For those of you who don’t know, I am an aspiring author currently working on my second novel. I’ve recently joined the cast of the “Word Vomit” writing group and together we post once a month about a specific writing topic on our blog The Writer’s Ramble. The idea is to get several perspectives on a different topic and use that information to help develop writing processes and styles that work for you. If you are interested in the topic we are discussing this month (finding time to write), feel free to head over (here) and check out other words of wisdom from these awesome writing people.
Who Has Time to Write? (Part II)
“What’s your writing process look like?” is the question I ask every successful author I meet. After all, these men and women have managed to take their passion for writing and turn it into a full-time career – they must be doing something right… right? When I’ve ask this question, I not only gained insight to the hard work and dedication that goes into writing great novels, but have also picked up some helpful tips along the way that have positively influenced my own writing process. In this post, I’d like to share some of those tips with you.
The first thing I picked up is that writing a novel is a long, grueling process that is meant to be taken in small steps. In Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” she indicates how important it is to allow yourself to write a “shitty first draft” that is, allowing yourself just to get the ideas on paper. If you are a constant perfectionist (much as I am) on word choice at the very beginning of the process, you aren’t going to get anywhere fast. What’s worse is that you’ll spend all this time perfecting a scene from an early draft of your story then have to scrap it later because it doesn’t fit with where the story developed. While the act of writing and perfecting a scene is good practice, there’s a time and place to do it properly that won’t stand in the way of writing your novel in a timely fashion. If I’d spent more time developing the story early on and less on finding that “perfect” word, it might not have taken me almost three years to finish the book.
The funny thing is, I actually read Lamott’s work before getting into writing, but her advice didn’t truly hit me until a conversation I had years later with Patricia Briggs. She told me, “The biggest thing to remember is that you can always go back and fix it later. It’s more important to get the intent of what you want to say down first, then you can worry about going back to make it sound pretty.” It was great advice (as it was when Lamott gave it) but I was finally at a point where I was ready to hear it. Maybe it was because I had been through a couple years of frustrations on finding the balance between creativity and perfectionism, but whatever the reason, what Briggs had to say resonated with me – and changed the entire way I approach writing novels. Taking it to heart, I went home and wrote the first draft of my second novel from start to finish in just over a month. That’s a drastic difference from the three years it took to complete my first one.
I finally gave up on making my story pretty right away and focused solely on letting my creativity flow. Writing and editing (or perfecting, as I like to call it) take two different sides of the brain. When you’re trying to convey the story on the page, if you’re worried about proper punctuation and using the correct verbiage, you’re using tools from the left side of your brain and not allowing the right side – the creative half, do what it does best. The revision process (all that left brain stuff) is ironically also easier to do once you have all the ideas on paper because your brain doesn’t have to try and battle between making ideas concrete at the same time it’s trying to make them sound good. There are some writers who don’t need a lot of revision after they write something, but those are usually the ones who have spent years perfecting their craft, having taught themselves how to say it right the first time. With practice, you’ll notice your own writing improving, but it takes time.
Along those lines, I was lucky enough to do an interview with Partials’ author Dan Wells. I asked him the question “What’s your advice for aspiring authors” (the second question I always ask successful authors), and here’s how he responded:
Allow yourself to write a bad book. Aspiring authors tend to think they’re first book has to be perfect, because they’re going to publish it and make a zillion dollars, but that’s not how art works. A painter doesn’t get his first painting hung in a museum, and a sculptor doesn’t get her first statue into an expensive gallery, and we authors need to remember that our first works are just like theirs: they’re practice, not designed to sell but designed to teach us how to write. Finish your first book, warts and all, and then your second will be better, and your third will be better than that, and so on until your writing is awesome. I wrote five books before finally selling my sixth, and now I’ve published eight, but if I’d insisted on perfection I’d still be revising that first one, over and over, all alone in a room somewhere.
Now Wells doesn’t know me personally (beyond as that awkward fangirl he did a Q&A with) but I feel like this advice was catered specifically to me nonetheless. It carved right through my delusions as an aspiring author. I was that person alone in a room endlessly revising that first book because the idea was too zillion dollar “amazing” to let it go. In actuality, I was just finding new ways to butcher it over and over again. Maybe dissecting is a better word, as it taught me a great deal about the ins and outs of how how to write a book. After receiving this advice, I gave myself one more month to cut up my first novel and learn everything I could from it. It is now affectionately known as my “cadaver novel” (I have Nancy Farmer to thank for that terminology, as I heard her use it to refer to her own first novel in a Q&A panel) and although I might give it another shot at a later date, I resolved to set it aside for now and try something new. I got a lot of practice out of that first novel, which is probably why my second attempt went so much smoother. My writing process has definitely improved – part of that has been from my own experiences and the other part from all the great advice.
But advice on how to treat writing as a business only goes so far when you haven’t been successful enough to make it into a full-time job and don’t have eight hours a day to devote to it. Maybe the more helpful thing to ask would be “What did your writing process look like before you became successful?” It’s a lot easier to find time to write when you quit your day job, but hearing about those authors that put in fifty hours of work a week and still found the time to write their stories is incredibly inspiring. Brandon Mull told me he was in a similar situation but managed to write the first Fablehaven in just over a month. That just goes to show if you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen regardless of the circumstances. You have to be willing to make the time. An incredibly insightful article by the amazing Robin Hobb tackles this concept (as a full-time writer, but I think the wisdom held within applies to all writers). She says:
The truth is, you will never have more free time than you do right now. Your life will always fill up with stuff you need to do. Even after you are successful and no longer have a day job, you will still need to get the car serviced, pull the weeds, pick up your friend at the airport, call the plumber and mop the floor, oh, and since you ‘don’t work’, can you watch your friend’s kids this afternoon? Life does not stop so that you can write a book.
