When I was a Boy Scout, one of the dads in our troop was a master auto mechanic. He made a lot of money fixing high-end vehicles. Because of his expertise, he agreed to help us complete our Automotive Maintenance Merit Badge.

We came to his shop because we wanted to get credit for the merit badge and learn how to change oil, but he wanted to teach us how to work.

He told us we could learn all we needed to know about somebody by watching how they push a broom.

The lesson that that stuck with me. The mechanic’s commitment to efficiency in his shop allowed him to complete a 12-hour job in just eight hours. And he could do it with as much excellence as the guy who took 12 hours to do the same job.

He explained that the key to faster work was perfect organization. He made sure his bay was cleaned before he got started. He had a toolbox filled with what seemed like thousands of tools, and he said he could find each one with his eyes closed.

He said, “While the other guy is looking for his next tool for the job, I’m already working on the next car.” That’s why he made over $100,000 fixing cars.

Before you’re tempted to think, “He’s just a mechanic. That’s a blue-collar job,” I’d like you to consider whether you make that kind of money writing books? If not, maybe there’s a lesson to learn from the auto mechanic.

If you want to make auto-mechanic amounts of money, perhaps you need to use auto-mechanic level organization.

He also had a process. He knew exactly what to do for each project, and he followed that process exactly.

As an author, how do you stay organized? How do you create a process that helps you write faster and better?

If you haven’t yet nailed down a system or need to tweak the one you have, author Angela Hunt has some great tips for authors. She’s written over 150 books and has sold more than 5 million copies, so she knows what she is talking about.

In our recent interview, Angela shared the secrets of her process and how she stays organized.

Why do some authors struggle with organization?

Angela: Many authors believe writing is a mystical experience where you have to be tuned into the great muse in the stratosphere. They believe that inspiration impulsively happens.

I’ve got news for you. If you sit around waiting for the muse or waiting to get inspired, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

My process sometimes begins when my editor says, “We need a book on this topic.” I begin to think about the best way to write it. I ask myself

  • What type of book is best for this topic?
  • What is the best genre for this topic?
  • What are the best characters for this topic?

Next, I work on an outline. I plan and schedule when, where, and how I’m going to write it. Then I start writing. I may not know exactly where I’m going when I start, but by the time I’ve written several drafts, I finish with a book I’m proud of, and usually, that book is published.

What are some of the plans and processes you have used to succeed in your writing life?

Angela: A book often starts as a vague twinkling of an idea. You first want to ask if the idea is strong enough to merit a whole novel or a short story. To find out, I run it through the W.A.G.S.

Run it Through the W.A.G.S

I got this process from the late Gary Provost. He was a great writer, and he taught that a story idea must meet four criteria.

World: A Different World

A good story idea carries the reader to a different world. I don’t mean that a story has to take readers to Saturn. A story should take readers to a different place from their ordinary surroundings. I’ve written books that have taken readers to the top of the rainforest canopy and the embalming room of a funeral home.

Nobody wants to read a book about someone with the same ordinary life that the reader has.

Active: An Active Character

The character you place in your world must get up and start moving.

Goal: Your Character’s Goal

Your active character must have a goal she wants to reach. She needs a plan to reach that goal.

Stakes: The Consequences of Reaching the Goal (or not)

Something must be a stake for your character in order for your story to work. Your character needs a goal, a plan to reach the goal, and stakes. What does she have to lose if she does not reach her goal? The stakes must be high.

Always ask yourself, “If my character does not achieve the goal, what happens?” If your answer is, “Her life just goes back to the way it was before,” then the stakes aren’t high enough.

When you’re thinking about your story idea, run it through W.A.G.S. and see if it meets those four criteria.

How does that extra work save me time?

Thomas: Some writers may not believe that process will save them time.

But if you don’t have the WAGS figured out initially, you may spend hours writing hundreds of pages about a lame goal with unmotivating stakes in a boring world. It will take you more time to fix those elements than to figure it out at the beginning.

