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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Writing in Real Time: A Wednesday Writing Tip

Posted by Carol Baicker-McKee

We are auditioning a new feature for the blog: Wednesday Writing Tips. And exercises. And maybe the occasional illustration tip too.
Please let us know what you think! We welcome requests for writing-related issues you'd like us to address. And don't hesitate to chime in if you have your own great idea to share.

This week's tip is a simple idea I devised to trick myself into being more efficient and productive.  Right now, I'm working on too many projects - reworking an adult mystery that had gone off-track, trying to finish a first draft of a YA contemporary, and revising a picture book dummy and sample art. I found myself feeling overwhelmed, missing all my personal goals, and wasting more time than ever as a result.

Then one day, the folks ahead of me in line at the coffee shop were chatting about NanoWriMo and the ones behind me were discussing the old TV series 24.


What if I tried writing my novels in real time? That is, what if my daily goal for each novel was to write what took place just on that day? 

It was particularly apt for my situation for a couple of reasons. First, both my novels take place over a fairly limited period of time (about four months for the mystery, and six for the YA), which fit my overall goals fairly well. Second, both begin in the fall, so I could jump right in and be in sync with my stories.

Not only has this work process made me more productive and focused, it's bringing a richness of detail and verisimilitude to both manuscripts that I hadn't expected. The mystery is set in my hometown of Pittsburgh during this year, and writing this way enables me to weave in references to the actual weather and current news (and sports and entertainment). The YA is set in a nearby fictional suburb and a more amorphous year, but it's still a huge help to be keenly aware of important details like seasonal characteristics and the local school calendars.

Writing in real time has also led me to make small plot changes that I'm liking. For example, at one point my mystery protagonist needs to be delayed en route to an appointment. Originally, I had him narrowly avoiding a car accident and then being stuck in the aftermath. But on the actual day in question, traffic on the road he was traveling was for real tied in knots by fans arriving for a Pearl Jam concert. Being surrounded by happy, boisterous concert goers provided a nice counterpoint to my character's dark mood that was lacking before - and even set up a believable save-the-cat moment that I'd been struggling to create in my earlier attempts at the scene. Perfect!

And finally, the time pressure to capture each day in a couple of hours max has given my writing some unfiltered freshness, as well as a sense of immediacy that fits well with teen time-perception for my YA, and an urgency that's just right for the mystery. 

Here are some suggestions to help real-time writing work for you:

Create a calendar for your manuscript 
Use whatever form - paper or electronic - you prefer. On mine (paper), I've penciled in the big events ahead of time. At the end of each day, I note how many words I've written (with bonus chocolate for good progress!) and write in the bones of what will happen the next day (or so), so I can get right to work when I sit down. I use different colors for the main plot line and my subplots, which makes it easy to see whether I'm keeping track of the different strands on a regular basis.

Keep a daily file of background details
I start each day's work with a page devoted to observations that might prove useful (and sometimes add more notes before bed) - stuff culled from news sites, entertainment, the sports world, weather forecast, as well as quirky things I've noticed, like whether the crickets are still chirping in the evening or there's dew on my car when I get up or the cable goes out. Even if I don't use these details in the current draft, they may prove helpful in revisions.

Plan to compress. Or expand. Later
One drawback I've noticed is a tendency to make each day have the same "weight." Or at least length. When I do my next round of revisions, I'm going to have to spend some time thinking about what I don't need in such detail - and what I need more of. Of course, I'm taking advantage of days I miss getting my work done to be the boring ones, where little or nothing happens to advance the plot.

Take liberties
This is fiction after all. Say, the government shutdown would be a headache for your plot - feel free to write it out - or perhaps to write in a transit strike instead, if that would make things run more smoothly (in a throwing-rocks-at-your-protagonist kind of way).

Tweaks for books set in history, far-away lands, and fantasy
You can use the same basic strategy for these novels. Research may uncover considerable detail for even day by day events and weather in history. For far off settings, you can access online local news or even use resources like live webcams (which I'm actually doing to see conditions in the neighborhood where my protagonist lives, since it's located over the "mountain" from my home and weather is often noticeably different there even though it's less than 10 miles away).  And for fantasy, well, you can make up your own conditions day (or imagined time period) by day.

If you give this a try, let me know how it's working out! The biggest thing the system is lacking is a nanowrimo-like support group, but there's nothing stopping us from forming our own. Good luck!

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