NaNoWriMo—Kevin’s Elevens Writing Productivity Tips 9, 10 & 11

Productivity Tip #9: Think Outside the Keyboard

After the previous tip, now that you’ve set up the perfect established writing spot, keep in mind that this is not the only way you can write. Your word processor isn’t the only tool you have.

This technique is one of the most obvious and effective, though least-often attempted, means of increasing writing productivity. Think outside the keyboard. If you can learn different ways to write, with different tools—like a talented musician learning to play several instruments—you can take advantage of nearly any situation in which you find yourself … and get pages done, no matter where you are.

I have a desktop computer in my office, where I do most of my editing. I am just as comfortable working on my laptop whenever I’m away from home—in restaurants, at hotels, on airplanes. But it doesn’t stop there.

Remember the old pad and pencil? For those times you find yourself alone in a coffee shop, or riding the bus, or sitting at a picnic table outdoors, you can jot down notes, outline a story, write a rough draft. 

 By hand.

My wife and I once plotted and outlined an entire Star Wars “Junior Jedi Knights” trilogy using crayons on the butcher-paper tablecloth in an Italian restaurant. Before leaving, we tore off the wide chunk of the paper, folded it, and took it with us as our “notes.”

For myself, I prefer to do my initial writing with a hand-held recorder. I love to go out hiking on beautiful trails, take inspiration from the scenery around me—and get away from all the interruptions at home. Writing by tape recorder allows me to be productive during an already enjoyable outdoor activity. Sometimes I just talk myself through plot snags, letting my imagination roam as I develop imaginary biographies for characters or histories for my fictional worlds. Most of the time, though, I dictate finished prose. My record (so far) has been composing 45 pages (once they were transcribed) of finished prose in a single, very long, hike.

Speaking finished prose out loud into a voice recorder may be difficult until you get used to the idea. Some writers have tried and couldn’t quite get the hang of it; several told me they felt self-conscious walking along and talking to themselves—just pretend it’s a Bluetooth set or a cell phone. Nobody else knows the difference. Face it, nobody learns to type 200 words a minute the first time they touch a keyboard either; it seems unnatural, the keys are in a very strange order, but you get used to it and then pick up speed. Same with dictation.

At first, I used the recorder just to capture ideas when I went out for a walk. Before I learned to bring the recorder along, I would come up with snatches of brilliant prose, but by the time I hurried back to my keyboard, I’d forgotten it. With practice, though, I now write finished text off the top of my head (which I still polish).

Just today, I headed out for a week-long writing trip in the Utah desert, an eight-hour drive from my home near Colorado Springs. Since it was mostly interstate driving, with the cruise control on, I could get a lot of thinking done … and a lot of dictating. On the drive, I dictated 4 chapters in my new “Seven Suns” novel, The Dark Between the Stars—probably about 6000 words. Now that I’m here in my hotel room, I’ll upload the files to the typing service, while I get to work editing previously transcribed chapters (see, I follow my own Tips).

The drawback with a recorder is that someone has to transcribe your words, but if you don’t want to do it yourself, typing services are available to do this for a reasonable fee, even voice-recognition software (although a batch of science fiction terms makes the learning curve rather steep). Because of my prolific writing output, I keep my typist busy almost full-time just with transcribing duties. I use an Olympus DS7000 digital voice recorder, with the attendant software to download my audio files and email them to the typist.

For a full description of dictation as a writing technique, see my earlier blog, “Dictating, Writing, Hiking.”

Other people have developed their own unique alternatives to sitting-at-the-typewriter writing. Find some for yourself, see what your natural method for storytelling is.


Productivity Tip #10: Get Inspired!

Every creative writing teacher repeats the classic axiom, “Write about what you know.” Therefore, it stands to reason that the more you know, the more things you’ll be able to write about.

Every experience, class, interesting acquaintance, or place you visit goes into your pantry of “ingredients” for new material. Part of your job as a writer is to collect these ingredients so that you can use them—by learning new subjects, doing new things, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’ll be surprised at how many doors will open for a writer doing research.

Strictly to broaden my knowledge-base of experiences over the years, I’ve taken a hot-air balloon ride, gone white-water rafting and mountain climbing, traveled to various cities and countries, been a guest backstage at rock concerts, attended a world-class symphony, and taken extensive tours of high-tech scientific research installations, visited a giant aircraft carrier, been on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange, taken cruises, gone zip-lining, and toured behind the scenes at FBI Headquarters.

Feeling less adventurous? Then do other things to get inspired. Read extensively, research esoteric topics, take a class about a subject you know nothing about. Watch documentaries at random. Go to a museum—especially an oddball one. Sign up for a ballroom dancing group, attend the meeting of a model-rocketry club, go outside at night and learn the constellations.

In your daily life, open your eyes and observe what is around you. Every experience is filled with details to absorb and use at some later time. Watch people. See what they do, observe how they act, listen to how they talk, try to understand who they are and make up biographies for them.

In short, exercise your creative muscles. Go outside your comfort zone. Stock up your mental pantry with ingredients so that you’ll have a lot to cook with. You never know what might spark a story idea or an interesting character, and being inspired will add to the energy you can put into your writing.


Productivity Tip #11: Know When to STOP

Science fiction master Robert Heinlein proposed a set of rules for writers. His first two are “You must write” and “You must finish what you write.” Endless polishing and editing and revising and polishing again and then rewriting and then editing does not make a story perfect—it just makes a story endless.

Remember what I posted a few days ago: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be finished.

I’ve known writers who have a love affair with a particular story. They set out with a promising draft, then they begin polishing … and polishing … and the story vanishes into a black hole of never-ending revisions. When I first started publishing novels, I ran a monthly writers’ workshop with a group of fellow novelists and short-story writers. One member brought in a new story—a pretty good one—and we critiqued it, suggested some improvements, and he took it home. At the next month’s meeting, he brought in a revised version for critique, and we again made our comments. And again for the next three months. Ironically, after a certain point, there was no noticeable improvement. The story was stuck in an infinite loop. As far as I know, he never sent it anywhere.

Don’t misunderstand: You can’t turn in a sloppy manuscript, and each submission should be as good as you can make it, but there comes a point of diminishing returns in editing your prose. Are you becoming obsessive about rewriting and polishing? Are you making cosmetic changes and circular edits that no longer improve the story? Is it possible you’re simply looking for excuses to put off finishing it? It’s done! Send the manuscript to an editor and move on to the next story.

If you spend all your writing time fiddling with one story, you’ll never move on to the next one, and the next. On with it, already!

I hope you have enjoyed this series of eleven tips to increase your writing productivity. Some of them many not work for you—they don’t all work for me, all the time—but they are techniques to help you think outside the box. Try something different and see if you find it effective. The one absolute piece of writing advice is that authors are all different, and there’s no right way to do it.


You may also be interested in attending our Superstars Writing Seminar, an intensive three-day seminar on the business of writing and publishing, how to build your career, taught by six international bestselling writers and heads of major publishing houses. February 6–8 in Colorado Springs, CO