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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Randy's Thoughts on Getting the Words Down

Randy Ingermanson is my hero. Really. I've thought of all the people I know, and his career as a writer and analyst of writing seems the closest to what I want to do with my life. He's also a darn nice person. I don't know if I will ever approach what he does, but at least he's a good role model.

Randy is the inventor of the Snowflake technique for writing novels. This is a worthy (and free!) system to at least give a whirl to. He's also the author of Writing Fiction for Dummies.

I found this article in his most recent e-zine, and thought it was optimistic and might actually work! I plan to start, as soon as my stupid computer is back online. (I'm having trouble installing a driver to allow me to connect to the internet. Grrr). Have you ever tried something like this? Did it work?


Organizing: Small Chunks

I don't know any writers who can write a whole novel in one sitting. For most novelists, it takes weeks, months, or years to write a novel. They'll tell you that you write a novel (and later you edit it) one chunk at a time.

What's a "chunk?"

The answer to that is different for different novelists. Many writers work one scene at a time or even one page at a time. But it's easy to get bogged down on that scene or that page and waste insane amounts of time.

Time is precious, and all other things being equal, you'd like to write your novel as quickly as possible.

I've been studying up on personal productivity lately, and one technique I've found very helpful is to set aside a block of time dedicated solely to whatever I'm working on. During that time, I focus entirely on what I doing. I don't check e-mail. I don't answer the phone. I'm surly to the cat.

When the time's up, I take a break. During the break, I can check e-mail, listen to voice mail, or pet the cat.

I learned this technique from a productivity guru named Eben Pagan. Eben has a particular formula for it. He recommends that you work in blocks of 50 minutes, and then take a 10 minute break. During the 10 minutes, your goal is to detach completely from your work. Since

writing is mainly intellectual work, during your break you might want to do something physical (like taking a walk) or you might want to do something that connects you emotionally with others (like talking to a friend or getting on Facebook).

That's it: 50 minutes of intense work, then 10 minutes to take a break. Then go do it again.

The reason this works is that you have a limit to how long you can work without losing focus. Different people are different, but typically it's about an hour.

Your goal is to work productively AND to have fun. During each 50 minute work period, set a goal for what you intend to get done. If you're writing a scene, you might shoot for writing three pages. That might not sound like much, but if you write that much in 50 minutes, it works out to 900 words per hour, which is a pretty good clip. If you're a fast writer, your goal might be higher. If you're a slow writer, it might be slower. The point is to set the goal at a point that you can only hit if you're really focused.

Let's do the math for a minute. If you write only one 50 minute chunk per day, five days per week, and if you get in three good pages during that chunk, you'll write a full-length novel of 90,000 words in 24 weeks. That's only five and a half months.

If you worked 2 of those small chunks per day, you'd get that novel done in 12 weeks.

3 of those focused chunks per day would get you finished in 8 weeks.

Is that actually possible in real life?

You bet it's possible. I've written several of my novels in less than two months each. I know a fair

number of published authors who routinely write the first draft of a novel that fast or faster. Some of them can write a full novel in less than a month.

Writing the first draft is just the first step, of course. After that, you need to edit your work.

Depending on how rough your first draft is, editing might take you days or it might take you months. You edit your work the same way you write your first draft -- in small chunks. 50 minutes on; 10 minutes off.

Now let's get down to the practical details. How do you know when the time's up without checking the clock every two minutes and . . . losing focus? 

The answer is very simple: Use a timer.

You can buy a kitchen timer for $10 to $15. Or you can get a software utility to do it. I use a simple Mac shareware program with the incredibly sexy name "Timer Utility" (by JR Productions) which I found on the Web site You can set it for any length of time, click the Start button, and it beeps when the time is up.

The reason to use a timer is simple: Now you can relax and work hard without having to watch the clock. The timer will tell you when to stop. No worries. Just work hard. Work focused. A timer gives you the freedom to do that.

This idea may seem to you so absurdly simple that it can't possibly work. Do yourself a favor. Try it for just one day and see how much you can get done in a 50 minute chunk.

You might just surprise yourself.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 20,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.


Brandon Barr said...

I hear all about Randy, but I still haven't checked out his stuff. I've now put his website up on my internet header to check him out, thanks to you!

Warren Baldwin said...

Very helpful. I don't write novels (Yet, anyway :) but many of his principles apply to the nonfiction I write.

You have a lot of helpful articles on your blog. Thanks.

I just linked the article you wrote about tension. I actually called it "Conflict in the Story" b/c some of the people who read my blog are peachers and we seem to use the term conflict more than tension (although it gets used, too). Hope that is ok.


Warren Baldwin said...

Also, I followed the FB Network of Blogs but my image doesn't appear. Does it take a while to upload?

Amy Deardon said...

Brandon, Randy's websites, newsletters, and Snowflake are definitely worth checking out! He is insightful and so helpful with many aspects of writing -- I can't help recommending him whenever I can.

Warren -- Your FB image is showing now -- I guess it just took a little time.

Conflict, tension, sounds good to me. Thanks so much for linking to me!

Anne Lang Bundy said...

I've had the pleasure of meeting Randy at ACFW. He's so pleasant and unassuming in person. Quite the delight as both a novelist and a writer's mentor.

Alison Bryant said...

Thanks for this, Amy. I'm starting to use his Snowflake software (love it!), but this advice about writing in chunks is particularly timely.