I read a post on 80,000 Words called “What Works For My Writing” that I enjoyed a lot because Christine Lee Zilka discusses in loose list form what things get in the way of her writing and what things help it along. This is the kind of stuff I always want to know about other writers. I have an infinite curiosity for it. All writers have their own processes and it’s fascinating to me to know what they are. Christine’s post about what works for her writing was inspired by a post on “distraction no. 99” about the same subject. I just read that post and now I want to write my own. For any other writer I know – I would love it if you would do the same so I can know more about the things that work for you.
What Works For My Writing:
If other people are in the house I listen to music on headphones. I have always written to music. There is a soundtrack to every single thing I write but the longer the work the more difficult it is to find the soundtrack. Music sets the tone in my head and I often find a song that reflects and can sustain this tone and then listen to it obsessively until the piece is done or until my ears hurt with it. I estimate that most chapters in my novel are 100 – 150 song lengths. I can’t change the song until I’m done with it. I don’t pay attention to the music while I write, it doesn’t obtrude, it simply holds me in the proper space. Change of chapter, change of scene, or change of post almost always requires a new song. Sometimes I know what kind of mood I need for what I’m going to work on but can’t find the right song. It once took me three days to find the right song and so I didn’t write for three days.
I once wrote a whole chapter to the Moonlight Sonata and it came out all wrong. The writing was too quiet and slow but I couldn’t figure out why. I sat down to re-write it and started off with the same song but it wasn’t right – I found a song with more urgency and anger and the chapter, though not all that changed in content, was completely changed in feeling and it was so much better.
I know it’s a cliche but I write best when no one is home, when no one is around. I love writing at 5am because most people on the west coast and certainly in my town are asleep. The world is a lot more quiet when it’s sleeping. I can hear the churning of the earth and the buzz of collective humans and find it hard to shut out. I don’t get to be completely alone very often so writing while my whole house and whole town sleep is a good match. I hate the feeling of writing at 5am if I got there by staying awake all night. By the time I’ve dragged myself through 3 and 4am I feel like a drug addict coming down from a high and losing my teeth right there on the spot. I only do that when I feel like all the words will be lost if I don’t stay up. I hate being awake between 2am and 4am. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life up at that hour because of insomnia. I rarely do it on purpose. But waking up at 5am to write is awesome when I can manage to do it.
I love that Christine mentioned this too. Unlike her, I can eat while I write. I can eat through most things, unfortunately. Beverages are necessary. I can’t imagine writing without a drink near my left hand. It goes like this: wake-up to 11am is coffee or black tea time, 11am to 5pm is water time, 5pm until bed is beer time. Except that I don’t always get to drink beer so when I’m not drinking alcohol I’m drinking either tonic and lime, water with lemon, ginger ale, tea (herbal or decaf black), lemon Italian soda, or mineral water with a little unsweetened cranberry juice. I don’t prefer writing between 11am and 5pm and I think this is because I don’t find water very creatively inspiring though I do drink a lot of it.
The majority of the time I wrote Cricket and Grey I used Facebook as a breather. Giving status updates on word counts and favorite words and bits of the research for the book gave me a chance to breath between stretches of writing. In many ways it was part of the rhythm. Friends commenting on those writing statuses gave me all the connection with other humans I needed so that I still felt like I belonged in the world instead of outside of it. A couple of people responding to Nova’s post mentioned Twitter providing a similar function for them – I was glad to know I wasn’t the only one.
I wrote The Winter Room without one. I just wrote and wrote and wrote with no plan and thought it was going really well until I got to 108,000 words and suddenly realized that I had no idea where to go from there. I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t see in my head where it was supposed to lead and pretty soon I discovered such huge plot problems I had to set it aside. I’m still trying to figure out how to pick it up again. When I wrote Cricket and Grey I used a fresh outline for each draft because with each edit I had made so many changes I needed a fresh outline that accounted for them. The outlines really helped move me along and seeing my chapter plans on paper helped me SEE plot holes. So I’ve discovered I write best with one. I find them really hard to write. But once written they are a great tool for me.
Word Counts –
I know this kills creativity for some authors, freezing them up. Not me. I think my philosophy about lists keeps word counts from being oppressive to me. A list is a way to organize my thoughts and once I write a list I may refer to it to remind myself of my goals but I never use it to measure my personal successes or failures. I have never been one to scratch everything off of lists. By the time I get halfway through it either becomes apparent that I’m not going to get anything else done or I simply forget because my day has evolved however it needed to. No guilt. A list is a suggestion. A list is a thought organizer. A list is not an appropriate measurement of your worth in any way. This is how I feel about word counts. To reach my larger writing goals I would figure out how many words I needed to write every weekend or every day to get there. I figured out the approximate number of words per chapter and sometimes simply told myself that I would finish one chapter per weekend or sometimes when completely charged – per day. I often met my goals. It kept my momentum going. I can get caught up in infinite details and not paint a whole picture. Word counts kept me moving forward instead of stagnating. For me it was a positive pressure rather than a negative one. I knew I could walk away if I had to and I wouldn’t feel I’d failed in any way if I didn’t meet my goal for that day. I would just start over the next day. Fresh conscience. Fresh mind.
Big writing goals –
Much like word counts, I found these very useful for me. I know that a book is going to ultimately take as long as it’s going to take to be written. You can’t always control that. However, deciding how long I wanted to give myself to complete each draft was very helpful in pushing through the tougher weeks. I suppose it helps that I’m 42 years old and I don’t feel like I have all the time in the world to finish my novels if I want to get published. I’ve got a fire under my ass and a lot of ground to cover to become the writer I want to be (published AND making a living at it). So specific goals helped me move steadily. Again, I didn’t thrash myself for not meeting those goals but I did work better when I set them.
Talking about the novel with people I trust –
discussing issues I’m having with plot or character development with Philip or close friends was necessary for me to get it out of my head where it these things tend to gnaw at me. Most useful of all was discussing these things with writer friends. Talking with other writers was incredibly sustaining to me. Talking with people is often helpful in this way: their opinions often make me more clear about my own, especially when I disagree with them. As Philip likes to say, I’ll do the opposite of whatever you think I should do. I admit that hearing other people tell me what I should do gives me this clarity: they don’t know how to write this book and hearing their misbegotten opinions has shed light on how strongly I feel about points I didn’t realize I felt so strongly about. Opposition flushes out the important things.