PHIL’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING (AFTER HENRY MILLER)

1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.

3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

5. Write something . . . anything . . . but write!

6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.

7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 11: WRITE FIRST AND ALWAYS

Well, we’ve finally made it to the eleventh and last of this long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a last look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

It’s come to the end, and here I finally disagree with Henry Miller on general principle when he says:

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

If that was meant to say: Write first thing in the morning then get to everything else . . . and based on his Program, it may well be, then okay, maybe—but then there are people, like me, who don’t tend to write particularly well in the morning and for no particular reason, though I suppose I could probably teach myself to write in the morning.

Instead, what I think Henry Miller means here is bigger than a day’s schedule. He means prioritize writing (and as with most if not all of these commandment, we can sub in any career for writing) over all other things, no matter what—“first and always.”

You know what?

Nope.

After all, this is the same guy who warned us not to be a draught horse, to “keep human” and maintain our connections to the people and the world around us, and now he seems to be telling us, “Yeah, do that, but work always takes first priority.”

Sorry, Mr. Miller. I refuse to live like that, and I refuse to encourage other people to put work first—even if that work is creative writing.

Think about this with “write” switched out for other occupations:

Sell insurance first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Hang drywall first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Trade stocks first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Design user interfaces first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Again, nope.

I know a lot of people who put a lot of things before whatever job it is they do, no matter how much they love that work: kids/family, friends, pets, faith, even hobbies . . . all come before work.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this morning I happened upon Stephen Moore’s article “What the Fuck is Work-Life Balance?” This has been a concern of mine for a long time, but especially since I’ve been out on my own as a freelancer. Let’s start with Moore’s definition of work-life balance:

This balance is the ability to seamlessly juggle the responsibilities of work, with the responsibilities of life. Work all day. Party all night. It is being able to contain your work hours, allowing other hours to free up, so you can cook nice meals at home, watch movies, meet friends, spend time with loved ones and maintain some form of social life. In an ideal world, we would all live with a perfect work-life balance, and no one would have a single grumble.

This is tough for a lot of people, in a lot of circumstances. When, like me, you work from home and your “company” has an employee roster of one, and your office is in a little nook in the upstairs hallway, your commute is up a single flight of stairs, this concept of work-life balance can be almost impossible to understand, much less achieve. How do I leave work at work when I live in my workplace? If I shut off my “work” phone, well, that’s the same as my “home” phone.

And all this even assumes that everyone reading this is writing full time.

I know that’s far from the case.

Most of the people I know are writers, and maybe three or four of them do it full time. So then at some point a “day job” can come between you and your writing—especially if you’re a reasonably responsible person and have a family that at least in part depends on you, you have rent or a mortgage to pay, student loans hovering over you, or indulge in other crazy luxuries like electricity, food, or internet/phone service.

If you’re not 100% sure you’re in a position to quit your day job—don’t quit your day job!

If your kids are hungry and you haven’t written yet, feed them, get them off to school, then write. But at the same time, yes, we do need to find time, make time, even insist on time to write. Stephen Moore wrote:

A hugely important part of finding this balance is having periods of time completely switched off from work. One way to do this is to set work day hours for emails/calls. (This will probably be ignored if the matter is important). Make clients and colleagues aware that you will respond within said business hours. There is nothing wrong with that.

And I think this matches up with previous advice from Henry Miller to set aside some writing time, but to balance that with other activities—being a human out there in the world. So can you work with your family, one way or another, to provide you with some uninterrupted hour for writing? I bet you can—even if your kids are home for summer vacation.

And then how about this idea:

Who says we have to confine our lives to a set list of priorities?

Things change—sometimes on a day to day, even hour by hour basis. I often go through busy periods where I’ll pretty much stop everything to get one project done, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting that project always and forever at the top of my priority list. It doesn’t mean I even have a “priority list” to begin with.

