Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Turtle Method for Faster, Better, More Fun Writing

I talk a lot about writing efficiency on this blog. Writing fast is kinda my thing. I'm always looking for ways to speed up, write more, and write better because more books = more awesome.

But while I'm always tweaking my fast writing method to be better, more efficient, and more suited to my needs as I progress as an author, there's another aspect to my writing efficiency boosts that I haven't actually talked about on the blog yet. This oversight wasn't intentional. I just never really thought about it until my husband joked about how I liked to "turtle" in my chair while I wrote, snapping at anyone who came near.

Once I got over the fact that he was telling me this while I was writing (grrrrrrrrr), I thought it was pretty funny. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that what I'd been instinctively doing for years (hunkering down in my chair and disappearing into my writing) actually played a huge role in how much I wrote in a day.

It was like I'd stumbled across an entirely new variable in the fast writing problem! So, like any good min-maxer, I decided to push the idea to its limits, and the results were even better than I'd hoped.

Writing Wednesdays: The Turtle Method for Faster, Better, More Fun Writing

Minimizing distractions and protecting your writing butt-in-chair time is classic good writing advice. I talked about turning off the internet and finding a good place where you can write uninterrupted in 2k to 10k, and I wrote an entire blog post about the importance of protecting your daily writing from life's interruptions called "Don't Stomp On My Cake." 

All of this is perfectly good, well-tested advice that will definitely help you write more in the time you have. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized I was aiming too low. After all, if merely protecting my time and concentration from interruptions could make such a big difference in how much writing I was able to get done in a day, how much more could I accomplish if I started optimizing the same idea? And thus the Turtle Method was born. 

At its core, the Turtle Method is exactly what it sounds like: building a shell around yourself to protect and maximizing the space--physical and temporal--in which you do your best writing. This is absolutely critical, because writing builds on writing. 

No matter whether your'e a pantser or a plotter, there is a zone of concentration where you are truly in your story and completely oblivious to the world around you. This is the sweet spot where amazing writing happens, and happens fast, and it's not unique to authors. Pretty much any activity that requires concentration follows this same pattern of "getting into the zone." This universality is so potent that many strategies designed for boosting efficiency in studying and office work focus exclusively on psychological tricks designed to catapult us into that concentration sweet spot as fast as possible and then keep us there for as long as we can stand.

I realize that the above sounds a little ruthless for a creative activity as joyous and spontaneous as writing, but I'm a firm believer in taking my tricks from as wide a field as possible. Reaching that writing sweet spot where the story takes over is my goal every single day. If there's something that can get me into it faster or longer, then I want that! But which of these tricks were actually effective and which were just gimmicks? What could I actually change in my writing environment to make the concentration sweet spot my permanent home, and would these changes meet my eternal goal of writing more and better words per day without increasing my total time spent writing?

I had no idea, but the promise of increased efficiency was too tempting to ignore. So, in classic Rachel fashion, I busted out my spreadsheets and got to work, and after some trial and error, this is what I came up with.

How to Turtle: Creating Your Shell

The first and most important step to getting to the writing sweet spot quickly and effectively is to protect yourself from the things that knock you out of it. Like I said earlier, this is the zone where the story takes over and the rest of the world vanishes, but that can't happen if you leave openings where the real world (or our own wandering monkey minds) can keep breaking back in. You have to protect yourself not just from outside distractions, but also from the worries and stray thoughts in your own head that can torpedo your writing momentum. With that in mind, the "shell" you construct has to work just as well against your own brain as it does against the outside world.

That's a pretty tall order, and it's why the most effective version of the Turtle Method I ended up with comes in two parts: an outer shell, which protects your writing against everyone else, and an inner sanctum, which protects your writing from yourself.

The Outer Shell

Creating an effective outside shell is entirely about defining and protecting the place and time where you write. Hands down, the best way I've found to do this is to write in the same time and place every day and make sure everyone knows that death comes to those who disturb this scared space. 

How exactly you pull this off depends entirely on your situation and the relationships you have with the people who might be interrupting you. Ideally, you're surrounded by people who respect your writing and will leave you alone when you tell them to, a task you can make easier by writing at the same time or in the same place every day so they automatically know not to bother during that time or when you're in that place. 

But, of course, "ideally" doesn't always work out. If you have young children who just can't understand the concept of "don't talk to me during this time/when I'm in this room," or if you're living at home with your parents/guardians and you simply don't have the authority to say "don't bother me," creating a protected space for your writing can be really hard

When this happens, your best bet is to remove yourself from their reach entirely. You can do this by finding somewhere outside your home to write, such as a library or coffee shop, or by writing when the people who would interrupt you are either out of the house or asleep. I understand that either of these options might be inconvenient and/or difficult to pull off, but I promise the results will be worth it. 

