Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My Writing Process Doesn't Exist

Fair warning, coffee beans, this is going to be a long post. So buckle in and make sure to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Now that I’ve edited two complete novels and am close to finishing my third, not to mention my various editing dalliances and numerous rough drafts along the way, I feel like I have a bit more perspective on my writing process than I did when I started this blog. That means it’s time to confront some of my overconfidence.

There’s nothing like finishing your first novel to make you think you know what you’re doing. You wrote a book. You conquered. Now you are equipped to sit sagely, handing out advice, telling others how to climb their own mountains, banish their own demons, etc, etc. It becomes uncomfortably obvious that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about when your own advice doesn’t help you write your next book.

I’ve noticed a pattern with myself. Every time I write something, big or small, I end up thinking I know who I am as a writer, how my process works. But this is a stultifying, dangerous perspective, because it limits my ability to move forward.

When I finished TIB, I knew that I was a writer who drafted in chronological order, who wrote quickly and edited quickly, who needed a minimal number of drafts. I looked at my success and told myself, okay, whipping out a book each year is easy. Knowing that I hadn’t pushed myself as hard as I could with TIB meant I could probably even manage two books per year. (Wow, Liz. Wow. I did not raise you to be this arrogant.)

Through that experience, I learned a great deal about the mechanics of my editing process, which I consider to be, in many ways, divorced from my writing process. How I approach the editing itself has never changed. I rewrite everything word for word. I subtract in the second draft, add in the third. My brain works well with that sort of structure. But the way I go about editing—the broader picture, how I approach the draft as a whole—differs.

There were things I learned through the TIB experience that I thought were steadfast aspects of my writerly identity. I got up early—4:00 am early—every morning, and wrote with my Earl Grey in bed, listening to music. I wrote after school, until supper, and after supper I wrote more. Weekends I worked late into the night after watching Star Trek. I was a writing machine.

After TIB, I picked up DRACONIAN, and I thought, with all this new knowledge and, gasp, expertise that I have garnered, surely this will be a breeze. Spoilers. It was a breeze in the way that a hurricane force wind that rips your clothes off and lands you a free trampoline in your demolished backyard could be considered a breeze. What’s worse is that the whole experience was deceptively fun at first. Drafting it was straightforward. Even the first round of editing wasn’t so horrible, though it took longer than I had planned. I was still pleased with my story, still confident that I knew what I was doing.

Then disaster struck. It was inevitable, a land slide that started ages before, whose rumblings I chose to ignore. The whole time I was working on DRACONIAN, I was querying agents for TIB. I think I sent out letters for six months to a year. I don’t remember the exact timeline, but it was a while. I received a stream of rejections for even longer than that. One came five months or so after I marked it off as an assumed rejection. I could give you more accurate numbers, but opening that Excel spread sheet is a walk in a different sort of park, the kind where you need to carry shivs and mace and everyone looks at you like you would be fun to murder.

I received an onslaught of rejections. Had I so desired, I could have printed them out and folded enough origami swans to have like, fifty origami swans. (Seriously, how am I not published?)

I experienced some life changes around this time. I graduated high school, got my first job. Then I moved to Virginia and started rooming with my sister. Like, literally rooming. Our first apartment was a single room, with a bathroom and a shared kitchen. All of these various events made my 4:30/4:00 am mornings first improbable, then impossible. I think it was easy to let that routine go, to not fight for it, and then to tell myself that I was failing at writing because, see, I wasn’t able to get up early in the mornings anymore.

What made the whole situation more unbearable is that I had a beta reader, on what I think was the third draft, who hated my book and tore it to shreds. I had it in my mind that you are allowed to ignore beta feedback you don’t think will make your story better, but you aren’t allowed to ignore feedback out of spite or because you’re hurt by it. I figured that I had to overcompensate for my emotions by listening to everything she said, no matter how untrue it felt to my story. Eventually I reached a point, some ten thousand words before the end, when I finally realized that if I looked at another one of her critiques, I was probably going to delete my entire draft.

When I handed my poor, battered book-child off to my next critique partner, this time my sister, she pointed out that all the edits I had input in the name of responding well to criticism had caused my book to take a massive step backwards. I don’t want to write a harangue on beta readers, because they are a necessary part of the process, but it really shook me, the whole experience, has made me a lot slower to seek out feedback from strangers, even vetted ones.

In 2017 I got DRACONIAN to the point where I felt it was as close to done as I could make it, so I started querying. I think I sent out around twelve query letters before realizing they all had a pretty glaring typo in them, which I had somehow missed even when I tried to fix it. I think that, more than anything, shows me how horrible my eating disorder brain fog was. And I was still trying to function like I was at 100%.

