Last week, an author I follow on Facebook (Larry Correia, best-selling author of the “Monster Hunter International” books, among other awesomeness) made an interesting observation about his writing process:
Ten years ago when I was starting out, I wrote my first book while I had two jobs. I had to write super late at night, or marathon weekends. So I beat myself up trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible. I’d often write until 3:00 in the morning.
But I wrote a ton of stuff that wound up not being that good, which got thrown away. After the first couple years I learned to never bother writing past 1 in the morning, because there was a 90% chance anything past that, no matter how awesome I thought it was at the time writing it, was going to suck.
Then when I only had one job, but my career was taking off, and I was writing less crazy hours every night, and then shooting for 5,000 word days over the weekend. It made for a ton of really late nights and long ass Saturdays and Sundays.
And I still ended up throwing out a bunch, or spending a lot of time editing and cleaning.
For the last few years I’ve written full time, I do about 2,000-3,000 a day consistent, and I usually wrap up around 4;00 in the afternoon or so because my creativity is worn out by then and my mind is starting to wander.
But now, I seldom have to throw away much, and the editing time is a lot shorter. Because when I’m not pushing as hard, the first pass is far cleaner.
So even though I was cranking out more words in shorter amounts of time back then, the overall productivity is better because when I’m not pushing crazy hard, there is less clean up time later.
As Howard Tayler would say (for those of you who listen to the Writing Excuses podcast): “LUXURY!” It would be great to be able to quit my job and write full time. But I have this weird addiction to food, clothing and shelter, so I still haven’t quite made that jump. Someday, I hope. But not today—not yet.
I imagine there are more TTOF readers who are in the “starting out” phase, as opposed to writing full-time like Larry Correia. We have no option but to write when we can, always during the times when our day jobs and other responsibilities aren’t commanding our attention. For some, that means getting up early and cranking out words. For others (like one of my writing group friends), that means arranging our schedules for long lunchtime writing sessions. For me, that means blocking out the last several hours of the night for writing time.
Discovering your most productive time of day is just smart. Some other important considerations include location (kitchen table, home office, coffee shop, public library?) and auditory stimulus (this music, that music, silence?). Timing and environment can have a profound impact both on how quickly we write and on the quality of what we produce. But I suggest you can become more productive as a writer by paying attention to the length and frequency of your writing sessions.
Brain-Writing vs. Finger-Writing
In general, I believe that “trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible” can be counterproductive. I have a non-scientific explanation for this. Your brain may work differently (or maybe mine is defective), so all of the standard caveats apply. I’m basing this on my own experience, and of course your mileage may vary.
I think writers have two brains. We have a normal one that allows us to walk, do our jobs, recognize our spouses and progeny, tie our shoes and make it to dentist appointments on time. Deep inside our skulls, we also have a “writer’s brain” that generates story ideas, dreams up characters and conflicts, makes connections between plot points, and generally does all of those other things related to the weird stories that pop into our heads.
During the “brain-writing” phase, our writer’s brains spin like crazy to queue up ideas for us to put on paper. Then we sit at the keyboard and do the “finger-writing,” during which we transfer those ideas onto paper (literally or figuratively) so they can be revised, edited, and cherished forever. (Or thrown out—that’s always an option.) While finger-writing only happens when we’re actually at our keyboards, brain-writing happens all the time—while we work, play, and even sleep.
(The only time brain-writing might actually shut down is when we watch television. I could be wrong on that, though. Remember: I said this was non-scientific.)
The concept of brain-writing explains why we sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a current or future project. Our ever-restless writer’s brains tend to spit things out on their own schedule. We have to write down those ideas immediately or they can be lost forever.
I don’t know about everyone else, but it seems there might be a practical limit to how much stuff my brain can queue up at one time. When I try to finger-write beyond the point in a story where my writer’s brain has brain-written, the quality of my prose (and my storytelling) tends to suffer. In Larry’s parlance, I can always tell when I’m “pushing crazy hard,” meaning that I’ll end up with stuff that either gets tossed out or requires a lot more work to hammer into shape.