This is your writing. You're already investing an enormous amount of thought and work into this project, and you need your space to do your best work. Hopefully the people in your life will understand and respect this, but if they can't get it through their heads that you need to be left alone, then you may have to take matters into your own hands. It's up to you to protect your momentum from unnecessary interruption both physically (as in people coming into your writing space to talk to your or ask you questions) and electronically (as in turning off your phone or leaving it somewhere else where you can't hear or interact with it). If you want that uninterrupted writing time where the magic happens, then you have to build your shell and enforce it, which sometimes means shutting people out.

If you hate conflict, I realize these isolationist steps might seem like a very tall order, but it doesn't have to be that way. As I said earlier, "getting into the zone" is pretty much a universally understood concept, and most people will be happy to respect that if you take the time to explain what you're doing and why it's important to you. It is never rude or out-of-line to ask for your space if you do so in a respectful manner and you're still complying with your other responsibilities (ie, not using writing as an excuse to shirk your share of the housework). 

That said, of course, you also have a responsibility to actually act like the professional you're requesting people to treat you as. If you tell your family not to bother you at X time and then they see you goofing around on the internet, that's going to seriously undermine everything you've worked to accomplish. It's also just about the worst thing you can do with your writing time, which leads us to the second part of the Turtle Method: protecting your writing from yourself. 

The Inner Sanctum

Important as it is to build an outer shell to protect your writing space/time from the well-meaning interruptions of other people, the sad truth is that we are too often our own worst enemies. It doesn't matter if you do your writing alone in a hut in Nova Scotia with a fifty mile hike to the nearest settlement if you spend all those writing hours reading Reddit on your satellite internet connection.

To actually get yourself into the writing zone on a regular basis, protecting and optimizing the space inside your turtle shell is just as important as building that shell in the first place. 

How you do this will depend on your work habits, personality, and what kind of environment encourages you to write (music/no music, clean desk/no desk, coffee shop/in your bed, etc.), but also some universal steps you can take to eliminate writing downtime and significantly increase your chances of hitting that writing sweet spot as quickly as possible.

1. Eliminate Distractions (aka, Turn Off the Internet)  
This step is pretty self explanatory. Even if you're super pumped to write, actually settling in to concentration on a story can be very hard, and surrounding yourself with distractions, particularly the internet, is setting yourself up for failure. Therefore, if you want to actually get some writing done,  you need to turn that crap off.  

"But Rachel," you say. "What if I have to look something up while I'm writing?" 

Don't. Sure it might only take a moment to check something on Wikipedia, but all it takes is one email or Tweet notice on your browser or phone to send even the most well-meaning authors down the distraction hole. You're far better off avoiding the interruption entirely and just leaving the thing you needed to look up blank and moving on. You can always go back and fill it in later when you're done with that day's writing, but getting a fact right is never worth sacrificing your writing momentum. 

This same logic applies to your phone, your cat, the beautiful view out your window, or anything else that can distract you from your writing. If it makes a noise, if it makes your look up from the words you're typing, if it demands your attention in any way, shut it out. You have the rest of your day to pay attention to that stuff, but right now is when you need to be in your story, and you can't do that if you're paying attention to something else.

(Note: I avoid all of these by leaving my phone in the car and writing from a coffee shop that has wireless protected by a password I never ask for. I know not everyone has access to a sweet set-up like that, but you can still cut off your internet temptation by installing one of the multiple internet-blocking programs currently available. Simply type "Internet Blocker" into Google and pick your favorite.)

2. Get Comfortable 
Once you've kicked your distractions to the curb, the next step to setting yourself up for writing success is to get comfortable mentally and physically. Wherever you write should be somewhere you can sit and type for hours without pain. 

That last part is super important! Writing should never be painful. If something hurts, stop doing it. Rest your hands, get a new keyboard or a speech-to-text program. Likewise, if your chair causes you back pain or makes your butt go numb, get a new chair or move to a standing desk. If your laptop screen hurts your eyes, increase the text size or change the brightness. Don't worry about people thinking you're blind. This is your body and your writing. Do whatever you have to do to find the position or equipment that will let you work comfortably, because nothing kills a great writing session like discomfort. Even minor aches can and will build up over a writing session, so it's worth taking the time and thought to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Your body will thank you later. 

Whatever you do, though, do not try to push through the pain. You will only end up hurting yourself, and that'll put a crimp in your writing faster than anything.

On the mental front, you want to make sure your writing sessions are as free from anxiety as possible. Daily writing should be an activity you embrace, not dread. If you have to force yourself to write every day, you're going to end up hating it, and that's no way to live. So if the thought of sitting down to write makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, stop and figure out why. Do you feel overwhelmed by the project? Do you feel guilty because you're not writing as fast or as well as you think you should be? Are you worried about this book? Do you feel self-conscious writing in front of other people?

