writing processes

10/10/13 Life , Uncategorized , Writing # , , , , ,

What Worked This Time

What Worked This Time

Last week I finished my thirteenth complete novel. The breakdown — for anyone who’s wondering — is five published books (counting THIS WICKED GAME which comes out next month), two complete under-contract books (one will come out in 2014 and one in 2015) and six unpublished books. Four of the unpublished ones were written before I sold Prophecy of the Sisters and two of them were written since then.

Yes, it is still possible for published writers to NOT sell a project. It was a rude awakening.

Anyway, I had to take a minute to pat myself on the back. I’m not good at celebrating my accomplishments. I guess you could say I’m a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of girl. No time for champagne, I have another book to write. But I have begun to recognize the fallacy in that way of thinking. Publishing a book is a book deal. So is writing one. And we aren’t guaranteed an endless number of either.

So I’ve made a promise to celebrate more, and to give myself a little credit. But that’s another blog post.

😉

 

Anyway, I sold this particular book on proposal in July (detailed synopsis and about sixty-five pages). The deadline for the first draft was October 1st, but because I was in the middle of another project, I didn’t actually start working on it again until August 15th. I spent about two weeks planning and re-reading and then started writing again in earnest September 1st. I realized when I was done that I’d written 50,000 words in a month (my sample was about 25,000 words, bringing the total word count of the book near 75,000 words).

And really, that’s no big deal for me. But what IS a big deal is that it felt… leisurely. I enjoyed it. I didn’t feel stressed out or worried about the deadline. I didn’t have to pull any all-nighters. I still had time for Friday night movies on the sofa with the kids and Saturdays spent with my daughter who attends college a half hour away.

More importantly, I am PROUD of those words. I think this draft is the strongest I’ve ever written, and while some of the credit must go to my new editor, whose notes on my sample pages informed the rest of the book in every good way, I realized I’d done a few things differently this time.

Those of you who have been following me for a long time know that I’m big on finding things that work, on being diligent about a writing schedule and actively managing my time. All things that have been vital to being prolific while single-mothering four children and bearing every cent of the financial responsibility for doing so.

But I’m also learning that those rules are fluid. What works at one point in my life might not work at another. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and ask if there might be a better way. In this case, there was. And since I know writers are always looking for tips, I thought I’d share what worked for me this time.

1. Schedule is still king.

I’ve always had a writing schedule. Before I sold Prophecy I wrote every night from 11pm to 3am because it was the only time the house was quiet and my children (young at the time) didn’t need me. I still had to get up at 6am to get them to school, but I learned to go back to bed and sleep because I wrote best in those late night hours. Some of those days are a blur now, but it worked at the time.

After I sold Prophecy, I became a word count dictator. I forced myself to write a certain number of words in scheduled segments of time (usually 9am to 11am, 3pm to 5pm, and 7pm to 9pm six days a week).

But that system had begun to wear on me. I was paying more attention to the counter at the bottom of the page than to the quality of my writing. I was more prolific than ever, but I wasn’t enjoying it like I used to and I couldn’t help wondering if the words I was writing were good ones.

This time, I tried something different. I stuck to my scheduled writing blocks by forcing myself up to my office and — this is important — activating Freedom (a program that locks you out of the internet for set periods of time) on my computer. But other than the fact that I had to be in my office with Freedom on (because otherwise I’d be social networking and online shopping), there were no rules. Strangely enough, I still managed to write an average of 2,000 words a day. And they were GOOD words. Sometimes I’d lay in my bed (my bedroom is adjacent to my office and both rooms are cut off from the rest of the house) and rest my eyes. Sometimes I’d actually nap. Sometimes I’d clean my bathroom. But I was trapped in my office with no internet for four to six hours a day with my book open on my computer. I’m a writer. Inevitably, I would write.

2. I took time to think.

I know. This seems like a no brainer. But usually, I’d be in such a hurry to get the words down that I’d push myself through even the scenes I wasn’t sure about. Sometimes I’d think, “I can fix it later.” But I’m not sure I always did fix them later. By the time I finished a book, everything seemed to fit the way it was, and it was a lot harder to go back and pull it apart without the help of my editor.

With this book I spent a lot of time staring out the window, eating Newman’s Own Sour Cherry licorice and pondering the next scene, looking at my white board of notes while everything stewed in my brain. And it’s funny, because a lot of the time I’d be staring out the window or laying in my bed in the dark, the last scene I’d written rolling around my head like a handful of pebbles, and something would come to me. Something I hadn’t thought about before. Something small and nuanced that contributed to plot or character development or added another layer of complexity to the story.

