Ask A Writer: What Is Your Writing Process Like?
I'm a writer. I've been dreaming about the day I would be published since I was in elementary school. A few years ago, I published my first short story and shortly after that I was asked to write for Huffington Post's TED Weekends. My childhood self would be so excited. Since my whole life has been focused on this career, naturally I love talking about writing. It's gotten to the point where I have very little social life outside of writing and my friends are starting to call me the Crazy Cat Lady. Obviously I've got some amazing hermit stories to tell...to my cats.
Last summer I was working on a hybrid NaNoWriMo project. I couldn't keep up with the 1,600-plus words a day, so I settled on a realistic 1,000 words daily. I was working on finishing the first draft of my first ever full length novel and I wanted to have at least the first complete draft (shitty as it may be) finished by the time I was done NaNo-ing. My novel-in-progress was different than the work I'd been publishing for the past three years in that it was fun and not serious whatsoever. I was head over heels in love with the book because it was entertaining (a word in undergrad creative writing classes that was synonymous with "shitty writing"). My other writer friends said this was a good thing: it meant it would be fun for the reader, as well. I took that as a good sign despite what I could hear my college professors saying.
As I was writing this psuedo-NaNo novel, I was posting on Facebook about my daily progress (Me on Facebook: "So I'm at Startbucks now. Getting ready to write. Drinking my latte. Acting writerly." [Insert photo of my Starbucks cup edited with lo-fi which means I'm actually facebooking more than writing and look! Instagram! It hasn't even been ten minutes and I've already lost focus. But that's the 'life of a writer', right?]). Each day I'd sort of live-Facebook my progress, the word count and the ups and downs of the draft. I was candid. When I was really surprised with myself over actually getting my character through ten pages of plot issues while still maintaining my interest in her, I triumphed and I did what any blogger does online: overshared. Eventually over the live-posts, I got an email from a college friend about my process.
Here's what my college friend wrote to me:
...I have been inspired by your posting of your progress with your own novel. I am going to try and start writing 1000 words a day too (hopefully), but I wondered what you were writing about? I'm trying to write the first part of a fantasy [book], but I'm having more thinking and less writing. I'd love to hear your own process for writing each day.
My answer went something like this:
Ask away. To be honest it's not a seamless process but NaNoWriMo inspired me to break it up into a rough first draft based on a reasonable word count every day (they say 1600 words daily for a month). I do less.
I'm writing a mystery novel...In all honesty it's a mix of chick lit and my attempt at a thriller. I'm afraid it's probably not too thrilling. Yet. It is genre though, which is my truest voice and something I haven't written much of lately.
I actually did tons of writing in my head, so to speak, and then outlined the bulk of the novel, characters and plot by doing some fun exercises I got from a book. After that, I wrote out a chapter outline before I set out to write. I don't follow it all and sometimes I don't follow it at all but it creates this magical sort of jumping off point that helps you take risks and trust yourself. I just go with everything that comes to mind: A vacation in Jamaica? Great. Done. A redheaded smart chick as the lead character? Yep. Trust yourself and have fun.
I write in a different color every day so I can figure out what word count I'm averaging and can reread it the next day. I picked that tip up from Neil Gaiman last week.
I have actually been really inspired by Neil Gaiman and more recently with Stephen King's On Writing. They talk about how novel writing is the most magical, fun thing they've ever done in their lives and I'm starting to feel like I understand all of that now. I'm finally writing for fun and for entertainment; judging myself later, editing later. My job is to discover the story, to get the words out on paper. Later, I can refine them and work them together masterfully; but now, if I don't write quickly, I won't discover the story because it comes so quickly when you're in this work mode. I'm writing like Edwidge Danticat says of her first drafts ( of whether they are polished or not), "Not polished at all. I just try to get it all down." Or like T Cooper, who says, "I don't worry too much about prose in a first draft, though I constantly have to remind myself not to worry. Wait, if I die and the first thing that is found on my laptop is this crappy draft of a crappy book that I'm working on, supposedly in private, where had I not died, all of this embarrassing dialogue and purpley prose could've otherwise been erased with a mere click?"
Despite all this inspiration, the crucial week of my NaNo writing wasn't very inspirational at all. I was off work for the first time in six months and I'd been looking forward to this week of uninterrupted writing all year. it was my "catch up" time. Since I started a corporate job, I hadn't had much time to blog, be as active with social media and much less to write. So, having a whole week off was amazing. I hoped I'd finish the whole novel but knew that was entirely unrealistic so I set a reasonable goal and stuck to writing something every day. When I was uninspired or (more likely) had no freakin' clue what my character was going to do next (even though I'd been thinking about the whole story for awhile, I sat down anyway. I skipped an entire conversation between two characters at one point and then skipped to another scene just so I could get back into the motion of writing. And that worked. I didn't pressure myself to be perfect but I did require that I at least write something that wouldn't be totally trashed when I went to edit it. By the end of the week, I'd made good decisions for my character and she ended up in places I had no idea she was going to end up in. But it worked. I trusted my better judgement and I trusted my creative mind. I let it lead and I just took notes. By the time the month ended, I had a complete first draft, short as it may be with it's 21,000 word count. Sure the second half of my book was more like an outline than a fleshed out novel, but the point was it was done. NaNo-hybriding helped me complete the first draft of my novel. I won.
I think this is the "magic" Stephen King and Neil Gaiman talk about--this being a transcriber of a novel. It honestly feels magical when you have an idea and you keep dreaming up different scenarios and before you know it, you've told this story you had no idea you had it in you to tell.
So, if you're like my friend who's wondering how to start...just do it. Let it start in your head, as he is (and as I did). Take some notes somewhere on a scrap of paper. If you want to play around with the ideas you have now, try this book. Sit down, open up the book in the middle and start playing around with some of the exercises. Let go of your expectations of being the novelist who changes the entire world with one book and relax. Have a little fun. You may not use it all, but it's a good way to find your way into your own writing process.
If you have questions you'd like to ask a writer, email me here: thelisakerr AT gmail DOT com.
A version of this post originally appeared on my blog.
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About Lisa Kerr:
Lisa Kerr is the creator of the blog My Cult Life, which has been featured on NPR, HuffPo Live and Philly.com. Her work has been published in New York magazine, Huffington Post and various literary magazines. She's the creator of the Memoir Writers Society, the first ever social network for memoir writers.