Nancy: To Thine Own Process Be True

Write first thing in the morning.

Write last thing at night.

Carve out big chunks of time for writing.

Learn to write in 15-minute increments over lunch.

Learn to write 10,000 words a day.

Don’t end a writing session until you’ve written 1,000 words.

Write every day, every week, every weekend.

Set aside one weekend a month and write in a flaming frenzy.

If you’ve been writing for more than a hot second, you’ve heard some if not all of these words of wisdom. They are all true. Completely, utterly, 100 % true. They are also pure bullshit.

No, I haven’t been drinking. (Well, not enough to cause concern.) The reason all of those statements can exist at the same time without interrupting the space-time continuum is that they each come with a caveat: if it works for you.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been adjusting my writing process and my attitude using a system developed by self-help mentor Jen Louden called Get Your Scary Shit Done. One of the most powerful things that has come out of the approach for me has been to identify, embrace, and work with my very own creative process. Jen’s system comes with LOTS of exercises, micro-processes, guidance, and support, and if you have the time and inclination, I really do encourage you to check it out. But in the meantime, let’s talk about the creative process.

Let’s drop the burden of all that writing wisdom and talk about you. Let’s talk about the when, where, how, and how often of writing that works for you. Let’s take some simple steps to identify what works for you. Not me, not your critique partner, not your favorite writer or writing mentor. You.

Be Honest

What comes to mind when I ask: what does your most productive writing process look like? If you don’t know, you’ve come to the right place.

If you do know and everything is going gangbusters in your creative pursuits, excellent! Bookmark this page for future reference. But one thing before you go…are you sure you’re being honest with yourself? When’s the last time you mixed things up with your creative process and really observed what is and isn’t working for you? It’s important to check in with yourself every now and then to make sure you’re brain isn’t lying to you about what’s really happening (as mine was when it kept leading me down the boom and bust writing cycle).

To find out when and how you can be your most creative, let’s start by reminiscing. Remember that summer you completed an entire book? That NaNoWriMo month you cruised right to your 50k words? That magical time you were in the groove and in love with the story you were writing? Identify a time when things went really, really well, and write down everything you remember about it. Think about times of day and number of days per week you wrote, about word count goals you set, about rewards and celebrations you gave yourself for doing so well.

With that information in hand, the next step is to build an experiment. Like science class without Bunsen burners! In this case, you’re going to try to recreate a few writing sessions that mimic that successful writing period – whether you were burning up the keyboard at 5 AM in your kitchen, or stopping by the library to sneak in an hour-long writing session after work. But don’t stop there. Try some other things as well. Spend a few weeks trying different days (weekdays or weekends), lengths of time you write (15 minutes, an hour, four hours), different locales. Mix up all the variables you can, and then play! Write, create, and most importantly, track your progress.

Next, review the data. But consider more than word count. How did it feel to write at a particular time, in a specific place? Were you able to connect more easily with your story first thing in the morning, before the world could intrude, or later in the day, when you’d completed other tasks that would create guilt if left undone? What day, time, place, session length, word count goal, etc. made you happy, allowed you to enjoy the process of writing? Here’s a really radical concept: choose the approach that helps you recreate that joy as often as possible.

Be Selfish (or Creative)

Now that you’ve got an idea of what will work for you and might even bring you joy, you know your ideal. Unfortunately, there’s this pesky thing called Life. Bosses need your time. Spouses and loved ones need your attention. Kids need your ALL. And the rest of the world has a tendency to care not about the wonderful writing approach you’ve just designed for yourself. What’s a harried writer to do?

One of the things you absolutely must do is learn to identify the difference between wants and needs. This is not easy. It will not be quick. It might even require something that does not come easily to many people, particularly women – selfishness. In small doses, this can be a healthy thing. You are the only one who knows the ins and outs of your own life, and those decisions must be yours. But look for opportunities to say no to at least some of those ‘wants’, especially when they come from someone outside your circle of nearest and dearest loved ones.

If your must-dos cannot accommodate your best-laid writing plans, is there a way to get creative? Negotiate working a later schedule (arrive later, leave later) if you are a morning writer. Exchange babysitting duties with other moms so you can have some afternoon hours to yourself. Talk your spouse into having separate time on Saturday mornings. Think about what you need to make your process work, and see if there’s a creative way to make it happen.

Be Compassionate

You’ve come up with a plan, and you’re comfortable that it’s the approach that works for you at this time in your life. You’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen to get the time, place, and headspace you need for your writing. You’re showing up at your computer on the days and times you’ve assigned yourself. And the words don’t come. Or the words that do come suck. Or you don’t even to manage to show up for a session or two. Now what?

Now might be the time to conclude you’re a terrible person.

Wait, that doesn’t sound like particularly helpful advice, does it? Yet it’s probably the first thing you actually will do if faced with one of the ‘failures’ listed above. No, I haven’t been spying on you through your webcam. I’m just calling out human nature. We tend to be harder on and less accepting of faults in ourselves than anyone else. STOP THAT. Stop it now, today.

Next time you fall short of a goal, pretend you’re talking to your best friend instead of to yourself. You probably wouldn’t tell her she’s lazy or awful, or has to punish herself or should stay up half the night catching up on what she didn’t get done earlier. If you wouldn’t say it to your mother or sister or best friend, don’t say it to yourself.

