Variations in the Writing Process, 4 Questions
Contributor
Written by
Jessica Keener
October 2013
Contributor
Written by
Jessica Keener
October 2013

There’s a fascination around how writers write. I'm guessing this is because we’re all seeking ways to capture the magic that happens in the creative process. (Do you write with pen or computer? Do you have your own space? A special time?) It’s my deep belief, however, that there are no absolute, right methodologies when it comes to one’s own creative undertakings. What’s right is what works for you. There may some common patterns, but I feel so strongly about this that I hope it raises your hairs should anyone try to impose a single or "correct" way for you to go about your writing. The magic is what you conjure up in the way that best works for you and your lifestyle.  Some of us are single or working full-time jobs or raising kids. All of these things factor into how we best manage our creative output.

Having said this, I’m eager to hear about your writing habits--individual and bizarre quirks--in your comments here. I’ll also include you in my giveaway of 2 copies of my first novel, Night Swim. I’m hoping that together, our comments will showcase our differences and honor the variety in our approaches. Finally, if what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe something here will spur you to try a different approach that will take you to a more productive place. I’ll share mine first.  

 

1) Do you have a schedule or best writing time?

Mornings are by far my best writing time. I pretty much stick with a five-day schedule, M-F, but will work evenings and on weekends if I have a deadline. These days, however, I don’t have to maneuver my time around child issues and demands (carpooling, teacher meetings, after-school activities), which is significant. I have much more time during the day but I still schedule walks and errands for afternoons whenever possible. 

 

2) Word count - How many words do you write per day? Does it matter?

When I’m drafting a new novel, I set out to write 500 words a day, five days a week. First drafts are the most fatiguing for me, so 500 words per day feels doable, doesn’t overwhelm me, and adds up. The simple fact of making weekly progress fuels my confidence to keep going until I get that first draft on the page. After that, I don’t think about word count. I think in terms of chapters, and scenes, characters, timelines, and plot issues. When writing short essays for magazines, word count is a given part of the equation. In those instances, I think in terms of how many hours I need to complete the task.

 

3) Are you an outliner or not?

I’ve come to understand that I’m an experiential learner and that outlining doesn’t work for me when I'm drafting a novel or short story. I have to do the writing and rewriting, make a mess, and redraft many times to get to the center of what I’m doing and to figure out where I’m heading. During revisions, I won’t hesitate to jot down notes, use file cards for character descriptions, create lists on my yellow legal pads as I become conscious of plot and timelines, but a true outline, which I’ve tried, doesn’t accelerate the process for me. In fact, it seems to have a reverse effect. Rather than taking me deeper into the story, it pulls me out of it and the process becomes too intellectual or logical for me. This isn’t an argument for or against outlines, it’s simply about what works for my individual drafting style.

  

4) Do you put your drafts away to rest?

Yes. I keep going by stopping. That sounds contradictory, but I believe in giving myself time for my subconscious to do its work. For both short and longer work, I build in time to step away. It helps me detach from the words so when I return, I feel much freer to delete and rearrange, to let go of what isn’t serving the piece as a whole, the larger intention and vision of the novel or short story. This cooling process might last a day, months, even a year if I’m working on a novel, particularly if I’m feeling blocked, blind, stuck, or tangled. When that happens, I’ll work on something else to give my mind and emotions a break.

Now it’s your turn. What about you?

 

Jessica Keener is the author of the best-selling novel Night Swim. Publisher's Weekly says of her new story collection, Women In Bed,“[Keener] demonstrates a versatile voice and ability to deliver as much exquisite detail as the stories’ brevity will allow.”

Participate in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Night Swim!

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Comments
  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Hi Jessica ~

    1.) I usually try to throw myself into my work on Mondays that I am not called to work for a formal employer in Boston. It's one of my husband's days off and he can be the "go to" parent for our daughter's needs.

    I also show up on the page on days that my daughter and I do not have specific places to go for home-schooling activities/commitments. (at least 2 other full mornings a week) I usually work while she is sleeping or reading in the morning.

    2.) For blog writing, I try to finish and publish posts in one "sitting," and they tend to be between 500 and 1000 words long. I usually take photos around my idea first, which gives my some framework for writing the content.

    3.) For longer works, I take breaks. I have some scenes written in my chapter book for tweens and the picture book is in the revision stage. Often, the breaks I take are to keep up with marketing my already-published book and publishing related blog posts on Word Press.Then I return to the work with fresh eyes and renewed brain cells.

