How to write with a gun to your head

Some writers can unleash words on the page with the speed of machine gunfire, others labour over the delicate placing of a comma for half a morning. Whichever camp we fall into, we would all like to write faster. To get that speed, there’s no need to bury your face in a bowl of cocaine or load up on caffeine.

You can’t sit at your computer, hammer away and hope for the best. Without knowing what you’re trying to achieve, you’re never going to achieve anything. You need to set goals, both big and small and more times than not, the smaller ones are by far the most important.

If you set yourself the goal of writing a 70,000 word novel in 6 months while working full time you probably wouldn’t write a word. The thought of it is too overwhelming. But if you set that God awful, daunting task into a series of mini goals, it’s not only achievable, it’s surprisingly easy.

70,000 words in 6 months
That’s 11,600 words per month
That’s 3,000 words per week
That’s 416 words per day

416 words per day!

If you can’t commit to 416 words per day, then you have no business being a writer. Sorry, it’s best you know now, go do something that’s fun and sociable. You can’t do anything with any sort of speed without knowing what it is you’re trying to achieve. So set yourself goals.

The blank page can be intimidating but knowing what your story is before you write makes the page easier to fill. Write outlines. I wouldn’t write a shopping list without an outline. Start small and write your story in one line. If you can’t tell it in 20 words, you’re going to struggle getting it into 50,000 words. Go from a one liner to a paragraph, to a one pager, five pager, ten pager and finally a scene breakdown (not every writer works this way, but I find it helps when working with complex plots). Working with small documents saves you from writing scenes that you may not need.

You might be as insightful as Richard Yates or as beautifully brutal as James Ellroy, but you will never know it unless you have the discipline to give the world the middle finger, plant yourself in front of the computer and commit your words to the page.

Writers write and the writers who don’t are not. A writer works at their craft every single day, whether it’s for half an hour on the train or ten hours at a desk. Instead of watching TV, write. Instead of going on a date, write. I don’t care if there’s a bomb on the bus and if it drops below 50 mph the bomb will go off, write. Because they’re the types of sacrifices you need to make to the God of words if you are to write long form fiction.

The image of drunken and drugged writers indulging in vices to make deadlines is a cliche that is sometimes not far from the truth. I recommend fistfuls of codine for down and dirty, fast writing. Booze is another issue. I always end up drinking more than I write and no matter how much I try to pretend that drinking half a bottle of Jameson’s and listening to Guns n Roses is writing, it just isn’t. Booze and pills may get you through a heavy weekend but it’s not sustainable in the long run when you need to produce hundreds of thousands of words each year. So reach your daily word count, then get hammered.

To write fast, set a goal. Know your story before you start writing. Outline the hell out of it and don’t leave your desk/computer/office or cafe until those words are on the page. It’s that extra hour, day or week that makes all the difference.

The Retreat Hotel
8.23 PM
7/10/2012

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6 thoughts on “How to write with a gun to your head

  1. I find shooting that prick of a picky self editor helps too. The trouble is that the bastard gets back up, either that or he has family.

  2. Breaking a big wordcount down into easily-achievable daily goals was the one thing that actually got me writing for real. 500 words a day is nothing – I can do that on my morning commute. I agree with Sean too: don’t overthink it. Bang it down, worry about it once it’s on the page!

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