Writing anxiety tends to come from within, which is ironic since anxiety is one of those subtle poisons that can kill a potential writing career before it begins. Truly, we are our own worst enemies in this, but we are also our salvation. Remember, when you turtle up to write, you are inside an inner sanctum. This is your space, your writing time, and it belongs entirely to you. Everything that happens here is yours. If you don't like it, you can throw it away, and no one ever has to know. 

It is very very hard to get yourself into the writing zone if you're freaking out about writing, so if your goal is to write well and quickly, then managing your anxieties is critical. This isn't to say you can't be anxious! I don't know a single writer who doesn't freak out about their books sometimes. It's only natural to get worked up about something you put so much effort into. At the same time, though, you can not let that anxiety hold you down, which is why part of the Turtle Method is creating a safe place within your shell that is entirely yours, somewhere you can write without distraction, fear, or judgment. Once you embrace that and let go of all the expectations (especially your own), I think you'll find that your writing speed (and quality)) goes up enormously.

(Note: If one of your anxieties is an Inner Editor who won't shut up, I wrote an entire post about how to deal with that. Don't let perfectionism steal your writing!)

3. Build Associations
This is where things get cool. Cutting out distractions and making sure you're comfortable are both fantastic ways to up your writing productivity, but they're only defensive measures. They can protect your writing space, but they can't make you do better while you're in it. For that, we need to go on the offensive and find ways to actively push ourselves into a more productive writing mindset, and one of the best ways I've found to do that is to harness the power of association.

When we do a task over and over again in the same environment, we build associations between what we're doing and our surroundings. For example, studies have shown that if you chew gum while studying for a test and then chew that same flavor of gum again while taking the test, the flavor and the chewing action will help trigger your memories of what you studied, thus helping you ace your test.

This is the power of association. Even though the actions of chewing gum and studying for a test have nothing to do with each other, consistently doing both at the same time can build a link between the two in your brain, causing you to remember one (what you studied) whenever you do the other (chew the gum). 

But this technique doesn't just apply to memory. You can also use it to put yourself in the mood for doing a specific task. For example, I always drink coffee in the morning. Before, I just drank it whenever I woke up, but once I learned about the power of association, I changed my habit to only drink coffee when I sat down to write. 

Not only did this small change greatly speed up when I started my writing every day (SCREW THIS EMAIL, NEED COFFEE!), it also over the course of about a month created an association between the taste of coffee and the beginning of writing. Now, when I smell coffee, I think about writing. The trigger of coffee helps put me into the right headspace for sitting down in my chair and getting to work.

Now, this is just an association, not a compulsion. Obviously I'm not obsessively compelled to write every time I have a cup of coffee. But it is a very neat mental trick I use to help slingshot me out of the morning-email-schedule-blah part of things and into the "time to write!" part of my day. By making this transition faster, I decrease the "diving in" part of my writing time and increase the time when I'm in the zone, which is what this method all about.

The goal here is to make your inner sanctum--the space inside your Turtle Method writing shell--as conducive to powerhouse writing as possible. Shutting out the world, eliminating distractions, and getting comfortable are all huge parts of this, but we can go so much further. Building associations is one way to take the initiative and actively train ourselves to slip into the writing zone faster, but another, equally powerful and effective method is to take a page from video games and put ourselves on a reward schedule.

4. Make Writing Rewarding
Writing anything is a long. Even short stories can take days, while novels take months to years, and that's not including editing. Handling that sort of timeline can feel extremely overwhelming, especially if you're in the middle with no end in sight. This feeling of being stranded can really kill your writing momentum, which means we need to cut it off before it begins, and the best way I've found to do that is to cut the novel down to size.

This is a classic tactic for handling big projects. People are obviously capable of completing very long and complicated works, but they perform best when those works are broken down into small, manageable goals and when there are known rewards for completing those goals. Therefore, one of the things I like to do to speed myself up when I'm working on a novel is to divide the project into multiple, interlocking chunks.

For example, I have a daily wordcount that I get to feel good about whenever I complete. I also have chapters I get to finish, which is always nice. For really big projects, I'll also sometimes have mid-point and climax goals that I get to celebrate with set rewards like a day off or a trip to my favorite restaurant. 

Obviously, this reward schedule is highly personal. Some people find the idea of giving yourself a reward for finishing silly, and that's fine. The real trick we're trying to achieve here is finding a way to cut up a huge project into more manageable segments that carry their own rewards for completion. These rewards can be actual rewards you buy for yourself, or they can be just the satisfaction of completion, whatever works for you. 

