Blitz Drafting

copyright, Holly Ingraham

The first draft of a 100,000-word novel does not have to take five years to write. It doesn't have to take a year. Try a few months, instead.

I hang out on a list with people whose entire reason for being there is to write like your life depended on it one week of the month. Rough drafts, fast. How fast? Our chief keyboard berserker had a good November, 33-44 pages a day, over 400 pages. She wasn't the only one. That same month I did 200 pages. Others did 100. In one week.

The "page" is the official 250-word double-spaced page in size 12 non-proportional Courier with 1"/2.5 cm margins assumed by publishers getting manuscripts. A lot of us don't keep our rough drafts in this format. It's easier to follow on a screen (and cheaper to print out) if we do it single-spaced in our favorite reading font (mine is Bookman or Baskerville). So what we are actually doing is taking our word-count for the end of the day, subtracting yesterday's ms total, and dividing by 250.

"Why would anyone do this? How can anyone do this?" you ask.

Blitz-drafting is not for everyone. Some people simply must slowly craft each paragraph, in effect writing the final draft first. The keyword here is "slowly." Lots of these people will spend two to five years writing a 100,000-word (400 page) novel.

Some of us get over this.

I would like to point out that most successful blitz-drafters I know are female, and women are said to be more verbally fluent by their wiring than men are.

Don't tell my alpha-male husband this. He blitzes just fine, and one of the best "write until delirium sets in, then write really fast" drafters I ever knew was a sailor and professional cabinet-maker, not girly-man in the least. So don't believe this is a chick-thing. It's a brain-thing, and I also know any number of woman authors who couldn't write over two pages an hour if you put a gun to their heads.

Putting a proverbial gun to our heads is exactly what we do at BIW/Book-In-a-Week. It's what we do at OWWW when we have our annual BIAWs. We publically announce our goals for the week, which may be 21 pages or 220. We report in daily, staying publically accountable. The group cheers each other on, provides moral support when things go wrong, and, strangely enough, is completely non-judgemental about not making goal. We figure your Inner Mommy is beating you up enough about that.

This means that someone who might have taken five years to finish a novel can get the rough done in a year, revise for a year, and cut three years off the process. Considering it will sit in publishers' slushpiles for so many months, this gets them closer to publication sooner. It also means that they will write more pages, thereby honing and improving their writing skills and fluency faster. It's like the difference in skill between someone who golfs or plays tennis every week and someone who does it thrice a year. In six years, our exemplar blitz-and-revise writer can have three of the novels clawing to get out of their brains out at publishers, and be starting on #4, instead of just having #1 out in the world and starting #2. Trust me, #3 has a much better chance of selling than #1 does. Almost anyone gets better at what they do a lot of.

But still, blitz-drafting is not for everyone. Take this simple test:

1) Writing a moderate paragraph describing someone or something or an action takes me:
   a) five minutes
   b) one minute
   c) fifteen seconds

2) The most I have ever written as one continuous narrative (including stories of what happened to me in letters)
  a) one page
  b) ten pages
  c) fifty pages or more

3) Emotionally, as a creator, I need to
  a) get it perfect from the start, so it's like the finished product when I'm through for the day
  b) get it readable, so other people can give me feedback
  c) get it out of me in some kind, any kind of form that's got the right outlines.

4) As a typist, I
  a) hunt and peck, three-finger type
  b) watch my hands as I type; kind of touch-type
  c) touch-type fluently, especially without looking to hit numerals and other top-row symbols

5) As a person, I'm
  a) happy-go-lucky, not goal-oriented, not a self-starter, and I don't worry what other people think of me.
  b) not quite self-starting, but friends can kick my starter over for me, and I really want to write this novel.
  c) self-starting, organized, and suffer from guilt and lowered self-esteem if I don't make public goals.

You get -5 for each A, 0 for each B, and +5 for each C answer. The higher your score, the more ready you are to blitz.

-15 to -25: Your head is miles away from blitzing: don't set yourself up for an experience you'll probably hate.
10 to -10: Try it. You may like it.
15 to 25: You have found your home. Do it!

#4 can be upgraded any time you want to apply yourself to learning to touch-type.

You should notice that changing #3 is one of the points of blitzing: learning to turn off the Internal Editor. Some people say they just can't, or they just find it horrible to and hate what comes out, or they just like doing it the other way better. Heaven knows, if there's one thing you control in your life, it's your raw creative output and the emotional satisfaction it gives you. I'm not saying blitzing is a must for everyone.

In fact, I'm saying some people will damage themselves by blitzing.

Blitzing is not a good choice for freshman writers. Blitzers need to be moderately fluent, not just with language, but with the conventions of writing fiction (plot, characterization, dialogue, world-building or world-presenting). Freshman writers need to spend time crafting more slowly just because they're still learning how to craft a story. They're still using training wheels.

Sophmore writers might try blitzing. They don't yet have their work habits fixed in stone, and blitzing often shakes things loose in a good way. That or they thoroughly hate it and don't have to try it again. (Actually, until you have a system that gets you selling books regularly, I recommend trying work systems you disliked but that weren't completely horrible over again every few years. As you change as a writer, what didn't work before might suddenly be very useful: it happened to me.) A sophmore writer who blitzes will spend more time revising than drafting, which is good for honing their levels of skill. The training wheels are off, but they're still learning to do the fancy stuff, like coast down hills.

