice sense of timing). For me, it's kind of like when Psycop Al Bester got a job writing book rewiews for a newspaper in Paris, and was told that the paper was more prestigious than most others becuase they still had a print edition. There's a caste structure involved here, and by putting my own stories online rather than getting published somewhere respectable, I'm one step above the untouchables, and they're one step above that guy who keeps putting up stories about his superhero character that he developed while playing Rifts back in '87.

That's my reflection on me, personally, it doesn't affect anyone else. Even still, it's fun.