My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, October 3, 2014

What Is Your Process? (Mailbox)

What is your process?  
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And anyone can pop my cliche writer cherries if they want.] 

Jenny asks:

I'm having sooooooo much trouble writing every day. If I wrote as much as you do, I'd finish two novels a year. What is your process?

My reply:

There are a few milestones in the life of a writer that let them know they're on their way to something more than the obscurity of the unsung hobbyist. Milestones like hate mail, getting paid, and of course someone asking about their process. Much like the hate mail (and hopefully some day like the money), the first time is only a lone visigoth on the hill–harbinger of open floodgates. I'm told by every writer of any notoriety that I will come to loathe this question with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas.

Don't get me wrong Jenny, I don't resent the question. I'm young and innocent like when the world was new. As far as I'm concerned you popped my process cherry and there will always be a place in my heart for you, even long after I'm gritting my teeth, staring at the ceiling, and answering this question for the googleplexbizillionth time. It will be fond memories of my sweet innocence, October the 3rd 2014, and Jenny that will help carry me through such events.

Creeped out yet? Wonderful. Let's move on.

The thing about the process question is that it is fundamentally a conflicted question. Asked casually, it is so innocuous, but it so often comes with the subtext of "I can't seem to do it. HOW THE FLAMING CAPYBARA GENITALS DO YOU DO IT???" When this happens it becomes a double edged khopesh of information.

Fire the image finding intern.....again
I'm sick of her just picking copyright free images off of Google and....um...
Actually....shit...this isn't half bad. 
On the one hand it is good for writers to hear how other writers who are succeeding at the slog from idea to execution perform their work. These stories demystify the perception that good writing just comes out of nowhere, exploding from the talent-lobe in a flurry of effortless key or pen strokes. It's good for young writers to discover that most writers (with accolades of any merit) sit down every single day, have bad days, struggle to get out sentences, revise constantly, work for hours a day–every day, get distracted (but don't let themselves stay distracted), suffer from impostor syndrome, think their work is shit/brilliant/shit, forget to eat or snack too much, don't always win the struggle against the blank page, and did I mention write every day? It isn't a magical journey of pixie dust and lightning bolts. It is a muddy, wet slog through a quagmire of self-doubt, distraction, and fallibility in which real progress is measured not in sessions but months or even years, and sometimes the mud sucks your boots right off your feet and a few excruciating steps might be a damned good day. The banality and sometimes disgusting messiness of the creative process is a good thing for a writer with misconceptions about unicorn rainbow farts to hear.

Further, hearing working writer's process can help the how-do-you-do-it? writer with sort of a "template" for what might be a good idea. It can spark ideas, and give the writer something to try. I hadn't even considered that I might do better if I got dressed than wearing pajamas or nothing at all. Suddenly my whole mindset changed and I felt like I was going to work. I was serious, focused, and Facebook had less power over me. Now it's just part of my routine. I might diddle and fiddle at any time, but when I'm serious, I preface the session by getting dressed.

Socks and shoes unlocked my inner potential. For realsies.

On the other hand, a writing process is like a fingerprint. No two writers are exactly alike. Capote wrote in bed. Fitzgerald got up and put on a business suit like he was going to work. Vonnegut wrote one page at a time. Joyce wrote one sentence a day. King writes ten pages a day. Rowling writes for hours and hours. Some writers retire to their office after dinner. Some creep down into the dining room with first light and reenact Grape Nuts commercials with the local squirrels while clacking out an hour before the kids wake up.

Every writer eventually settles into a process that works for them. The problem that so often happens is that the young writer tries to do exactly what the experienced writer does, to poor results. Instead of thinking of it as something to try, they think of it more in terms of: "This is what makes the magic work." And they try to reproduce it exactly as if they are casting a spell. But only you can do your own magic, so only you can find the process that works for you.

I still remember deciding I was going to write ten pages a day like Stephen King does. Just so you understand, ten pages is about 2500-3000 words a day. For reference, Nanowrimo pace is 1667 and is largely considered to be just on this side of six tokes from the what-the-hell pipe by working writers. So this was roughly akin to me deciding that Nano was for amateurs and I was going to do twice that.

My meltdown, less than a week later, was spectacular.

I believe it may have been the only time in my life that my dream characters threatened to make my life miserable by shutting off important body functions if I didn't take it easy. ("Imagine losing your balance right at the top of those stairs at the Concord BART," a cliché mafioso said, sitting on a pink cloud and eating a vienna sausage off a toothpick. "Wouldn't that be unfortunate? I wouldn't want anything like that to happen to you. So maybe you should just take it easy for, you know....ever.") However, it would be criminal of me not to mention that before this dream offer that I couldn't refuse happened, my writing became so filled with clipped dialogue (to fill those ten pages as quickly as possible) that all my stories started to read like Mamet plays.