3. A sequence of events is helpful

I’ve never been a big outline person. I like to give a story some breathing room to see where it goes, and because of my personality, if I have an outline, I write to it. Usually I start a book with a synopsis and then just feel my way through the rest. I was on a panel once with author Libba Bray in which we discussed our writing processes, and we both agreed that it was kind of like planning a road trip knowing only the beginning, ending, and a few major stops for gas in the middle.

I still didn’t want to outline, but this time, I felt like I needed a little bit… more. The book I was writing had a lot of complexity. A lot of psychology and also a lot of tiny plot elements that would come into play later in the book and in the sequel. So I wrote a quick and dirty list of events; big things that needed to happen for all the plot points and character development to play out. And it helped a lot, so much so that I’m already creating one for my next book. Sometimes I would have to come up with three or four chapters in between big events, but having the sequence in front of me helped me ask the question, “How would this story naturally unfold to get me from point A to point B? How about from point S to point T?” It also helped me avoid unnecessary detail, because the goal became to get from one big event to the next as cleanly and quickly as possible, since those events were what drove the plot forward.

4. Using my white board

Most of the time, my white board is used to remind myself of character traits and physical characteristics in my main characters and as a repository for funny notes from Caroline, my fourteen-year-old. But I really used it this time, writing down notes from my editor, reminders about the tone and feel and atmosphere I was working toward, minor plot elements I was afraid I might drop and themes I wanted to explore. In the past, I’d done that kind of thing on my computer, but it was such a pain to flip back and forth from my draft to the “inspirational” documents that I wouldn’t always do it. A lot of the time, I’d just forget they were there.

Some of you use Scrivener, and maybe it’s kind of the same thing, but seeing everything up close and personal on the white board really kept me on track. Whenever I got stuck, I’d lean back in my chair and look at that board, and it would pull me back to my original vision for the project.

5. What we do isn’t like what other people do.

This is a transformative admission for me. I’ve already told you I’m a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person. My former boss called me a “driver”, someone who drove growth and change through constant effort and vision. I always thought that was a compliment, and while it might have been in the world of technology consulting, it has not always been an asset in the creative field of writing.

I mean, work ethic… I’ve got that nailed. I am never in any danger of being lazy. I think it was Phillip Pullman who was quoted as saying (I’m paraphrasing) that plumbers don’t get to skip work when they’re not “feeling it” and writers shouldn’t, either. That belief has seen me through my career as a writer. It allowed me to write five books in two-and-a-half years before I was published. It’s allowed me to sell eight books in the last five years. It’s allowed me to write an average of three full novels a year.

But it has also done me a disservice. Because I will work and work and work long past the point when I desperately need a break. I will not allow myself excuses or sick days. And as I’ve said in the past, I feel so damn lucky every day to do something I love for a living that I feel OBLIGATED to work my hardest.

But we are not plumbers. We are not accountants. What we do is different. It requires different processes and allowances to be done well. It requires time and mental space and energy that isn’t always required of people in other occupations. It’s been difficult for me to accept that sometimes I need to take a walk. Sometimes I need to take a nap. Sometimes I need a day (or a few days) away from the story. I have always told myself that other people work eight hours a day, and I have pushed myself to do the same.

But I think I’m finally ready to let myself off the hook. With this last book (I’ll be able to tell you the title as soon as the announcement it made), I probably wrote an average of three hours a day. I sometimes spent additional time blogging or social networking or answering work-related emails, but I probably only wrote about three hours a day. It felt positively luxurious. And sometimes it left me positively guilt ridden. Why should I be so lucky to work at something I love passionately, something I can’t live without, and to only do it for three hours a day when other people are getting up at five am, commuting many miles, sitting at cubicles for eight hours in jobs they despise?

But the truth is, I wrote better. I was happier and more relaxed. I finished the project ahead of deadline and am prouder of this draft than any I’ve ever completed.

And so maybe it’s true; what we do is a mysterious kind of alchemy. A strange mixture of discipline and freedom. Of process and flexibility. It isn’t a mathematical formula, a set of boxes to be checked off at the end of each day, a timecard to punch.

It feels a little embarrassing to admit it, but the proof is in the pudding as they say. And I’m pretty happy with this batch.

 

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Michelle Zink is the award-winning author of over seven novels. She lives in New York with too many teenagers and too many cats.
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