Monday, June 17, 2013

When Your Process Doesn’t Work

It's been four years since I started writing with the goal of publication.

My first (not joking) 190,000 word draft of an urban fantasy spewed forth like drunk on New Year's morning in less than three months.

My second manuscript  was a much tighter 105,000 words and took two months.

My third ended up around 95,000 and took twelve weeks.

Then I really got down to the business of learning the craft and self-editing.
I've now passed a year and a half without finishing a new manuscript. In part this has been because other responsibilities (most notably, editing my completed manuscript for querying, then with my agent) have taken precedence. But there's no doubt that in the last couple years, I've collected half a dozen aborted first drafts. Not because I don't think the stories are worth writing. And not because I haven't collectively had enough time to finish one of them. But because my normal process has stopped working.

See, I used to write without thought for anything except getting the story down. Just write and write and write. Sure, sometimes I skipped forward in the story if I needed to know how a scene came together in order to write up to it. But generally I wrote a linear story from melodramatic start to wordy finish.  Then I edited.

But the more I learned about writing craft, self-editing, and the pitfalls of story-telling. The more I started to see my mistakes as they happened. My internal editor started taking over, talking in my ear as I typed:
"That sentence is SO clunky!"

"That scene is awkward, and the character motivations are paper-thin."

"You can't honestly believe the reader is going to swallow that?"

Soon I was struggling to enjoy drafting at all because I just knew the product wasn't up to scratch.

The dumb part about this is, I know even the most talented writers need editors. I know that even bestselling authors have to revise and redraft at times. I know that a story doesn't go from brain to page in perfect form.

I know I have to rework stories to make them the best I can make them. But I get so caught up in the editing now, that I can't be happy with where I'm at.

What if I get the ending wrong and have to go back and rewrite whole chunks of a manuscript?

What if I haven't nailed that characterization? My protagonist might need an overhaul!

The entire plot hinges on getting the timing right on that reveal. What if I get it wrong – will the book even work?

These are stupid things to worry about, but worry I do. My practical, pragmatic mind says "Just draft. Work it through later". But my creative heart can't commit just in case.

I was beginning to think maybe I'd ruined myself as a writer. Until, totally by accident, I stumbled on a new process:

I've started writing longhand.

Now, I know plenty of you are thinking, "well, duh?" but trust me, for me this is revolutionary. On a lazy day I type at 90 words per minute. When I'm in flow, I can get 1500 words down in an hour, easy. The idea of writing longhand, to me, was akin to trying to ride my bike as fast as I could drive. (Not only impossibly, but incredibly frustrating).

Then, a week or so ago, I didn't have access to a computer. And I had a scene that needed to be written. So, oh well, I'll just write it in my notebook so I don't lose the idea.

But the scene turned into another scene, turned into another scene, turned into another scene…

Pretty soon, I've got my notebook sitting on my coffee table, and whenever I have five spare minutes, I read back through the (rough, sometimes barely-more-than-an-outline-plus-dialogue) scene I've written prior, and add the next few paragraphs.

Without putting any time aside for drafting (because, seriously, life is CRAY-CRAY right now), I've finished Act one and am rolling strong into Act II.

I don't have chapters. I'm pretty sure some of my character names are wrong. And we're definitely off on pacing. BUT, momentum is momentum.

What I'll end up with, I've realized, is what can either be viewed as a very extensive (read 50,000 word) outline, or a very skeletal (read: 50,000 word) first draft. In truth, the document will have bits and snatches of both.

But my story will be mapped out. I'll already know where the problems are. And those wonderful phrases that sometimes germinate amidst the weeds, have been recorded. The gems of my first draft will be there. But the work is yet to be done to carve it into a book.

That's when I'll need the computer. That's when I'll be able to edit as I go, because as soon as I get stuck, I get back to my outline/draft and find where I left off.

So, it turns out, I have a new process.

For some reason, when I'm writing by hand, my internal editor can't get a look in. I am free to just throw the ideas around, make notes where I can't be bothered writing the transitional scene, and that dialogue that I adore is still recorded for perpetuity.

In short, it works (for me).  And it isn't cutting into any of my actual writing time. Because the work on revisions of my completed manuscript continues. And that has to be done on the computer.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you're stuck, don't be afraid to try something new. And definitely don't be afraid to try something that hasn't worked in the past.

