Reading a second time Jordan Rosenfeld’s A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice, what I find myself focusing on is that subtitle. A year ago, I was most interested in learning how to be persistent, write daily, and “love the [writer’s] journey on the way to your destination” [pg. 13]. There is wonderful advice throughout Rosenfeld’s book about sticking with and cultivating a writing habit. This year, I feel ready to develop my writing process, one tailored for me, to help me start and finish first drafts, revise them, and, when they are ready, send them out to potential publishers for consideration. I again turn to Rosenfeld’s book; it’s just that fantastic. I prefer the word “process” and will mostly use it here in my post, but I appreciate the reasons why Rosenfeld uses the apt phrase “writing practice.”
A writing practice or process is individualized. You pay attention to your own patterns and preferences and begin to select the steps and tools that work best for you. You carve out your own space and time for writing. You reject what isn’t helpful and you practice what is. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing all of this and with my fledgling new writing process I crafted the first draft of a 5000-word short story. I’m not offering the details of my writing process as a model for what will work for you. Mine is just one example of a writing process that will hopefully inspire you to build your own.
Space and Time Enough
I’m fortunate to be single, have a flexible day job, and have lots of free time to carve out my own space and time for writing without having to negotiate or compromise with other people. You will have your own circumstances and responsibilities to navigate as you attempt to do the same. In chapter 6 of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Rosenfeld describes a lot of the boundaries writers may need to build in their own lives so that they can focus on writing. From creating “a do-not-disturb zone” to shunning people who are “energy suckers” to confronting your own negative behaviors, these boundaries let you divide your life between writing and everything and everyone else. I find it useful in my own process to carve out a very sacred space devoted to writing that is also devoid of distractions. It’s called Story Land [defunct] and it’s a quiet and affordable writing space in Tucson, Arizona. I recently signed up as a member and it has transformed my process. I can write at home, but I’ve experienced much more productivity for longer periods of time by coming to Story Land afternoons after work. The benefits go far beyond the quietness. I find under warm lighting in the cozy corner I’ve picked out for myself upstairs a bubble of time and space that frees me from thinking about anything other than writing. Because my time at Story Land is so distraction-free and focused, I’ve discovered that I’m free to focus on work at work and on relaxing when I’m home. I had no idea that restricting overlap would improve all areas of my life!
No, you do not need to rent a space to write. That’s barely within my own budget. You can, however, carve out for you and your writing a place that is separate from your other activities and responsibilities. Be it the guest bedroom, a corner of a room, the hour before or after everyone else goes to bed, your lunch break at work, etc., the physical and temporal drawing of boundaries around you and your writing does wonders for your mental commitment to writing.
Why do you write? What is its value to you? Chapter 2 in Rosenfeld’s book is about building your own writer’s code as a foundation for your writing process. Rosenfeld asks you to first contemplate “What is the value of your writing?” [pg. 13]. I found that for me personally, writing is a part of my thinking things through. Writing helps me better understand the world and other people in the world. It’s been that way since I can remember. If I never published anything or made any money from writing, it would still be valuable because it’s part of how I process things. Writing as a process for another process. Neat!
After I discovered this, I found writing about writing to be especially helpful for my craft. That’s why I now have a section on my site titled “Writing Tips.” I’m happy to share these essays and I hope others find something useful in them, but the act of writing them really does help me work out what is important to me about writing and how to improve my craft. What is my writing process? That’s what I’m discovering by documenting and articulating it here in this post.
I don’t think making money or finding fame are bad reasons for wanting to write, but they certainly aren’t the only possible reasons. Whatever your reasons, listing them will help you turn writing into a habit, into a process, into a persistent practice.
The Where and When of Writing
The next question Rosenfeld asks in her book as you build your writer’s code is “What is your writing rhythm?” [pg. 14]. I wasn’t really able to answer that last year, but this year I think I know. I prefer it quiet, so cafes and noisy restaurants don’t really work for me, and Story Land is perfect. I prefer writing in the afternoon and evenings, though I have enjoyed writing first thing in the morning on occasion. I seem to be able to write for about two hours before I need a break, and it’s often difficult for me to come back and continue writing, unless I switch from my current project to something like a blog post.