Whatever happens, you want to avoid thinking about your novel as an unconquerable mountain. Just speaking personally, I hit a point in every book where I'm sure I'm never going to finish this sucker, and the only way I get past that is by focusing on smaller goals: a scene, a day's writing, a chapter, and so forth. Sometimes I give myself rewards for finishing these small goals to help get extra momentum, other times I don't need them, but whether you actually reward yourself or not, the process of writing should feel doable and rewarding. It's all about keeping up momentum, because if you can keep that roll going, hitting your perfect writing sweet spot every day will be that much easier.

And that's the Turtle Method!

Whew, this post got long!!! I very much hope you enjoyed it, and I really hope my Turtle Tactics help you supercharge your daily writing. Just speaking from my own experience, these steps have already helped me power through some very difficult writing, which makes the process worth its weight in gold so far as I'm concerned. I hope it does the same for you! 

If you like my method, or if you don't, please leave your comments below! I'm always looking to improve. Also, if you want to learn more about how to write faster and better, I wrote a whole book on the subject! It's available everywhere and it's only $0.99, so go check it out! You have nothing to lose.

If you liked this post and want more like it, please follow me on Twitter / Facebook / Tumblr / Google+  or subscribe to my blog directly to see new stuff as soon as it goes up! I post about writing every Wednesday, so don't miss it :) And if you want to read 

Thank you all for reading, and as always, Happy Writing!



Lee Sarpel said...

Thanks for the advice, Rachel! Regarding associations, several sources convinced me to pick a time to write and try to write something, anything, each day at that time. Sometimes I'm dead tired and get out a few sentences and that works because I'm not on a deadline. The key here is that I now think 9PM is 'writing time' when I see a clock. That's a cool trick.

Katrina said...

Great post! I'm an obsessive cleaner so I found that writing in the apartment made me anxious because I could see things I needed to do out of the corner of my eye. Enter my solution: a black science fair style presentation board. I set it up in front of my laptop and it blocks everything from view but my laptop, and when I'm not writing I can fold it up and lean it against the wall. I also decorated the inside with inspiring images, maps, etc. After reading about your method I feel like I'm putting up an actual turtle shell in order to help me write!

Pat said...

I do something similar to Katrina. On the back of my trifold is a sign that says "If you're talking to me, there better be a fire or blood."

Unknown said...

very interesting blog post and I've been thinking about this topic for a while. I currently don't have any "tricks" that have been working very well for me but I think I'll try again!

Thanks Rachel for the post and thanks Eileen and Katrina for your suggestions!

Jimney said...

Oh wow! Great Post. I have to say... I am incredibly lucky to have found your blog all those months ago. You talk about all those things other authors never mention. Yes, they'll talk about craft, but craft only, and while you do talk about craft as well, your most useful posts are always how writing works in practice, which to me, as someone who's been writing a couple of years now, is much/or at least as much valuable as good craft advice. I think I'm a fan. PS: I also just re-read 2k to 10k and damn! It just opened my mind to so many more possibilities of how to improve/when to quit. (Do you recall the WIP I mentioned last week? The one I was too stubborn to quit? Well. I know how to fix it, but it's not worth the time any more. I have a much better version of it that wants to be written... so I'm going to do that.)

On this Wednesday's post (Sorry for the rambling above!), I'd like to add: Turtle-time works best if you really love the project. I've noticed the only time I can 'sink into the work' properly/become a turtle is when I'm working on something that just doesn't work for me (plenty of my started WIPs don't and were quit at 30k words). So if you can't get into turtle mode... think about this: do you really want to write this? Your answer might be yes... today... but tomorrow? I think this is a great quality/enthusiasm/passion check! :)

Have a great day writing! (I don't even know who I'm talking to any more. Rachel? For sure. But I'm also thinking of other people who might have the patience to read my rambles!)

Veronica Sicoe said...

Great advice which I'm sure most writers can put to good use immediately. :)

I'm not one of those lucky pen-monkeys, I'm afraid, since I do most of my writing while I'm at my actual day-job, during breaks and down-times OF COURSE, so I can't really turn off the internet or tell people not to interrupt me. And when I'm writing at home, my toddler usually tries to play cat (and climb on top of my head). ^_~

BUT--and this is a very important but--I can STILL "turtle" myself in by listening to music in my headphones. It shuts out every other noise (and the world it comes from) and helps me easily get into the flow. I also type really fast, which helps, and I have trained myself to just NOT. TOUCH. THE BROWSER before my session's over, typically 30-45 minutes long.

I think regardless of the tricks we use to create and defend our writing space (and time), we MUST be committed to it 100% or no amount of effort will get us better results.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

I'm really curious to see how this goes! I've started the first piece of advice and I'll be implementing the next two here in the next week or so. So far I've found your advice really helpful as long as I implement it in stages.

Ilana Waters said...

Seriously one of the best writing articles I've seen in a long time. I love that your advice is so practical and encouraging (yet no-nonsense at the same time). I definitely plan on reading over again to soak it all in!

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