I didn’t hear back from most of those agents. One super sweet, super kind agent gave me some light, personalized feedback on my first fifty pages, and she said basically what I had been fearing, that, among other things, my world building needed more work.

I didn’t make any sort of set decision, but it just kind of happened naturally. I always meant to send out more queries, did the research on more agents, prepped more letters. I never sent them. (Don’t despair. I haven’t trunked DRACONIAN. I have another editing update that I plan to post soon.)

The lesson from that whole experience, as I saw it through the lens of how I felt as a writer post TIB, is that my writing process worked, but that I was broken. I couldn’t stick to the roadmap, so something must have been wrong with my vision.

I’m not going to argue that there was one single thing that I did wrong in the process with DRACONIAN that, if avoided, would have altered the entire course of events. There were so many things that went wrong, and there were additional factors that were out of my control.

But let’s move on to HIRAETH. I drafted HIRAETH out of order, just threw everything on the page, and none of it made sense, but all of it was exhilarating. The adults had exited the building; I could do whatever I wanted. I could make as much of a mess as I needed to in order to draft the thing, because I didn’t have to clean it up in any sort of hurry. My only plan for the story, at that point, was to share it on this blog someday, maybe, if it was good, if I felt like it. Zero pressure for me to perform. That release made it fun for me, made the story a refuge, something secret I got to keep for myself.

What I’ve learned, I think, is that my writing process doesn’t exist. With TIB, I wrote how I felt I was supposed to write, in order, quickly, with more confidence than was my due. With DRACONIAN, I thought that I could apply the same mold and get the same results. I thought I could ignore everyone saying your sophomore novel is the one that makes you want to quit, because I thought I was special and therefore exempt.

Here is something that you should know. You are allowed to write however you want, and you don’t have to have any set way you do things. Whatever works for you in the moment is your writing process. You can write at home for one book, at a coffee shop for another, in your unsuspecting neighbor’s basement for your next. Whatever gets the words on the page.

I think it’s maybe a bad idea to label yourself as a panster or a plotter, to force yourself into that dichotomy. If that works for you, awesome, and if you want the label, then wear it proudly. I spent so long telling myself that I was a panster that I never even let myself try plotting, except with the understanding that it was something I would hate. It’s hard to explain that brain space. Your subconscious takes over, turns your preconceived notions into rules which you follow to your detriment. You don’t like something because you tell yourself you don’t like it.

I outlined HIRAETH. True, I did so after the fact, when I had a handful of random scenes I was juggling, when I had to bring some semblance of order to the words on the page, but that was something I would have never even let myself consider before.

That’s what I’m trying with BMT, outlining, writing out of order, pantsing, a little bit of everything. For the first time in four years with this book, I think I finally see a hint of light at the end of the tunnel. (Although it’s weird, because I keep hearing these choo choo noises. Anyone know what that’s about?)

All this being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if, three years down the line, I decide to write a new post about how wrong I am in this one. So this is nothing definite, just something I am mulling over. But writing it down has helped me put my thoughts in order, and I hope reading it will help you too.

That’s it for today, coffee beans. What are some misconceptions you have had about your writing process along the way?


  1. Love this! I've had so many different writing processes throughout my life. And sometimes there is no process. It changes nearly every other time I sit down to write. Some months I can write 1k an hour. Other days I might get out 251 words in a week. Some things require plotting. And some days I just need a break because none of the characters are acting like themselves anymore. Flexibility is good though. I was listening to a writing podcast, not even sure what it was called, and they mentioned that if you're trying to find a daily writing routine like you write at a certain time of day, for a certain amount of time, in a certain spot, with a certain beverage or atmosphere, etc, you're actually limiting yourself because you're training your brain to write only when those conditions are met. And I understand that some people do need more structure than others, but what if you're busy at that time of day? What if you're traveling and can't be in your usual spot or in any spot similar to it? What if you can't meet all those conditions, and you sit down to write and it's harder because you've limited your creativity to thrive only at a certain time instead of cultivating it to be flexible? I just thought that was interesting even though it's more of a micro view of the writing process than the macro view you wrote about.
    Love this post!

  2. Interesting post! I've always thought before that I was a pantser, unable to outline until I get to the end of the story. So far, outlining has never worked for me, but I've got a new story for which pantsing isn't working too well either. Maybe thinking outside my normal box will get me where I need to go.

    Thanks for the great post!


  3. I really appreciate your candidacy. Bad critique partners can really destroy one as a writer which is why I've become so selective about mine. I think an important factor of a critique partner is do they care about seeing you succeed. I feel like some critique partners I've had have critiqued just to critique and not because they genuinely want to see improvement. Best wishes with querying!