There’s a saying in construction that goes, “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it twice.”

That’s so often the case with writing. We’ll write a whole terrible rough draft to avoid doing a few hours of planning.

Two or three days of planning can save you months of drafting in the wrong direction. Running it through the W.A.G.S. isn’t plotting your story beat for beat. You’re just figuring out the world, goal, stakes, and the active protagonist. It’s a far cry from full outlining, but spending a little time to think it through can save you massive amounts of time down the road.

What mistakes do authors make when getting organized and putting processes in place?

Angela: They don’t think about the genre. You must know what the genres are and what they need to include. 

For instance, if you want to publish romance, publishers want a hero and a heroine who get together at the end. You cannot kill off the hero and leave the heroine a widow.

Thomas: Authors commonly ask me what genre their book fits into. They think it’s a marketing question. If an author asks that question, I know their book is doomed.

When they ask, “What genre is my book?” they’re trying to apply the category to the book rather than writing the book to fit the category.

No author wants to hear, “Your book is doomed because you wrote it the wrong way. You wrote it backward. You didn’t write it with the reader in mind. You didn’t write it with your reader’s expectations in mind. You wrote the book you wanted to write because it was a story that was on your heart.”

It’s hard to sell that kind of book because it won’t be a commercial success.

When I give general advice, I say, “You have to write the book for the reader.”

That means you must adapt to the genre. When someone buys a romance, they have certain expectations. Romance readers expect the couple to get together at the end.

Readers of every genre, even every microgenre, come to a book with expectations. Reader expectations differ from genre to genre, but every reader expects something. They buy a book because they’re looking for something.

If they buy a how-to book, they need to know “how to…” by the end of the book. If they don’t learn how to overcome the problem by the time they reach the end of the book, they won’t be happy.

Angela: Exactly. You must know the distinctions of the genres, which will require some research.

For instance, under the action-adventure genre, you have mysteries and thrillers, but mysteries and thrillers are two completely different things.

A mystery is a who-done-it. The reader reads along with the detective. It’s usually told by a third-person character, but the reader and the detective get the clues at the same time. It’s a race to see who solves the puzzle first, the reader or the detective. Usually, the detective wins.

A thriller involves a bad guy and a good guy. The bad guy is doing bad things, and the good guy is trying to stop him. It’s a race against time until they finally have a confrontation.

Those may seem like small differences that you’ve never thought about, but they’re very important. Before you sit down to write a novel, find the genre you want to write, and make sure your story will fit the conventions of that genre.

What are some other mistakes you see authors make?

Angela: They feel overcome. When people find out I’m a full-time writer, they often say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but it’s such a big project I just get paralyzed.”

Writing a book is a big project. But how do you eat a cow? One bite at a time.

Plan the First Draft

I used to write a full-length novel in three months. Now that I’m older, I have grandchildren, and I want to play with them. So now I take five months to write a novel, but I still plan.

I print out a blank calendar of those five months. I put an X through every Saturday because I believe in taking a day of rest. I never work on Saturdays. Then I put an X on other days that I know I have an all-day activity.

I count the number of available days that I can work. On each available calendar date, I write the number of words I will write on that day. For the first draft, I’ll plan to “Write 1000-3000 words on this date.”

Keep in mind that I’m a professional writer, and this is my day job. If you are starting out and you only have two hours per day to work on your book, you may not be able to write 3000 words in a day.

Pencil in your goal for each day is until you have a first draft.

Second Draft

For drafts two through five, you’ll need to schedule your work by the number of pages you’ll complete rather than the number of words. 

I recommend using a printed copy of your first rough draft because the minute you start typing on the computer, the pagination will change.

Print out a copy of that rough draft, and then schedule your edit of pages one through ten. Since I’m writing full-time, I edit about 20 pages per day on that second draft.

Thomas: You’re editing 20 pages per day?

Angela: Yes, for the second draft. The second draft is harder.

