How to Write Faster (Sean’s 3-Step Flow)

NOTE: This post first appeared on The Self-Publishing Podcast two months before Fiction Unboxed. It, and the rest of this week’s first-thing-in-the-morning-posts to follow are a great refresher. Enjoy! 

Writing-Fast1-1000x675Blah blah blah, we write a lot of words.

You might be sick of hearing that, or maybe you’re inspired. We get both reactions. But even writers sick of hearing us say it wish they could get more words on the page.

All writers do. That’s why we talk about it so often. If you’re not a full-time writer, it doesn’t matter as much. If you are, or are trying to be, speed is one of the most important tools in your box. Keep it sharp at all times.

Our editor asked the three of us how many words we wrote each day. Dave said, “I don’t want to get into a dick measuring contest with porn stars.” Dave beats himself up, but he shouldn’t. Dave’s an excellent writer, and when his engine is running he can crank killer copy in very little time.

Dave and I published a new title to Kindle every week for a year. The dude can crush it. Again, when his engine is running. The locked door for Dave — the thing that keeps him from writing as fast as he wants to — is that he doesn’t always trust his first instinct.

For me, ideal flow follows my faith. I believe in my story, world, and characters enough to let my go. I will make mistakes but A) those mistakes are an acceptable part of the process B) they will sometimes lead me to wonderful wrinkles that I never would have bunched up myself, and C) every mistake improves me so long as I’m paying attention before and after.

Speed-WritingThe flow below will show you how I attack and craft my copy. This “formula” is one of the essential elements to my high production. But …

Speed isn’t enough. A bullet is harmless with no target to shatter. Fast is great, but only if your copy contains strength of voice and clarity of thought. You can get 2,000 words on your page in 59 minutes, but if no one wants to read them, or those 2,000 words will take you many to salvage, you’re doing it wrong.

Speed is a crown of momentum, born when instincts are king.

  • Imagine being able to write a book without wanting to tear your hair out.
  • Imagine sitting down, moving your fingers, and keeping them in motion as words murder the white on your page.
  • Imagine doing this for a sustained period, a month or a few, until you have a rough draft that was as fun to write as it is to think about.
  • Imagine that book you smiled through writing is something readers are eager to get their eyes all over.

This isn’t theory, it’s my 9-5.

Because I write full-time with Dave and Johnny (and dabble with Lexi), I don’t use this flow as often as I did when trading words for dollars for every hour. But it still works every time that I do. It’s how I wrote what you’re reading right now.

Absorb this flow, but don’t take it word for word. This is what works for me. It might not work for you. Hopefully some of it will.

Flow-300x300My 3-Step Flow

  1. Say it.
  2. Say what you mean.
  3. Say it well.

The formula is as simple as it sounds, but only works when well done. Every grandma in your neighborhood has a box stuffed with recipes, but you know the right cookie when it melts in your mouth (Dave knows by sight).

The most important piece of this 3-Step flow is this first, preliminary step. Never ever skip it.

Know What You’re Going to Say

To tell an engaging story you must paint the right pictures in their most appropriate colors. It’s easy to get everything right, if you stay away from what is always wrong: meandering sentences that go nowhere, repeating things you’ve already said, writing overly descriptive passages that mean little or nothing (I’m very guilty of this), and all the countless other things that uncertain writers do while clearing their throats.

Your story is only as good as its rhythm. Great characters, a fantastic hook, and a narrative that leaps from one slick setting to the next are all excellent parts of a well-written tale, but if your reader is stopping and starting as they sputter through your story, it will be hard if not impossible for them to care about your characters, hooks, or settings.

Don’t waste time clearing your throat. Know what you’re going to say by taking the time to think about it first. Get your thoughts into beats, or signs to help you drive through your writing.

Stories should be rich in color that you can’t find in the beats, but the beats should provide you the spark that makes that color easy to see. Whether I’m working solo and outlining for myself, writing from beats scripted by Dave, or sketching for Johnny, the beats stage or the knowing what I’m going to say part of the process is the flour, my copy is the cookie.

Johnny and I have a rather unvarying routine, from conception to beats and so on.

