My entire life, I was the smart kid who didn’t do her homework, but aced every test. I got As and Bs without really trying. I wrote every paper the night before, the morning before, the class before. What this means is that I trained myself to write a great first draft. I left myself no time for rewrites and revision, barely enough time for a cursory spell check. That worked fine for me in school. I probably could have had a few more As with a little more work, but I was happy.

Except now I’m screwed, trying to write novellas and novels. Now my brain believes that every sentence must be great. We only get one chance at this, it says, and I can’t convince it otherwise. A week ago, I bought, downloaded, and started using Write or Die. I hesitate to mention it because it’s working so far. I wrote two thousand words yesterday, in ten minute rounds, 300 words at a time. Routines work well for me, but only for so long. The same way a drug will work until your body grows immune, eventually, I can’t write the way I used to.

I wrote the first half of my first novel using a digital timer. I set one for ten minutes, and wrote. I set the other for five minutes, and that was my break. Write for ten, read for five. Write for ten, click around the internet for five. Write for ten, dance around the apartment for five. It worked for 30k words. Then I took a break for Christmas, and my brain could never get back to that same place.

I did this thing where I wrote a few sentences, then played a round of Doodle Jump. That one worked because a game never lasts very long, and there’s only one level. There’s a defined beginning and end. I’ve tried writing “real” words in 750words.com. It almost never works.

My new method of writing is less a routine and more a structure. My first novel was an idea, not a plot. I figured if I could write a thousand word scene for every one of the 50 United States (plus DC), I would have 50k words, and a good foundation of a first draft. The thousand word scene worked a charm. Now I just have to figure out how they fit together.

I’m a better plotter now. If I want a novella 20k long, I make a list of 20 high-level plot points. That’s the skeleton. The muscle is 10 expanded points within each of those 20 high-level points. Like a fractal. Now I have 200 scenes, and if I can write just 100 words for each one, bam, 20k words. I’ve used this same method for my last four long-form projects, including the novella I’m currently writing.

What wasn’t working was my word processor itself. I’m afraid writing in Scrivener is too similar, for my brain, as writing into Word those papers I used to do at the last minute, back in university. I started to stall, stop, let my brain wander around, looking for just the right word. I needed more urgency. I’ve never been good with deadlines. I need to make myself good at deadlines.

That’s where Write or Die comes in. You tell the program how long you want to write and how many words. You tell it to go easy on you or kick your butt. Then you start writing, and if you stop, you suffer the consequences. My consequences, because I’m not yet brave enough to move the meter all the way over to Kamikaze, are the screen turning red, and then a sound like the most annoying alarm clock ever. It works. I don’t even want to see the red start to fade in. I move my fingers just to stop the noise. I’m writing the best shitty words of my life.