For me, draft one is about getting the story down. It’s the bones of the story. I use a plot skeleton, which gives me lots of room to discover things along the way, but it also sets up who I’m writing about, what we’re doing, and how it’s going to end.

Draft one has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all the major bases are covered. My first drafts are only about 45,000 words, and they’re very bare.

My second draft fills in all the gaps. I fill in the things I didn’t know I would need until I finished the first draft. Sometimes, I don’t have a clear idea of the story until I finish the first draft.

The second draft finishes off the first draft.

Thomas: So this is not Stephen King’s “the second draft equals the first draft minus 10%.” For you, the second draft is adding 10,000- 20,000 words to your skeleton first draft.

Angela: Exactly. If I run into a detail in that first draft that I don’t know, I use a bracketed placeholder and move on.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a historical novel. I write, “The king sat down and ate a platter of….” What would they eat in the 14th century? I don’t know, so I just put in brackets, [find out what king would eat], and I keep writing.

In my second draft, I fill in all the brackets and add details as I research

Thomas: That’s an important productivity principle called clustering. You’re clustering similar tasks together.

An example of clustering at home would be washing dishes. Once you’re set up to wash the first dish, washing the second dish is a lot easier, so you want to wash all the dishes all at once.

It takes longer to wash five or six dishes and then dry your hands to do something else, and then come back and wash five or six more.

In the same way, placing a research task in brackets is a way of staying with the task at hand. It’s a common technique professional writers use to cluster the research.

When you’re in research mode, you can use the “Find and Replace” feature to find the brackets in your document. Then you can move from bracket to bracket, filling in the details or answering your own questions.

When you’re in research mode, you’ve got all your browser windows and screens set up for research, and your mind is geared for research. It’s hard to change gears from researching to creating.

I find that as soon as I start researching, my creativity dries up. I have to guard that creative time and separate it from the research time.

Angela: Sol Stein recommends taking a couple of days between the first and second draft to do what he calls “triage.” In a hospital, triage is where they assess the situation and take care of the most urgent cases first. The first patient to get treated is the one with the worst problem.

Manuscript Triage

Between the first and second passes, do triage on your draft.

I usually look for my brackets and fill in those research details. Those are the most glaring problems.

Then in draft two, I can engage the creative part of my brain to finish out the story, to write draft two.

Third Draft

Draft three is about adding mood music and sensory details.

I believe in having at least three sensory details in each scene. Giving the readers something to see is easy because we write, “He came into the room.” That’s visual. But I also want to give the readers something to hear, taste, feel, or smell. I want them to hear the pop of the gravel under the buggy wheels. Those details make the reader say, “Oh my goodness. I felt like I was right there.”

Fourth Draft

Draft four is about self-editing.

Thomas: Until this point, you’ve been doing internal developmental edits. You haven’t been worried must about grammar and usage. Walk us through your self-edit copyediting process.

Angela: In the fourth draft, I do two things.

First, I focus on getting rid of my “weasel words,” which are words that are overused generally, and specific words that I tend to overuse in my scene or story.

Second, and this is very important, I listen to the manuscript.

You can use the accessibility features on your computer to listen to your computer read your manuscript to you.

The written word is vastly different from the spoken word. When I listen to the piece, I can hear if something jars me.

For example, if I’ve written, “She stared at him as he went down the stairs,” the use of the words stair and stared is jarring. Even though they’re separate words spelled differently, it clunks in my ear.

Listening helps you hear the rhythm of the words. If there’s a long sentence or if the dialogue doesn’t sound right, my ear will hear what my eye has ignored.

Listening also picks out the places where you’ve dropped a little word or forgotten an a or an.  

Thomas: If your book sounds good when read by Siri or Cortana, then you know it’s nearly ready. If it doesn’t sound good when Siri reads it, then it still needs some work.

Angela: That’s true because the more robotic the voice, the better it is. Most of us hear the emotion when we read it on the screen, but the emotion must be in the words, not in our heads. So it’s a great practice to have your computer read it to you.

