“The Writing Process” is a pretentious phrase often thrown around by professional (and hobbyist) writers like a caution flag dropped during a NASCAR race. Until it is mastered, the race is on hold—there is no point in starting the novel (or article or essay or poem or love letter).
To wit, some (and only some) of the “process” questions I have been asked since I finished the first draft of my first novel:
- “Is it okay to start with an outline?”
- “Is it okay to start without an outline?”
- “Is it okay to start by writing the ending?”
- “Is it okay to start without knowing the ending?”
- “Is it okay to work on more than one project?”
- “Is it okay to work on only one project?”
- “Is it okay to play music when I write?”
- “Is it okay to write in silence?”
- “Is it okay to write only on my computer?”
- “Is it okay to write only longhand?”
- “Is it okay to write only fifteen minutes a day?”
- “Is it okay to write more than fifteen minutes a day?”
Yes. Yes, it is.
- “Is it okay to ask another writer to tell me the best way to write?”
No, it is not. (At least not outside a classroom, and I would argue it isn’t a good idea there, either.)
There is no mastering process, only mastering yourself as a writer, and you cannot ever do that without dropping the green flag and starting the engine.
Write a horrible poem you will burn tomorrow. Write a love letter that starts with resentment. Make an outline. Take notes. Write ten (or twenty or fifty) pages of gobbledygook until you find the story. Peel out and leave ink marks on the asphalt.
By the time you have spent 100 hours writing, you will understand your process and apply it consistently (or inconsistently, if that is how you decide you work). If you don’t want to write for 100 hours without a defined structure, get over it, because once you master process, it could take 10,000 more hours to master your craft.
This is not to say you shouldn’t talk to other writers about their habits, encourage each other to try new ways of writing, new techniques or prompts or concepts. It is important to explore new ways to inspire yourself, especially when you feel stuck or lonely or misunderstood (which we all do at one point or another—I do much of the time). Writers’ groups and associations are great for this. Some of the ideas you pick up along the way might even become part of your process as you move forward.
Toward that end, with the caveat that you should pay no attention at all, I will explain some portion of my practice. These are hard-won methods based on many years of writing and editing as a professional journalist, poet, copywriter, and technical writer, and far fewer as an as-yet unpublished novelist.
- I’m a “pants-er” (flying by the seat of mine), not a plotter, which results in first drafts the size of Canada. I always plan to cut at least 25 percent.
- I prefer to write in silence, but a coffee shop is fine in a pinch (especially if they serve a good breakfast). For the public place to work, though, I need instrumental music in my headphones.
- I draft character and plot almost interchangeably, because my characters know the story better than I. However, I am ultimately their deity, with the power to give or withhold life, liberty, and their pursuit of happiness.
- I write character sketches only as needed, not as a habit, because I like to get to know the population of my book in the same way I do friends.
- Some days I write for 20 (okay, 36) hours without a break; some days I don’t write at all. I strive for an average of two hours a day, because I would rather write than do anything else with my time. This is probably not normal and definitely not healthy.
- I hate outlines. When I try to use them, they fall apart by the time I draft the prologue. Always.
- I love critique groups and belong to two currently. The meaner my partners, the better.
- My handwriting is too poor—and my thoughts too fast—to write longhand, but when stuck, I use a white (not yellow) legal pad and a black (not blue) Pilot G2 gel-ink pen.
- I keep ongoing review comments in Word, but edit drafts by hand with a red G2.
- (I own only black and red G2 pens, which I buy by the dozen. I always give cheap ballpoints back at the bank instead of stealing them; I never forget, because they make me twitchy.)
- I sometimes plot with a huge sketchpad and colored markers. Or crayons.
- My first draft is always dialogue-heavy, always setting-light. I sometimes solve this problem with floor plan software.
- I am horrible at letting go, even for the few weeks of silent, arms-length contemplation I require between drafts. (I never, ever trust that I need it, but I always do.)
- I believe the greater portion of good writing is good editing, so I edit both as I write and in between drafts. Once I have finished the final draft (not final manuscript), I never, ever edit my own material.
My process isn’t perfect, but I don’t expect it to be; it is an evolving, living, breathing thing that will change as I do. Like most living things, including me, it prefers relative autonomy and is not always cute or cuddly. However, it results in finished books, four (and three-quarters) so far.
That said, my process is not yours. Unless you are me, it will invariably result in unfinished books, which are almost never okay. (Abandoned manuscripts are another topic for another day.)
So, if you are looking for the checkered flag, but spinning your wheels on a never-ending oval track, experiment by changing the tires, trying new fuel, even painting the car a different color, but putting another person in the driver’s seat will only slow you down. (As you may have noticed by now, I don’t much like passengers either.)
The best advice I have: never, ever take your foot off the gas.