Taming Plot Bunnies and Getting It Done

plot bunnyOne of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 was to be more productive and disciplined in my fiction writing. I’d spent the last three months of 2018 finishing a project that I’d been working on sporadically for years and ignoring everything else, and that had taught me that I actually produce more and better story if I stick to one at a time.  But going into the new year, I knew I had at least three novel-length projects in my pipeline that needed to get written for Falstaff Crush. All three were in sketchy outline, ready to roll, but I felt like I had fallen behind and needed to catch up. Under my old protocol, I would have worked on one until I got tired of it (or got bogged down in a plothole), then switched to another, rotating my way through until I finished something and adding in something new in its place. But again, I had figured out that this methodology was just making me feel tired and stressed all the time—I was constantly juggling, constantly working, but I never felt like I was making any headway.

So I resolved to line them up and work on them one at a time—a paranormal medieval romance with a dragon in it that was my heart’s desire at the moment first, then the second Stella Hart mystery, then a super-smutty gothic horror romance I’d been talking about since ConCarolinas 2018. I would give myself three months for each and try to write in chunks of 1000 words as many days of the week as possible.

And lo and behold, y’all, it’s working. I finished the submission draft of The Wizard’s Daughter around March 15 and Stella 2 by mid-July, and I’m well underway on the gothic. The first two books are about 50,000 words each, and the gothic will be at least that long, maybe a little longer. For me, this is HUGELY productive—I have NEVER been able to finish more than 1.5 full-length novels in a year. That alone would be enough to make me call this method a success. But I’ve noticed a few other benefits, too.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m writing. Writing fiction is my major stress-buster in and of itself; when I don’t write, my anxiety explodes through the top of my head like turning off the power grid at Ghostbusters Central. But knowing that I only have to produce actual word count on one story at a time focuses that energy and helps me shut out the static of all the other stories I’m not writing yet. When plot bunnies hop up, I can think about them, even jot down some notes, but then I pat them on the head and send them away because sorry, kid, I’m busy. And I have no guilt about that—I am cloaked in the righteousness of productivity.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m not writing. This is a benefit that only really came into play as I finished The Wizard’s Daughter. I have a day job; I have a husband; I’m an editor of other people’s stuff; I have to market the stuff that’s already published; I read other people’s fiction; I have research to do which may or may not ever be a part of my word count; I have episodes of Lucifer and The Great British Baking Show to watch. All best intentions and soul-deep commitment aside, I know there’s no way in the world I’m going to actually write 1000 words a day every single day. It’s just not going to happen. But I still finished a book in a little more than three months. I proved that even with my schedule, when I focus on one story and live in it until it’s done, I can do the work; I can finish. Finishing Stella 2 by the end of June just reinforced that. So going forward, when I miss a day, I don’t freak out or beat myself up or—and this one is the killer—use that momentary setback as proof of inevitable failure and let myself completely off the hook. I know now if I stick with it, I can take a day or a weekend or a week with the flu away from my story and still finish it in a timely fashion.

I don’t get stuck as often, and when I do get stuck, I wriggle out of it a lot faster. When I’m working on the first draft of a story, I’m never NOT working on it. That plotline is running like a background task in my head continuously, day and night, even when I’m sleeping. This is why it takes me an hour to take a bath and can take as long as twenty minutes to put my sneakers on. As soon as I’m holding still and not talking, I get lost in my story. And every fiction writer I know is the same to greater or lesser degree, and don’t let them tell you any different. (I don’t drive, but I suspect a lot of novelists find themselves miles out of their way on the way to the Wal-Marts because that story brain took over.) When I was working on multiple projects simultaneously, that part of my brain was working out all those plots all the time, attacking multiple knots at once. And every time I sat down to actually write, I had to somehow silence everything else to put myself completely into the manuscript in front of me. I wasn’t just tuning out the bills I had to pay and the itch on the back of my knee and the barking of the neighbor’s dog, I was also tuning out those other stories. By keeping that part of my brain focused almost completely on the one story all the time, the knots unravel on their own, and I don’t get paralyzed. I’m not trashing and rewriting nearly as much or nearly as often as I was before. I’m more confident when I put pen to paper, and when something isn’t working, I recognize it a lot faster. So while I still have a bazillion distractions from outside my writing process, the time I do spend physically writing is more efficient and productive.

I can work smarter with my publisher. The question I’ve dreaded the most from publishers since I first started getting paid to make up stuff is, “So when will the book be finished?” Like authors, publishers want to be responsive to the market; they want to release stuff that’s new and fresh and of the moment. But they’re also having to plan their release calendar years in advance. So yeah, they want your newest genius idea, but only if they can have it now—or at least know when they can expect it. (This is why most publishers won’t accept proposals and sample chapters any more from new authors; they want the product in hand before they agree to buy it.) And I’ve always been crap at accommodating that; I think that’s been one of the major things holding me back as a professional fiction writer. Now I know, all things being equal, if I have a reasonable plan mapped out (my outlining process is another whole post) and can stick to a reasonable schedule, I can expect to finish my product and have it ready for editing in three months. The books I’m writing in 2019 will hopefully show up on the Falstaff Crush calendar in 2020—and my publisher can make that determination with confidence because he has the books in hand.

This protocol won’t work for everybody. I know a lot of talented writers whose best defense against writer’s block is working on multiple projects simultaneously. I don’t even know how long it will continue to work for me. Once I run out of outlines, the whole system might fall apart. But for right now, this is how I’m doing it, and I have to say, I’m pleased.

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