The one thing I stress above everything else when I give author talks is that there is no one right way to write. Everyone has a different creative process, and different things work for different people, and so when I talk about how I work, it isn’t meant as a guideline or a set of rules, only one example out of many.
It’s tricky trying to make a go of it as a writer. With most professions, there are sets of procedures in place that everyone follows. You go to school for the job you want to do, you learn the correct way to do it, and then you go out and get to it. There are details that differ from person to person, but the basic steps that make up their day to day work stay pretty much the same.
In the creative world, it’s totally different. Some writers swear by outlines, others find them stifling. Some write multiple drafts, others write one and revise as they go. Some need total quiet to get into the zone, others thrive on the bustle of activity around them.
But I think, as human beings, we want guidelines. We want to know there’s a correct way to do things, and that if we follow it, we’ll succeed. Not having that security can be terrifying. And that fear can make it even harder to succeed, because it’s so easy to get stuck in a process that doesn’t work for you, or for this particular book, because you’re afraid to do it some other way that seems unprecedented.
So, to anyone reading this who is involved in any sort of creative occupation, I offer two statements I think every artist should remember:
Just because any given successful author (or other artist) works a certain way, there is no guarantee following their methods will make you successful.
After all, the reason there are so many different methods out there–outline vs. pants it, fast draft vs. revise as you go, etc.–is that creativity functions differently from person to person. Outlining a book makes me even more excited about working on it, but for many other authors, it kills a feeling of spontaneity that they need to stay in love with the book. Whereas if I attempt to jump right into a story without pre-planning, I soon feel lost and unhappy. Neither approach is right or wrong, they’re just right for some people and wrong for others. For every “rule” that one author might insist on, there’s at least one other author who could never finish a story that way.
Which is to say, by all means try out different methods. How are you going to find what works best for you if you don’t? But if one method is making you want to write less, or increasingly unhappy with what you’re writing, don’t keep at it just because a bunch of authors you admire do it. And don’t ditch a method that you enjoy just because you see other writers talking about how impossible it would be for them to write that way. The only correct way to write is the way that sees you eventually writing The End, and feeling good about it.
It’s hard to feel confident when there’s no real right answer. I know–I’ve sold four books now, and I still worry sometimes that maybe I should be doing this or that technique that others swear by, and that if I did my writing would rise to some higher level. But I’m getting better at not listening to that worry, because every time I have, the writing that comes out feels flat or stilted, and I end up going back to my old ways.
Be flexible in your own process.
Someone (I don’t remember who–if you know, mention it in the comments so I can credit them!) has commented that you don’t learn how to write a book, you learn how to write this book. Every book demands something new from its author–and if a book doesn’t, you’re probably rehashing stories you’ve already told. So it shouldn’t be surprising that now and then a method that you’re used to following just doesn’t feel right for this particular book. Or a given story calls on you to try something you haven’t before.
Again, I think this can be scary. Once you have your system set, the idea of messing with it might seem to spell disaster. But if the feeling that you should change is coming from you and your interaction with the story, not from some outside pressure, my experience is it’s generally best to listen. Creativity is never static: it shifts and evolves as you develop your craft.
I’ve seen my own process change in a couple of ways over the last year. For one, I used to be the queen of fast-drafting. I’ve written a full rough draft in as little as three weeks. I still write comparatively fast, but with my last couple projects, I’ve found myself wanting to take the first draft a little slower, to spend more time thinking scenes through rather than throwing them onto the page as I outlined them and hurrying on. It used to be that if I didn’t get the first draft down ASAP, I’d lose confidence and have trouble reaching the end. But these days, making sure I’m reasonably happy with what I’m writing as I’m writing it keeps that confidence going. And even though it means the first draft takes longer, it means fewer revisions down the road, so I don’t really mind. 🙂
These days we’re taught more to pay attention to facts than follow our instincts. But as a creative person, I think the best thing you can do is learn to listen to those instincts, and let them lead you to the way that’s right for you.