“I’d love to know what your process is.”
“I wish I could write as much as you do.”
I hear variations on the above comments all the time, whether in person at conventions or via social media. Sometimes I get the feeling that these people are hoping that I have some kind of secret I can pass along to help them be more productive. The truth is that there is a secret, but it’s not one anyone can replicate: If you want to do what I do, you have to be me. This is true for any artist. How we get things done is an expression of who we are, just as our art is. We can discover techniques and habits from other artists that we can try to emulate, but ultimately, we’re going to end up doing what we do the way we do it because of who we are at any given moment. And of course, this can all change as we change throughout the years. I think artists are better served by experimenting with different techniques to discover what they need in order to be productive than by being concerned with how someone else produces work.
But that doesn’t mean learning about someone else’s process is completely without merit, so here are some thoughts about mine, for whatever good it may do you.
At this point in my writing career, I’ve traditionally published fifty novels, nearly 200 short stories, and dozens of articles. I don’t feel like I’m especially prolific, but the other day I took a look at my 2023 Writing Deadlines document (I only make these when I’ve committed to so many projects that there’s a good chance I’ll forget something if I’m not careful) and since the start of the year, I’ve written one novel, two novellas, and eight short stories. (I’ve also written material for this blog – as I’m doing right now! – and for my newsletter.) Work I still need to do by the end of the year: one novel, four short stories, and an introduction to the ten-year anniversary edition of a friend’s book. A couple other projects are in the works, but no deadlines have been set yet.
For years, I’ve primarily written short stories when I get invited to contribute to anthologies, although I do write a few on spec every once in a while. (On spec means on speculation, without a contract already being in place.) The novels and novellas I write are almost always contracted for as well. (I did write one novella on spec early in the year, though.) What this means is that most of my work has a deadline involved, and those deadlines hold my feet to the fire when it comes to getting writing done.
I possess a number of qualities that aid in my being a productive writer. One is that I have a facility for language (always have), another is I write fast (always have), I tend not to have to revise too much when I’m finished (always been this way), and somehow I’m able to keep crippling doubt at bay and keep going (always been this way). I’ve always been an imaginative person, living inside my head most of the time, and I’ve always been a creative person. Ideas come to me all the time, mostly without my trying too hard. I love learning about writing and storytelling techniques (this didn’t start seriously until I was in my late teens), and this knowledge has given me a lot to draw on as I try to figure out my own process (and try to reconfigure it) over the years. I have a naturally analytical mind, I naturally work steadily at my goals (both my father and maternal grandmother were the same way), and I visualize many approaches to a problem before I try to solve it in the real world (including in my writing). I’m also able to make choices easily and quickly. They may not always be the best choices, but I can always fix them later (at least in my writing!). I can also focus like crazy, especially when I’m doing something that fascinates me.
All of the above qualities are natural for me. I wasn’t taught any of them, although I have worked to cultivate and sharpen them consciously over the years, but they all factor into how much writing I’m able to produce and at what speed I produce it. So I suppose my first piece of advice would be . . .
WRITER, KNOW THYSELF
I started out as an acting major in college, but I didn’t stay one for long. On the first day of acting class, our professor told us the only reason anyone should become an actor is because they have to, that they can’t imagine doing anything else with their life. Only with that kind of drive would they be able to endure the hardships and make the sacrifices that are often necessary to have a career in acting. I knew I didn’t have that kind of passion for acting, so I switched my major to theater education. That degree had English as a secondary teaching field, and I thought that since I liked theater, education, and English, by the end of four years, I’d hopefully figure out what the hell to do with my life. But I then asked myself if there was anything I loved – that I needed – so much that I’d be willing to make any sacrifice for it. I realized writing fiction was that thing, and so I decided to dedicate my life to it then and there (I told you I can make decisions fast!). Like a lot of creative kids, I tried it all in high school – theater, art, music, writing – and at one point or another I wanted to make each of these fields my career. But writing is the only field that aligns with my truest self. I don’t just like to write; I must write. It’s not a job for me and it’s not a hobby. It’s life. I need to write the same way I need to breathe. It’s that natural and necessary for me.
Maybe your need to write is as strong as mine – maybe stronger! Maybe it isn’t. If writing is just a part of your life (which is probably a lot healthier, let’s be honest) then maybe you don’t produce a lot of work because you’ve got other important stuff to do with your life as well. There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Accept this about yourself and go forth and live and write without guilt.