As we grow in competence, our brain processes differently. For me that means needing to find a new way to write. For you it might mean needing a different color screen. Or writing at a different time of day. Or being willing to write in five minute snatches throughout the day, giving up on the two-hour-blocks you've always thought were required.

Whatever. Just give it a shot. And whatever you do, don't give up!

Your Turn: Has your process changed? What works for you? Share your ideas in case your process might spark something that works for someone else.


  1. Funny you should mention that! I had a similar experience, except that I switched from longhand to typing. I had to do it because of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which is a nasty condition where the tunnel in your wrist pinches a nerve and causes numbness and shooting pains. I have it in my right hand and am developing it in the left. For a while, I switched to writing left-handed, but then my left hand hurt too -- and finally I shoved my stack of notebooks into a corner, got one of those ergonomic hand-rest keypad thingies, and started typing. It helped the pain, but I was pleasantly surprised when it helped my process, too. I think the discomfort was distracting me.

    Typing only seems to work for longer things -- I never wrote poem drafts on the computer, for instance -- but you're spot-on about how making a change can help.

    1. Oh dear. You've tapped into my only downside on this - I have carpel tunnel also. I think the fact that I'm not usually writing for more than 30 minutes right now is helping. But I have had some troubles.


      Will life never be perfect?

    2. Well, I was also frantically taking down notes every day, which exacerbated the problem. Hopefully you don't have to do that.

  2. I think something that worked for me was writing two stories at once. I would write one in the morning and one at night, that let me separate the stories in my mind.

    Iv'e had to stop so I could focus on the sequel to my first novel, but I enjoy it because my mind is always reaching for something new to work on.

    1. Nice! You're brain clearly works better than mine. Ha!

  3. I've definitely found that editing my first book has changed how I work. The thoughts of 'but I'm just going to have to edit this, wouldn't it be better if I got it right the first time?' have paralysed me a couple of times. I've had to force myself to just write, and remind myself that I've edited once, and editing will be easier a second time (at least, that's what I'm telling myself, don't anyone burst my bubble till I've finished this draft please!)

    It's all about finding something that works for you I think, and being adaptable.

  4. LOVE this post Aimee! It's so encouraging - both to know that I'm not the only one who feels like you do about being afraid to commit etc. and that there's hope. The funny thing is, I write all my PB mss in longhand, but it never occurred to me to try writing a novel that way! Thanks for the inspiring and heartening post!

  5. Aimee, I've found myself in the same situation! My WIP is taking me quite a bit of time. Partly because I have SO much going on right now in life, but also because I self edit the crap outta myself.

    As a copywriter, I always draft by hand. But as an author, I stick to the computer. I think it may be because the content for advertising work is a lot shorter and it seems more natural to jot stuff done, scribble out words, etc. I'm going to have to try this approach for longer prose. I've considered it, but hearing your success story has given me the extra motivation I need to take this leap. Thanks for that!

  6. YES! This is why I journal on new ideas for quite a while before I hit the page typing. I have to let my subconscious take over, and typing is such a conscious effort that editor brain can take over way too easily. Good luck to you in your new process! Just remember to keep editor off when you start typing it over--try to hold onto that free, detached, heady feeling as much as you can. (Says perpetual self-editor Melanie) :)

  7. You guys are all so awesome. *Hugs*

  8. Great post! I think it's true. The more proficient you become in the craft, the more distracting it can be. What's worked for me is giving myself permission to work in 'layers'. I lay the structure of the scene on the page including dialogue on the first pass. On the second pass I add the things that I find slow me down: additional description, senses, more internal monologue. On the third pass, I edit it for flow and editing mistakes. Then I set it down. I re-read it again later with fresh eyes and make final edits. Also, I find I work faster by skipping around and writing the parts of the manuscript that are burning inside my head the most brightly. It makes it easier to get from point A to point B,since you know where you're going. Unfortunately, my method requires a computer. Glad you're new method is working for you :-)

  9. Aimee, I began writing so long ago, it took me DECADES to learn the craft and just minor things, but were big in as far as writing well.

    Hang in there. WE all have self-doubts.I'm about to go totally Indie because the micro publisher I had can't make $ from the thin sales. So, that was welcomed news to me, really. But also it makes me nervous!

    Hang in there and keep at it. You'll get there. You will.

  10. I have the same experience with writing by hand and the inner critic. I wrote a lot of my first draft of The Big Smoke by hand. Hope things get less cray-cray for you soon. ;-)