    4.) I usually have notebooks filled with details for each story I write. These are my character sketches, timelines for events,scene descriptions...and other ideas that come to me.  Often I write the first draft at the computer and then print it out and made revision notes by hand. This I like to do in a more comfortable place instead of at my computer.

  • Jessica Keener

    Checking in, again, on this Fri. morning, and am invigorated by your comments. Isn't it great to see this variety? I’m smiling at some of our writerly antics and some of you have mentioned Social Media activity as part of the equation for scheduling writing time (before or after). That's a whole ‘nother post, isn't it? 

  • Great post Jessica!

    I currently blog and write how-to non-fiction pieces for print magazines. Up until recently, I hadn’t written a word of fiction in about 35 years but I’ve started a novel, just to see if I can write one. I still do my freelancing on the weekend and work the job that pays the bills through the week so there isn’t much time left but I’ve managed to claw out an hour or two at the library on my way home each evening. Some nights I struggle not to go home and collapse in front of the fire with a glass of wine. Ok, most nights I struggle, but usually I manage to get my backside in the chair long enough to get my word count in. Being tired and wanting to go home is its own kind of motivation, it seems.

    1) Do you have a schedule or best writing time?
    I found out this past week while on vacation that mornings are by far my best time for writing fiction. Unfortunately, the only time I can usually carve out of my day is early evening, after work. It doesn’t mean I can’t write in the evening, it just usually comes a little harder.

    2) Word count - How many words do you write per day? Does it matter?
    I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day, four days a week (the library closes early on Friday and besides, I’m usually brain dead by Friday night). Some nights, I struggle to write those 500 words and other nights, I’m surprised to have gone way over that word count when they announce the library is closing.

    3) Are you an outliner or not?
    I started out without much of an outline but quickly decided that I worked much better with one. My story keeps going its own way though, so I’m constantly revising the outline but having one gives me a direction and helps me set up plot points in advance.

    4) Do you put your drafts away to rest?
    This is my first attempt at fiction and I’ve been listening to all kinds of fiction writing advice on podcasts and audio books each day. I keep getting discouraged and then I read over some of my prior scenes and think, hmmm, this really isn’t so bad - maybe I’ll keep going and see what happens. I’m still not sure if anyone else will ever read my book, but once I finish my draft, I’m sure I’ll do the same thing that I do with my non-fiction work. Let it rest and then read it out loud to the cat. If he starts clawing the furniture, it probably needs revising.

  • Patti Hall

    Well, I think my no answer to all 4 tells you something...I am so undisciplined! :>) Great motivator, let's see if I can shape up.

  • Thanks for your interesting questions.  Firstly, I carry two pens (after my pen went dry when I was in the middle of writing down something descriptive, waiting for my husband on a very rainy day) in my handbag with a note book.  I love watching people and their surrounds, so if I have to wait anywhere, I keep myself occupied by writing down thoughts, impressions or poems.  My best writing time seems to be in the morning after everyone has gone out and I'll carry on for as long as I need to - getting up to stretch my legs - hanging up washing once or twice.  I try to write more than a thousand words at any given time, although I do use some of my time to do research.

    I have the basic plot in my head, but an outline, especially a time-line in the beginning seems to help me a lot to make sure that everything makes sense.  I also return to drafts after I've thought about and/or have done research for a particular scene or situation, a bit more.  I like to read what I've written in an undertone.  It takes longer, but works to get the plot moving at a steady pace as well as show up "empty" or unrealistic spots.

  • Kate Powell

    Also, I NEVER go online before my writing time.  Distraction.  I blog or answer emails after.  

  • Kate Powell

    1) Do you have a schedule or best writing time?

    Mornings are best, and if I have tie later I will put it toward editing. I often start with writing by hand and then switch to computer when I am truly juiced.  I also stop at a point where I know what should happen next so that I have a place to drop in.

    2) Word count - How many words do you write per day? Does it matter?

    I don't look at word count at all.  I write until I am through or until the alarm clock says I must stop. 

    3) Are you an outliner or not?

    In a manner of speaking, I use an outline once I really have a plot.  But there is also the idea that the characters can change the direction of a book, so I hold it loosely.  

    4) Do you put your drafts away to rest?