Honestly, I think in order to achieve any kind of work-life balance, any sort of balance in our lives at all, we need to remain awake and flexible and ready to change on a moment’s notice. I said above that maybe I could train myself to write in the morning, and maybe I could—but why? I think it’s better to train yourself, especially if you have a day job, a family—any other important components to an actual human life—to write any time, anywhere, however you can fit it in. Can you write for twenty minutes on the bus in the morning? On the two hour flight to and from a business trip? While your kids are at school or at night when everyone else is asleep, or, for that matter, early in the morning when everyone else is asleep?

We might not be able to put writing first and always—let’s try to put writing in there somewhere.

I’m going to leave the eleventh commandment off my own list, since I think this is all covered under:

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

So, yeah . . . write. And parent. And work at whatever other job(s) you have. And play games. And go to museums. And read. And pay bills. And mow the lawn. And . . .

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 10: THINK ONLY OF THE BOOK YOU ARE WRITING

Welcome to the penultimate chapter of this rather long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. As always, if you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, it feels as though Mr. Miller is repeating himself with:

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

. . . which certainly feels of a kind with the first two commandments: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and “Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.” But of course I can’t just leave it at that so let’s see if we can dig into this for some separate meaning.

In “Cement Not Fertilizers,” Kat Sommers wrote:

I think my favourite is “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing”. There’s such a disjunction between the two—what you want to write and what you’re able to write. Sometimes the fear of the latter means you write nothing at all.

We have looked at the idea of fear—being afraid to get started, afraid of committing to one project, and so on, but here I think Miller is going back to that warning against distraction. It could be that what you’re working on now is a fun, commercial, YA fantasy novel. It’s a great idea, you like your characters, and the outline at least feels good—feels like a story.

But it isn’t the Great American Novel.

First of all, who says that a YA fantasy can’t be the Great American Novel? In fact, one of the primary contenders for that crown, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a YA novel, though not fantasy. And how important to the culture, in general, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

Let’s just agree that as an author you have no say whatsoever in your book’s legacy. Classic status isn’t written into the text—it comes later and always from surprising directions.

So then what is that Great American Novel that’s pushing you away from the Work in Progress?

I have this idea that’s been percolating in my head for years now—a historical novel—that I’ve made some stabs at researching, but always end up setting aside for other things. It’s an idea, still, and a notebook full of historical notes and scattered character sketches and plot points, but I haven’t felt as though I’m ready to start writing it because I’m not sure I’ve done enough research—so that idea sits while I wander through other stuff. Even before I saw these commandment’s of Henry Miller’s, I’d set that idea aside—the book I want to write—in favor of the book I am writing.

And here’s the big disconnect . . .

Phil the author is waiting until he’s “ready” to start that historical novel, though in some ways that idea sometimes eclipses my enthusiasm for the work in progress—the book I do feel “ready” for. (And I’ve put “ready” in quotes because I’m not sure I have a clear definition for what that means in this context.) I’m following Henry Miller’s advice.

But as an editor, as a consultant who works with authors sometimes with their whole careers in mind, my advice would actually be—and has actually very recently been—just the opposite.

Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

Even if it is a big, scary historical epic. Even if it doesn’t match up to anything on the current best sellers list (which, by the way, will look completely different by the time you’ve finished writing either the for-profit YA dystopian SF thing or the philosophically rich, borderline preachy historical).

I do, for what it’s worth, agree in spirit that once you’ve committed yourself to a project, you should do your best to see it through. But at the same time I’ve advised, and will continue to advise, that you walk away from a story you find wanting. If you’re just torturing yourself, trying to slog through some failed attempt, at some point the rational thing to do is recognize it as a failed attempt, learn from your mistakes, and be a better writer for the next idea.

For me, the dark fantasy will still come first, then the historical, but I think I need to move that up, research be damned. After all, another piece of advice that I actually gave to an author last week is to just dive in and start writing. The characters and the unfolding story will tell you where the holes in your research are.