  1. We have a story meeting and decide what sort of story we want to tell.
  2. I write the beats. These are like black and white pages in a coloring book.
  3. Johnny looks at the black and white outlines, smiles, then rips them to pieces and paints a beautiful picture in their place.

No matter how many of our original beats make it into the final story, they only exist to keep us writing fast enough to tell our story with the rhythm of thought.

I’ve written with beats (knowing what I’m going to say) and without them.

I write faster with beats, 100 percent of the time. 

Stories Are a Series of Questions Thoughtfully Answered

Stories are fun when surprising, and that’s as true for the writer as it is for the reader. Surprise yourself and you’re more likely to satisfy your reader. This is easiest to do if you start with questions to answer.

I learned this a few years ago, while writing short, not very good nonfiction articles, but discovered how easily the strategy could be adapted to fiction. I did that, and improved my life.

Once upon a time I’d earn $5 or so if I wrote a keyword article about something like fishing. Even at my worst these stupid articles were reasonably well-written, and a solid article must offer its reader something specific. So instead of, “fishing,” I would write about a topic like, “fishing in cold weather.”

I’d write the headline, “How to Go Fishing in Ice Cold Weather Without Freezing Your Feet Off!” then set a timer for 5 minutes and scribble some questions to help me easily come up with subheads, and write a fluid article in very little time.

  • Why does fishing in cold weather suck? (NOTE: I live in California. July/Dec., same thing).
  • What’s the worst fishing experience I’ve ever had? (NOTE: Never been fishing).
  • What’s fun about fishing (even if it’s cold)? (NOTE: Still never been fishing. Make something up).
  • What are things you can do to make it suck less (Use common sense. No $ for research).
  • Tie the end with something from the opening, or maybe with a joke about my worst fishing experience. (NOTE: Still imaginary).

These keyword articles were always around 500 words (and totally stupid). With a five-minute prep I could write them in 15, bringing my total output to 20 minutes per article.

Pretty good, and eventually, I got faster.

You’ll get faster too, if you practice. I practiced a lot, so much that I found translating the process to fiction relatively straightforward.

Let’s use an example from our post, “11 Stories You Can Tell Before Dinnertime.”

Here’s CI’s example from the monster story prompt.

Scary-Neighborhood

A stranger has moved into a quiet cul-de-sac where the Nelsons have lived for three generations. After a neighborhood child goes missing, Lincoln Nelson investigates the stranger’s background, and soon finds himself staring into the eyes of an evil he never imagined.

Unlike those old articles, I like to marinate in my fiction before I start writing. Ideally (when I’m not scatterbrained or squirrelish) I prepare for the upcoming day the evening before. My mind works on questions in the background, while I’m onto other things, sleeping, or slowly opening my eyes.

If the above was a short story I planned to write tomorrow morning, I’d get my beats down tonight, asking questions like:

  • Why have the Nelsons lived in that house for three generations?
  • Has there ever been any sort of problem in the neighborhood before?
  • What makes the stranger seem suspicious to Lincoln?
  • How does Lincoln investigate the stranger?
  • What sorts of evil does Lincoln find (are there children in his basement)?

Those questions would lead me to beats:

Lincoln Nelson is repairing some part of his family’s old house, maybe refurbishing an old room (like the one you never finished at Chestnut) and thinking about his history, and how the neighborhood has changed. We want to start with action right away, so maybe he’s startled mid-stroke by a noise outside. Maybe the suspicious neighbor is moving in, or looking at the house. It could be something that foreshadows his arrival.

Lincoln has been seriously thinking about leaving the neighborhood. It’s been growing progressively worse, and now Lincoln feels like he’s keeping his family in unnecessary jeopardy just for the sake of clinging nostalgia. He patches the house constantly because it makes him happy to see old things look new, and because it reinforces his decision to stay. His wife, Alice, is slowly starting to hate it, but pretending that she doesn’t. Lincoln pretends not to notice.

That night after he sees whatever he sees in the first scene, get Lincoln and Alice having an honest talk about the deteriorating neighborhood, then have him promise to get them both out. Alice says that it’s fine. The neighborhood may not be the best, but she doesn’t feel unsafe.

