Any student of the writing craft will, at some point, encounter the phrase writing process, often shortened to simply process. “What’s your process?” We learn that every author has their own unique process that takes them from blank page to completed manuscript. What is not often discussed is how you develop that process or just how important a good process is.
Google “writing process” and a list of dry, step-by-step instructions will appear.
Yes, technically, these are writing processes. But the process I speak of encompasses a bigger picture.
How do you start? How do you keep going when you lose interest or the story hits a wall? How do you solve plot problems? How do you choose POV’s? How do you know when something is working…and when it’s not? How do you decide where to start or end scenes and chapters? How do you stay sane and smiling through the grunt work of story creation? When do you write? For how long? Where?
Some writers do their best work in busy coffee shops—a nightmare to me. Others feed the muse late at night—I’m a morning person. (Yes, I know you hate me). Some writers have specific rituals to begin every session—I’m a nomad, which means I need to keep my routine open and flexible because of my ever-changing surroundings. (But I still hate writing in noisy public spaces).
I’m thinking about process today because, during our outlining session yesterday, Josh and I ran into a significant problem. We had ended our previous book with several characters in a kind of limbo. Not a big deal, since we had a rough idea of the coming plot and where those missing characters would eventually re-appear, except…
Oops! When we actually sat down to outline, we changed the planned plot. We changed it in big ways. We changed it in ways that made us both happy. We changed it in ways that made sense. We changed it in ways that seemingly allowed no room to re-insert three important characters.
Like I said, oops!
Josh called this problem to my attention and for about an hour we banged our heads against our keyboards trying to make it all work. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated at the sudden halt to momentum. We’d worked so hard to address all the flaws of our original idea and streamline the plot into a thing of beauty and now it was all being undone by these three stupid characters? Are you kidding me?! *rageflail*
Then, Josh said the magic words, “I have complete and utter faith in our process.”
Our process. Our hard-earned, time-polished process. Our self-taught, oft-tested process. Our process would save us if only we could believe. We did. And it did.
Here’s how our process works in moments of frustration and difficulty:
- We acknowledge the problem.
- We acknowledge that, even if we don’t agree on a solution, we share the same goal—create the best story possible.
- We agree to walk away and let our brain meats churn on the problem.
- We churn our brain meats.
- We come back to the problem later, often the next day, fresh and ready to go. Usually one of us has come up with a new idea or a fresh angle of attack.
- We work until the problem is solved OR we go back to step #3 and repeat.
That process may sound simple but the next time you are in a heated debate with someone try saying, calmly, “I know we don’t agree right now but you’re awesome and I’m awesome and I know we can work this out! Let’s walk away, sleep on the problem, and come back tomorrow with a fresh perspective!”
It took Josh and me a while to figure out that there’s no winning in story collaboration if your partner isn’t comfortable or happy with your choice. If I love an idea and Josh hates it, then it’s the wrong idea. Period. Once we learned how to walk away peacefully, cool off, and let go of our ideas, everything started moving more quickly and easily.
That’s the critical role of a good writing process: save time.
Time is not a writer’s friend. Most of us have “real jobs”, the ones that pay the rent and buy groceries, not to mention spouses and children and an assortment of chores that lay claim to our time. The sliver of time we carve out for writing is precious. If I have only two hours in a day to write, I sure don’t want to spend ninety of those minutes going in endless circles trying to fix a problem, only to walk away no further ahead than where I started. Far better to walk away after thirty minutes and tackle Mt. Laundry or go for a walk or play with my kittens, while the brain meats do their thing in the background.
Last night, just before bed, while I was busy not thinking about the story problem, my trusty brain spit out a solution to our three missing characters problem. Hooray, process!
Here’s the bad news: You have to get your own process. I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years. Our processes may share some similarities but no two are exactly the same. Process is not something that can be taught. I can give you ideas and suggestions, and you can try them, and maybe they’ll work and maybe they won’t—that’s as good as it gets. Process may be one of the most important and least teachable aspects of a professional writing career.
But here’s a tip that may be helpful: Don’t confuse process with skill or talent.
If I had stuck to Stephen King’s advice in his opus On Writing and pushed myself to write at a desk in a room with the door closed, I would have quit a decade ago. Either that or I would still be staring at the same blinking cursor on the same blank page. Part of my process is that I create best when I’m typing on my laptop on my little lap desk on a couch, or a chair or a bed…anywhere but at a desk. I can edit at a desk but something about my brain makes me feel more comfortable creating in a less rigid setting. The minute I walked away from the desk, words flew from my fingers.
If you’re feeling stuck, feeling like the muse is on strike, feeling that old familiar ghost of Imposter Syndrome hanging over your shoulder, try mixing up your process. Keep testing and experimenting, you never know what strange little element might be the spark to ignite the bonfire. And don’t ever think, for example, that because Big Important Author only writes at night that you must also write at night to be successful –you might be a morning person.
We’re not that bad, honestly!