So here is what you do. Get a notebook. electronic or paper, I don’t care. Paper ones never need batteries, and tend to fit better in you backpack, diaper bag or purse. I like paper. Then write. Write on the bus to work. Write while waiting for the dentist. Write between classes. Write on your lunch hour. Write during the kids’ soccer practice. In the evening, leave the room where the television is and write. It can be done. In fractions of hours, throughout the day, you can amass words like a squirrel storing nuts. At the end of the day, sit down at a keyboard, and put those words into a document…Once you start doing this, you will find your writing time. It’s there, in your life. You just need to find it. (Hint. Your writing time is not on Facebook or Twitter. Do not look for it there.)
The article continues here, and it’s definitely worth reading the entire thing. And man-oh-man does this section speak to the problems I think all aspiring authors struggle with at one point or another. I wish I had read this advice a couple of years ago, because I really had to learn it the hard way. I would go weeks waiting for the “right moment” to sit down and write. Feeling like inspiration had to strike. I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to get very far if I had to wait for the perfect mindset. Once I cracked down and started treating it like a job, however, it was amazing how much progress I could make within a single week. I remember hearing a quote along the lines of “a professional writer is someone who can force themselves to write beautifully even when they’re not in the mood.” And to be a successful writer, that’s exactly what you have to do – take matters into your own hands, figuring out what makes up the perfect “mood,” and doing everything you can to replicate it… or at the very least, fake it.
I have a few personal examples for this. It has taken me a couple of years, but I finally noticed that I’m most productive when on a schedule. And that schedule has me up several hours before I’d like to be. I am most definitely not a morning person, but I find mornings are when my house is the quietest. The earlier I get up, the more I get written. I have also discovered that an empty, stimulation-free room does not help my focus. I’ve tried it, facing a blank wall in a sparse room and I was almost immediately bored and antsy every time I sat down to write. So I decorated and moved all the furniture around in the room until it had personality and my desk faced a window (which looks out to a cool little pond surrounded by panoramic views – awesome!). Having something interesting to look at allows me to sit and create longer (I need to mention that I write everything using Dragon Dictate due to a severe wrist injury, so I’m not actually ever looking at my screen while I’m writing). Anyway, my point is, you may not be able to depend on your writing mood, but you can tailor other parts of your life to set yourself up for success.
I was lucky enough to write my second novel without having to hold a full-time job (thanks, Husband, for giving me an opportunity to chase my dreams). Hobb’s words continue to ring true to me – you always think “if only I could just do this full time, I will have all the time in the world to write,” but the reality is, you’re often faced with even more distractions, not less. I’ve always been type of person who is most productive when under time constraints. The best grades I got in college were when was working fifty hours a week between two jobs while trying to go to school full-time. I just plain didn’t have time to procrastinate, and I think the same applies to writing. The more time you have to get around to it, the more time you think, “I’ll get around to it…”
The key for me, has been making myself sit down in front of the computer. Even if I stare at the screen for an hour and don’t fix more than a couple of commas, I will know I won’t get any work done unless I make my butt sit in that chair. And you know what the funny thing is? I never sit there for more than five minutes without getting back into the writing groove. It’s like once I get over that procrastinizaitonal hump, I’m able to roll with it. Getting there is the hard part. Henry Miller said, “When you can’t create you can work,” and that advice has pushed me to work on my writing even during my worst bouts of writer’s block. Heck, sometimes it’s even the cure – as if being willing to sit there and focus is all your brain needed to come up with the answers. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself start scanning Facebook. I talk a lot about dealing with distractions in my Who Has Time to Write? (Part I) post, so I will leave it at that.
It’s all about helping your brain jump back into the story as soon as you sit down to write. I found it helpful to half-meditate and think about my story whenever I have a spare moment. When you relax your mind, you’d be amazed how many revelation or “ah, ha!” moments strike you when you’re consistently immersing yourself in your story (for me, inspiration usually happens at about three in the morning. I could kick myself for the number of times I didn’t get up and immediately write it down – so many good thoughts lost).
In some cases, the time you spend thinking about your story is just as important as the time you spend writing it. When I asked Kimberly Derting about her writing process before she became a writer, she spoke to many of the same points. Having several kids at home, and a full-time job on top of that, Derting didn’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write her story. What she did was make sure she seized opportunities to let the story build in her mind. Instead of listening to audiobooks on her long commute to work, she started using the time to think about her stories.
That percolation process makes a difference, allowing your subconscious to come up with new ideas and solutions. If you absolutely can’t take time to sit in front of the computer, make sure you are at least take advantage of those quiet moments. But please, carry something to write it down… I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve forgotten because I didn’t have anything handy to write on. In fact, the biggest indication of my progress as a writer was when I started toting around a small notebook.
I think the moral of the story is, even though everybody’s writing process is a little different, there are things all writers can do to find more time to write and make the most of that time. The best thing you can do for yourself is to try different methods until you find something that works for you. If you don’t take it from me, take it from these successful authors. Writing a novel takes a lot of time, and to be successful you have to be willing to put in the hours improving your crafts and producing stories to the best of your ability. Malcolm Gladwell claims “It takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field” and, chances are, you have to make time for every last one of them.
Robin Hobb’s Blog – “I Want to be a Writer, But…”: http://robinhobb.com/2014/04/i-want-to-be-a-writer-but/
Wisdom Group – “10,000 Hours of Practice”: http://www.wisdomgroup.com/blog/10000-hours-of-practice/