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Tips For Flash Writing

By Cheryl Bolen

Many of you have read a previous article I did on Book in a Week. For many people, especially those of you who work full time, finding seven days in which to write uninterrupted is impossible. I've honed a technique I call "Mini Book in a Week."

I've done this Mini BIAW several times, most recently last June. After Zebra announced it was closing the line I wrote for, I completely stopped writing my work-in-progress because I had not been paid for it and thought Zebra would not continue its plans to publish it. Then, more than two months later, my check came in the mail--and Zebra was still holding me to my original deadline.

So, I found myself a hundred pages short of where I needed to be in order to get the book done on time. I decided I would do a quick 100 pages. I had two full days sandwiched between two half days in which to get this 100 pages done.

I accomplished my goal.

Those 100 pages, though, were far from being publishable. But they were written, and that is the hard part. I am unable to write just anywhere. I can, however, edit anywhere. I edit (rewrite) in bed before I go to sleep for the night. I edit while waiting in dentists' and doctors' offices. I edit whenever my husband and I are in the car (with him driving). I carry the chapter I'm editing everywhere I go. Editing, for me, is the easy part of being a novelist.

Nora Roberts, the most published romance writer of all time, says "you can fix anything but a blank page."

As a rough rule of thumb I spend three to four hours editing for every hour writing. During the editing, I usually add at least one page for every 10 written. While editing, I think of myself as a poet. It's at this stage I vary sentence patterns, eliminate repetitive words, try to add original similes and metaphors, look up facts, and layer in descriptions and sensory details. I always save the sensory details for last. I'll explain why shortly. Since I write historical, it's important that my writing have a lyrical quality in it. Because this does not come naturally to me (I spent 20 years as a professional journalist), I have learned to layer that in, too.

Typically, I print each chapter between seven and eleven times, correcting and polishing extensively with each printing. It amazes me how much still needs to be improved with each "clean" chapter to be edited. Once I'm fairly sure I've caught everything, then I can look through a really clean manuscript to ask myself if I can picture a scene. Can I see the sun shining on the heroine's hair? Can I see the expression on the hero's face? What does the wind feel like? How does the heroine smell? That's when I add in the sensory details.

But in order to have those pages to edit, how did I whip out 100 pages in a mere three days?

During the two full days of writing, I wrote from about 9 a.m. to about 10 p.m. I did not do housework, nor did I cook. In fact, I did nothing but write. Even when my back was (I thought at the time) killing me, I wrote.

Each of the full days I wrote, I set a goal of 40 pages a day. For me, that translates to 10 pages between breakfast and lunch, ten pages between lunch and a short power nap, ten pages between nap and dinner and ten pages between dinner and bed. Therefore, I had a built-in inducement: if I didn't meet my goal, I couldn't eat or go to bed!

In order to write this quickly, there are a few simple rules:

1. Do not read over a single word you have written. Not before you write, not when you are writing.

2. Do not print.

3. Do not look up facts, hair/eye color or proper names. That can be done later in the editing stage. I use place holders, such as "[blank] eyes."

Not long after I joined RWA in 1993 I recall hearing Susan Wiggs say (in a workshop) that while she was writing, she never looked up her historical facts. She wrote in the daytime. At night, she sat in the same room with her family, and that was when she would look up facts. She had a young child at the time, and it was important for her to spend time with her family.

Wigg's talk was on time-management for writers. She could have written the book on it. She taught full time while she wrote her first several books and still managed to crank out long, historical novels--and had a pre-school aged daughter.

Hearing Wiggs say that was a Eureka! moment for me. I had done so darn much bird-walking away from work-in-progress looking up historical details. We must learn there has to be writing time, time when we do nothing but write, and if we don't allow ourselves that, we won't have finished books to market.

Just as there are don't for my flash writing, there can be some do's. These work for me:

1. Drink caffeine, even if you're restricted. Two/three days won't kill you, and it really helps keep you mentally alert.

2. Give yourself mini breaks to ease the aching back.

3. Set realistic goals and stick to them. You can do 40 pages a day.

4. Go forward, never backward.

5. Use place holders for things that need to be looked up later.

This flash writing method--for most of us--does not come naturally. I'm no exception. As writers, we love to read and reread and reread our written words. Even when there's no room for improvement, we still reread because we're in love with our words. Such rereading is hazardous to our writing careers. We must go forward. There's a time for rereading, and that time should not be during what I call the "composition."

Before I close this piece I feel compelled to point out that these methods may not be helpful to beginning writers. I had already written 10 books (only two of which were published) when I did my first BIAW. By then, I like to think I had a handle on dialogue, characterization and plotting.

Even now, I have to know where my plot's going. Before I can sell a book on proposal, I first sit down and plot the book. To help me plot, I use Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. I heartily recommend the book.

I also recommend that those of you who need to finish those contest-winning books challenge yourselves to a mini BIAW.

This article was first published in Happily Ever After in the November/December 2002 issue.

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