Process and focus

I can be a bit of a process junkie.

This is probably because good processes (for the process pedants, including having the right controls) work and allow you to stop worrying about everything at the same time. If the process is right, and it is carried out correctly, the expected outcome should follow. And if it doesn’t, you can stop, assess what went wrong and change the process.

So that seems to work in my day job. What about writing?

I’ve taken a vaguely process-based view of what I’m doing, helped immensely by a fairly short book, 2k to 10k, which has helped me bring a lot together which I can loosely include under the term “process”.

I think there is a real danger in spending too much time worrying about how other people do their work. The really good ones have found an approach which works for them. There might be other ways for them to achieve the same thing, but they stick with what works. I have no idea how much they thought about their particular process, if they tried as much trial and error as I have, or if they somehow managed to find a formula early on which works for them.

If I tried to copy slavishly the writing habits of the really great writers, it would look like this:

Write 1,000 words a day. No, 3,000. No, 2,000. No, five hours. No, eleven hours.

Write on a laptop. No, on a typewriter. No, a fountain pen is better. Green ink. Or black. Or is it a pencil I should be using?

Get up early to write. Stay up late writing. Write in the middle of the night. Write mainly in the odd few minutes you have between other responsibilities.

Write in a room at home with no window. No, a coffee shop is better. Libraries are definitely best.

Surprise, surprise, there is no magic time, pen or place. There is just what works for the individual.

However…I’m starting from the premise that it must be possible to find out what works best for me. Allied with the one thing which I think all successful authors would say matters. Write a lot. If not all the time, possibly more than is healthy.

I think you know when you might be entering the more than healthy part when you wake up several times during the night with snippets of something in your head that won’t just stay quiet until the morning. And last week, en route to Birmingham (it was a long drive), I suddenly thought of something and had poor LoLo grab a napkin lying in the car and write down a plot twist that had come to me in the darkness of the M6.

So, write a lot.

This is where the process part came in. It’s still work in progress, but I’m now keeping track of where, when and how I am most efficient in just writing. Now don’t start with the quality or quantity thing at this point, right now it’s about keeping going. Editing comes later (see Jodi Picoult on this at the bottom of this post) and I know I have to be ruthless, when that time comes, but that’s not for now. Although I did just remove a character completely this week as it became manifestly obvious that there was no way he tied in to anything else, although we did have some fun times together for a few days.

My word output per hour seems to vary between about 500 and 2,000. That is some difference. 500 is when I forget to hide away every internet-connected device I own. 2,000 is when I set myself a deadline and focus on keeping going, ignoring everything around me.

I’m still working through this, and there are some other tricks I’m playing with to see if they help. I’m really just trying to find out what the process is that works for me. It seems so far to look something like this:

  • No distractions.
  • Only have with and around me what I need to write. My incomparable Neo is the fastest keyboard I have, much faster than my laptop will ever be, and it has the advantage of being utterly useless for anything except writing. Pencil and paper is second favourite and gives a nice change of pace. I can’t write anything like as fast with a pencil, but my finger has the calluses from trying. Pen and paper looks lovely when the page is full of purple ink, even if my handwriting does not enhance the look.

Pen and paper

  • A set amount of time. I really need deadlines. Self-imposed are fine. With limited time, there is no choice. And the feeling of hitting my goal is like finishing a really hard run. Pencil down or keyboard off, and on to the rest of the day. No regrets, no ‘I wish I had started earlier,’ just using what I have and making the most of it.
  • And I have a chart up on the wall to keep a visual record of progress. Because I know I do not want to have a day without a tick to say I wrote, and ideally one that says I did the absolute minimum of 1,000 words that day, and there had better not be two in a row like that. So I am introducing competition with myself to the process. It works well for running, my theory was that it would work well for writing. It doesn’t matter if someone else would do half as much or ten times as much in a day, this is not about trying to compete with anyone else, just finding what works for me.

And the real test every day – did I enjoy it, get something out of it, or learn something from it? As Jodi Picoult says, ‘you might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’

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