One of the questions I’ve been asked that I tend to both thoroughly enjoy but used to completely dread at the same time is the, “What is your writing schedule like?” question. I enjoy hearing about others’ methods, their daily habits, because I’m always interested in how people do this crazy thing we call writing. I mean seriously, we sit in a room and make up stories and hope that somewhere along the line, people will pay their hard-earned money to hear about things that we totally made up. Is that not nuts?
The dread part of that equation, however, was because for a long time, I kept looking around, waiting for the writing fraud police to come along and say, “Now look here, missy, you’re supposed to be doing that writing this this way, on a schedule, X number of words a day.”
One day, along about the time I was working on the first book in the Bobbie Faye series, I came across the quote that ended up freeing me. I printed it out and taped it to the top of my monitor, where I would see it every day. It’s attributed to W. Somerset Maugham, and the quote is, “There are only three ways to write the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
For me, the moment I tried to tell myself that I had to write a certain number of words a day or a certain number of pages, I might as well decide to also become a fighter pilot or an NBA basketball player or a Sherpa. Forcing myself into a certain number of pages or words a day was about as likely as any of those possibilities.
That doesn’t mean, however, that setting word-count or page count schedules won’t work for others. It just wouldn’t work for me, and that was okay.
For my process, I needed flexibility. I needed to allow for the freedom to have days–maybe longer–where I just daydreamed. Or binge-read. Or watched movies until I could feel them humming beneath my skin. I would be writing along, having a good idea of the story and the structure, of what came next, and then I would find myself suddenly stopped and craving reading. It would be weird, because I’d race through book after book, and I’d revisit old favorites and I wouldn’t know why. Why these books, why now, when I have to get the project done? Sometimes I have to take a break and get out of the office for other activities (and sometimes, there’s no choice, I must leave the office to participate in the world) and all of those times of stopping and starting have the potential to look like a writer isn’t writing and could look negative… when they’re not. They’re just the opposite. They are the recharging moments, the places where we’ll witness the friction of lives rubbing together in all its permutations, the time to step outside how we see the world and research how others see it. Sometimes I break just because I know there are certain facts necessary and it’s time now for research because that information is going to inform the rest of the story, and possibly shape it in a way I hadn’t predicted. So for my process, I have a general story (characters, conflict, goals, desires, structure), but I also depend on the magic of the combination that I’ll find when I give myself those breaks to read something I may not have normally read right them.
It took me a little while to not feel embarrassed over the time taken to have fun with my family or sit and daydream or read, or cram in movies in a weekend. [It is difficult to convince the kids that you really are writing when you’re reading a book, because you were just reading another book yesterday and when are you going to be done?] And finally, I acknowledged my subconscious was looking to try to tell me something. It was looking for a way to communicate, and sometimes it would be the simple look of a character on screen to another, or the phrase in someone’s book and the epiphany would thunder over me, lightening striking, illuminating whatever it was in my own story that I was groping toward. Suddenly, the moment of what it was my subconscious was trying to communicate would be clear, and so very different from whatever it was I’d been reading and watching, it was hard to see the connection. I couldn’t have actively, consciously, moved from point A in my story to point B, if I hadn’t given myself that flexibility. There was some combination of practice, skill, and openness that gave me that moment. If I’d been clamping down on the schedule, I’m not sure I’d have been open to that moment. I’m not sure I’d e able to be a writer with any other system.
Deadlines, however, don’t go away just because a writer doesn’t like to schedule a certain number of pages a day, and they still have to be met. In order to accomplish that, I look more at setting goals for myself, rather than schedules. (My husband laughs every time I run shrieking from the word “outline” and yet put up a “structure” of my story on my whiteboard. He stands there looking at it and says, “This sure does look an awful lot like an outline, to which I say, “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” I am mature that way.)
It probably sounds like splitting hairs, then, but that’s precisely the point. As a writer, I get to characterize what works for me and define it however I want, and no one gets to say, “That’s not how it’s done.” I set goals: write the conflict between X and Y today. I don’t know how many pages that might be–could be two, could end up being ten. With practice, I have a pretty decent idea going into a scene just how complex it is, and, knowing that, about how long that scene ought to take, but I don’t try to pre-determine that length. If that particular conflict is simple, I’ll set another goal for the next conflict, the next scene and at some point, I’ll feel jazzed, and thoroughly sated.
I do try to keep in mind how long I have to write the whole thing. I’m aware that if I read a lot somewhere in the middle, I’m chewing up days I need for writing and I don’t want to miss those deadlines, so I’ll set bigger goals for subsequent days. The key is, I need to give myself permission for flexibility, or I freeze up.
Life is just never all that simple, anyway–schedules are almost always interrupted, and I think writers can inadvertently throw themselves into a tailspin (i.e., writer’s block) by being too self-critical about their own creative process. If you’re the kind of person who thrives on having 500 (or 5000) words a day, and that gets your creative juices flowing? That’s wonderful. If you’re the kind of person who’s more sporadic, and you give yourself permission to be, and you get your goals done? That’s wonderful, too.
Pursuing writing is giving yourself permission to dream, and dreams die if we put them in a choke hold.
So how about you? There’s no wrong answer, and this applies to any sort of dream you’re pursuing… do you prefer concrete schedules or are you more creative with flexibility? Do those schedules feel reassuring? Does flexibility feel like an abyss from which you’d never escape or where you’d never make progress? I’m curious, what works for you?