I’ll take that advice to heart with my big, scary historical.

At first, I thought that this week I’d break from Henry Miller enough to simply not include this in a reworked version for my own “commandments,” but then reading back I think this bears repeating, and should be in every author’s mind:

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 9: DISCARD THE PROGRAM

Kind of a short one today—I have a long to do list ahead of me!

I’m getting close to the end of this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Though meant as advice for writers, it’s struck me over the past few weeks that this list can just as easily be applied to any occupation, or as general life advice. This week, we’ll look at the ninth commandment in that light—not as how to write better or to be a more productive author, but to point us all in the direction of that elusive work/life balance, starting with Henry Miller’s advice to:

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

The Program, as he described it, is broken down in Part 4 of this series, and you can click back to that here for a refresh, if necessary.

I am a to do lister, and pretty much always have been. Though I’ve read all the advice on why to do lists are bad, that they tend to be un-doable and so only provide a source of guilt, or contain too many little busy work/work avoidance task so that checking them off seems like “work,” but isn’t . . . I know all that. And in an effort to combat either unrealistic expectations or unreal work, I’ve massaged my to do list schemes over and over again until I’ve ended up with something that sort of works.

And let’s be honest, all you can really ever achieve is “sort of works.”

The Apollo program sort of worked. American democracy sort of works. Every computer on Earth sort of works. Why do I need to hold my to do list to a higher standard?

This is, I think, part of what Henry Miller is trying to tell us with this bit of advice. Though he had a fairly well thought through program, with things to be done in the morning, afternoon, and evening, here he’s telling us it’s okay if we occasionally fall off the wagon, or take a day off, or fail to get to an item or two. If there’s a day when we haven’t completed all the work (whether that’s writing or accounting or selling insurance or building houses) we planned to do that day, well . . . tomorrow is a new day. Get back up on that horse and get back to work.

My own to do list, which exists primarily as a Stickies window off to the left side of my computer screens, is a fluid thing. If I don’t finish all of the seven items on it for today that follow “FAH Post,” which I’m working on now, those items will be pushed to tomorrow, and so on, until I get to my standard weekend to do list item: “Catch up on any unfinished work.”

That having been said, I do beat myself up a bit when those items aren’t all completed, and sometimes end up revising the whole to do list somewhere mid-week, reprioritizing to shift maximum work to one urgent project that will clear the decks for other things next week. This process feels a lot like what Henry Miller was trying to say with:

Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

And again, this advice works just as well for my “day job” work as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor as it does for my own writing.

In my own list of commandments, post-Henry Miller, I’d rewrite this as:

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

Boy, that feels easy. Almost too easy. But it really is that easy.

Every morning I like to pause, look at my to do list and calendar, and put a few minutes’ thought into what today’s biggest priority really is. Sometimes that’s multiple smaller projects, sometimes it’s one big desk-clearing uber-project. Whatever today brings, look at your version of this Program as an achievable goal, but in the same way that we can give ourselves permission to write a short, bad book, we can give ourselves permission to have a short, bad work day—to be revised with intent tomorrow!

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 8: DON’T BE A DRAUGHT HORSE

We’re rounding the final curve in this very long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, and if you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, Henry Miller proclaims:

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

On first glance, this feels like the same advice from his third commandment: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. But maybe not. In my run-down of that piece of advice I focused on the nervousness, if not outright fear, of facing that blank page knowing there are 90,000 words to be typed. Here, I think, the advice is more about how to write once you’ve broken past the fear of beginning or the intimidation factor a full-length novel can certainly engender in the best of us.

Having given ourselves permission just to do today’s writing today—and a novel is not written in one day!—and to think of our rough drafts as our “short, bad book,” let’s not forget that the act of writing itself should be fun.

