People like rituals. Some sports stars don’t wash their lucky socks during the season, or always eat the same meal before a game. Actors tell each other to break a leg. Spiritualists burn sage to cleanse a room of evil spirits.
Writers have their rituals, too. They sharpen their pencils and line them up. They crack open a new notebook. They put on the same playlist while working.
There’s a kind of magic that comes with habitually picking up a favorite pen or sitting down every day at sunrise (or moonrise, take your pick). Ritual is emotional preparation. It sets the stage for accomplishment and entices your muse to dance across it. Sometimes when things don’t go well, ritual can trick you into cooperating. But not always. Because ritual is tangential to actually writing, it doesn’t always work.
Process speaks to the “butt in the chair” line we’ve all heard so often. Process is about strategy and tactics. And it pretty much leaves your emotions stranded on the side of the road as it pushes you along at a steady pace.
A process breaks your task—writing your book—into smaller, achievable chunks. It helps you direct your creativity so it works for you, not the other way around. I’ve been in a writing pit of hell for months, but I’m climbing out now, and following my process is the reason I’ve been able to do it. Your process might be different, but it can help you get more done, too. This is the process I more or less follow.
- Outline. I’m a pantser, so I don’t write those 50-page outlines in advance. However, I do have an outline, and I always know the beginning and the ending of the book before I start. Every night before I shut down, I add story ideas to the outline in progress. That way, I have an idea of where I’m going the next day. If you’re a plotter, you’re on even firmer ground.
- Research. Google can be a time sink. Many wise writers recommend looking up questions later and all at once. That’s good advice. It doesn’t work for me. The books I write don’t usually need a lot of research, thank god, but when I need to know something, I need to know it right away or my mind stops right there. I look up whatever factoid I need, fast, and get on with the writing. If the research question is big, the word count takes a hit that day.
- Write. Write the first draft as fast as you can, however fast that is. This week I’m shooting for 900 words a day. Those words aren’t polished—I’m just trying to get the story down. I write a few chapters and see what’s going on with my characters, plot, and tone. Then I go back and adjust those chapters. And then I move forward again. It’s not efficient. I know. That’s why you should have your own process.
- Review. When I get to the end of the book, I look the whole thing over from the beginning. I’ve tweaked the book in multiple-chapter increments, remember. Maybe it’s still crap, but it’s more cohesive crap. Now I can find a hint of the themes, a glimmer of motifs. I see ways to add the rule of threes. And so on. So I go back to the beginning and fix everything I see. I jump around though, as the mood strikes me.
- Read. Many wise writers recommend that you read your work aloud. I almost never do this, but I added it here because it’s a good idea generally. When I do read my work aloud, it’s to check dialogue.
- Rest. Put your manuscript aside for as much time as you have—a day, a week, a month. Work on something else for a while. You’ll see all sorts of new things when you come back to it.
- Share. Send it out to your first readers. I have a few people who look at my pages, and they see things I never realized were there. I don’t make every change that everyone recommends, but if one of your readers—someone who knows you and loves your work, remember—stumbles over something you’ve written, all the other readers who don’t know you will stumble, too.
- Revise. Your beta readers have returned their comments. Now’s the time to follow up on their suggestions, make structural changes, and fix word choices and grammar. Run spellcheck!
- Done. Send it to an outside editor or proofreader, or both, if you can afford it. That’s always a good idea. Then send it in to your publisher, or publish it yourself.
So that’s my process. Don’t get me wrong—I like ritual. I enjoy the clean page in my notebook, the cup of coffee in my favorite mug, the classical music playing in the background. But having a process of repeatable steps means I don’t have to rely on magic to get my pages written. And that’s working for me so far. Mostly!
What about you? Do you have favorite rituals that motivate you to write? Or are you more about following a routine process?