Thursday, November 6, 2014


Here’s what I hear over and over on why writers can’t get that book finished or it takes forever:

“You don’t understand. I would write more if I could, but—”

I don’t have time.
I’m a big procrasinator.
I’ve got children and they’re my focus.
I’m only starting out, so I don’t really know what I’m doing.
I’m a slow writer.
I suffer from writer’s block.
I’m scared that what I write will be rubbish.
And, so on, and so on.

Okay, I’m here to reveal some secrets to you and some hard truths about writers. We writers who’ve been at this for a little while are in a little club. Yep, we’re a clique. We’re friendly, though, anyone is welcome. Entry is simple. Just sit your butt down and write and keep writing until you’ve got something to publish.

There’s no secret about this, right? 

However, there are a few truths you learn the more you write. Now some of these truths won’t be universal, everyone’s different. Although I suspect after a certain word count and experience a high percentage of writers will have found a lot of what I share here to be true.

Myth 1

It should take years to write a book. 

Oh yes, it will take a long time if you don’t attend to it every day, but the actual real time it takes in hours doesn’t amount to years. The research, if you need it, might take time, but the writing doesn’t. And you know, you can always research a bulk of it afterward. Stephen King does it that way, and so do I. 

It’s like building a house. If you turn up every day and keep adding bricks, eventually your house will be built. The time it takes will be based on how many bricks you lay when you’re there and your determination to turn up, rain or shine, disaster or calm day, busy with life stuff or not.

Imagine there’s a guy next door building a house, too, whose house building got off to a great start. He was all enthusiastic about how easy it would be; he'd always wanted to build a house himself. But its been languishing half-built now for two years. He turns up one fine day when the sun is out, and it’s not too hot and not too cold, and he's found himself at a loose end in his day-to-day life. He looks over at your house just completed in record time and says to you, “Hey that’s impressive, how the heck did you do that? I started before you, and you’ve gone past me. Your house must be simpler than mine to build, and it’s probably not as well finished. I wish I’d built a house like yours instead of my difficult one.”

“Oh no,” you say. “My house is around the same size as yours, and I’ve been just as meticulous. However, I did notice that when it was raining for two weeks, you didn’t turn up, but I was here building. When the temperatures soared, you only came around for an hour, and then went home because you couldn’t handle the heat, but I stayed. Then you took that holiday, and you told me you were busy because of summer break and the kids being so demanding. Then you mentioned you were sick a few times in flu season, just like I’d been sick.  I probably wasn't as sick as you, because I managed to still work, you said. Remember?”

He shakes his head and begins to say, “But you don’t understand. My life is busier than yours, and I can’t help it if I can’t handle the weather extremes and this special family thing came up, that probably doesn't happen to you, and—“ 

You shake your head and interrupt, “You just asked how I built it quicker than you, but you don’t really want to know do you? Well, I built it on those days that you didn’t turn up. It’s that simple, my friend.”

The moral of the story, people, is that wherever you are in your writing journey, the only part of the job that really matters is the turning up. NO. MATTER. WHAT. I know this, because in the first three years of writing, I wrote when I felt like it. I used all those excuses above, and I marvelled at other writers, especially some independent authors who seemed to be able to write a book in a month. Stephen King and his prolific writing, well, that was because he was a talented freak. Ah, ah, ah. Not so.

Myth 2  

Writing quickly means the work is sub-par. 

Wrong. I always thought that, too, that maybe these fast writer’s work must be crap and someone helps them and fixes it up; or they had some special, magical power; or they simply had found a way to add more time to their day. That was until a happenstance occurred and I joined this group of authors who can write a quality book in a month or less and, to prove a point to myself and ensure the first one written in 26 days in May/June wasn’t a fluke, I wrote another book in 33 days in August/September, straight after I finished the 2nd and third drafts of the first one. 

There’s an interesting story around the May/June book. It taught me how to write quickly. Settle in. It’s a good story.

In March, I wrote a time travel short story, Back Again, for an anthology. It ended up at around 13,000 words and was written quickly in a week for a close deadline, and I blogged how I did it here. This was my first breakthrough of writing quickly in one single week.

Then I sent the story off to my two editors, copy and structural. Both editors asked a few questions about the plot, more out of curiousity than plot issues. They both loved it. Then two days later, my structural editor wrote me and said that she’d been thinking about the story and how much she enjoyed it, and she urged me to turn it into a book.

There were other projects I had planned, but I did think when writing the short that there was more to the story and that just maybe there was a novel in there. However, I didn’t want to spend too much time on a novel attempt. First of all, it seemed like a pretty tough task. It was a time travel story and they’re hard anyway, and did I have the writing chops to do it. 

My other challenge was that in a short story you don’t have to explain everything; so my character's abilities and background would now require some problem solving. My big issue was that I didn’t know how my protagonist actually did time travel. I hadn’t needed to know. There were so many things I didn’t have to know to write a good short. As well, the short story would have to fit in somewhere within the story. Readers were already responding and connecting with the published short. There was magic already there, and I didn’t want to lose that. So I would have to write a novel, knowing that at some point, I needed to have the novel story arc meet seamlessly with the short story prose. Then I would have to go beyond the end of the story and solve the leave-it-up-to-the-reader-to-decide ending.