True, there are some books that shouldn’t be particularly fun, or even pleasurable, to write. I once wrote an (as yet and very most likely never to be produced) screenplay that gave me nightmares—it was a very dark, dark thing I was making and not intended to be “fun” for anyone. I set that aside over and over again, but was always dragged back to the story and eventually finished it. I’ve also spent the last ten years or so telling myself I should rewrite it in the form of a novel (or novella) but I have yet to start that—maybe because it doesn’t seem like something that would be particularly fun to write—not like some of the definitely much more fun pulp stuff, or even the dark fantasy novel I keep semi-working on.

I have fun writing horror—scaring people in that particular context can be fun as hell. For the record, that context is that no one is actually harmed in any way and it’s sold as horror fiction so people who don’t like to read scary books can just pass from the get-go.

But I feel as though we need to concentrate on figuring out how to write difficult, challenging, disturbing (etc.) material “with pleasure” while not feeling like some kind of psychopath.

I think it’s possible, and even healthy, to take a sort of pleasure in the crafting of very dark fiction, fiction that has a difficult political or cultural message, or is set against the backdrop of real world horrors like the Holocaust. But rather than the sort of feeling you might get from writing a really fun sword and sorcery fight scene or the funny bit where the cute little robot does something silly, the “pleasure” comes from the feeling that you’ve conveyed your message in a way that will touch people.

If you feel you’ve treated that difficult subject matter correctly, there’s pleasure in that. It doesn’t mean: “I had a blast writing Night,” said Elie Wiesel, “what a hoot that was!” But there had to be some release there, some sense that he said something that needed to be said in a way that people would hear and understand it.

Don’t take this commandment from Henry Miller as an indication that everything you write has to be fun and frivolous and silly—though, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, too!

This is one of those things that I sometimes forget, myself—and really need to remember, all day every day:

Writing makes me happy while I’m writing.

Even when I’m trying to convince you of something or scare the pants off you or reveal some horrifying internal darkness from within myself or that I perceive in the word around us.

Let’s not be draught horses or factory workers. Let’s, as Jane Yolen very eloquently taught us in her must-read book called, not coincidentally, Take Joy, take joy in the work itself, in that rush of a well-formed sentence, in discovering from the depths of your subconscious the exactly perfect word for that moment right there, in nailing the emotional arc, in being surprised by a sudden idea that remaps the trajectory of your entire story . . . all that stuff and more.

With all that in mind, I’ll make my version of this commandment a little simpler:

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

It will keep you writing, and it will keep you writing better.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S.: I’m scheduling this to post on Tuesday, July 18, while I’ll be out on vacation. I’ve never done this before, so I hope I don’t screw it up. If you’re reading this on Tuesday the 18th, it means I didn’t screw it up, and I’ll take great pleasure in that!

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 7: KEEP HUMAN!

Ah, just about perfectly timed, this one. I wish I could say I was some kind of blogging mastermind and actually planned this, scheduling this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing to get right to this one the week before I leave for Las Vegas for my first proper vacation in five years.

But it just worked out that way.

If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, we’ll look at Henry Miller’s advice to:

7. Keep human! See people, go places,

drink if you feel like it.

Oh.

Hell.

Yes right now.

I’m not going to get into a whole whiny thing about not going on vacation often enough, or march out the same depressing statistics about how many vacation days American workers routinely leave on the table, or the generally probably more true than anyone wants to admit feeling that if you take a week off your boss will realize that everything was fine while you were gone and fire you when you get back . . . all those things plus the studies about how we’re murdering ourselves and each other with stress and people in Norway go on vacation every year and almost never shoot each other.

It’s especially difficult for me to take some kind of vacation-activist stance since I work for myself and get as many vacation days as I decide to give myself, there is no “team” doing my work when I’m gone or some other junior employee ready to back-stab his way into my job if I take a week off. And fortunately for me—and yes, I really do understand just how lucky this makes me—there are large portions of my job that entail doing things I’d probably be doing as a hobby on my time off anyway.

But still, even a really great job can back up on you after a certain amount of time, and though I edit happily, write (even ghostwrite, which has a package of joys all its own) blissfully, eventually any human has to stop doing the thing—whatever that thing is—and spend a week doing some other thing.

