Goal Smashing: What writing pulp fiction taught me about creativity and productivity

Yesterday, I did something that I used to think was impossible. I did the final read through of Cherry Bomb (Bubbles in Space #5) and sent it off to my editor.

What’s impossible about that?

It’s the fifth full length novel I’ve written this year. I’ve also written a novella, and two short stories. So far this year, I have written 424,000 of fiction. If I include my blog posts and business writing (my “real” job) that’s well over half a million words. Even thinking about that number gives me chills of imposter syndrome and terror. But I did it.

And I’m not finished yet.

I still have two novellas and a short story planned before we ring in the New Year!

There was something about finishing this book that really had a milestone feel for me. And I’ve been thinking about all the impossible things I did this year, and what has changed in me and my process to make transform the impossible into the possible.

How did I do it?

In order to make the most of a milestone, I believe it’s useful to look back on what you’ve learned on the way.

I believe it’s invaluable to share that knowledge with others who might be on the same or a similar path, so that they won’t have to stumble on the same potholes and pitfalls along the way.

So here’s what writing pulp sci-fi novels has taught me about creativity, productivity, and possibilities.

My journey so far

When I completed my first full length novel, The Timekeepers’ War (Bedlam Press, 2014), I had be plugging away at it in fits and starts for the better part of ten years. But I never seemed to have the energy or focus necessary to make any real progress on it. I had about fifty pages of delicious prose and world building and a vague sense of who my character was, but I couldn’t get farther than that.

I told myself I didn’t have time. I worked full time, often away from home for a month at a time, and I just didn’t have the motivation to write at the end of the day.

Part of this is that I drank too much, and part of this is that I was likely depressed.

But a bigger part was that I didn’t really know how to be a writer. I had no process, no schedule, no structure. I was floating around, being yanked around by my “Muse.”

Lesson #1: It’s better to try and fail than never to try at all

My husband and I decided that it was better to try and fail than not to try. So I quit my job and took an entire year off to write full time in order to figure it out. I had to prove to myself, one way or another that I could do it.

This was the first real step on my journey. Deciding to really try, even if I might not succeed.

It took me the entire year to write a 150, 000 word door stopper. I loved it. My friends and family loved it. I shopped it around to agents and many of them loved it… but after requesting longer and longer samples, eventually, all of them said “No, thank you.”

At that point, I didn’t know if I could carry on. It was simply too much work for no guarantees. It seemed impossible to even write a book a year, because until I sold a book with a signing bonus, I was going to have to go back to work.

Lesson #2: Critical feedback is golden

Then I got an email from the Editor in Chief of a mid-sized publisher who loved my writing, and took the time to tell me why it wasn’t going to work for him.

It was too long, the pace was too slow, and the dialogue too long. He suggested I get it professionally edited and to resubmit it.

So I did.

Lesson #3: All mistakes are fixable

I cried when I got my editorial feedback back. But I did what he suggested. I rewrote and restructured the entire book. I cut almost 50K words (about 100 pages) of material. Of the sections that I cut and rewrote, the new versions were invariably better than the old ones.

And the book was better. I resubmitted it, and I got signed.

Lesson #4: The work is never done

You will not be surprised to learn that getting published did not skyrocket me to stardom. My publisher wanted the next books, so I had to get writing.

Writing one book makes the second book easier, but not easy.

It took me five years to finish the second book in my trilogy. I rewrote it three times. The final time I did it from scratch as a NaNoWriMo project, using a detailed outline.

Lesson #5: Consistency > Quality

“Winning” NaNoWriMo taught me the value of a consistent writing schedule. Even writing 500 words a day is the equivalent of 182,500 words a year. That’s 2-3 full length novels!

My first draft needed a lot of work after prioritizing consistency over quality. But revising an existing story is much faster than writing a brand new story. That NaNoWriMo project became my second traditionally published book after three months of revisions. This was a blistering pace compared to my previous attempts.

Writing every day with a set word goal in mind trained my brain to write when I sat down at the computer. I didn’t need long stretches of uninterrupted time, I didn’t need absolute silence, I didn’t need to be in the right mood or feel inspired. The more I wrote, the easier the words came.

And the quality of those words improved as the consistency became second nature.

My third book in that trilogy took me three months to write and revise, start to finish.

That pace would allow me to publish two books a year (if my publisher could keep up with me!)

My personal challenge

Around this time, I began to come to terms with the fact that releasing five or more books a year as a self-published author was a far more likely avenue for success than releasing a book a year through a mid-sized (read: Not Big 5) publisher. Because my publisher had taken a chance on me and opened the door of possibility for me, I decided to leave my original series with them.

Lesson #6: Learn from the masters

That meant that in order to start self-publishing I needed a new series. I knew if I wanted to be able to write quickly I needed something with a fast-paced, linear plot, and likely a flat character arc.

Case Study: 1930s pulp writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Mid-century American pulp writers were some of the most prolific and skilled writers in history. They were masters of sparse prose, snappy dialogue, suspense and tension.

So I immersed myself in pulp. I practiced the style, I studied the plots. These guys were pure storytellers. Nothing fancy, just raw story.