Sometimes people tell me they read it out loud to themselves, and that might work. But your eyes will still glance over the errors that you’ve been glancing over all along. It’s better to have the computer read it to you.

Thomas: It’s another productivity tip. With enough time, you could probably find most of the errors, although you’ll still always need an editor. But if you’re a fluent English speaker, you’ll immediately recognize those errors when you listen.

Angela: I usually print out a copy and follow along as the computer reads it to me. She reads quickly, so I just mark the errors on the page with my pen. When she has finished that scene or chapter, I go back into my document and make the changes in my manuscript.

Thomas: Again, you’re clustering activities. First, you detect the errors, but you’re separating that from fixing the errors. I like that.

Angela: It’s the only way it will work, in my opinion. If you keep stopping the narrator, the computer reader, you lose the flow of the chapter or the scene. It’s much easier to go all the way through a chapter or scene. It also helps the day go faster.

What are some time management tips to help authors write better and faster?

Limit Interruptions

Angela: You don’t have to answer the phone. Years ago, when we all had landlines, people thought they had to answer. It felt like a social obligation, but it’s not.

Thomas: Other compulsive fun activities have supplanted answering the phone. Now authors get distracted by notifications from social media or other things. Your phone is your biggest obstacle to your productivity. It’s probably a bigger obstacle than it was in the days of the landline.

Apple realizes that phones are having a negative impact on the GDP of the planet because of the distractions they create. That’s why their most recent operating system update added a bunch of do-not-disturb features. They’re trying to reduce the damage they’ve done to the global economy by making it easier for you to make yourself difficult to interrupt.

You can decide which of your contacts can interrupt you. Maybe your spouse and kids can interrupt you, but not everyone has access to you while you work.

Use your phone’s do-not-disturb features. Research how the feature works and adjust your settings.

Learn to Say “No”

Angela: My second tip is to learn to say, “no.”

Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite books. Scarlet had a little speech memorized for when men proposed to her, which apparently happened all the time. She would say, “Oh my dear, I am not unaware of the honor you have bestowed upon me by asking me to become your wife.”

You can memorize a similar little speech. “I am not unaware of the honor you’ve bestowed upon me by asking me to bake cookies, but I’m afraid I just can’t this weekend.”

Say “yes” when you can and say “no” when you’re supposed to be working.

Thomas: I struggle with saying no. I try to remind myself that my “no” means I’m saying “yes” to something that’s more important.

I get invited to speak at conferences all the time. Lately, I’ve been saying “no” to all conferences, but I’m not really saying “no” to the conference. I’m saying “yes” to spending time with my wife and our babies.

We demonstrate what our true priorities are by what we accept and decline.

Tame the Television

Angela: We have 500 channels or more, but so few of them offer anything good. I’ve learned that if it’s not something I really want to watch, I just keep the TV off.

Capture Stolen Moments

When you’re at the doctor’s office, sitting in the car, or waiting in the carpool line, pull out your Kindle. I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go. When I’m waiting in a doctor’s office, I can make notes, check my calendar, make lists, set reminders, or listen to podcasts like Novel Marketing.

Any time you find yourself sitting with nothing to do, you can read a book on writing and make notes in the back.

But don’t ever feel that sitting and thinking is wasted time. Writing a good novel will require you to spend a lot of time sitting and thinking.

Have a Particular Place to Write

You will save time if you don’t have to set up your desk, computer, dictionary, or music every time you need to get in the flow. That’s why I have a special office with everything I need right there.

Thomas: In the auto mechanic lesson I mentioned before, he taught us how to change a tire, but it wasn’t a very helpful lesson. Changing a tire in a mechanic’s shop is so easy. It took us two minutes because all the tools were right there, and they could easily raise the car.

I helped my brother change a flat tire on his truck when it was 30 degrees out. It was dark, and the wind was blowing. We were trying to find a flashlight and none of the pieces were in the right spot, so it took us 45 minutes.

