Thoughts on the Writing Process: Optimal Conditions and Tips

(Detail from Theo Ellsworth’s contribution to the expanded edition of my Wonderbook, out in July)

I just completed my ninth novel, the first volume in the Adventures of Jonathan Lambshead series, working title “I am Squishy” (that will change, I’m sure). I’m also working on the tenth novel of my career, Hummingbird Salamander. This doesn’t include a number of unfinished or crappy novels written in my teens—or hundreds of short stories.

If nothing else, being a novelist for decades gives you some hopefully useful ideas about process. I’m loathe to ever suggest that there is only one way to do something—it’s different for every writer. But I do think that examining someone else’s process can be of use for your own, even if it’s just to reject everything another writer does!

So, with that caveat, here’s what I’ve learned over time. If some of it seems basic, that’s important, too. Because at the end of the day, there is no magic solution, no short-cut, to writing something that hopefully will last. No matter how we search for one. I also believe strongly in letting the things about writing that should be organic remain organic, but also working in targeted ways on those things that can be improved mechanically.

(These ideas should work for writers who have a day job as well as full-time writers, as I do not stress needing to write every day. In fact, points 1 and 2 should offer relief for writers who beat themselves up about not writing as much as they want to. It’s important to be generous to yourself if you’re in circumstances where sustained writing is not possible, because pushing yourself to write in those circumstances may short-circuit your creativity.)

1—The amount of time you spend writing isn’t necessarily as important as the time spent thinking about what you are going to write.

I often feel it is easier to spoil a novel by beginning to write too soon than by beginning to write too late. Perhaps this is because I need to know certain things before I can even contemplate writing a novel.

For example, I need to know the main characters very well, the initial situation, and the ending (even if the ending changes by the time I write it). I also have to have some kind of ecstatic vision about a scene or character, some moment that transcends, and I have to have what I call charged images associated with the characters. These aren’t images that are symbolic in the Freudian sense (humbly, I submit that Freud just gets you to the same banal place, as a novelist, every time), but they are definitely more than just images. They have a kind of life to them, and exploring their meaning creates theme and subtext. For example, the biologist encountering the starfish in Annihilation or Rachel in Borne reaching out to pluck Borne from the fur of the giant bear. (Both of which also have their origin in transformed autobiographical moments, and thus an added layer of resonance.)

Once I know these things, it may still be six months to a year before I begin to write a novel. The process at that point is to just record every inspiration I have and relax into inhabiting the world of the novel. To not have a day go by when I’m not thinking about the characters, the world they inhabit, and the situations. If I lose the thread of a novel, it’s not because I take a week off from writing, but because I take a week off from living with the characters, in my head. But, hopefully, the novel takes on such a life that everything in the world around me becomes fodder for it, even transformed.

During this part of the process, I usually accumulate about thirty-thousand words of scene fragments and ideas, captured in a central document. I also begin to see the structure of the novel in my head—it forms a kind of glittering latticework revolving in my mind against a dark backdrop. This “structure” is often not structure that the reader will see—it’s more the scaffolding I need as a writer to conceive of the shape of the novel. (I think this idea may get lost sometimes when writers talk about writing: there is the actual structure of the novel and then there are the structures that the novelist creates purely for their own benefit in the moment, to see more clearly what it is they are writing.)

There may also be some basic outline or some list of essential scenes, if it feels necessary. Sometimes it doesn’t.

When I begin to write in earnest, I am still for the most part spending more time thinking about the novel than writing it. For my recent novels, my process has gone something like this: Robust breakfast and coffee, enjoyed watching half an hour of something mindless on TV (which distracts the mind, somehow turns off my internal editor), followed by two to three hours of writing. After lunch, I would go to the gym or take a hike. Yet by bed time, I would have “written” another three or four scenes and have a lot more insight into character. Something about getting away from the writing desk opens up creativity for me, as does doing something that makes me live in the moment.

The point is: Living in the world of your novel is not just something that happens because you’re writing a novel. It’s important to the actual creation of the novel.

2—Reward your subconscious by capturing every snippet of an idea or scene fragment as it comes to you.