I wanted to write sci-fi, so I blended the two genres and started plotting the first tale of my gritty cyborg detective, Bubbles Marlowe.

Lesson #7: Big impossible things are made up of small possible things

Other writers have taught themselves to write thousands of words a day, consistently. Many of these writers are not just good, but great. Isaac Asimov wrote more than 300 novels in his lifetime. Impossible! He must have been a genius, right? Did Asimov write 300 books because he was a brilliant writer? Or is was he a brilliant writer because he wrote 300 books?

Practice makes progress.

Goal #1: I set myself a goal of writing five 60K word novels in 2021

Many small possible things had to happen in order for me to meet this goal.

I decided I would write 2000 words a day in January. That should give me a 60K draft. I allowed myself three weeks for revisions, and three weeks for a professional edit. Three weeks for final edits and formatting, and set up a pre-order for book 1 for March 31. If I overlapped some writing time with editing time, I needed nine weeks between releases.

Rinse and repeat.

Lesson #8: Anything you keep practicing, gets easier

Guess what happened? I started writing longer and longer books in my 30 day writing periods. Book 1 was 60K, Book 2 was 63K, Book 3 was 80K, Book 4 was 83K, Book 5 was 87K.

Once upon a time 1667 word a day for one month a year was IMPOSSIBLE.

Now I write an average of 3000 words a day, and often have days where I write 5-8K. And the quality of my writing has actually improved as I’ve gotten faster.

I completed a five book series in one year, as well as holding down my normal business writing workload and home-schooling three kids. How? By breaking it into small, achievable goals.

Lesson #9: Start small, build slowly

When my kids were babies, writing 500 words a day was a stretch goal. I shifted my focus to flash fiction and short stories because that was the scale that made sense at that level of productivity.

I increased my goals incrementally in 500 word blocks, alternating my focus between speed and quality, until I could comfortably write 3K a day. I am no longer pushing for more words a day, I’m focusing now on the quality of those words.

Some day I hope to write 5K high-quality words of fiction every day (maybe then I’ll let myself have weekends off!)

Lesson #10: Share your goals

I talk a lot about my goals on social media and in writing groups. I give regular updates in professional groups. This keeps me accountable.

But I also include my family in my goals. I talk every day about how my writing went, anything I’m struggling with, what my sales are like. They are just as invested in my success as I am. My kids are proud to tell their friends and teachers that their mom is a writer. My husband is bankrolling this very expensive hobby of mine because some day, he’ll be able to retire thanks to my career as a writer.

How can I be so confident? Because I have proven to myself that I can do what it takes to run a successful author business. I can research and learn anything.

2021 was an amazing year for me. I set stretch goals, made consistency a priority, involved my family in my journey, and pushed myself hard than I have every pushed myself at anything. 2022 will be even better!

What I learned about creativity

I am not a slave to my Muse. Creativity is a muscle you can strengthen by challenging yourself to try new things, try hard things, and practice everything! I have more ideas now than ever, and now I don’t feel overwhelmed by that because I have time to explore them all.

What I learned about productivity

Consistency is key. It’s more important to write every day for a little bit than to have a few long sessions here and there. Focus on one thing at a time, speed or quality. And don’t try to multitask! Phones off, browsers closed, use a timer if you have to.

What I learned about possibility

Seemingly impossible things can be broken into small, possible steps. Nearly all goals are achievable if you give yourself enough time and stick to a plan.

The next goal

I have 10 books planned for next year! A prequel novella and re-releasing my dystopian trilogy, a 5 book techno-thriller series, plus a couple of pen-name side projects.

Discussion

What do you think is the most important lesson on this list?

12 thoughts on “Goal Smashing: What writing pulp fiction taught me about creativity and productivity

    1. I find weekend warrior writing even more impressive! I had no energy for writing while holding down a full time job. I do part time contract work as well, but as it’s writing work, too, I’m always in “the zone” now 😅

    1. Thanks 😊 I do have the advantage of being able to write basically full time, and it’s taken me a while to get here. I drafted book 5 in 27 days! 87K words. It still has to go to my editor, but I’m hoping it doesn’t need too much work!

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights. These lessons are not just applicable to writing but I see them as lessons for life in general. They could be applied to any endeavour and should be a guide for anyone wanting to succeed at anything that is important to them. Your family is fortunate to have you as an example.

    1. It’s a challenge! Even an extra 500 words a day can make a big difference in how long each book takes, though 😊

  2. Very inspiring! The biggest factor of your journey here, for me, is the consistency. I also struggle with full-time job, full-time family, no-time writer. (Well, not “no” time…) I’m making new plans for 2022 to start a new series (also kind of sci-fi noir with a femme fatale heroine), and deciding that I’m going to force a time slot to get this done 5-6 days a week. That’s going to be key.
    Thanks again for sharing! Maybe we can join forces on a joint promo someday. 🙂
    (I hope this takes this time — third time I’m writing this!)

    1. Hello!! I’d love to do some cross promo with you.

      I’m glad you found some useful tidbits in the post. Consistency is really so key because you can grow your productivity within a given timeframe, even if you never get more time. Juggling work and family and writing is a huge challenge, so be patient with yourself!

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