What I’d forgotten about writing

Just a few weeks ago I came up with an exciting idea for a new book. I’d been playing around with a bunch of mildly-interesting but honestly not thrilling ideas for a few weeks, when suddenly it hit me and I realized I had my next project on my hands (yaay)!

Of course the first book I wrote was a passion project that I wasn’t even sure would ever see the light of day. I was writing, in other words, because I had something I wanted to write, and a book seemed the only way to put it out there. That being said, finishing the book was such an arduously long (read 2+ years) and difficult (2+ YEARS people) project, that when I finally published it last March I found myself in total writer-burnout-mode, and decided that what I really needed was some time OFF. That is, of course, the opposite of what writers are supposed to do. I did it anyway, and I’m glad I did. But now that I’m writing new material again for the first time in 3 years, I’m suddenly remembering so many things about my writing process that I’d somehow forgotten.

1. I need an outline, the more detailed the better. I know this seems so common-sense that it’s almost absurd to have to write it down. But I have this wonderful tendency to start with the barest of thumbnail sketches. Then I jump in with gleeful abandon, letting the writing take me where it will. That’s all well and good for a quick blog post or a stand-alone essay.  It’s a lot more problematic when I have 50,000 words to get through and a point I’m trying to make at the end. Having an outline for every section of every chapter helps me determine if my writing for the day actually managed to move me forward, or if it’s pulled me off course.

2. Daily goals are motivating. They’re also empowering. I work a full time job and have several other commitments and extracurricular activities that make it very hard to find regular time for writing. My writing goals, therefore, are remarkably small: 1,000 words a day, 7,000 a week. Sometimes even those are hard to reach, so when I know I’m going to have a difficult or busy day I try to get some extra writing done earlier in the week to give myself a head start. But even though the goals are small and my progress is slow, the fact that I am accountable to myself to sit down and write every day keeps me focused. It also gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment to see those (admittedly small) goals met day after day, week after week. It puts the frustrations, difficulties, and problems in perspective when I can look at a word count and say with confidence “I’ve made progress today.”

3. Some days writing is just hard. And that’s ok. There are days when I stare at that blinking cursor on my screen as though it were my arch-nemesis. Some days I struggle to put words down on paper for what seems like an eternity, and marvel at the word count that refuses to budge despite my best efforts. Not every page is going to flow magically from my mind to the paper. Sometimes it will be an all-out struggle. But if I persevere, it will get written eventually. Every sentence counts. Every word moves the writing forward. And the only way to make no progress whatsoever is to stop trying.

4. Writing badly doesn’t make me a bad writer. I have to remember to give myself permission to write badly from time to time. Sometimes it’s better to get it on paper, even if it looks and sounds terrible, than it is to let it sit in your head as you search for the perfect words to express your idea. I’ve found over time that I’m much better at going back and fixing these difficult and unruly passages than I am at saying them perfectly the first time around.

5. It’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon either. It’s the Tour de France. It’s long. It’s grueling. And every day you have to get up and go back out there and do it again. Good days, bad days, and every day in between, the main thing is to get out there and do it again. And when you’re done at the end of the day, celebrate the fact that you finished. Give yourself the right to feel the sense of accomplishment. And then go do something else for a while, because before you know it you’ll be back out there tomorrow, climbing another hill.

6. I “waste” a lot of time re-reading and editing as I go, but that’s not actually a waste of time. It’s part of my process. If I’m at the beginning of a chapter I’m fine with jumping in cold. But if I’ve been working on a section in the past, it’s important for me to read through what I’ve written already. That’s how I find my voice, my rhythm, and my flow. Without it, my writing becomes a series of starts and stops, fits and spurts. Nobody wants that. So even though the constant backtracking can take up more time than I’d like, it is what helps me move forward in an orderly and meaningful fashion.

7. Sometime a little affirmation goes a long long way. I started writing this book without any input from anyone. In fact, I didn’t even tell a single person that I as considering writing it until I was halfway through the second chapter. When I did, one of the first people I told was my very best friend on the planet. She was unwaveringly supportive of my writing the first time around, even though the topic of my first book really wasn’t the type of thing that she was naturally drawn to. This time, however, her first reaction was “I want to read that!” and just reading those five simple words motivated me in ways that I can’t even explain. So yes, writing is a solitary endeavor, and yes I have learned not to depend on other people’s participation in my pursuit of progress. But getting a little jolt of “yes” in the right moment was absolutely wonderful!

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