I carry a pen and a small notebook or loose notecards with me at all times. I also keep them on the nightstand next to the bed. I have pieces of paper in the kitchen, too. Over the past twenty years especially, I have not lost or forgotten a single idea or scene fragment or character observation or bit of dialogue because I have always written it down immediately, no matter what situation I’m in (this includes when I had a day job).

Over time, my subconscious has rewarded me more and more for taking It seriously. If your subconscious brain “knows” you are going to write it all down and use what it gives you, a loop is created where, at times, and depending on other factors, the problem isn’t lack of ideas but having too many ideas.

Part of this is not immediately editing out certain ideas or thoughts, but writing them all down, even the ones that seem ridiculous. There is an immediacy to writing it on paper that appeals to me, too. This doesn’t strike me as a luddite thing, but a thing about the human brain. (If you cannot use pen and paper, finding some analogous method on the computer is a good idea.)

I also find notecards of use because if you limit yourself to one idea or scene frag per, you can arrange them in chronological order before you type them up, and by writing in longhand first, it means even typing up the text into a computer document in a sense creates a second draft of the idea before you even actually write the scene or scenes in question.

3—Train your subconscious to give you gifts.

If you reward your subconscious, you can also train It on a macro and micro level.

For example, maybe, like me, you wanted to write about wild Florida. Perhaps you actually tell your subconscious “I want to write about Florida” every night before you go to bed or first thing in the morning. Perhaps six months later Annihilation pops out of your head. It’s definitely not how you expected to write about Florida, but you can’t help feeling that your little mental trick led to the moment of inspiration.

On the micro level, I find that if I have been wrestling with a problem in my fiction the best way to solve that problem is to step away and let my mind grapple with it on a subconscious level. One way is to go for a hike and forget about it completely, only to have the answer pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Another way is more targeted: I’ll go to bed, spend 10 minutes thinking about the problem, buffer sleep by reading a bit first, and then nine times out of ten when I wake in the morning: presto, I’ve got the answer.

Of course, this won’t work if you’re fragmented, which is to say limiting social media and time in front of screens, when possible, is very important to de-fragging your subconscious, too. This isn’t a luddite position—it’s more or less established science at this point. If, too, like me, you can be obsessive, it can be important to wall yourself off from exterior things that distress, like the news. All of that “noise” is otherwise competing in your mind with what you want to get done writing-wise—even if it’s the noise you want to write about, or the news.

4—Know when you are most productive and discipline yourself to do your rough-draft writing then.

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in to distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with. (This is one advantage of being a beginning writer—that’s the time to experiment and learn what works best for you, and the time to break things fearlessly; getting to a published story is less important than getting to a good one.)

“Fresh” and “energized” are relative terms here. When I had a day job, for example, my lunch-time writing occurred while I was “wilted” and “distressed,” but it was still a more energetic time for me than after I got home.

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns. For this reason, I write in the mornings, revise in the early afternoon (on material written the day before), go to the gym or hike in the mid-afternoon (when I usually have low mental energy), and then in the evenings read over and mark up revisions.

5—Good habits create the conditions for your imagination to thrive.

Romanticized versions of the writing life often glamorize drinking and other habits that ultimately take a toll on your creativity, even if this isn’t clear when you’re younger. I don’t want to sound like your mom or dad in this section, but at the same time I don’t want to de-emphasize a commitment to your art.

Currently, in this, a period of greater creativity than I have ever known, I drink very little, I get to bed before midnight, I eat healthy, I go to the gym every other day and get exercise on off days, and although I play around on social media between writing novels, I am offline as much as possible while writing novels. I believe abiding by these simple rules helps me to be my best creative self.

The rules for you may be different—the basic conditions of your life may require vastly different rules. But thinking about what “good habits” means to you is important. Especially if you want a long career.

Because what I’m really talking about here is taking care of your imagination and also of your ability to conjure up physical and mental endurance when you need it.

6—Invest in a love of revision.

Sometimes you won’t be able to think about writing in any kind of leisurely way. When those times occur, what will pull you through is having a love of revision. Not merely a lack of hatred for revision, but an unconditional love for revision.

Because if you love revision, the act of creating a rough draft even less perfect than usual won’t impact you at all. You’ll know that you will re-inhabit the unfolding dream of the novel again during the revision phase and that anything broken can be fixed in such an organic way that no one will ever know it was broken.

