In terms of sheer word output, 2013 was the most productive year I’ve ever had. After spending the previous two years working a discombobulated, utterly confused (and confusing) novel down to the bone, I decided I needed a different approach to writing novels. (Side note: this mess of a book turned into a soon-to-be-published short story. Hooray!)

The downfall with devoting all my time and energy to one single project was two-fold: for one, it becomes impossible to see the forest for the trees when your mind is singularly focused on one creative work. Every problem feels magnified, and every solution proves insufficient, tethered to a busted framework that had no business propping up a story to begin with.

Secondly, it’s good to step away and flex different creative muscles. Marathon trainers work on split times, long distance runs and sprint intervals to vary their training. Shouldn’t writers also work different areas? I wondered if maybe the best thing for my brain was to move from project to project, stepping away so that my story had space to breathe, and so I could gain some distance, perspective and ideally, new skills, all honed by time spent writing new stories.

I set a rather audacious goal. I wanted to write 3 novels in 2013.

From February to May of 2013, I wrote THE JIMMY PROJECT, which I’ve talked about on this blog before. From June to August, I penned TALONS OF THE GODS, a tale of wizards and deities. And in November, I participated in NaNoWriMo to finish NAT THE LOST GIRL, a middle grade project that I’m extremely excited about. I also managed to finish 2 short stories between those, along with a 2nd draft of THE JIMMY PROJECT.

All of this writing totaled over 250k words. The funny thing? The year was hard, but not mind-boggingly so. By TALONS, I had a decent grasp on the things I needed to do in order to finish a novel, and how I worked best.

Here are the lessons I learned, and how I wrote 3 novels in 2013:

Throttle Your Story

Your story is a sumo wrestler. It wants to push you around. Don’t let it. The writing of THE JIMMY PROJECT from February to May never would have happened without the month I spent outlining and plotting in January. Whether you prefer to outline, pants or do some kind of hybrid between the two (I do this approach), you should take the time to plan the beats of your story and think deeply on its themes, what it’s truly about under its skin and what transformation your main character goes through. Throttle your story early, and don’t let it grow too unruly, lest you find yourself in the sumo ring with it, and hundreds of pounds outmatched.

But Give it Room to Breathe

Preparing ahead of time for your novel doesn’t mean you shove it in a box—it means you corral it in a playground. Give your story some boundaries, but give it some monkey bars and twisty slides, too. It’s a sandbox, not a cage.

The beginnings of books are always the most fun to write, because that’s the time when we writers are more likely to let ideas roam free. But as things progress, we tend to get bogged down in the details of the plot, and force the story in directions it needn’t go. This is like trying to put reins on a locomotive.

If you’re bored, your reader is bored, too. During NAT, I found myself hating a set of scenes where the wizard king came to visit Nat’s village before revealing his real motives. Instead of all the following scenes I had planned, I figured, what if I just got to the killing parts and magic bits? Guess what? It was way more fun that way.

Set Realistic Goals

I get it. You want to write your brains out and leave them swimming on the page. You want to pull all-nighters and stop watching Project Runway and churn through 5,000 words a day.

But start with something more realistic.

Figure out what speed you write at, and at what point you hit the wall of diminishing returns. My brain turns to total goo once I hit 2000 words, and the only thing I spit out is drivel beyond that point.

Once you know what you can comfortably do without breaking your back like Bane did to Batman, you can set a realistic timetable for finishing your novel. 1000 words a day on average? Give yourself 3 months (with a couple of weeks to spare for unforeseen complications) and put a 90,000 word novel to paper. One of the quickest ways to fail is to set a goal you can’t even hit.

Write Shit

I know. Believe me, I know. You hate the last sentence you just wrote. You hate the last 50 sentences you just wrote. You’re at the biggest moment of the story and you know that you’re not doing it justice. What you wrote is total shit.

And that’s OK.

You are writing a first draft. A zero draft. I know that deep down, we all hope that maybe we’re that one special writer that can knock it out of the park in one draft, but that’s delusional. It’s OK for a first draft to be poorly written. In fact, it’s for the best, because the sooner you can accept that the shit you’re writing will be beautiful word gems later, the sooner you can crank out the rest of that story. It’s freeing to let yourself write terribly with zero worries.

Don’t Edit

OK, you can let yourself write some total rubbish, but it’s fine, you’ll just edit it some tomorrow.

No. Do not do this.

A couple of years ago, some of my dear friends lost their home in a freak fire caused by a lightning strike. It took some time, but eventually their home was rebuilt, more beautifully than before. I remember going over for tours as the walls went up, as the home itself took shape. The first few drafts of a story are exactly the same. You’re putting the walls up. But you’re not painting them. Not yet. You don’t even have floors yet. You don’t even have doors. Stop putting finishing touches on your writing. Nobody builds houses that way, and we shouldn’t write stories that way either.

Find Your Routine

Just like you have to find your comfortable word count, you have to find a routine that makes the writing of wordy bits more enjoyable. If I don’t write first thing in the morning, I am utterly useless. After work, trying to create awesome wizard battles might as well be like doing my taxes. Before work, I’m fresh and my mind is clear of all the gunk that builds up over the course of an 8 hour work day, of doing dishes and taking care of one very cute toddler.

In fact, I’ve even discovered that my best writing happens right after I’ve showered, when I’ve had a few minutes in quiet and comfort to collect my thoughts and mentally work through the scene I’m about to write. Maybe your best time is right after you’ve gone for a run. Maybe it’s right after you’ve shotgunned a hot glass of fat. When really makes no difference, as long as you find it.

Stop Feeling Guilty

Shame is the enemy of productivity. Seriously. This is the most important thing I’ve learned.

If you miss a day of writing, you are not not a writer. You are not less of a person. You are not worthless or a bum. You just missed one day in a long string of days. In fact, if taking a break isn’t part of the schedule you’ve set for finishing a book, you’re bound to start missing more days than finishing them. Stop giving yourself such a hard time.

This is writing. Yes, on its worst days it’s head-on-desk rough. But you’re trying to paint with imaginary colors, creating whole universes with a mere thought, snatching love and redemption right out of the air and making them real. That’s amazing, and it’s fun.

So stop feeling guilty. And start enjoying whatever it is you’re working on.


These are just the lessons that I learned to help me be more productive for a first draft of a novel. Obviously, they are probably not universal, but I do think that several of them are key. As for turning these lessons into second drafts and subsequent drafts beyond that? That part, I’m still learning.

What tips do you have for finishing first drafts? Got any additional advice?

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