Here it is: The inevitable writing process post.
I hadn’t really planned to do this; I find these kinds of posts educational, but I always assume that my own process isn’t going to be helpful to others. But then a friend in a different creative field asked about my process, the big question being: How do I keep myself moving forward on my writing career while also working 40 hours a week in my editing career? How do I maintain creative discipline? When I got that specific question, rather than a generic “what’s your process?” (or God forbid “where do you get your ideas?”), I found that actually, I had a pretty detailed answer — and also, it’s one that I realize I hear a lot. So if you need an answer to how you keep yourself writing, here you go!
Two caveats, though. One: I can’t guarantee this will work for you, and frankly I wouldn’t want you to just carbon-copy my process. This is built around my lifestyle, my mental health, and my needs, and yours are probably not mine. It’s OK for you to take some of this and throw out the rest, or to decide to do it completely differently because your method works better for you. This is my answer, not the answer.
Two: I don’t get into specifics like word count per day here. That’s because, even for me in my own practice, that number is very much a moving target, and plenty of days can’t be measured in word count (I get into that a paragraph or so down). Plus, presuming that a certain number of words every day will equal success like some kind of magic spell is reductive at best, and potentially ableist at worst. Instead, I tried to boil the process down into general ways I stay disciplined and don’t sink into the Swamp of Despair.
Now then, that said, my practice rests on five pillars: Discipline; Reasonable Goals; Pre-Planning; Forgiveness; and Support.
I set a goal of how often to work on writing and how much, and I stick with it. In my current practice, that’s five days of writing work every week, with two days off. (Note I have not specified what writing work; that’ll show up in a minute.) I find that, regardless of specific goals, overarching structure helps me a lot — if I look back and go "I did writing stuff every single day I said I would!" it helps me feel accomplished and makes it easier to do the next week.
This ties into…
I set goals for myself for each day of writing, but I try to make sure those goals are things I can reasonably expect to get done and done well in that time frame; when I have an hour or two on a weeknight, setting a goal that would take me four hours under the best of circumstances is not going to do anything but frustrate me. To that end, when setting goals, I try to remember that setting a goal that turns out to be too little is better than a goal that’s too much. If I hit my planned benchmarks I tend to feel better, and feeling good about my work is the #1 thing that keep me inspired. Better to do what seems like a silly-small amount at first and then realize "I can do more!" than to break myself. This especially goes for trying to measure myself against the daily goals of full-time creators; I started my writing practice by trying to do every day what Stephen King does and it very nearly destroyed me once I started working full-time.
The other side of Reasonable Goals is trying to recognize what counts as creative work. Like I said before, it’s not just raw word count, or even editing. I have nights where all I do is business stuff, or simple brainstorming — my goal might “Answer all my agent’s questions about this manuscript” or "Spend 20 minutes writing down ideas for this novel" or something like that. The day that I and Lisa Abellera talked on the phone, I did no other writing stuff except follow-up from that conversation that was time-sensitive. I had to recognize that I was spending a ton of energy on those things and doing more was asking for burnout.
Which leads into…
I try to plan out ahead of time what I need to be working on, based on deadlines I might be facing and goals I've set myself. That can be week by week for a short story, or even over the course of months for a novel. Then once I have my deadlines figured out, I break that down into the aforementioned Reasonable Goals.
Example: Say I see that a short story market is opening soon that I have an idea for (either pre-conjured or that I get once I look at their guidelines). The cutoff date for submission is in 3 months. In that instance, I sit down and do the math for how long I need for each phase of the work: brainstorming, outlining, rough-drafting, revisions, etc. Then I figure out how much that means I need to do with each day of writing work that occurs between here and the big deadline three months from now. That road map helps me set my goals, keeps me moving toward the end goal of finishing the work, and ensures I am constantly meeting goals and feeling good about it and staying energized through the bad parts. Because the bad parts are going to happen, and that brings me to…
Forgiveness means being good to myself and not getting too self-critical. Sometimes, I do not make my goals, for a variety of reasons, and that needs to be OK.
Easy example: I didn't make myself try to work on writing on Sunday, even though I had already had two days off from writing; I was totally zoned out from Extra Life even after a nap, and I knew that any work I did do was going to be very hard, and probably have to be re-done. Likewise, sometimes I get sick. Sometimes Sonya needs me for emotional support, or we’ve got hockey tickets, or the hockey game means we require emotional support. Sometimes I miss my train and get home late. And sometimes, I’ll sit down and find the words just won’t go, and I need to either work on something else or recharge my batteries. All of that is OK.
Obviously, if it’s happening all the time, some amount of reflection on why is important; but life happens, and life and writing need to not be positioned as at odds with each other. If you aren’t living your life while writing, is it really worth it?
Support is Forgiveness, but external to you: having loved ones who understand and help lift you up. One of the biggest things that helps me is that Sonya and I both see my writing as a career as well as a hobby, and we have built our lives around taking time for creativity seriously. She knows that I'll need an hour or on most weekend nights to work on writing stuff, and more on weekends, and I know that sometimes she's going to want time to knit or paint minis. I am a member of a writing community that helps each other stay sane through the bad times and celebrate the good times and provide advice and feedback and positive reinforcement as needed, and my writing since I joined up there has been markedly better. This makes all the difference in the world; I have friends who, I'll just say it, have much less robust support networks, and it is painful to watch. So make sure you cultivate a Team You for your writing practice, and that everyone around you is on board as much as you need them to be.
So there it is: the process. I hope that helps, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.