In the past two weeks, I have discovered additional patterns that feel natural to my process. For example, I found that I can generally write two days in a row but on the third day I often enjoy taking time away from writing to think about and research my story further, which sets me up nicely to write again on day four. This pattern will likely change dramatically depending on the project and genre I’m working on, but it was cool to see that pattern emerge so clearly now that I have given myself the space and time to write regularly.
Taking time to figure out your own patterns of behavior will give you a starting point for your writing process. The more responsibilities you have, the harder it might be to adapt your patterns, but at least you will have a better understanding of the where and when and other details of your writing, and a sense of the writing process you will want to aim for eventually. With this start, you will also be able to address the last two questions Rosenfeld asks that will lead to your own writer’s code: “What are you willing to risk?” [pg. 15] and “Who is your creative support team?” [pg. 16].
The Balance of Research and Writing
I’ve been writing on and off for decades and I’ve been finishing projects in just the past few years, but only in the past two weeks have I been working out how to do the necessary level of research for my stories. I started a short story about artists in Portland, Oregon even though I don’t know a lot about fine art or artists and I haven’t lived in Portland in decades. I was writing about an artists collective but I realized I didn’t really know much about them, let alone how they operate in Portland. I had written quite a bit of the story over a couple nights, but I decided on the third night to go home and spend a few hours reading up on artists and Portland and other details. The protagonist is loosely based on a real artist, so it was easy to find interviews with him and study his website and portfolio. I used Google Maps to explore downtown Portland and figure out where the locations in my story should be. I found Craigslist listings for artists and artist collectives. I reviewed a few studio websites. None of my research was that in-depth, but it provided the right level of information I needed to improve my story and avoid glaring errors. I also didn’t spend more than a few hours that evening on that round of research. I returned to my story with my head full of new ideas and jargon the next day, and I immediately sensed as I wrote how the research had improved my story.
A week later, I started writing about another character in the story and I realized that it was time for another evening of research. Research this time was a documentary I found on Amazon Prime. The documentary convinced me to modify the details of this character quite significantly. The character came alive not as someone who might have appeared in this documentary but as someone very different on the page. Research is great not just for confirming or enhancing details, but for discovering what details you might need to change or remove, too.
Research also happened unexpectedly while I was involved in other activities. I’ve been reading literary fiction recently, such as David Constantine’s In Another Country: Selected Stories and a couple stories in 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press. I realized while reading Constantine’s “The Mermaid” that his description of the wood carver’s activities provided a nice prompt for how to write about my own artist’s activities. How Zadie Smith crafted and used the third person narrator in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” suggested to me ways I could focus more on my protagonist’s thoughts and concerns related to his art and his understanding of success.
I was so struck by how my unrelated reading provided help with my current writing exactly when I needed it most. Rosenfeld refers to these unexpected parallels and that sense of a hidden order between your writing and other activities as “synchronicity” [pgs. 67-68]. Rosenfeld suggests keeping a synchronicity diary; I started a writing diary in which I also include any synchronicity that may have happened that day. The very idea of keeping such a diary led me to highlight the “Writing Process” section on my blog. Whatever forces are at work, I’m finding the various activities in my life inform each other in wonderful and unexpected ways, and this is leading me to new creative horizons.
So how much research is necessary? I knew that great detail about the subject matter was not particularly important in the story I was writing. It was enough to make sure I got the details I did use right. The next project I start, however, will likely require much more research. It’s a science fiction story about chimeras and if you have been following the latest research, the breakthroughs have been quite stunning while the ethical questions these creatures pose have been staggering. I don’t believe I can get away with a quick Google search about chimeras. I plan at the very least to read recent science papers and books about chimeras and related topics. I think there also might be opportunities to request interviews with local scientists who are involved with this kind of research. Interviewing makes me anxious and nervous, but I have interviewed experts before, so I know I can do it if I determine it will be useful.
