IF AT FORTY-NINTH YOU DON’T SUCCEED, TRY AND TRY AGAIN

I’ve said this so many times, I should have t-shirts printed up:

If you get a hundred working authors in a room together and ask them about their process (when they write, how much they write per whatever period of time, etc.), you’ll get a minimum of a hundred completely different answers.

I say that a lot because I firmly believe it to be true. Your “process” won’t necessarily work for me, and mine won’t necessarily work for you. In the past I’ve tended to reject the idea of a “process” at all, which in a very real way becomes a “process” itself. For long periods of my writing career my process was to have no formal process at all. And at times that worked. At other times, it hasn’t. And lately it’s been failing me big time.

So what does that mean? Does it mean my “no process” process has failed, so that’s it for me and writing? It’s all over?

Yikes. I hope not.

First let’s look at that no process process.

I tend to reject the idea that you can write well in a regimented fashion. But then I know authors who write well in a regimented fashion. I guess that means that I, personally, don’t like to write in a regimented fashion, which is to say, write X number of words per day no matter what, or write for X number of hours per day no matter what. I like to write whenever and however I can—and wherever, for that matter—and keep writing until the mysterious “mojo” leaves me, or I’m interrupted by something I can’t put off, or a meteorite hits me in the head, or Great Cthulhu rises from his millennia of slumber and demands coffee . . . you know . . .

And this has worked for me in the past. I’ve gone and sat in a coffee shop and written my one-sitting (rough draft) short stories, or pounded out a chapter or two of a novel. I’ve squeezed an afternoon out of my busy freelance and consulting schedule to sit in front of a carefully-chosen movie and write as many as ten thousand words in a go. I’ve finished novels, screenplays, short stories, and non-fiction books aplenty more or less like that.

And then there have been the dry spells. But lately, I’ve had a Dry Spell. I know, I always preach against too many capitals, but to me this doesn’t feel like a dry spell. It feels all too much like Dry Spell.

You’ll know the difference when you feel it.

I’ll set aside a whole list of bullshit excuses. I’ve dismissed that out of hand a long time ago.

I have not been writing, and that’s my fault. No conspiracy has been mounted to stop me. In fact, a few editors have done the opposite, and have asked me for work, given me deadlines, and even some money in advance.

I’m in there somewhere.

I’m in there somewhere.

Now we go past dry spell and begin to understand what makes a Dry Spell. If no one is particularly waiting for your next short story or book, then a dry spell might just be part of the normal ebb and flow of the creative spirit—something you ride out, meditate your way through, and soon enough get back on your feet. But I have deadlines. I hate blowing deadlines.

I need to write.

But bullshit excuses aside, I’m busy. So I need to do something other than just fall back on my no process process. I need a process. I need to try something new.

And I hope you’ll recognize that advice from me as well—I’ve given it enough. Don’t get in the way of your own creativity. Don’t prevent yourself from getting a better idea. And never be afraid to try something new.

Sunday night I went to bed restless. I had taken on a couple too many freelance assignments and had turned in some stuff late, and I’m still running late on a few projects. My excuses seemed frail no matter how hard I tried to cloak myself in rationalizations. I needed to snap out of whatever I was doing and get to work.

So I got out of bed, went downstairs, and started reading.

That’s right. Very few of the mysteries of human experience can’t be solved by reading. In this case I had stumbled upon an article on a life hacking web site earlier that day. I’m not sure I can even find the article now, but it discussed basic time management skills and how to declutter your work days to be more productive. Some good advice there, some bad. But it got the wheels turning.

To the legal pad, Batman!

I started making notes. I’ve been doing what I do for a long time so I have a reasonably clear sense of how many words I can edit in an hour (I’ve actually been asked by the dreaded Finance Department to do this in a way that would haunt me for years) and more or less how many words I can write in an hour. Then I took a look at my current projects and their word counts, both editing and writing, and gave myself a sense of the reality of my deadline situation.

Turns out it wasn’t that bad.

Everybody gets made happy by the end of November.

But that still depends on one thing: I actually complete the editing and writing goals I’ve set for myself. I’ve scrapped the no process process for one of those schemes I’ve always pooh-poohed. I’m going to write for two hours every day (seven days a week) and edit for four hours every day (six days a week) until the current backlog of projects is done and I finally begin to progress on a spec work-in-progress that’s lain fallow for a year.

And the fact is, I’m not asking much more from myself, in terms of writing, than this month’s NaNoWriMo participants have signed up for. And it’s certainly reasonable that a professional editor spend, y’know, half a standard work day actually plying his craft.

So this morning I began my new, more regimented work day, and as of 10:30 a.m. I’m only about an hour behind. I should have finished this, and done half an hour of prospecting for new clients, by 10:00 to start writing until noon.

Don’t judge me too harshly. This is new to me.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to IF AT FORTY-NINTH YOU DON’T SUCCEED, TRY AND TRY AGAIN

  1. Sean Durity says:

    Here’s hoping the discipline unleashes the flow and creativity for you again.

  2. Writing on a schedule really is difficult for me. I’ve never liked the idea of it. I have that creative flow and then it’s gone, and I feel like I’m writing crap. I recently had projects I was working on and posting on Wattpad. One video game adaptation that will likely never see store shelves ever, and an original fantasy novel. But my creative well seems to have run dry. I wanted to attempt NaNoWriMo, but that fell flat right away. I guess I go through writing phases. Is that normal? For me it seems to be. Probably the utter failure of my Kickstarter to get my first of four books published has knocked my creativity out me. I don’t know what to do, myself, I seem to fail at schedules quite regularly.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Creative energy does ebb and flow, and there’s some complex psychology behind this that I won’t pretend to fully understand. It’s not at all bad to actually take a week or two off from time to time and let those batteries recharge, especially if you feel as though you’ve suffered a setback. But setbacks on the business end of things are more common than successes. Keep reminding yourself that an unfunded Kickstarter is hardly a sign of the apocalypse and you will live to fight (and write) another day!

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