Thirty days. That’s all I gave myself. If it turned out to be a fail, I didn’t want to waste too much time on it. So, I set up a spreadsheet to track my output and tell me how much I needed to write each day. If I missed a day or my word count was short, I would know how much extra I needed to write the next day, or how much less if I pulled a few marathon days and got ahead. I told myself I would write 65,000 words including my short story, so I had a 13,000 word start. So basically NaNoWriMo pace with a little bit extra. 1,800 words a day.

Yes, I did it! Writing between 10,000 and 16,000 words a week, I had my novel. It actually seemed quite easy and the spreadsheet made it fun. I banked words into that thing every day. That’s how I thought of it, "banking words," not writing a book.

Then it needed two more drafts before it went to my editor. Yes, only two drafts, even though I threw it down onto the page. By draft stage, something amazing had happened. I’d developed a habit. After the 2nd draft, I had 81,000 words and that was 20 days of work. Third draft, 85,000 words, edited in 18 days.

Then off to the structural editor it went. Since I wrote so quickly, only 1 draft and two edits, and with no original plot plan (yep, a proud pantster here), you would expect plenty of edits, right? Wrong! It came back with very basic editing, very little rewriting, and at the end the greatest compliment from my editor: “You’ve written something pretty wonderful here.”

Then it took me 11 days to fully go through the book again for a 4th draft because I am meticulous. There wasn’t many edits, but I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes after it had been gone for three weeks. I made many minor edits, superfluous words, rewriting sentences that I didn’t like and a few minor chapter rearrangements.

It came back from the proofreader with 217 small edits; that took an hour to go through.
Then final fifth draft of a printed out copy took four days, and still I didn't find much. 

But there’s more to this story...

When I sent the manuscript off, initially, to the structural editor, I was worried. Was this a one off, and had I only written it quickly because I had the short story? All of these thoughts were real possibilities. So after Back Again was off for its edit, I took one day off and then started a new book that I would finish in 30 days. Target 65,000 words.

Myth 3

You need to plot and plan and prepare to write quickly. 

Oh, Susan, but you must have prepared for this one, I hear you say? Nope, it was a start from a full stop. 

Two nights before, I'd thought to myself: I really enjoyed writing the antagonist in Back Again—now, I want to get inside the head of some really nasty people, so I’m going to write about a series of mass killings that are connected. In that way, I thought I could have a field day with multiple killers all in one book (I know, I have a crazy mind). Two days later, with that my only pre-thought on the story and no pre-planning (not one note), I sat before my blank page and told my mind to “Go."

Well, I can report: It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always fun. I was terrified as heck some days. You should see me procrastinate when I'm scared. But... I turned up every day, and I got it done.

74,893 words in 33 days and the first draft of my next book Messengers was written. Faster than I’d written Back Again. I might add that it ended up being a police thriller, and I don’t write police thrillers. They seem far to complicated for my simple brain. I’m a speculative fiction author—horror, sci-fi, and creepy people. They require little research, and I can make fiction world rules up as I choose.

But I did it!

How did I beat up those myths. How did I do it? 

I used a few props and did a few things differently from how I'd done them before that I will share with you. The first one is the most important.

1.   I lost the attitude that excuses were me being honest, that they were reasonable and understandable. They weren’t. I held myself accountable instead.
2.    I set up this spreadsheet (I freely share it with you here) and it became my boss. If I was behind, well it told me that I couldn’t go out for that coffee or watch that TV show, or go to sleep until I had my word count done. We became partners.
3.  Every day I wrote something, even if I was sick or busy or had a full day scheduled. Family get togethers, birthdays, school excursions, lunches and coffee with friends (I wasn’t a hermit) were not an excuse. Even if I could manage 300 words—one measly little page—that was 300 words I didn’t have to catch up the following day.
4.    I didn’t let writer’s block or plot issues slow me down. It’s about the word count. If something at the beginning didn’t match with where the story was headed, I ignored it. Second and third drafts would fix that.
5.    Procrastination is just as much my Achilles' as every other writer, but I recognize now it's my brains way of resting. I need to stop every now and then and let myself catch up. Hey, I’m big on social media, and I love to potter around the house. So when I had chunks of time like one or two hours, I adopted a variation of the Pomodora Technique where I wrote for 30 minutes at a time, undisturbed, by switching on a countdown clock. As soon as I hopped on my computer I would switch it on, otherwise I’d zip over to Facebook or Twitter (just to check) and then get stuck there. Facebook and cruising the internet were my rewards in between my writing blocks. I couldn’t have them, if I didn’t write for thirty minutes.
6.    I stole time from everywhere. You know that thirty minutes before your kid’s game where they’re warming up, when you normally play on your phone or chat with the other parents? Well, I was in the car writing.  Kids in the shower, well that’s ten minutes free. Any waiting time is writing time, even if it’s writing on a piece of paper. Ten minutes is 200 words for me. Thirty minutes is 500 words. Time matters when you have a goal. You don't throw it away when you're answering to my spreadsheet.
7.    Finally, I stopped listening to that damn monkey in my head that always told me the stuff I was writing was crap; that I wouldn’t be able to work out where to go next in the plot; that I didn’t have the chops to fix the mistakes in the 2nd draft. You know that monkey knows diddly squat about me or my work. He’s not a writer. I am the writer. The muse belongs to me. So he could scream all he wanted, but as long as I turned up to write and put my butt in the chair, I was the boss. And I was writing, no matter how I felt or what he said.