Be Prepared

When working with your writing process, be prepared that over time, the things that work best for you will most likely change. If your life is difficult and complicated and you find you’re negotiating and compromising a lot to get your writing time, take comfort that it won’t necessarily always be this way. In fact, it probably won’t. Kids grow up. Jobs change. Husbands learn to cook (or so I’ve heard; I have no empirical evidence of this in my life, but there is always hope).

Of course, if you’re in a really good groove right now, this potential change looming in your future might not seem quite so positive. It’s true: life might become more complex, demands on your time might rise. You might even become successful at this writing gig and find yourself pulled in multiple publishing and marketing directions. If this does happen, no need to despair. Creativity should be dynamic. Just take a deep calming breath and a big step back, and try new approaches (times, places, session lengths, days of the week, etc.) until you find one that works for you.

So, how’s the writing going? If the answer is ‘it’s going great’, share your successes! And if the answer is ‘not that well’, consider whether it’s time to adjust your process.

11 thoughts on “Nancy: To Thine Own Process Be True

  1. How timely! I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing process and when I write. Now that the kids are in school all day, I thought writing during the day would be ideal. But I’m not so sure. It seems I can’t escape everyone else being awake, whether it’s phone/text/email or appointments or errands or whatever. I’m not very good at keeping my carved-out writing time (I *have* carved out writing time on my calendar every day, but I don’t always honor it…I mean, when your kid has to go to the doc, they have to go to the doc).

    I am thinking of switching to a night-time writing schedule, after the kids have gone to bed, because the entire house is asleep, no one is asking for anything, and I’m not getting phone calls/emails/texts demanding my attention. The challenge is I’m tired.

    So this week I’m going to try focusing on writing at night — late into the night — with naps during the day/in between errands to keep myself sane. I’m not sure how well it’ll work, but what I’ve been doing hasn’t been so great, either, so I may as well give it a go.

    Anyone else write at night?

    • I used to write at night, after my day job. I didn’t start that late, and I didn’t go that long—maybe 8pm to 11pm. It worked for me at the time, but now I write in the morning, because if I don’t do it first thing, I can’t be sure I’ll get it done.

      It’s daunting to carve out time around kids and activities and family obligations. My hat’s off to you!

      • I watched a very interesting YouTube video today about ADHD and one of the topics she hit on was setting limits…something I’m not good at doing (*look, squirrel!* or “I have to help this person/group/school/class out”). And that’s not even the kids/husband/family part. *sigh*

        • Saying no is one of the hardest things to learn how to do, especially when a person is kind, smart, organized, and generous. It’s easier, I think, to volunteer and know you’re doing good (all that positive reinforcement!) than carving out that same amount of time and staring at a blank screen, where doubts can beset you (all that negative reinforcement!). And that’s without any promise that you’ll be successful in book sales, even if you become successful in gaining writing skills and productivity. But there’s no question that if you give all your time away to other things, you won’t have any time, much less the oomph, to write.

          Those damn squirrels!

        • I wonder if I’ve got undiagnosed ADHD or something. I always thought, no. When I see Squirrel, I’m totally into Squirrel and can engage. But if it’s anything else, I tend to get bored easily, I tend to drop projects if they get boring, and maybe a few other things. Maybe I need more Squirrels in my life.

    • When I first started writing fiction (back in my early 30s – yikes! so long ago now!) I wrote at night. My daughter was in elementary school and I was a freelance writer working, among other things, as a freelancer for local papers, so I’d have to create copy overnight or at least well into the night on a regular basis. It just made sense for my schedule at the time. These days, my brain is mush at night.

      My lovely friend Maria (Maria V. Snyder) writes at night. Her hours are something like 11PM – 4 AM. When her kids were young, she’d stay up (or nap a few hours then get back up) to see them off to school, then would go to bed until shortly before they came home from school so she’d have full evening time with the family. When I’m at a writers’ retreat with her, I sometimes try to hang and write with her until midnight or 1 AM, but usually end up asleep over my computer :-/.

      • I’m not sure I could do the 11-4 type schedule, but maybe 8:30 to midnight or one…I stayed up late last night and took a nap today and I feel a bit truckish (like I got hit by one), but I’m endeavoring to stick to the schedule at least a little bit to give it a try. At least I feel less guilty about napping during the day if I’m staying up later at night.

      • Night writing update: Went to bed at 1 a.m. last night…not very productive on the writing, even though I gave it a go, and woke up late today, barely able to get the kids out the door in time. *sigh* I didn’t even HEAR my alarm. Not sure if the night writing will work.

        I’m up right now (it’s 8:30 a.m. in AZ) and awake (and enjoying mountain blueberry coffee! Yay!), so I’m going to sit down while my brain is clear. We’ll see what happens. Maybe I’m supposed to be an opportunistic writer…whenever I can squeeze in a few hours.

  2. Lots of good, true things here, Nancy, that I will need to think about a little bit more. I had a good writing week last week, squeezing out bits of time. But this week? No. No time to be had because of various this and that. Plenty of time for YouTube though. I need to feed my brain with something more nutritious so I need less of it.

  3. Pingback: Nancy: Have You Forgotten Someone? – Eight Ladies Writing

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