How do you get to an unconditional love for revision? Perhaps by recognizing, as I’ve written above, that revision is occurring even in the initial moments of inspiration. The spark in your mind that is transferred to paper by pen and in even that instant you change the wording—and then again when you include that moment in the rough draft. How when you finish writing for the day you’re already changing, in your head, what you just wrote.

I don’t have an easy answer here, if you dread revision. But perhaps if you can fake enthusiasm for revision, you’ll eventually experience real enthusiasm for the task. Think of the emotions associated with something you like to do and somehow transfer those emotions to revision over time.

7—Let your novel guide you in terms of process.

Every novel I’ve ever written has had a slightly different or radically different process, perhaps because I don’t like to write the same kind of novel twice. Despite the fact that my best time to write is the morning, a couple of novels have been best written at night. Despite the fact I don’t like outlining, at least three novels have, at some point during writing them, required that I do a detailed outline of at least a part of the novel.

In all cases, as the ideas accumulate and I am involved in thinking about the novel, I am also thinking of the way in which it will manifest. I am looking at the scene fragments and the structure and imagining the best process for this particular novel and no other.

I admit that this may be an eccentricity of use only to me, but it may be worth re-examining your usual approach if you find yourself stuck writing a novel. The solution may have nothing to do with problems with what’s already on the page, but in how it is getting to the page.

8—Don’t be afraid to change your process or turn to lessons from other disciplines to jump-start your writing or see things in a new light.

Nothing will ever go quite as it is supposed to. Some idyllic process of getting up each morning and writing and then taking a stroll for more ideas is just a construct intended to suggest ways to be generous to yourself to be as creative and focused as possible while writing.

In the actual moment, you’ll have mornings you intended to write and the impulse or hunger isn’t there. You’ll have weeks where exterior events come at you like a bus intent on hitting you and you’ll have to forgive yourself for not writing because Life happened.

But other times, you will need to push past whatever is damming the story. In those times, even simple changes like going to a coffee shop to write rather than writing at home may help. Typing up your rough draft rather than long hand can help. Changing the font of the draft, even.

Beyond simple environmental changes, you may find that bringing in technique from other creative disciplines can help, too. I’ve begun to incorporate a lot of exercises and ideas from the world of drama, for example. What you might call method acting—most famously, breaking into my own house when stuck on a scene in Authority where the main character has to break into the former director’s house.

While extreme, this approach does speak to a frequent problem for writers: Not being able to “see” a scene properly, both in terms of blocking and character motivation. Often times, this is because there is too little real-life experience being brought into the scene.

Such moments of feeling stymied do not need to be stressful (if under deadline, yes, it’s going to be stressful). They can become transformative or even fun moments if you think of them as times when you need to find a new method of imaginative play to get past the logjam. Because, at the end of the day, most of the time what we’re doing is trying to find situations and constructs to best help our imagination help us tell stories.

5 comments on “Thoughts on the Writing Process: Optimal Conditions and Tips

  1. Esteban Santi says:

    Oh wow! It took me too much time to realize point 2… little by little one can create something much bigger with all these separate ideas.
    And point 3… definitely the subconscious is the most powerful tool one could have.
    Thank you for these recommendations!

  2. This is so helpful! Thank you.

  3. Derek D says:

    I am not a writer but I have wanted to write. My issue is that I tend to get completely overwhelmed when a story I really like pops into my head. I’ll sit down and attempt to start writing, even just a general outline, and all the sudden my mind is “Oh! Wouldn’t it be cool if the character did this!” “We should write a scene halfway through where…” and so on. I’ve barely got an idea of what my main character will be like and already my mind is barreling towards the end of the story. I get so flustered – “Why haven’t we written all these cool scenes down yet!” my mind screams – as I am unable to keep up with my own thoughts. I tend to just give up. Have you ever experienced this? If so, what’s the best way to get over it?

  4. Fantastic tips here, I’m nodding in agreement with them all! Although not broke into my own house yet ;-)

  5. Very good insights! I started out wanting to be an actor and getting “into” the scene has really helped me. Just saw Annihilation the movie last night and loved the ideas I’m picking up the book this week.

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