There are some things I’m not willing to sacrifice for my writing, though. I’ve always wanted a relationship, and I’ve always wanted children. Not having these things might’ve given me even more time for writing, but without them, I wouldn’t be a fulfilled person, I’d be miserable, and I’d probably have produced far less work throughout my life than I have. There’s an old bit of writing career advice: Make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater the chance you’ll succeed. My relationship with a significant other and my children are the only two items above writing on my list. If your list has a lot more items on it before you get to writing, so what? Accept it and don’t beat yourself up about it.
TIME AND SPACE TO WRITE
To finish my undergraduate degree (a B.S. in Education), I had to student teach at a local high school. It didn’t take long for me to realize that not only did teaching teenagers drain all my energy, making it hard to write at night, but that I’d be stuck working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or so (and probably grading essays at night). I worked at the Writing Center at my college, and I’d learned that people with an M.A. in English could teach college composition courses part-time. I realized that I needed time to write, especially when I was in the early stages of my career and trying to grow as a writer, and teaching comp part-time would give this to me. (And I wouldn’t have all the life sucked out of me before dinnertime every day.) This was the first conscious career choice I made to ensure I had time to write.
I was privileged in terms of paying for college. I had an inheritance that paid for my undergrad degree, and I got a teaching assistantship which paid for my M.A. I left college without any debt, so I didn’t have to take jobs I didn’t want to in order to pay off loans. I taught part-time for ten years while I wrote, until I decided that I should probably find a job with benefits since I was getting older, and it was becoming clear that my first wife and I would likely divorce before long (her job was the one that gave us and our kids benefits). I found a full-time, tenure-track job opening at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, applied for it, interviewed, and got the position. Yes, it was full time, but not 9-5 full time. There were gaps in my schedule, and these gaps gave me time to write, and I could schedule my grading time, so I could make sure to get my writing done before I had to mark papers. After 24 years there, it’s still a juggling act, but I’m good at that kind of juggling, and I don’t find it stressful. When my daughters were very young, I wrote a lot less, because they needed my time (and I needed time with them), and I didn’t worry about how much or little writing I produced. I knew writing time would return to me when as they grew, and it did, and my production returned to normal.
So I’ve been able – through a combination of privilege, luck, good decision-making, and hard work – to create a life in which writing is possible almost every day. Few people have day jobs that support their writing life that don’t swallow gigantic chunks of time and mental and physical energy. I’ve also been fortunate that teaching writing has taught me as much about writing as producing writing has. Both of my jobs feed into and support the other. I’m not just a writer or a teacher: I’ve created an entire life in writing.
When I was nine, my first relative died and a few months after that, I nearly drowned. This one-two punch of mortality awareness made me determined to waste as little time in my all-too-brief life as possible. This means that I don’t waste time playing video games or watching the latest popular TV show. I don’t waste time drinking or doing drugs. I don’t go out with friends. I write on weekends and holidays (if possible), and I usually only travel for conventions. I devote as much of my lifespan to writing as I possibly can, and – for me – this results in my living my best life. The more time and space I have in my life to write, the more I produce. Pretty simple. If you don’t have this kind of time to write, don’t get down on yourself. Write when you can and as much as you can and be happy. You’re building your writing life, not anyone else’s.
It’s damn hard – if not impossible – to concentrate and be creative if you’re sick all the time. I’ve been blessed with good health for the most part in my 59 years. My second wife jokes that I have such a strong immune system, I get sick for about eight hours and then I’m over it. I am diabetic, but so far, I’ve managed to keep that under control. I know my general good health is a temporary state. As I age, my health will decline (unless I’m hit by a truck tomorrow; then I won’t have to worry about aging!). But being healthy now means I have time to create. My wife has a number of health problems. She’s an artist, but she can only manage to produce so much work because of her health issues. I try to help her understand that given her circumstances, she’s producing as much as she can, but of course, she still gets down about it at times. It’s only natural.
And when my health isn’t that good, writing can give me something to focus on to distract me from my illness. I wrote the novelization of Halloween Kills when I had Covid (and that shit did not go away in eight hours!).
So factor in the state of your health at any given time when you assess how much you able to produce, and don’t beat yourself up for not writing a novel a year when you’re dealing with serious health issues.