     I keep my drafts, printed then fold on half so I know they are drafts.  Two reasons -- I might want to refer to an older scene or might lose what I have on the computer.  It's happened.
    Thanks for this post and the sharing of others.
  • Sherrey Meyer

    I'm a computer writer. After spending 30+ years at desk and the last 20 or so behind a computer screen, there is no way I can handwrite anything as fast as I type it. Mornings are my best time, and I'm just beginning to realize that I need to make a shift to doing afternoon errands and walking (thanks for a good tip!). I am fortunate enough to have what my husband calls my "writing cave," where I'm surrounded by the things I love -- the books waiting to be read and reviewed, quilting and knitting stuff, color, and classical music. Yes, I write to music! The music is soothing and for me transportive in its changes of pace and lyrical nature. I am definitely a pantser although I am beginning to use mindmapping, an equivalent to outlining, I suppose. And yes, every draft marinates like a good piece of meat or chicken. :)

    Thanks for a lovely post and one that made me take stock of my writing habits.

  • Janis Van Keuren

    It's interesting to see how other writers put their words on paper. I have not written a book and have no real plans to at this time. I am content with writing freelance pieces and blogging. With a background in journalism, I have found myself writing on the fly, catching time where I can, and going back to edit whatever I have written. Night times seem to stir up my creative juices.

    However, I have been stifled by not having a plan to my writing. Your article, Jessica, and the comments here have given me direction in how to structure my time so that I can produce higher quality work.  Setting a definite time each day to write~and ignoring the other distractions of social media~will definitely help. I like the idea of blocking out time in my planner each day to write and perhaps giving myself a word count goal.

    As a side note~when the house was busier, I would put on noise reducing headphones to help me focus on my writing. Sometimes music also helps to draw out the emotions that I need to highlight the story.

    Thank you all for insight on how you write. It will help me as I go forward from here.

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    I write in the early mornings at my desk in my bedroom.  Its quiet and calm.  It is still hell dragging myself out of a warm bed in winter.

    I write as long as my hot coffee/tea lasts, usually.  If that's one sentence then so be it...but I strive to write something down at least a paragraph a day.  I should shoot for 500.  That sounds good.  I'm an out-liner, roman numerals and all.  It helps me keep on track and guides the direction of my story.  I have recently developed a touch of mind mapping to see where it leads and this has helped me expand my story with ideas and characters and ordering the outline, actually.

    I post my stories online but occasionally I will reread the posts and make a correction to tweak the plot and/or fix an issue.  This helps me clean up my writing and a gap of time between posting the next chapter by rereading the previous doesn't ever hurt anything.  I don't want to accidentally change an eye color or something. 

    That's the skinny.

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Mornings are the best time. Sacred time. I won't make appointments in the mornings.

    I don't count words, I count hours per day. The rhythm changes, depending on what I'm writing, what form and content.

    And yes, I put the drafts away for at least two days. Let them cool. Let me come to them with new eyes, a fresh perspective.

  • Jessica Keener

    Checking in this Wednesday afternoon and appreciate the specific details you are all willing to share about your process. Outliners and non-outliners, day and nightimers and inbetweeners, the point is, each of you is finding some structure or way to work writing time into your life. The other thing I'm noticing from reading your comments is a certain flexibility, an ebb and flow that happens, depending on the type of work you're doing, and also where you are in the process (beginning, middle, end, pausing, etc). Cool.

  • Suzi Minor

    Beginning a new project I draw from an outline which helps me stay focused and keeps the ideas flowing in case I get stuck there's another bullet point to move onto. My favorite time to write is when it is raining but not having to wait on the weather I've started the practice of getting at least 1,000 words or at least an hour every morning then revisit later that evening and it is important to step up away from time to time to stretch the body and clear the mind. Thanks!

  • Great post and responses!

    My best writing time is in the afternoons -- before, during or after a siesta.  Sometimes I wake from a quick nap with the perfect response to a writing problem.  I also "write" in the mornings while I'm walking my dog.  -- Gives me quiet time when I'm not staring at a page or computer screen.  

    I don't maintain a daily word count or an outline -- too confining.  Some days are writing, others are editing, and still others are ruminating.  Since most of my chapters are stand-alone essays in my memoir about my work with refugees, I keep working it until I feel it's (nearly) done before moving on.

    Thanks for this opportunity to peek beneath others' writing tables!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com

  • Toi Thomas

    I too an fascinated about this subject. Whenever I interview authors, I always ask a question about their writing styles. I put so much into writing my first book, that I wrote a 40 day blog that turned into an ebook about the how, when, and what of my writing process. I am definitely an outliner, but I take to a whole other level. I do everything short of draw maps and that's only because I'm not that good at it. I break everything down until I'm surround by thousands of complex pieces. Then I pick the best ones to put in my story. I write whenever and where ever I can, but I prefer to be at home in silence or with soft music playing. 