The next morning (or a short time later) Lincoln watches the new neighbor as he moves in down the street. Something is really bothering Lincoln, but he can’t put his finger on it. He tries telling himself that it’s nothing, but can’t ignore the pull. Lincoln gets Alice to make a plate of cookies so they can go over and welcome the guy, kill his curiosity.

The exchange is odd. Make it weird. Very uncomfortable. Lincoln goes back home desperately trying to figure out what is wrong with the guy. He tells himself to shut the hell up, ignoring his instinct.

Some short time later, a neighborhood girl goes missing.

Depending on the project, I might stop there, knowing those beats would give me plenty for the next day’s writing, and that much of the story’s future direction will likely stem from first day seeds.

Step One: Say It
Three years ago I lost my house, after spending a year trying to keep it one article at a time. Hard years, but I’m grateful for all they taught me, maybe writing fast most of all.

The only way I was ever going to make the money I needed as a writer (and keep my family from life’s spoiled milk) was to learn sales copy. So I did. Then, because each minute was suddenly worth so much more, I wrote faster and more furiously than ever. I let little stand between me and getting as many words on the page as I could before my timer started to scream.

At first I was worried that speed would swallow my quality. Then I found out that the faster I wrote, the better my copy generally was.

Slowing to think as you write allows your brain to self-edit, question your thought, and add a stutter to your most natural tone.

Say-ItThe faster you write, the more your words will sound like you. The more your work sounds like you, the friendlier it will be.

The friendlier it is, the more likely it is to get read, and hopefully, reviewed.

This first stage simply requires you to get your ideas onto the page. No big deal. Don’t overthink it. Don’t be concerned with  finer details. Worry only about getting the story out of your head so you can know it better yourself.

After writing the beats for our mysterious stranger story, scenes would start naturally brewing in the back of my head. I’d likely imagine Lincoln’s refurbished room and the three and a half freshly painted walls, the decay outside the window, split concrete with tufts of grass stretching through the cracks, stickers on a STOP sign, the odd car as it pulls up across the street, that somehow grabs Lincoln’s attention. I would probably start to see the stranger more clearly in my mind, and hear Alice as she reassured her husband with whispers in his ear. I would feel Lincoln’s need to flee the old neighborhood as it scraped against an allegiance to his buried parents.

By the time I sat to tell my story, plenty would be in my head. I’d likely breeze through the first few thousand words based on hours of barely conscious thought, writing through my morning as Lincoln throttles suspicion, until a neighborhood girl goes missing.

If I didn’t complete my beats to the end before starting the project (this happens approximately half of the time) I’d probably find them super easy to finish now, because I’ve spent time with Lincoln and Alice. I know them. I know their children and history. I know the neighborhood and the stranger just moving in down the street. I know the girl who’s gone missing. And now, knowing what I do, I can plot the story’s remainder, then write with few pauses before reaching the end.

Remember, the first part of the flow is simply to say it. 

Step Two: Say What You Mean
Writing is rewriting. You can’t be afraid of getting dirty in the edit, and if you know ahead of time that you’re pants will be hiked and your sleeves rolled up past the elbows, then hopefully that will give you the confidence to go fast the first time around.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to produce clean copy the first time through. Most of the time I spend longer editing than I do writing, in fact, it’s usually almost twice as long on the first edit alone. Most writers I know are the other way around, they spend far longer on their first draft than their first edit.

There isn’t a right way. But for me, I know the cost of writing fast and am willing to pay it.

I occasionally write truly, truly terrible passages. I’ve actually made myself (and Dave) wince when reading them back. Sometimes I’m flying through a scene and don’t want to stop when the hero must say something heroic, and if that something doesn’t come immediately to mind I’ll write “the hero says something heroic,” knowing I’ll have to deal with it during revision. The something heroic is rarely anything heroic, and when written later is seamless in the scene. Every once in a while I’ll realize that I’ve totally contradicted myself or written myself into a corner.

But that’s perfectly fine, part of the process. Even the worst copy I’ve ever written had a few great lines.

Hemingway said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

That’s about right. Don’t be afraid to A) keep the stuff that’s good, great and just shy of masterpiece and B) unflinching with what deserves to be tossed, even if it’s the great majority.

The second draft yields deeper meaning. This is my least favorite stage, because it’s the hardest for me, but it is also the most rewarding.