My most serious health issue is mental health. I’m dysthymic, which means I suffer from a constant low-grade depression that can easily slide into a deep depression if I’m not careful. I take meds for this and I’ve had a lot of therapy to help me learn to deal with it. All of this helps, but I sometimes think writing is therapy for me on some level too. It lets me enter a kind of meditative state while I do something I love, and I can’t think of any better way to keep the black dog of depression at bay.
I’ve also been fortunate in that my family, friends, and spouses have always supported my writing. (My first wife was a bit lukewarm in her support until the checks started rolling in; after that she was Team Writing the whole way.) Not everyone is as lucky as I am. Many writers have to fight to get even a little time to themselves to write, with women in our culture especially viewed as selfish for attending to their needs instead of others’. A lack of support can have a huge impact on writing process and productivity, and while people might say Ignore those people or Cut them out of your life, it’s never as easy as that. You need to factor in your level of support when assessing how effective your process is and how much writing is enough for you to produce in a given time.
Open submission calls come with deadlines, and when I first started writing, I found these useful. Often, the calls were for theme anthologies, and I found the theme for the anthology an effective prompt to get me writing. I purposely sought out such calls partially because they were open, but also because of their deadlines. When I wrote for myself, I would make deadlines for myself, and while this helped, it didn’t give me the same solid structure as real deadlines. Now I have deadlines all the time, and when I do write on spec, it’s between deadlines. So my writing life is structured in a way that I don’t have the luxury of not producing. Some people would find this super-stressful, so I’d advise them not to commit to deadlines, but in general I find them motivating, and they keep me moving forward.
ADAPT AND THRIVE
One of the things I learned early on about my writing process is that I need to change it when it’s not working. I need to use the same imagination and creativity to help me find the best ways to produce work that I use to create the work itself. I’ve tried all these techniques at various times:
· Writing an hour a day at a set time every day. When I student taught in college, I wrote from 7-8 p.m every night.
· Writing a set amount of pages each day before I go to bed. It didn’t matter when I got the pages done. They just had to be finished before I went to sleep. And if I didn’t make my goal that day, I didn’t beat myself up about it. I just tried to meet the page count the next day. I’ve adjusted the number of pages over the years. I’ve done five pages a day, seven pages, ten pages, twenty pages . . . After my first daughter was born, I did one page a day for a while. The amount didn’t matter as much as continued forward progress. These days, the closest I get to this is calculating how many pages a day I need to write in order to meet a short deadline.
· I grew up in a noisy household, and a psychologist one told me that I need noise to block out in order to concentrate. I can use music for this, although it must be instrumental music. Music with words distracts me from writing my own words. When my kids were little, they couldn’t leave me alone when I was home so I could write (they were too little to understand), so I began writing at coffee shops, where there would be noise and activity around me, but where no one actually needed me for anything.
· When for whatever reason words wouldn’t come to me when I wrote using my computer, I handwrote text and inputted it into the computer later. I did this for years, handwriting at Starbucks until Covid hit. Then I began writing at home on my computer again, and I still haven’t gone back to handwriting first drafts. Maybe I will someday, maybe I won’t. Who knows?
· I learned years ago that I have a writing biorhythm. I can write twice a day, once every twelve hours, and produce at least five pages each time. If I have a short deadline or I’m behind on a project, I take advantage of this.
· I’ve written late at night when everyone else has gone to bed.
· These days, I tend to write early in the morning before anyone else is up. This works great because no matter what else the day brings, I’ve got my writing for the day finished.
· These days, I don’t consciously do much in the way of arranging my writing time. I write in the morning, usually write again in the afternoon, and if a project is going really well (or a deadline is looming), I’ll write later at night before I go to bed. If I’m close to the end of a novel, I’ll write every waking moment I have until it’s finished.
· I usually sell novels to editors based on short pitches or outlines, and I usually have a drafting outline for novels (but I don’t always refer to it as I write, since the overall story is in my head, and things often change somewhat as I write). I may have a simple outline for short stories or I may just pants them entirely. The last short story I finished I had a title and nothing else. I just started writing and kept going until I was done.
· I have started going out to Starbucks to write during afternoons again, but only a couple times a week, after my summer MW comp class is over. I don’t know if I’ll keep this up in Fall. It depends on what works best with my teaching schedule then.
