Life is Paradox. One of the most confounding but important things one of my writing mentors once said to me was: The time you spend NOT writing is just as important as the time you actually spend writing.
Said another way, every work of writing is a combination of the time spent writing and the time spent NOT writing. You need time to think about the writing, whether consciously or not (but often unconsciously).
So here are my ten steps to writing a complete work, be it a novella, novel, short story, poem, screen play, or whatever. . .
1. Write—Randomly. On scraps of paper, envelopes, increasingly I find myself taking notes on my phone. These moments of inspiration come at the WORST times. I find there is an inverse relationship between the ease of writing in the moment and the quality of the idea. For example, while merging into traffic, standing in the shower, or when I am about to fall to sleep at night. . .BAM I get walloped with a winner and the gearshift, bar of soap, or memory foam pillow are lousing writing instruments.
2. Take Time—To Live your Life. Go and do the thing you were doing in the first place, driving to your destination, exercising, or getting a good night’s sleep. Go gather the experience that feeds your writer’s soul in the first place. You’ll thank yourself later.
3. Write—Freely. I’m a person who likes structure so this part is REALLY hard for me. But I’ve learned that I need to take time to do character sketches, jot down scenes, scribble exchanges of dialogue. They might be out of order, they might just be background experiences of characters that never make it into a single draft. That's OK. This is an exploratory stage. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Don’t get in your own way. Let yourself enjoy the fun of it. Don’t stress if you don’t have a word or page count to look at yet. This step isn’t something measured that way. Remember what Einstein said: not everything that counts can be counted!
4. Take Time—For your unconscious to work. This is also a hard part for me because I’m a recovering control freak. But I’ve found that this is where the most mysterious part of the process begins for me. Having sketched out scenes, and characters in step 3, I move on. I work on other things (See Step 2). I go for a hike, I read other books, watch movies, gently feeding images, experiences, the art and work of other artists, into my brain. It seeps into some weird place in my unconscious where the ideas germinate and grow.
5. Write—An Outline. I remember a business major roommate of mine in college asking me if I wrote my papers using an outline. I responded, “You mean you don’t?!” But I was an English major so I took the writing process a little more seriously. Here is where I (FINALLY) start adding some structure to the story, with scenes, character arcs, maybe even initial chapter headings. This is where the technical bit of craft comes in, techniques I’ve learned in writing classes, books on writing, and from mentors. I storyboard here, writing summaries of the chapters on 3X5 cards and lay them out on the floor, trying out different sequences. Throughout the process, even up to the final stages, be open to surprises your characters might throw at you or side plots that might pop up. I still do this all in long hand, it helps to remind me that this is still a draft and I can be free and flexible.
6. Take Time—For your idea to gestate. Congratulations, you are officially pregnant at this point. Once the outline is out, for me, the story is THERE. It’s a thing and its growing. But again, I find I can never hurry it. I just have to let it ripen at its own pace (although I wish I could force it, but when I do, it’s ALWAYS a disaster). Often, I find listening to music, reading other authors I like, watching movies, hiking and being in nature help, not to mention getting enough sleep—some of my best ideas come from REM sleep (See Step 2 . . .again). Sometimes, being a writer is like having a ghost as a business partner. You’re never quite sure when he or she is going to show up to actually do the damn work, but when they do, and the story feels ready, you know intuitively. The hairs on your arms stand up, the vibrations in your chest resonate and align. It’s inspiration. . .and you can’t not write.
7. Write—The First Draft. I write mine in longhand on college rule loose leaf. It’s slower, but it makes me think through my sentences with greater care. It also allows me to be messy. I still liken this stage to sketching as opposed to working on what will be the final piece. That is why I avoid the computer screen, even at this stage. Typing makes me feel like it has to be overly polished.
8. Take Time—To Walk Away! Yes, walk away! AGAIN! (Picking up a pattern here?) Unlike REAL babies, this baby may benefit from a bit of neglect. I take a few days between completing that first draft and typing things up. Treat yourself!
9. Write—On a Keyboard. Finally, this is when I actually start typing. Note: there have been a whole lot of steps and time leading up to this. When non-writers picture you “working” this is what they picture. But that’s a disservice. The preceding steps, especially the even numbered ones, might NOT LOOK like writing but they REALLY ARE. They are just as critical an ingredient and it’s important to give yourself permission, space, and time for them. (I’m still learning how to do that).
10. Take Time—To Edit. Another writing mentor once told me that “There are no good writers. Just good re-writers.” So true. Get some distance from your work while someone you trust edits it and provides you some honest feedback. I can nveer eidt ym owen suftf adqetuaely eonugh 😊 Good writers need good editors.
Then repeat steps 9 and 10 until ready to publish!