Only after finishing my story the first time through do I know how it ends, even if I had a general idea at the start. I’ve spent enough time with Lincoln and his family to know all the things that I could never know before. Now I can pepper the tale with all the subtleties that will help to move the narrative from good to great.

Now I know that Nelson is repairing his study, the room where his father taught him to read and his mother played the piano. Now I know that the neighborhood began to change three years ago when a developer turned the empty lots three blocks away into low income housing. Now I know that Alice is far more scared than she lets on, but is afraid of uprooting her family, especially when pregnant (I had no idea she was, until she and Lincoln shared that first night’s discussion).

Everything I didn’t know the first time will help to season my story’s second pass, and make the third one shine for the digging.

WordsStep Three: Say it Well
This is my favorite stage. I love taking things from good to great. This stage makes me smile a lot. If I’m not smiling, it’s because I know in my heart that the work isn’t good enough, and that I am going to have to find the humility to fall back and do something over until it’s right.

Your job as a writer is to earn a really happy reader. You owe it to anyone spending time with your words to tell the best story you can. But there’s a danger. A struggle for me, and probably for you.

As a copywriter, every word mattered, no exceptions. My job was to keep readers on the page — two boring paragraphs in a row could lose them. Cadence, rhythm, voice and tone, and very specific word choice make copywriting the art that it is.

My 3-Step flow was perfect for copywriting — but because of the precision required this last stage always took longest, usually days for a single sales letter. Fiction is harder to get right in the first couple of rounds, but easier to nail at the end because you’re only selling the story. Make your language beautiful, but not overdone. Capture your readers’ eyes and imagination and don’t let your words permit their departure.

But don’t get lost.

Like me, your need to finish will likely clash with your pursuit of perfection, and like me you’ll have to find that sweet spot between meeting an ideal and getting it done.

Saying it well may mean going through the draft a third, fourth or many times after that. I  go through every draft at least three times, and think four is best. Once finished with the polish, I read my copy out loud. This helps me catch many of my stupider typos, lapses in logic, and some of the awkward phrasing that can slip into what I might otherwise consider a semi-final story.

That’s my 3-step flow. I really hope it works for you.

If you can write fast, then a lot of other things in your writing career can more easily fall into place. Still, you’ll want to avoid the common mistakes. Tomorrow we’ll tell you what some of those are with “The 7 Reasons Why Most Authors Fail.”

About Sean Platt

Sean Platt is an author entrepreneur, founder of Sterling & Stone, and co-founder of the Collective Inkwell and Realm & Sands imprints. Follow him on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

Comments

  1. You’ve talked about beats for the longest time, but I didn’t fully understand until Fiction Unboxed. And they make a big difference, when you’ve never finished a piece of fiction before.

    I also didn’t quite get when you talked about the changes the story demands, when you get to writing, but it came quite naturally, when I had my beats. Because my beats saw the story from a birds eye view, where the first draft told me something was missing, so I just added it, and changed some things from the beats.

    So your method has helped me a lot.

    But I’m now a bit stuck on how I’m going to cut down 3000 words to maximum 1000, preferably just 500. Mostly because I like my first draft, but it don’t fit the format I had planned. So whether I should just follow my story and “make up” a new format, or cut out so many words, that the story will suffer, I’m not sure. It’s not the story itself, but the format that is my problem, and I’m not sure that anything from writing novels, episodes or short stories can be used to do that.

    Nothing like actually writing a story, exporting it to .mobi and read it on your Kindle will tell you what works and what doesn’t. I have read so much theory over the last 6 months, that I’m totally baffled over where I am stuck now, because I was sure it would be the actual writing and finishing a story that would be my biggest problem. And now that I’ve (sort of) solved that problem, I’m facing one I’ve read no theory about. Or very little, at least.

    But like you, I’ll move forward, and find a solution. Your way of thinking yourself out of any problem is so inspiring, that I’m sure I’ll find a solution on my problem too. I’ll just have to try different approaches, to find one that works for me, and I’ve learned a lot during my process (thanks to you all), that I can use in the future, and then skip the step I’m at stuck at right now.

    Thanks for the always inspirational words, for the encouragement, and for making us all believe, that we can do it. Whatever “it” is, for each of us.

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