That’s why preparation and planning make a difference. When you create a zone that protects you from distractions, where everything you need is right there, you won’t waste time setting things up.

Get those distractions out of the way by closing all your browser windows, and you’ll write more each day.

Angela: Remember that your life consists of a measure of finite moments. When you are wasting time, you are literally wasting your life.

When I find myself not thinking and just wasting time, frittering time away, I think, “Oh my goodness. This is my life I’m wasting.”

The older I get, the more I realize that time is the most precious thing in the world. That realization has helped me become more disciplined with my time. If I need to leave the house, I try to get all my chores and errands done in one morning. Otherwise, it just takes up too much time driving back and forth.

Harness the Power of the Carrot

You are the donkey, but you also control the carrots. I have a friend who would not get up to use the bathroom until she had finished writing a scene. I’m not sure that’s good for your kidneys, but it certainly was motivational.

Figure out what you need to motivate yourself.

Thomas: Wow. That might have made her books a little more fast-paced.

Angela: No unnecessary words in that chapter.

Multitasking is a Myth

When we think we are multitasking by doing two things simultaneously, we are actually switch-tasking. We’re shifting our attention from this to that and back again.

In 1740, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice to his son:

“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day if you do but one thing at once. But there is not enough time in the year if you will do two things at a time.”

When you’re writing, focus on the writing and get it done. Then you can get up and do the rest of your life.

Thomas: That is particularly true when you’re drafting or doing something creative. When you’re “multitasking,” you’re not just switching back and forth. Your brain is also storing some of the information you need to go back to that other task. That headspace could be applied to your creative writing.

If you need to be brilliant, just get everything else out of your head. If you’re trying to write and you keep thinking about how you need to buy eggs, write it down on a piece of paper, “get eggs at the store.” Trust the piece of paper to store the information for you. That will free up space in your brain.

The shortest pencil has a longer memory than the sharpest mind.

You will be shocked at how much faster and better you write. You have more CPU cycles to dedicate to your writing.

Don’t Publish too Quickly

Angela: I see far too many beginning writers publishing too soon. In their haste, they don’t think things through. They haven’t honed their craft. They haven’t learned which genre they are writing or where their book fits.

Be patient with yourself and the time it takes to write a good book that readers will love.

In a book titled, The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk cites Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel’s study of a group of four-year-olds.

In the 1970s, he gathered them together and offered them a choice.

[T]hey could have one marshmallow immediately or wait a short while (until the researcher got back from an “errand”) for two marshmallows. The results:

One-third of the kids immediately took the single marshmallow.

One-third waited a few minutes but then gave in and settled for the single marshmallow.

One-third patiently waited 15 minutes for two marshmallows.

Shenk, D. (2010). The Genius in All of Us. p. 113.

After 14 years, Mischel checked in with the same subjects. He compared the SAT scores of the original non-waiting group to the waiting group.

He found the latter scored an average of 210 points higher. Those with that early capacity for self-discipline and delayed gratification had gone on to much higher academic success.

The delayed-gratification kids were also rated as much better able to cope with social and personal problems.

Shenk, D. (2010). The Genius in All of Us. p. 114.

Don’t rush to publication. You’re only going to get one marshmallow if you do. If you take time to plan, learn, and practice, you will get two marshmallows, and you’ll have a much better publishing experience,

Thomas: I couldn’t agree more. The ninth commandment of book marketing says, “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.” The first book you write teaches you how to write a book. The second book you write might be the one for public consumption.

Angela: The first book I ever wrote stayed in a drawer for years until I finally threw it out. So that is very sound advice.

Thomas: And now you’ve written 150 books and sold 5 million copies, including Plans and Processes to Get Your Book Written (Writing Lessons from the Front). Angela’s book will help you get your book written.

You can find out more about Angela at AngelaHuntBooks.com, where you can peruse her catalog of how-to books for writers.

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