"You pissed?"
"Why you pissed?"
"Stuff sucks!"
(Oh yeah. Only nine more pages to go!)

What is often lacking from young writer's consciousnesses is the sense that they should discard anything that doesn't work. Instead of trying something, they treat it like it is the prophet's pilgrimage and everything must be done exactly just so as the writer has done it. "I must have a fountain pen crafted by the hand of virgins that has been filled with the blood of my enemies, or I'll never be able to write this Harry Potter fanfic!"

So Jenny, I'm going to tell you (though my answer will disappoint you) but the most important thing is that you A) stick to the basics like daily writing and trying to write at the same time each day and B) find your own, special, unique process that works for Jenny.

Right now my process is to get this damn blog done each day, preferably not so late that I'm hitting "Publish" when it's chock-full of careless mistakes. (A goal you can see I very rarely achieve.) If I can write some fiction too, that's gravy.

That's basically it.

I wish I could be more colorful. I'll try to use the full sixty-four crayon box as I fill in the lines here, but that's the basic sketch.

When I have time, I try to write at least one page (preferably two) on fiction that I'm working on, but the phrase "when I have time" and "nine month old" don't tend to go together without maniacal laughter that ends up breaking in tears.

Right this second–as in the last two months or so–I've been getting some good mileage out of writing after dinner. I have written in the morning and before the baby, I wrote during the day when everyone was gone, but right now night works best. I spend the day cleaning, caring for the baby, reading, and maybe playing some video games.

But when night comes along, sometime between eight and nine, I go upstairs and get dressed. The most important thing is to dress like I am going out, so I put on socks and shoes. That puts me in a more "going to work" head space.  I head into a room full of junk and boxes still unpacked from our move three years ago. There's a path through the e-waste and the baggies of screws we don't dare get rid of and textbooks from college that were "interesting" so we're kidding ourselves that they'll be read again and thirty years worth of video games and.....

This room is scary messy, but houses my space. In the far corner, I've carved it out and planted my flag. I hiss at anyone who comes near. I would pee on the door, but it doesn't work and just makes Unsupportive Girlfriend get really cranky.

I go through that bulldozed path to a table that I've set up in the room that is covered in crap. But unlike the crap of the room, this is my crap. And I know exactly where everything is on this table and can get to it in a split second. There's a Christopher Walkin fan and a Clawdia Wolf doll sent to me by readers, lotion I stole from rooms at the last convention I went to, and a Blue Shield information packet that I totally need to read any day now. I sit down to a MacAir turn on some music with either no lyrics or really easy lyrics (like Enya or Enigma or maybe Peter Gabriel if I'm feeling feisty), and I write.

Totally not kidding.

I'm a sucker for Facebook. I get distracted easily. Too easily. It's one of my biggest problems with time management and writing success right now. (The other one is cute and poops a lot.) The hours sometimes grind on and I'm doing more posting and replying than I am writing. I'm sure that just one more reply will convince this guy that we have not quite achieved a post racial utopia. It's a problem, and part of the reason the late night hours work best for me. I struggle against myself, the words, and the blank screen.

And yet...slowly but surely, my thoughts find their way onto the page. It's painful at first. Happening in these excruciating splats and spurts between distracted glances about the internet to see what has happened in the last five minutes. Then, as I pick up steam and find my center, I start to speed up. Facebook and email fades away and my fingers get faster and faster. Ideas come together. Thoughts get cohesive. Pretty soon the world drops away and it's me and the words–but now instead of struggling, it's more like we're dancing and where I lead, the words follow and our waltz fills the blank page.

It is in these moments (sometimes) that I punch through to that artistic ecstasy where all the pain and discomfort and unpaid hours and hate mail and everything become completely worth it. Sometimes I catch myself in these moments, my heart pounding and my breath coming in gasps and I know I will never, ever be free.

Writing has my soul.

I usually end before I'm done with what I was working on. I get tired around one or two, exhausted by two or three. Very occasionally I come to a good stopping point before that and call it an early night.

It's about four or five hours of writing all told, though my daily goals are based on output more than time. If I was on fire, I got done with my article and wrote a page or two on fiction. Lately, though, I'm just happy to get done with the article...or even to get it done enough that I will probably be able to post it the next day with some further work. No matter what, I write every day, even if I've taken off time from the blog and I just do the page of fiction.