I can hear your excuses

Now you’re going to say: But, Susan May, you have a different life to me; you write faster than me; you’re better at this than me; you’re amazing; and yeah, yeah, yeah, everything else you can throw at me. Come on! Get it off your chest. Now look in the mirror and say it to yourself. Be honest.

Well my answer to you is this: Yep, I might be faster than you at writing, but when I started four years ago, it took me more than an hour to write my goal of 300 words a day. Writing faster with more confidence is the reward for practice and persistence. 

Lets say you have practiced for years now, and the best you’ve got is 500 words an hour, and this is just throwing it on the page just to get something down. Let’s say, too, you can only steal seven hours a week. Then a 60,000 word first draft will still only take you 120 days, only four months! That’s it. By the time you finish it, I almost guarantee your speed will have picked up.

Now I hear you say, but what if I get stuck, and I don’t know where to go—writer’s block loves me? Well your spreadsheet goal doesn’t care. You need those words, so just write the next bit that you do know and go back later. Write around it. As a writer friend said after experiencing writer’s block, but finally adopting the use of my spreadsheet, “I wrote 16,000 words last week, because its in the writing that I worked out where to go.”  He commented that he’d been so caught up in his writer’s block that he’d forgotten that when you end up in a cul-de-sac the way out is to keep driving.

So fellow writer, you could take this information a few ways. You could say: she’s got something special that I don’t. She’s got a different life, so I’m staying where I am, even though I feel bad about myself, because I’m not special like Susan May. She has all the luck.

Or you could say: I don’t write like that, and I don’t like being under the pressure. One day I’ll finish this book without putting myself under the pressure. Maybe you will. Or maybe you won’t. Only you know if that reasoning is sound.

But if you’re determined that, yes, you want to join that club of writers who appear fearless (even though we’re as scared as you). If you’re determined that, yes, you do want to churn out work like Stephen King, then you’re going to give it a go.

Get that monkey off your back—prove him wrong. Throw those excuses out—they’re lies you tell yourself. Try something new—try challenging yourself and becoming a tougher boss.

Don’t wait for NanoWriMo. It's too slow for me now anyway, and it's only once a year. They might be too slow for you, too. Sheesh, 1,667 words a day. That’s cruising speed now.

Just shut up with excuses, rock up to the page, and take this thing seriously. It’s not magic. It’s just doing what needs to be done to build your house, brick by brick, word by word.

You could be thirty days away from writing your book, that could make you money, that could build your confidence, that could make you feel great about yourself, that might just change your life.

Are you ready? Get set. Go.

P.S.  If you’ve found this post helpful and feel in my debt forever, or at least for the next ten minutes, then please hop over and purchase a copy of Back Again. It’s a page turning read, and aren’t you just a little curious whether a book written that quickly is quality? I’m really proud of it but, even more so, I’m proud of what I have learned from taking the challenge in writing it quickly. Now I know I can do it, I’ll never go back again to how I wrote before. My writing practice has been forever changed. And let me know if this system or post has helped you, will you? I love success stories. We're in this together, you know.

BACK AGAIN was released 21st November 2014

Click here to purchase:  CLICK HERE

Could there be any greater nightmare than living through the death of your child?
Yes! Reliving it again and again.
A tragic accident takes Dawn’s only child right before her eyes. The following surreal days are filled with soul-destroying grief and moments she never wants to live again—until, inexplicably, she finds herself back again, living that day.
It’s a second chance to save her son. But changing fate is not as simple as it first appears. Time is not Dawn’s ally.

“She’d lost count of the number of times she’d lived through this. Every time it hurt as much as the time before. Eventually, she thought that she must become immune to the events, and that her heart wouldn’t shatter into a thousand, million pieces—
But it always did.”

Reviews of BACK AGAIN the Novelette

“Well-written. Thought-provoking. Highly recommended.” Peg McDaniel-Amazon
“I recommend this book to fans of time travel, parents, and those who thing texting and driving is okay. Please, read this story!” Chris Mentzer, author of the Askinar Towers
“It is a story not easily forgotten.” L. Frier-Amazon
“A MUST READ novella that will tug at your heart!” Ana Medina-Amazon
“A well written and haunting story that the reader will not soon forget.” Evie-Amazon

“Heartbreaking and, yet, wonderfully told.” Tamara-Amazon

Check out an excerpt here:  CLICK HERE



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