I find the writing process fascinating, and I also find our obsession with it fascinating. In particular, I’ve been thinking lately about that elusive search for the correct way to do it. Advice abounds: you should write every day. You should choose a word count and stick to it. You should use mind-mapping to plan out your novel or non-fiction book. You should make sure your novel is plotted out properly to make sure there are no holes. You should forget about the plot and focus on the characters, allow the plot to grow organically.
Oh wait. Did those last two contradict each other? I do believe they did.
And here’s what I’ve come to realise lately: there is no such thing as a correct writing process. What I need to do is find the process that works for me. What you need to do is find the process that works for you. And nobody else can do this for us. We need to find it for ourselves.
Article over. Blog over. Bye.
Oh, sorry, did I hear you asking? “How the heck do you do that?” And what was that you said? “I’ve been trying for years to figure out what works for me and I have ten unfinished novels, twenty unfinished stories and two thousand unfinished articles.”
Okay, since you asked so nicely, here’s a few suggestions for how to find your way. Actually, no, it’s not. It’s a few observations about what works for me. It might work for you, or it might not.
Years ago I came across a number of authors who all suggested the “write and keep writing” approach. Don’t cross out, don’t edit. Just get it down. Get a first draft completed and then look back over it with that red editing pen. This was a marked difference to my previous method of: “agonise over every word, try to write something witty and clever, score out again and again,” or even to my alternative method of “write fast until you dry up, then play solitaire for while, make a cup of tea, hope the muse return.” And yes, it did work, then. I got the MA, which had been my goal. I also got a few extras I hadn’t even imagined, like Distinction.
But – I didn’t finish my novel that way. I didn’t write an entire first draft that way. I can’t even remember exactly how I did it, but I do know that I never really had a first draft of my first novel. By the time I got to the end, I’d:
- (a) written most of it before long before I wrote about three-quarters of the rest. (I needed some idea of where the novel was heading, even if I didn’t know how it would get there.)
- (b) I had rewritten, or at least edited, every chapter at least once. So when it comes to novels, I really have no clue what a first draft is.
A few years ago, I let my daughter persuade me to take part in NaNoWriMo. Given that it advocates the “just write until you’re finished” method I thought I was following might seem strange I needed persuasion to join in. But I was a slow writer back then (and I’m not particularly fast now.) I couldn’t see how it was possible to write a novel in a month. I felt certain anything I wrote would be crap. I hadn’t realised this was the point. In the “About” section on the NaNoWriMo website, is this wonderful piece of information: Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. I also hadn’t realised that the NaNo idea of a novel was not the same as mine. My first one’s first(ish) draft was 159,000. NaNo’s word count is 50,000.
I had a go. The first year, I started on the 19th of November, so didn’t really expect to “win.” That I did get a winner’s badge for my website was accidental because I made a hash of entering my text for word-count verification with the result they were counted twice, making the count well over 80,000. Not bad for 11 days! And not true of course. I was more pleased though, that the last day of the month I had written almost 9,000 words.
I now knew I could (sometimes) write fast. The second year I tried it, I did “win” properly, and actually felt justified in pasting my badge onto an article I wrote about the experience. However, neither time did I write a 50,000 word novel. All I got were bits of novel, and those bits had gone wildly astray from my original outlines, with minor characters suddenly swapping places with major ones, and minor events becoming so big that timelines totally changed. Oh, and those novels are still unfinished.
I tried NaNoWriMo again last November, thinking it might spur me on to start a new novel. I even decided to keep a diary of the experience on this blog. By the third of those diary posts, I was beginning to see that NaNoWriMo was not helping me to write but instead the pressure I felt hindered my writing, and the diary became the No-NaNo! By the fourth of those posts, a mouse was my new guru, and I had definitely decided that ploughing on regardless was not the way for me to go. I kept writing, but slowed down and took time to plan and ponder.
The idea of a word count just wouldn’t go away. I kept coming across articles in which the writers recommended x number of words per day – x varying from 250 – 2000. After a short break over Christmas, I started back to work on the novel I’m writing, and also on some short stories. In the flurry of New Year’s resolutions that cropped up on the internet, I thought maybe it could be a good idea to set a daily word count and stick to it. I managed two days before I realised it was again hindering my writing rather than helping, creating pressure instead of making me creative. Some people may work well under pressure. I’m not one of them. It’s not right or wrong: we all have different life experiences that got us where we are, and so we have different ways of responding.
I’ve realised that for me it’s not enough to plan a novel, get writing and stop when I complete a first draft. The way my mind works detours happen, people change, and even my intention for the novel changes. My first one was never intended to be a novel where one of the main themes was forgiveness, but as forgiveness became part of who I am the novel had to go that way too. The current novel is going through similar changes of intention. This doesn’t mean that in either case the plot changes hugely – it just affects the compassion with which I view the characters. I feel happier – much happier – with the direction the novel I’m working on is now heading. And that’s the impetus I need to write.
How to Find Your Own Writing Process
If I were to give a brief summary of how to find a writing process that works for you, here’s what it would be:
- Read books about the writing process. (If you click the Book Review tab in the menu bar, you’ll find several suggestions for books to read.)
- Read articles about the writing process.
- Try out some of the suggestions in those books and articles.
- Notice the effect following those suggestions has on you.
- If it means your writing flows, you feel relaxed about writing and pleased with the results – then keep using that method.
If you feel tense, and notice that you are trying to force yourself to write, you might want to question whether it’s worth it. Here’s two questions to get you started:
- Do you want to write a novel (or book) no matter the cost to you?
- Or do do want to enjoy the writing?
If you answer yes to the first of those, or find yourself justifying why you need to keep going even though it is stressful, then consider what you think keeping going will give you.
- Do you think you will like yourself better if you finish this novel/book?
- Or perhaps you want other people to like you more?
- Perhaps you want respect?
- Or perhaps if you can just get through this, you will feel like a real writer and so respect yourself?
- Perhaps you need to conquer fear, and prove to yourself (or someone else) that you are not a quitter?
If you find one method stressful and decide it’s not worth it, that does not mean you are a failure. It doesn’t even mean you need to give up. Just try a different way.
You may find that one way of writing works for a while, and then you need to try something different. So allow the process to adapt as you change and grow as a writer.
If you can, I do recommend journal writing first thing in the morning, even for just ten or fifteen minutes. This helps clear the mind, helps you find what you need to do to “follow your bliss.” It’s the writer’s equivalent of meditation. (Though meditation is good too.) When we journal, meditate or use some other means to go within ourselves to the darker aspects that we try to block off, then we learn compassion for ourselves and life feels so much more worthwhile. And then, whether our novels are the next best seller, or the next to disappear into oblivion doesn’t much matter, because we are okay whatever the outcome.