Guessing at Larry’s Schedule
The idea of brain-writing and finger-writing helps explain the pattern of production (both in quantity and quality) that Larry described in his post. What it sounds like is that, when he was writing part time, he was trying to cram his finger-writing into a few long sessions. Today, as a full-time author, he’s producing fewer words, most likely in shorter bursts.
Based on what I know about Larry as an author and a guy, if he’s producing between 2,000 and 3,000 words per day, he probably has a schedule that goes something like this:
8:00: Get up. Scratch. Eat something manly.
8:15: Shoot a moose using ammo he crimped with his own teeth.
8:30: Personal hygiene activities of various kinds.
9:00: Sit down at computer. Destroy Internet trolls. Drink the tears of his enemies.
10:30: Write stuff.
12:00: Eat a manly lunch. More scratching.
1:00: Wrestle a bear or blow something up. Whatevs.
1:30: Destroy a few more haters. Twerk on their disemboweled arguments.
2:00: Write more stuff.
4:00: Done. Go out and fell trees with karate. Bench-press a Camry. More scratching.
My point is that he’s probably writing his 2,000 or 3,000 words in a couple of sessions per day, with some time in between for his writer’s brain to front-load more content for his afternoon session. And then, of course, he has all evening and overnight (while his regular brain is fighting ninjas, plotting the overthrow of a small South American country, and possibly even sleeping) to do the brain-writing ahead of his finger-writing the next morning.
Personal Writing Retreats
Two Novembers ago, I did something that I’d always wanted to try during NaNoWriMo: a personal writer’s retreat. Since I live relatively close to Las Vegas, I threw some clothes in a bag and drove to Sin City for a veritable orgy of word-cranking. My goal was to see if I could produce 15,000 words in a single long weekend. I managed to do exactly that, but only by spreading my production across multiple short sessions.
On Thursday, I wrote for about two hours as soon as I got to town. Then I had some dinner, saw a show, and wrote for a couple more hours. Boom: 3,000 words my first night.
Friday morning, I went to Einstein’s for a bagel, caffeine, and another thousand words. I returned to my hotel, where I showered and watched a little TV, then cranked out another 1,000 words before the housekeepers knocked on the door. I went out and did some shopping, then camped out at a public library for a while, pounding my keyboard like a rented mule. I was able to generate over 6,000 words that day in six sessions. I did essentially the same thing on Saturday, slept the sleep of the dead and drove home on Sunday with a draft that was 15,000 words longer. And doggone it if many of those words didn’t turn out to be pretty good ones.
I guess I could’ve tried it a different way, chaining myself to the hotel desk first thing in the morning and saying, “You’re not allowed to eat, sleep, or do anything else until you produce 6,000 words.” Would that have worked? I don’t know. But that’s not how I work. And that’s the point.
By the way, I repeated the experiment again in 2016, with similar results.
Add Sessions, Not Hours
What I’m trying to say here is that it is possible to increase your production, but if your fingers get too far ahead of your brain, the stuff you produce might not be the best.
If you want to produce more, instead of adding hours to a single regular writing session, try adding another session to your schedule. If you’re a morning writer, tack on an hour at lunchtime and see if that helps. If you’re a night writer, try pounding out some words right after work, then returning to the keyboard after your writer’s brain has had time to get ahead of the story again. If you want a high-production weekend, you might do better with four sessions spaced out rather than a single marathon of frustration.
Your brain might be totally different from mine, but maybe not. Who knows? It never hurts to try.
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.
3 thoughts on “Thinking Through Your Brain … and Then Your Fingers”
I really love this post and the idea of intentional brain breaks. I probably like it more because these breaks are a part of my life 🙂
This makes such complete sense! I’ve noticed the same phenomenon of “writing to write because you are writing and you haven’t yet hit your word count” resulting in total trash — and shorter bursts with fresh ideas come pouring out with wonderful prose. Intrigued as well with living your life, doing other things, then returning to the page….
Excellent breakdown. Typos and all…
Makes me want to get off my ass and write down a few “ideas” i have. I have to stop saying “someday”.
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