Your writing projects will determine how much research is necessary for each, but one thing to remember: don’t use research as a procrastination tool! I really like the idea of spending a weekend doing substantial research before starting a new story on Monday, and then spending a few hours every few days doing a little more research, until the first draft is finished. I can then determine how much more research is necessary before I start the second draft.
I’ll admit here that the hardest part about coming up with my own writing process has been fitting in research. I’m only taking baby steps, but I’m slowly learning what works for me without becoming overwhelmed. I’ve discovered that I need to be flexible about how I spend the time I otherwise devote to writing. Most evenings I will indeed write, but an occasional evening spent on further research keeps me informed, motivated, and ready to tackle the next part of the story.
The writing process I’ve experimented with so far during two weeks of weekday evening writing, punctuated by a few hours of research, and devoting a few more hours to reading and being inspired has left me weekends to relax, plan, research, and, yes, frequently do some writing. I like this process so far, but what I haven’t added in yet, and will do so this week, is time for major revisions.
When I finish a story, I like to let it sit for a week or two before I jump into significant rewrites. Tonight I will start working on the fourth major draft of a fairy tale I plan to submit to Fairy Tale Review in March. I started this story back in September 2015, but since last summer I’ve been coming back to it again and again and finishing new drafts. For the third draft, I focused on the overall structure of the story and I fixed some glaring plot holes and confusing details about the proximity of various objects and locations in the story. Time away from this draft and focus on other projects lets me return to it tonight with fresh eyes. For the fourth draft, I plan to focus even more on each sentence and things like tone and mood. I’m giving myself two weeks, though I have no idea if that is more than enough time or not enough. And there’s the submission deadline.
I happen to like editing and revising a lot. I’ve found it exceptionally helpful to occasionally (usually with the second or third draft) waste the paper to print out a physical copy of a piece and with a pen and even a pair of scissors get down and dirty with my edits. Laying out scenes on my carpet at home gives me a very different view of my story than I get from scrolling through it on a computer screen.
I’m also developing a preference for the order of my revisions. For me, a first draft is really a series of drafts that eventually leads to a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s about getting the story out of my head and onto the page. The second major draft is about the overall structure of the story and refining the plot, characters, and other elements. Third drafts might be about structure again, but I also start to refine my language. Fourth and later drafts, as necessary, might focus on just one or two elements of craft at a time, such as one focused on characters, one on atmosphere, mood, and tone, and another on spelling and grammar. I’m really just beginning to immerse myself in revision, so I’m sure my process will change and be refined as I do it more and more.
100 Rejections a Year
The point of developing a writing process is, for me at least, to eventually finish stories and send them out to potential markets. A variety of sources have suggested that instead of measuring your success by how many stories you have had published, it’s much healthier and more helpful, especially as a beginner, to measure your progress by how many rejections you have received. I happen to love rejections. They make me feel a little sad, but they also make me feel really productive and accomplished. A rejection reminds me that I have successfully started and finished, revised and finalized, formatted and submitted a complete story.
I have a few rejections already, but this year my goal is to receive 100 rejections. Nearing the end of February, I’m beginning to think I won’t come anywhere close to that number by the end of December, but I’m going to do the best I can, learn what I can about this part of my writing process, and keep the same goal in 2018 and beyond.
My Writing Process
The writing process I’m building covers the writing, research, revision, and submission of short stories. I’m only a couple weeks into a preliminary idea for my process, so I’m being flexible and kind to myself while I work things out. I’m really happy to be at this stage in my writing career, and I hope this focus on process will eventually lead me beyond daily writing to many finished stories and frequent submissions to potential markets.
Books like A Writer’s Guide to Persistence are also a part of my process. I’ve spent decades reading books about writing to try to inspire myself to write more. Now that I’m writing regularly, I’m reading these books to help me build my writing process, to improve my craft, to be persistent, and to take the next steps toward the next milestones in my writing career.
The first step—learning to write regularly—can be a very difficult one to take and maintain, and I recommend you reach that habit, that dedication, that persistence, first. It seems like it took too long for me to get to this point, but I’m also thankful it didn’t take me any longer. What develops next is, in my opinion, the fun part: your very own writing process and taking the next steps to finished pieces ready for submission.