Developing A Writing Routine

Writing, as a serious endeavor and not just a hobby, takes some getting to know yourself. You have to learn what your style is. I, for instance, am a big fan of em dashes and floating, dependent clauses. For emphasis. You have to learn what you like to write about. Loosely-veiled versions of yourself? Romance? Dystopian science-fiction? Or maybe all of the above.

You have to learn how to take criticism, and whether you prefer that criticism be given by your boyfriend as they cower from your death stare, by peers in a writing workshop, or by strangers on the Internet. But you also have to learn what your routine is. And this, perhaps, is the most important factor in getting some actual work done.

Writers tend to be insecure creatures. “Author A wrote 15,000 words in a weekend, while simultaneously cleaning his entire apartment, curing cancer, and shitting gold. What am I doing with my life?” In other words, it’s easy to make comparisons. There are writers who can finish an entire first draft in one weekend and others who take years to accomplish the same task.

As Neil Gaiman writes in his online journal (in a response to a fan complaining about George R.R. Martin’s overdue addition to the Game of Thrones series), “Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they’re ready to write again.”

Me? I’m still in the process of developing my own routine, as I’m sure many of you are. The trick is to keep writing, because practice makes perfect. Find mentors—writers who have matured enough to know their process. You’ll find these writers by putting yourself out there. By taking writing classes with professors you admire. Or in less obvious ways, like when I went to an auction for a local literary nonprofit and placed a bid on a dinner with Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen (which has not only been named one of the “Best Books of 2014” by Amazon’s editors but also—and more importantly—won the 2012 PEN/Bingham Prize for Fiction).

I went to said dinner earlier this week. For the majority of it, Vanessa and I talked about regular things. Where was I attending school? What did I want to do after graduation? How the hell have I survived the past year with my boyfriend living in another state? And once we started discussing book publicity, well, that conversation took us many places. But before leaving, Vanessa asked me what else I could pick her brain about, and since we hadn’t yet discussed the act of writing, I asked about her process. She wrote a beautiful, surreal, award-winning novel, and I wanted to know how she got there.

And after listening to her talk about writing, I felt an immediate sense of relief. Here’s why: I hate outlines. When writing nonfiction, an outline is essential, but with fiction, my stories are amorphous. I have a character, I know who they are, I know where I want them to end up, but I have no idea how they get there. And the thing is, I won’t know until I start writing. Vanessa, I found out, has a very similar process.

Vanessa writes in small bursts every day. Sometimes writing as little as 400 words, while revising passages she’s already put down. She has a character, and like me, often knows where she’d like the story to go—but has no idea how to get there. But as Vanessa told me, the act of writing generates ideas.

On her computer, she’ll open multiple documents. One for the actual story. One labeled “scratch”—events, descriptions, details that come to her as she’s writing. These ideas may never make it into the actual story, but they’re sparks she wants to hold on to. Writing them down is more an act of reducing anxiety—the worry that there’s something great there, and if it doesn’t get written down it will be lost. She also has a physical notepad nearby, one she can write mechanical and technical notes in. Delete this passage. Add this detail in later. The constant note-taking isn’t distracting, as it may seem at first. Instead, it’s empowering and leads to better productivity.

You’re trusting the process. That there is a part of your soul—your subconscious—that is inherently creative. That if you let the ideas come and hold on to them, they will take your work somewhere you never thought possible. That connections you didn’t consciously create will appear in your writing.

For Vanessa, this works. And for you, it may not. Vanessa mentioned, for instance, that a lot of your routine will come down to what you’re writing about. Literary fiction tends to need less world-building and planning than an epic fantasy novel. While in school, finding time to write let alone getting to know your routine will seem impossible—and most of the time it will be. You need downtime, Vanessa told me. Not time that you should be walking the dog or doing the dishes. Genuine, real downtime.

To those ambitious perfectionists, like me, using this downtime to “get to know yourself” seems a bit selfish. Lazy even. Vanessa said this was to be expected. But no one’s going to give you the time, give you the permission to write. You have to snatch every opportunity.

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