Junior and senior writers should definitely try blitzing. They have all their skills, they're just learning the final tweaks to sales or waiting for publishing fashion to turn their way. Why spend 36 weeks grinding, day after day, when you can knock out the rough in 4 weeks, one month apart, and work on revising other stuff in between blitzing? Also, junior and senior writers have a backlog of works by now. They have something to revise between blitz-weeks.

Another point on which blitz-drafting resembles physical sports: you should work up levels slowly. If you say, "I'm going to learn to run marathons," you do not go try to run 26 miles the first day. Well, you shouldn't. In the same way, it's usually not smart to try to do 200 pages in a week your first time out. (Though some people who haven't got Internal Editor habits engrained discover they can sit there and "just tell the story" at remarkable speeds. It's always an individual thing.)

Figure your best day ever, or best hour ever if you've never spent a lot of a day writing. Multiply that speed by the number of hours you cut free in a week for writing. Make that your first goal.

When you achieve that, start increasing. When I first joined BIW, my goals were regularly 150 pages and I didn't always make them. (I had been in three previous BIAWs and NaNoWriMo, so I wasn't just beginning.) I worked up to a solid 200 pages every month, several months of the year. Just like running, you have to work up, including working up your physical endurance or sitz-fleisch, as they say in chess. Your hands and wrists have to be up to speed and strength, as does your touch-typing. You need to find someplace to write that's comfortable for long stretches of sitting still.

Mentally, you have to learn to turn off the Internal Editor and keep it off for longer and longer stretches. You have to learn to problem-solve quickly (problem-solving = creativity) when faced with the ever-looming questions, "What do they do next? What do they say here? How do I make the characters move naturally in the plot direction I want them to?" You can't sit and ponder the situation for three days: that's half your blitz-week!

Question #5 in the quiz reflects a basic personality layout. Most people, to be successful in any creative art as a professional, need to answer C. If they answered A, either they need to make some rearrangements in their personality, get incredibly lucky in what they write hitting a fashion node, just love telling stories, or all of the above.

There is no boss who will pay them for eight hours of hanging around the computer and harass them into writing fiction for some of those hours. In fiction, if they don't want to do it, no one will make them. Some of them might consider whether "being a novelist" is a part of their fantasy life, like "being a rock star": they can enjoy playing with the idea, but they really don't want to do the grueling work of seriously trying for it. At least in fiction they don't have to put a band together. (Imagine: "You play plot, you play pacing, you do world-building, you play characterization, and I play dialog.") Since this is creative art rather than performing art, there aren't rehearsals. But unless writers get a support group, they don't have the morale advantage of a shared dream that a band has. They work all alone, for hundreds of hours, trying to get their first paying gig, their first professional sale.

People who answered B to #5 will get the most help from a blitzing group. They do it with their friends, they cheer each other on, it keeps them rolling. Otherwise, they could half-finish a novel, put it aside for the holiday family hecticness, and not come back to it for two years.

However, those who answer C will get a lot out of blitzing. That public accountability can drive them to new heights. That's why I loved blitz-drafting groups: they let me make use of my personality buttons to get more work done. Push the one about falling short in public, and I'll type until my fingers ache if it's not thoroughly unreasonable. (Did I mention the workaholic streak?)

So assess yourself and decide if you'd like to give it a try. I highly recommend BIW, because there is a blitz the first full week of every month. It's not every other month, and it's not when the others vote it at the last minute ("Rats! I'm tied up then."). You aren't required to participate in them all to maintain membership: you do it the months that fit you. It's also one of the most upbeat batch of writers you could imagine.

If you're put off by too cozy a group, wait for November, National Novel Writing Month, and join a hundred thousand other people around the planet trying to knock off a 50,000-word skeleton of a book in thirty days. I'm not kidding about the membership numbers at NaNoWriMo. They climb every year. There, your community support comes on finding a forum thread or twelve where you're comfortable. Do note that many, if not most of the WriMos are not considering publication, other than in their blogs. Look for those with ambition, not the NaNogamers, to help you get a salable book. (Like Water for Elephants, whose rough was banged out one November.)

I use them both so, if you see me at either place, wave hi.

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Writing Revision Synopses

Blitz Drafting

Revising a Novel

Blitz Research

 

The Challenge
Trumpets of the Sky

End of the Night
A Vision for Thieves
-- didn't make it.

Accomplice of the Night
Crossed Swords

2007

2008

Mystere of Glass -- didn't make it.
A Hole in the Night
did.
There's an advantage to doing two.

War Women -- didn't make it. But I waited until the 17th to start after swearing I wasn't doing it this year. I now don't even try to kick the habit.

Lady of the Labyrinth

2009

Bane of Toads
Warlock Stars

Neem's Road

Hostages to Fortune

2013

2014

Borrowed Lives

Who knows yet? But it's looking like the sequel to Borrowed Lives.

Heaven willin' and the creeks don't rise.