I'll either be given a baby or wake to one screaming in the next room around 8:30. So every day I deal with the missing hours of sleep by taking a nap in the early afternoon. It's not a lazy nap. It's the missing two hours of my sleep schedule and things get pretty ugly if I miss it for some reason.

When I first wake up (either in the morning or after my nap), I am usually very sharp mentally, and that's the best time to revise. If I've timed my writing well the night before, I have a draft of the day's post, and I can polish it before it gets too late. Usually my timing is pretty much down-to-the-wire and I am scrambling to finish up the post itself, half the time with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest. That revision time might add up to another two or three hours on a good day or maybe only one.

It's been pretty seat-of-my-pants lately. (And don't even get me started on the seat of HIS pants.)

So somewhere between six and eight hours a day split into revision and raw drafting. It's not that I never do one form of writing during the other time, but I recognize that I work best that way. If I've finished my article early, I might knock off without doing fiction. That happens a lot on baby watch days.

Often on the weekends I really try to work on some of my fiction or make a feeble attempt to get ahead on my posting schedule so that some of these emergencies don't fuck me up so badly all the time. Something almost always goes wrong (sickness, tired mom, tired dad, special plans, something), but I hit each weekend filled with foolish optimism and an itinerary of pipe dreams.

I'm getting better every month. One of these days between baby growing and getting easier and me getting better, I'm actually going to nail it. That's probably when you'll start seeing the trickle of fiction I post become something more substantial.

I wouldn't recommend this process, Jenny. It is messy, last minute, horribly stressful, and only results in "writing" in the strictest sense of that word. One of the only reasons I'm so good about my output is that I owe the patron muses for their amazing generosity. I've literally wanted to skip a day (or five) and only kept going because I knew they would be disappointed.

I will say this. If you're reading fiction, it's probably gone through at least one full rewritten draft and multiple revisions. My process is not so haphazard there. Revision is usually not so draining. I can't do it very well after I've written, but if it's the only thing I'm doing that day, I can go on for eight, ten, even twelve hours without really even noticing.

How about we hear from other writers in comments. What's YOUR process?


  1. I hope I'm earning my -er. I've been writing nearly daily since around January 12, 2014, and I've got over 200,000 words, split fairly evenly between two novels.

    I try to write every day, but sometimes that's not possible. I think I've missed about fifteen days in the last nearly 10 months. On one of those days I was flying back from Peru with a busted power cable for my laptop and no pen and paper, so I'm going to forgive myself for that one. The others ... I gave in to the "I'm tired" demon. (I'm also a full time teacher.) There were days when I had to get report cards out. There was even a totally unforgivable day I didn't write because I was gaming at a convention.

    I am not like Chris. I have no trouble getting down 2500-3000 words a day. Other writers refer to this as "word vomit," and I like that because although it feels much, much better than actually vomiting, it is about as messy and random. I just write, and what comes out are sentences that continually start with "he" or "she," sentences so laced with adverbs that they're impossible, or repetition. Lots and lots of repetition. Also, things that make sense to me that don't actually make sense. "Artistic" touches. Stuff like that.

    Once I have written a day's worth of vomit, the next day I come back and read over the vomit and make a few basic corrections. I do this so I can figure out where I am and continue on. Also, I do this because I can't read anything without editing it somehow. It's how my brain works and it's very annoying. (Yes, Chris, I edit your stuff. Sorry.) Then I vomit more.

    Once the manuscript is done, I let it sit for a month. Then I print it out and go over it with a pencil. I remove about 1000 adverbs per 100,000 word MS. (No exaggeration.) I pencil in a lot of sarcastic comments directed at myself, and then I completely ignore the pencil edits and go over the MS again on the computer, where I rewrite the entire draft. Once I have finished rewriting the entire draft, I label it "rough draft" and I send it out in sections to my beta reader. At this point I need to do this because if someone doesn't read it I'm going to explode from thinking it sucks too much. Then I let it sit again for a month.

    After that, I revise and/or polish. Right now my first MS is in good shape and I don't think I will be doing a complete rewrite again, though it needs heavy polish. I sent the first chapter to two different editors and they each returned over 100 corrections, which I will implement because if you pay for a professional, you should take that person's advice. I'll polish it up and send it out to a series of gamma readers, and then I will take their advice and polish it again. Then I will send it to a professional editor for a full-novel edit, polish it again, and at that point I may consider shopping it around.

    I work on two novels at once because I will go stark raving mad if I have to stop writing for the month I let the MS rest. It's actually painful at this point to stop writing. I get cranky, and I start resenting the things that are keeping me from writing. If it so happens that I have any talent I may well quit teaching and live on a minimal substitute teacher income so I have more time to write. Writing makes me happier than anything I've ever done, and if I can actually publish then my life will be considerably more mentally/emotionally comfortable, though working with the kids is pretty awesome, too.