· When I write at home these days, I sit on the couch in the living room so my dachshund Bailey can snooze next to me. I have a home office, but I have a lot of Funko Pops and action figures around that Bailey wants to chew up, and she has trouble understanding she’s not supposed to gnaw on my author copies, so I haven’t written in my office since we got her last year.
I adapt my writing process all the time in order to meet the needs of the moment. This is one of the huge factors in my productivity. I do my best not to let anything stop me and I keep going.
YOU DO NOT HAVE TO A BE A WRITING MACHINE CONSTANTLY CHURNING OUT PROSE, NOR DO YOU HAVE TO BE THE KIND OF ARTIST WHO TAKES YEARS TO WRITE A NOVEL
Writers too often compare themselves to other writers. If we see someone producing more than we do, we think something’s wrong with us. If we see someone taking a long time to write an artistically complex and beautiful work, we think we write too fast and too simply. If we see someone succeeding in writing crime novels, we fear that we may be wasting our time writing horror, or science fiction, or romance, etc.
Whatever you write at any given moment, whatever process you use, however much you produce, it’s all good. We may write for others to read our work, but we produce that work in the first place for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if it takes you ten minutes to write something, ten hours, ten weeks, ten months, ten years . . . All that matters is that writing itself leaves you feeling fulfilled, otherwise, why the hell do it?
Okay, I sat down in a Starbucks – with music playing, people talking, coffee machines whirring – to write this blog entry around noon. It’s now 2:48 pm as I type this (and it’s 3:27 as I’m proofreading). This article is around 3,500 words (it was then; now it’s ballooned to 4,260 words). This kind of nonfiction is easy for me to write. I just write about myself and think about how what I have to say might help other writers. If I’d chosen to write fiction this afternoon, I might’ve produced about half that many words, maybe less if it was a new story and I was still trying to find my way into it. So the type of thing I write affects my process as well. I won’t make any money from this blog entry, and although I’ll add some promotional material below, I know not everyone who reads this will click on the links below and buy one of my books. So what? I wrote this entry to clarify my thoughts about my writing process and to have an article to link to whenever someone asks me about my process since I can never give anyone a simple answer to explain it. I wrote it to hopefully help writers, too. So given what I set out to do, I’ve succeeded, and I feel fulfilled as a writer.
This brings me to one last thought. My friend author Taylor Grant says he tries to write with intention but without attachment to a specific outcome. This means that he has artistic goals when he writes something, and if he achieves those goals, he’s succeeded. Whatever happens to the piece afterward happens, and regardless of what happens, he can’t fail because he’s already succeeded. I think if all artists could learn to work with this kind of healthy detachment, they’d be better off. So whatever your process or however much you produce in however much time it takes you, if doing the work fulfills you, you’ve succeeded. I feel as if I succeeded at what I tried to communicate with this blog entry, and I feel fulfilled.
And that’s what matters most.
If you have any writing process tips you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments!
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
But if you’d like to buy something of mine, that would be good too!
Your Turn to Suffer Sale!
The eBook edition of my novel Your Turn to Suffer is currently 99 cents at both Amazon and B&N! I don’t how long this sale will last, so snag a copy while you can!
Lord of the Feast Available to Preorder!
My next novel for Flame Tree, Lord of the Feast, won’t be out until April 2024, but the paperback is available for preorder. (The ebook edition should be available to preorder soon.) No cover art to share yet. This is the last book I was contracted to write for Flame Tree, so if you’ve enjoyed my novels for them, the best way to make sure I get to write more is to buy, review, and spread the word about A Hunter Called Night and preorder Lord of the Feast.
I’ve already had a few people ask if Lord of the Feast connects to my overarching dark fantasy/horror mythos, and the answer is yes, although you can read and enjoy the book without any prior knowledge of my other work.
Twenty years ago, a cult attempted to create their own god: The Lord of the Feast. The god was a horrible, misbegotten thing, however, and the cultists killed the creature before it could come into its full power. The cultists trapped the pieces of their god inside mystic nightstones then went their separate ways. Now Kate, one of the cultists’ children, seeks out her long-lost relatives, hoping to learn the truth of what really happened on that fateful night. Unknown to Kate, her cousin Ethan is following her, hoping she’ll lead him to the nightstones so that he might resurrect the Lord of the Feast – and this time, Ethan plans to do the job right.
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