R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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My new philosophy

I've mentioned this before -- over the past year or so I've really been struggling with my own writing process.

Once I realized that yes, I really might have a chance at becoming a professional author (and especially once I got an agent and a contract), I really began to question whether my writing method was solid enough to sustain a long-term career. Many of my writing habits seemed to run contrary to the advice I kept reading from more experienced authors online, and it made me doubt myself severely.

So I started trying on other writers' methods, to see if any of them might fit. First Draft in 30 Days. The Snowflake Method. Fast Draft. I was determined to give each of these my very best try, not to give up until I was certain they weren't for me. I took to heart Anne Lamott's famous dictum about embracing the crappy first draft, and forging onward until that draft was done before starting to revise. I made up outlines and spreadsheets to keep track of my plot, and filled out questionnaires and drew emotional maps to try and understand my characters. I committed myself to writing a certain number of words every day, and completing at least one chapter every week. And when I met those goals, I was relieved -- sometimes even proud.

But I wasn't happy.

Writing had stopped being fun in even the most generous definition of the word, and become a kind of waking nightmare. Instead of thinking about my book all the time, I was worrying about my book all the time, which is not the same thing. Instead of generating ideas, I was reduced to problem-solving: instead of being excited by new possibilities, I felt like I was trying desperately to work out some abstruse mathematical equation which was bound to be on the final exam, and getting it wrong every time.

There's no question that writing is a discipline and that many days you don't feel like writing but you have to do it anyway -- so I knew it wouldn't be reasonable to expect it to be "fun" in that sense. But when you're at the point where you're dropping your bucket down the creative well and hearing it scrape dry bottom every time; when you're working on a book with an intriguing premise, an exciting plot and characters you have no reason not to love, but you find yourself hating them all; when you've lost all faith in your own abilities as a writer and the merest hint of criticism or the kindliest word of advice makes you want to crawl into a hole and cry -- then something's not right.

Two weeks ago, I hit the wall. Despite all my self-discipline and dogged determination to see my first draft through, I literally could not connect the narrative dots anymore. So I had to stop, and take a break, and reevaluate. It took me two weeks to get off the crazy train of frustration and guilt and self-blame, but when I finally got my head clear, I realized that virtually nothing I'd been doing over the past year, method-wise, had been any good for me.

So I've come up with a new motto for the next phase of my writing career:

Write something.

That's it. Every day, I will sit down and write something. Might be ten words, might be a thousand; might be editing or revising or totally new material, doesn't matter. I've turned off Word Count and I've stopped marking chapter goals on my calendar. And after just a week of writing without that pressure, I can't tell you how much better I feel... or how much happier I am with what I've written.

I've no doubt that goal-setting is a great help to many people, but the fact is, I tend to obsess about deadlines and knock myself out to meet them even without those extra reminders. I'm an organized person for the most part; I'm a disciplined person for the most part. More often than not I do finish the projects that I begin, and I've written enough stories in the past ten years (some of them novel-length by the time they were done) to know that my debut manuscript wasn't just a flash in the pan. So while the advice I've been reading from seasoned pros saying things like "Write for X hours or X words a day!" and "Finish your entire first draft before you allow yourself to revise!" isn't worthless by any means, and I'm sure a lot of struggling writers will benefit from hearing it, it just isn't right for me.

And you know what? Working simply by the principle of "Write Something", I managed to finish the new version of my first chapter in just seven days anyway. Yes, it was revision rather than new material, and I'd like to pick up that pace a bit in future chapters if I can. But I'm moving forward, and now that I'm no longer pushing myself to achieve a particular daily word count, I feel like I'm finally getting to know and love my new characters and enjoy telling their story. I can feel now when something's not right, and I can fix it as I'm going, instead of blowing past it and telling myself it has to wait until the revision phase. And for me, that's crucial to my satisfaction and productivity as a writer.

Anyway, the gist of all this is that it's been a long painful road, and in the end it turned out to lead me in a circle -- right back to the method I started with. And I guess the moral of that story is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If in three months' time I find myself still nowhere near having a working first draft, then I might have good reason to reconsider my writing process. But I'm not in that position yet -- and for all I know, perhaps I never will be.

So that's where I'm at these days. It's been a rough haul, but I think I'm doing okay.

Now I'm going off to camp with the fam until next Friday, so if you post something earthshattering on your LJ and I don't comment, you'll know why. Have a good week, everybody!
Tags: authorial cris de nerfs, writing
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