So next week, I’m off to fabulous Las Vegas where my wife and I will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary seeing people, going places, and drinking if we feel like it (and I plan on feeling like it).

Still, I have this feeling that Henry Miller didn’t mean for me, or anyone, to “keep human” for four sun-filled days and three star-filled nights every five years then otherwise “work” if we can’t “create.” I’m willing to bet that when he wrote that he meant for us to keep human: see people, go places, drink if we feel like it, on a daily basis.

Though I often find myself in some very deadline-intensive weeks (or even months) and this week, sliding into that vacation, is one of those—when multiple projects all scream for immediate attention simultaneously—I hardly work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I take at least partial days off fairly regularly.

Sometimes this makes me feel guilty, sitting on my butt watching Game of Thrones (again, but the new season starts this Sunday, so . . .) instead of working, but sometimes my brain just shuts down. Frankly, setting a project aside for a few hours while I’m out there being human (or in my living room being Dothraki) is better serving my clients (and my readers) than forcing my way through their projects while my brain is actively trying to push me elsewhere.

Binge watching TV shows aside, though, I do need to be more human than I have been lately. I need to leave the house more often.

One of the things they don’t tell you when you decide to work from home (or that decision is made for you) is how often that means you don’t actually walk outside. I’ve been afraid to track it and, y’know, observing it will alter the outcome, but there have been stretches of at least three days in a row where I have not stepped outside at all—even to take the dogs for a walk. Maybe five days. I might have gone a week in here, as if I were under house arrest.

I’m wearing pants right now, though, and drove my wife to work this morning, so good day so far!

Forbes contributor Sunday Steinkirchner touched on this in her article “The Pros and Cons of Working from Home”:

It can also be a personal issue, as most people view the separation of work and play as a good thing. A physical separation from your work can provide a mental or emotional separation. When spending long stretches at home without business trips, it’s our first inclination to spend every waking hour working. It can be hard to take a break and impose structured hours on ourselves, but sometimes the only way to relieve stress is to get out of our apartment.

I’ll say that Henry Miller is telling us, on a day to day basis, not to be mad, cloistered monks. To get out there and see people and function as something other than a Writer for a portion of every day. I’m adding that watching TV doesn’t really count.

My bad there.

Or, anyway . . . does it count?

In his Atlantic article “The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks are Good for Productivity,” Derek Thompson wrote:

The more we learn about human attention, the more limited it seems. Overtime binges lead to bursts of output that exert a hangover effect in later days. Study after study indicates that short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive. Literature on teacher research at universities—a notoriously grueling enterprise—showed that faculty are more productive when they work in brief stints rather than all-consuming marathon sessions. Another study published in the journal Cognition found that short breaks allow people to maintain their focus on a task without the loss of quality that normally occurs over time.

And this after quoting a study that says some amount of “work time” spent poking around on the Internet (or, I’ll add myself, watching Game of Thrones) is actually good for you—is a version of “keeping human” Henry Miller couldn’t have foreseen.

How then, should I revise this for our new century?

How about:

7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.

I’m going to.

And we’ve also promised each other the next one will come before 2022!

 

—Philip Athans

P.S. And don’t be surprised or call me a liar or hypocrite if you see a post here next Tuesday. It means I wrote it this week and scheduled it to post on Tuesday the 18th. See how technology actually enables time off?

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 6: CEMENT A LITTLE EVERY DAY

We’ve come to what I think is the most difficult of this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

What makes this difficult—for me—is that I have to admit I’m not 100% sure what he’s talking about when he says:

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

David Caolo, in “Productivity with Henry Miller” thinks, “number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) ‘Project B’ until Project A is complete.” But if that’s true, then, so far, four of the first six commandments essentially say the same thing: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and the other two tell us to do that happily, whether we want to or not—which is weird when you put it like that.