  • Virginia MacGregor

    Some of my best writing was done after someone blew up at me, and I was determined to harness the energy and put it down in writing.  I wasn't writing about what just happened, but I found my mind clearer and felt more articulate and the writing itself was some of my best.  (thankfully that never happens, but it was fascinating to see that I could still operate, and better than usual, in a sense.)

  • My best time is evenings once the house has quieted down for the night—kids asleep, dishes done, etc. But with 3 young children, sometimes my best work is done on the playground! I don't have a hard and fast word count per day—sometimes I am very productive and other days not so much. Life dictates this a bit. But somehow, I always have something in progress. I usually start out as a pantster and somewhere in the middle I begin outlining as the story starts to gel. I can't start out with an outline—I would never end up following it. I absolutely let my drafts ripen. As a wise teacher once told me, "The good writing comes out in the editing." I try to leave it untouched for as long as time allows.

  • Jessica Keener

    What a delight to see  what you all have to say--how quiet works for one person whereas some kind of noise or activity or music works for another.  Love seeing these differences.

  • Holli Castillo

    My best work hours are middle of the night. I work my "job-job" from home, so I just have to work around my kids, 12 and 14, who are also night owls like me.  My most productive time is between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., which is not always good when you've got to bring kids to school.  I've worked from home since they were born, so we all had the same up all night, sleep all day schedule until they started school.  It was not a fun transition. In fact, they are in 6th and 9th grade and sometimes I feel like we are still transitioning into a school schedule.

    I do a scene by scene outline or my novels make no sense.  My imagination goes to crazy places and I can't draw it back without relying on some kind of structure.  The rest of my life is pretty unstructured, and structure and routine are really not in my genes, but it's the only way I can make my writing work.

    I don't have a set word count and write when I can and when I feel like it, and often put the work away to do other things. It does take me significantly longer to write a novel than other writers I know, but I figure when my kids are out of the house I'll have nothing but time.

    Holli Castillo

  • Paidra Delayno

    In regards to how I write, first off, I never use an outline.  I much prefer not knowing where the story is going.  Then it becomes like watching a movie as the words appear on the computer screen.  Of course, in the back of my mind I already know where I want to land when the story is completed, but exactly how I get there is up for grabs. 

    I do my best writing after dark.  I live out in the country and the world seems much quieter then.  I have a rather large music collection so am able to draw upon whatever music suits the mood I am in.  A good pair of headphones is also a must.

    I live by myself so am able to "get into character" and actually act out certain things characters are doing without the worry of others thinking I've slipped over the edge.  Saving the "angry" parts of a story is helped along by waiting until I am actually feeling that emotion.  It gives me a much better frame of reference for what my character would be saying and feeling.

    My most recent novel, PROFESSIONAL WOMAN, has many twists and turns along the path my main character, Racheal Stortini, takes to get from country housewife to professional assassin.  None of these were planned, which made the journey all the more fun for me as well as for the reader

  • Vanessa Kachadurian

    A special place or places can inspire all writers. Late and great Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan (a family friend) came back to Fresno in his later years. He continued writing and purchased 2 houses next door to each other. One he lived in, but would hand write drafts that came about as themes...he would later expand on them. The other house was his writing house and storage of manuscripts. Post it notes everywhere with more thoughts and inspirations throughout the day. Time wise, William would write for 1 hour or go for 48 hours straight with tea. The world was his inspiration, it is important for writers to get out in the world and experience the journey.

  • I don't set a timer in regards to writing. I usually get up, drink hot tea, eat a biscuit and wander to the computer. Then I work through lunch until late afternoon. Most times I'm back at the computer around 9 pm 'til...... As far as word count, it seems I always have that in the recesses of my mind. I will say, however, that after a full day of work I'm very excited for a high word count. I need to be better at doing an outline, whether I modify it along the way or not. At least I will have a literary road map.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I found that in the beginning I had to just write, get words on the page, but that when I reached a certain point it was time to stop, pull back, and outline.  That was very helpful for me. And I can never write after dark!  (or at least after dinner.)

  • Jan Moran

    I write during the day, but evening and night time are really best for me--no distractions. Saturday morning is a favorite time, too.

  • I am writing in an Ommwriter - a daily journal, anything and everything related to my practice, including quotes, description, notes, musings.  I'm recovering from the stroke I had 4 years ago, and have very little use of my dominant right hand, so laptop works best for me I'm a lefty now. I use no note cards, lined paper.  I write something ever day - even if only in my journal.  I'm a novice, writing memoir. Thank you!