    All in all, it should take me something like 1.5 to 2 years to take these novels from the very first word of the very first draft to ready for publication (maybe).

  2. On a daily basis, though, I start writing as soon as I can and I keep writing until I have to stop. Today I wrote from 4:30 (when I got off work) til 8:30, when I had to take a break to read because if you don't put words in your head regularly, you stop getting them out quite so easily. I read voraciously because I love stories and also because all those people I read teach me how to be a better writer. Recently I reread Bujold's The Curse of Chalion and I enjoyed the plot, but what I was really looking for was how she conveyed movement and emotion. She almost never used the words "walk," "run" or "went," and I hadn't noticed that earlier. She would describe lips when she was conveying emotion, and I hadn't noticed *that* either. I still use weak verbs, but I correct on revision. Bujold has been writing for so long now that I bet she's stopped using the weak verbs because she's experienced.

    Here's the other thing that gives me heart: all these writers I read, their works are good, but their prose is often prosaic. Ordinary. Most of the words in their stories are self-effacing, so you don't notice them as your imagination takes over. Sometimes they crescendo into artistry, but no more than maybe one or two sentences per fifty pages. To me, that's good writing. Not noticing the actual words because you're too caught up in the story? I like that. I want to be surprised and pleased by the occasional turn of phrase, but I would get heartily sick of it if the author tried that every page, so I *take it out* of my own writing whenever possible. I take out *so much* of my own stories. I took 20,000 words out of the 100,000 word MS and put in 13,000 new words. I rewrite scenes, scrap scenes, condense scenes, and change POV for scenes. Whatever they need to make them better. And if I'm too attached to something in a scene, I throw it in a clippings file immediately because it's probably making my writing worse. I kill my darlings.

    I am a significantly better writer now, in October, than I was in July. In March I was better than I was in January. In January I thought I was hot shit. Now I know I'm a noob, but that makes me happy, because I'm improving and I believe some day I'll be good enough to publish. Good enough to make *me* happy. And that's what it's all about.

    So there's my process.

    (I'm not editing this before I publish. The screen is too small to do a good job.)

  3. Oh, and by the way? Only *one person* currently gives a damn about what I write other than me. If I were writing for others, I'd have given up by now.

  4. I write for my blog five days a week, and take two days off to be with the fam. I try to write while my son is at school, though sometimes other demands push it to just before bedtime. I may also be doing writing during the week as part of consulting work which is a completely different kind of writing. My goal is to add more writing on other things, and hearing about the diversity of other's writing processes is fantastic and extremely helpful - thank you!

  5. apologies for typing quirk, i'm all thumbs on this phone

    process: Wake up, check the projects I had to leave off last night, eat food and push a few edits around raw docs. spend 4-6 hours at dayjob or chores and errands; come home, nap, wake up and write more rough.

    Weekends are for edits; days I don't have dayjob or errands or necessary social engagement i can spend that 4-6 hours reading. if a project is REALLY haunting me i'll be typing away at it with my phone on the walk to and from work (safe neighborhood, great weather, attentive drivers) or at those aforementioned social engagements.

    If I have a cold or pulled a muscle that day then I'm giving up all pretense of effort on anything to go play video games or watch genre-savvy streaming shows with my wife. the human brain needs rest and entertainment, too; depression is a comorbidity of high creativity, not a favor that makes your work any better.

    i also need a 'live connection' with the people i'm writing to entertain; so that takes some balance in content and language and lifestyle. writing and reading every day is perfect advice; but it's up to us to set a healthy balance so we can get the most efficiency out of that writing, and take the next step toward our goals without stumbling from exhaustion.

    I was privileged to have been given a professional typist's education in highschool so i don't have any bad keyboard habits; and am further privileged still to have a low-houred schedule for the dayjob that still covers my bills. I'm up to an average of 75k-120k+ word count per month, depending on edit schedule and availability of trusted feedback. I have ~30 return readers, and anywhere from 100-300 new or simply unregistered readers dropping by my account. That feels huge. That's like an entire classroom of people, reading my work with their own two eyeballs and leaving comments of encouragement and lighthearted outrage.

    30 people are glad to see my username under a new title. i remember being, and still am, a reader who returns to favorite authors glad to see their username under a new title, so i don't doubt their sincerity. active posting to online 'galleries' and archives and forums is a large part of my process, in fact, and audience engagement (not the same thing as obsessing over number stats) keeps me focused and productive in a way writing for myself never has.