But that can’t be—there needs to be something new here, something I’m not getting in the distinction between “cement” and “fertilizer.”

“It is better to have a few solid words than the promise of many different ideas that may take shape or not,” Michael Edmondstone added in “Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments for Writing Well.” “Keep your writing focused and stable. Once you have the right foundation, the rest will come.”

I think that gets us closer.

In my mind, the word “cement” means to finish something, to complete it. Then when I hear “add new fertilizers” I think of somehow working to strengthen something you’ve already started. If you’re growing plants, you plant the seed or seedling first then add fertilizer, right? And you keep adding fertilizer as necessary to keep it healthy and growing.

So this is Henry Miller saying: “End up with a little bit of finished text every day instead of adding notes and bits and revisions and edits to existing text.”

This would seem to match up with Heinlein’s third rule: “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”—a rule that, at least as interpreted by Dean Wesley Smith, I take some exception with.

But at the same time, I think it is important to avoid a trap that too many of us fall into, which is the myth of perfectionism—the need to revise and revise and revise again and again and again until the act of “working on my novel” replaces the creation of the novel itself—the process becomes a circular end to itself and it’s never done, it’s never read by anyone, including people who might not like it.

Dean Wesley Smith gets into this idea of fear as a motivator to keep revising, and it’s one of the points he and I agree upon.

You do have to, eventually, “cement” the damn thing. You have to send it out to agents or editors or publish it yourself. Writing demands to be read, and readers demand finished writing.

Okay, then, so how do we “cement” (read: finish) a little every day?

Here’s a process that’s worked for me, and I offer it here as a suggestion—it’s at least worth a try.

I tend to think in terms of chapters, but you can break that down into scenes if you like. Go back to the third commandment: “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” There we got into the idea of “chunking,” or breaking large tasks into smaller component tasks. Assuming you took that advice, you’re now writing, in ecstasy, some “chunk” of text—a scene, a chapter, however you want to split that up, every day. I often but not always tend to finish a chapter at a time.

So, yesterday you finished a scene, writing in joy and without nervousness and not caring if you spelled everything right or if it’s any good at all, regardless of the mood you might have been in. Today, then, go back over that chunk of text and cement it.

What I do is start a day’s writing by editing yesterday’s writing. This is at the very least a clean-up pass but might be a pretty severe rewrite, based on last night’s sleep. Did some logic gap, some plot point I forgot, or some better idea keep me up? In any case, now I go ahead and cement that, editing with intent. At the end of that short process I now have a rough-done scene (or chapter, etc.) and the story is fresh in my head so I can then move into the next scene and write it in ecstasy.

Eventually, then, revising Chapter 1 then writing Chapter 2 on Monday; revising Chapter 2 then writing Chapter 3 on Tuesday; and so on, I build the book one chapter at a time.

And here’s where—ah . . . it’s as if the clouds have parted even as I type this—Henry Miller and I match up again. I cement that chapter, joyfully write the next, but then add no new fertilizer . . . until the full revision pass.

When I say “full revision pass,” I mean once I’ve gotten to the end of the rough draft and have the (mostly) finished book, from the first chapter to the last. I can then start at the beginning and read it as a whole, revising the beginning in accordance with new ideas and left turns I’ve taken along the way, and revising the ending based on a fresher recollection of the beginning, which I may have written in ecstasy and edited with intent some months ago.

But other than that one pass on each chapter as I go, I don’t add more fertilizer to the previous chapters while I’m still barreling through the rough draft. I make copious notes—reminders to go back and fix this scene, add that character, cut something, and so on—but I don’t actually do any of those revisions until I have the full rough draft done. Then that full revision takes me from rough draft (only I ever see it) to first draft (time for an editor or at least a trusted first reader to start offering good advice).

Okay, how do I rewrite this for my own list of commandments?

6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.

I bet there’s a leaner way to say that. Something like, “Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.”

 

—Philip Athans

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