Jessica Keener: Variations in the writing process

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This piece was originally posted by SheWrites in October 2013.

Jessica KeenerThere’s a fascination around how writers write. I’m guessing this is because we’re all seeking ways to capture the magic that happens in the creative process. (Do you write with pen or computer? Do you have your own space? A special time?) It’s my deep belief, however, that there are no absolute, right methodologies when it comes to one’s own creative undertakings. What’s right is what works for you. There may some common patterns, but I feel so strongly about this that I hope it raises your hairs should anyone try to impose a single or “correct” way for you to go about your writing. The magic is what you conjure up in the way that best works for you and your lifestyle.  Some of us are single or working full-time jobs or raising kids. All of these things factor into how we best manage our creative output.

Having said this, I’m eager to hear about your writing habits–individual and bizarre quirks–in your comments here. . . .Finally, if what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe something here will spur you to try a different approach that will take you to a more productive place. I’ll share mine first.

1) Do you have a schedule or best writing time?
Mornings are by far my best writing time. I pretty much stick with a five-day schedule, M-F, but will work evenings and on weekends if I have a deadline. These days, however, I don’t have to maneuver my time around child issues and demands (carpooling, teacher meetings, after-school activities), which is significant. I have much more time during the day but I still schedule walks and errands for afternoons whenever possible.

2) Word count – How many words do you write per day? Does it matter?
When I’m drafting a new novel, I set out to write 500 words a day, five days a week. First drafts are the most fatiguing for me, so 500 words per day feels doable, doesn’t overwhelm me, and adds up. The simple fact of making weekly progress fuels my confidence to keep going until I get that first draft on the page. After that, I don’t think about word count. I think in terms of chapters, and scenes, characters, timelines, and plot issues. When writing short essays for magazines, word count is a given part of the equation. In those instances, I think in terms of how many hours I need to complete the task.

3) Are you an outliner or not?
I’ve come to understand that I’m an experiential learner and that outlining doesn’t work for me when I’m drafting a novel or short story. I have to do the writing and rewriting, make a mess, and redraft many times to get to the center of what I’m doing and to figure out where I’m heading. During revisions, I won’t hesitate to jot down notes, use file cards for character descriptions, create lists on my yellow legal pads as I become conscious of plot and timelines, but a true outline, which I’ve tried, doesn’t accelerate the process for me. In fact, it seems to have a reverse effect. Rather than taking me deeper into the story, it pulls me out of it and the process becomes too intellectual or logical for me. This isn’t an argument for or against outlines, it’s simply about what works for my individual drafting style.

4) Do you put your drafts away to rest?
Yes. I keep going by stopping. That sounds contradictory, but I believe in giving myself time for my subconscious to do its work. For both short and longer work, I build in time to step away. It helps me detach from the words so when I return, I feel much freer to delete and rearrange, to let go of what isn’t serving the piece as a whole, the larger intention and vision of the novel or short story. This cooling process might last a day, months, even a year if I’m working on a novel, particularly if I’m feeling blocked, blind, stuck, or tangled. When that happens, I’ll work on something else to give my mind and emotions a break.

Now it’s your turn. What about you?

Women in BedJessica Keener is the author of national bestseller Night Swim. Her latest book, Women in Bed, is out now. You can learn more at our website.

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On December 11, 2013
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